Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Europe's record at the World Cup

    Having read Matthew Monk's recent article on Europe at the World Cup ("The Legend of Europa"), I decided to look at the statistics to see exactly what the extent of Europe's World Cup achievement has been. I've started at Sweden 1958, where the modern group stage was introduced. Here is a table showing Europe's record at the World Cup from 1958-1978 (the years of the 16-team cup) plus 1982 (the year it was expanded to 24).


T = number of teams in the tournament
G = record in group stage games (expressed as +, -, or 0)
PG = record in post-group-stage games (includes 2d group stage in 1974-1982, expressed as +, -, or 0)
2 = number of teams in the second round (1982 only)
Q = number of teams in the final eight or quarterfinals (all except 1982)
S = number of teams in the final four or semifinals
F = number of teams in the Final
T G PG 2 Q S F 1958 12 +1 -3 - 7 3 1 1962 10 +1 -4 - 6 2 1 1966 10 +1 +3 - 5 4 2 1970 9 0 0 - 4 2 1 1974 9 +10 +2 - 6 3 2 1978 10 +1 -3 - 5 2 1 1982 14 +8 +2 10 - 4 2
    This table shows that through 1978, Europe's achievement at the World Cup was not particularly outstanding. With the exception of 1974, Europe as a confederation never had more than a plus 1 record in the group stage. Moreover, in post-group-stage games, where the better teams played, they had an overall record from 1958-1978 of minus 5. This is of course the result of one Argentine and three Brazilian championship teams.

    The 1974 group-stage anomaly is an interesting one. It was clearly Europe's best performance to date, helped by the worst Brazil and Uruguay teams to participate to that point. But the reason the number is so very high is because there were three minnows in the field: Australia, Haiti, and Zaire. In 1970, by contrast, there was only one minnow, El Salvador. In 1978, the only minnow was Mexico. (In a later table we'll break down Europe's record confederation by confederation, and you'll get a clearer view of the effects.)

    Europe did have the lion's share of the quarterfinalists, but it was not disproportionate to their representation vis--vis South America. From 1958-1978, before expansion, Europe had 33 quarterfinalists out of 60 representatives, a total of 55%. South America had 13 out of 22, a total of 59.1%. South America also had a proportional advantage in the semifinals, 36.4% to 26.7%, and in the Final, 18.2% to 13.3%.

    On the whole, then, from 1958-1978, Europe's performance was not exceptional. But something important happened in 1982. Fully 10 of 14 European teams advanced from the group stage. That's was Europe's highest percentage ever, better even than 1974. Moreover, the group stage record jumped back up to +8, almost at 1974 levels.

    The reason for these numbers is clear: in 1982, the tournament expanded from 16 to 24 teams. Structurally, it meant a second round with 12 teams and no true quarterfinals or final 8. But substantively, it meant that there were more teams from the lesser confederations: Africa, Asia, and CONCACAF. At the same time, there were also more teams from Europe, and because Europe had much more strength in depth than those other confederations, Europe's advantage jumped proportionately. In other words, the lesser confederations weren't strong enough to justify their new places. (Again, you'll see this later on.)

    Now let's look at the same set of numbers from 1982 (the first year of expansion) through 2002.

T G PG 2 Q S F 1982 14 +8 +2 10 - 4 2 1986 14 +2 -1 10 5 3 1 1990 14 +5 +2 10 6 3 1 1994 13 +4 0 10 7 3 1 1998 15 +10 +2 10 6 3 1 2002 15 +2 -1* 9 4 2 *
*the 2002 record in post-group-stage games does not yet include semifinals, 3d place game, or Final.

    Note first that from 1982 to 1986, the number of teams in the second round stayed the same, but that's effectively a decline, since there were only 12 teams in the second round in 1982 and 16 teams afterwards. Note also that after 1982, Europe's group stage plus score dropped to lower levels for a while. As we will see, this is because the lesser confederations, wildly overrepresented in 1982, started to catch up a bit. Still, the presence of the lesser confederations meant that Europe's group stage record remained consistently higher than it was in the pre-expansion period, when, with the exception of 1974, it was never higher than +1.

    So, as noted, Europe dropped for a bit after 1982. But when the tournament was expanded for the second time, in 1998, Europe's group stage record jumped way up again. Once more this is a result of their greater strength in depth; as in 1982, the lesser confederations weren't yet strong enough to justify their additional places. (Interestingly, the number of teams in the second round stayed the same even after the 1998 expansion.)

    Still, if you do the math, once again you'll find that in this period Europe's success isn't significantly greater than South America's. From 1982-2002, Europe had 69.4% of their representatives make the second round, almost exactly the same as South America's 69.2%. Europe had a small but definite advantage in quarterfinal berths, 39.4% to 31.8%, and a very small advantage in semifinal berths, 21.2% to 19.2%. With 2002 still to come, South America has a clear advantage in Final berths, 19.0% vs. 8.6%. On the other hand, Europe's total post-group-stage numbers are on the plus side in this period, whereas from 1958-78 they were on the minus side.

    So what about 2002? Looking at the table, we see first that Europe has experienced a drop from 1998 to 2002 much like the one from 1982 to 1986. This suggests that the lesser confederations are once again starting to catch up and justify their places. But remember also that 2002 is an anomaly: it has not one but two host teams from a lesser confederation. It appears that 2002 is Europe's worst year since 1982 -- but it's not that much worse than 1986: same group stage record, one fewer team in the second round, one fewer quarterfinalist, one fewer semifinalist. Moreover, the drop in semifinalists from 3 to 2 is the result of an Asian host team, South Korea, defeating a European team in the quarterfinals (with some refereeing help to boot).

    Now it's time for the table of Europe's group stage records vs. the other confederations.

S = record vs. South America
C = record vs. CONCACAF
AF = record vs. Africa
AS = record vs. Asia
L = combined record against the three lesser confederations

S C AF AS L 1958 -1 +2 - - +2 1962 +1 0 - - 0 1966 0 +1 - 0 +1 1970 -2 +1 +1 0 +2 1974 +4 +2 +2 +2 +6 1978 -3 +2 +1 +1 +4 1982 0 +3 0 +5 +8 1986 -2 +1 +1 +2 +4 1990 -1 +1 +1 +4 +6 1994 +1 +1 +1 +1 +3 1998 +1 +3 0 +6 +9 2002 +1 -1 +2 0 +1
    Note first that Europe's all-time record vs. South America in the group stage is minus 1. In fact, with the exception of that standout year 1974, it has never been more than +1 in a single tournament. So, as the previous tables suggested, Europe has essentially been neck-and-neck with South America, perhaps at this exact moment very slightly ahead (those three straight tournaments at +1).

    Let's now focus in on the two expansion years, 1982 and 1998. We see that in those years, Europe gained slightly against CONCACAF, and hugely against Asia. (The 1982 gain against South America is probably the result of the host change from Argentina to Spain.) Notice also that after 1982, the plus record against CONCACAF and Asia never reached 1982 levels again until the tournament was expanded for the second time in 1998. Again, the inference is that the lesser confederations at first got way too many spots, then gradually worked their way toward justifying their proportional representation.

    I don't really know what to make of the Africa numbers: in both expansion years Europe actually went down against Africa, and in the following retrenchment years they actually went up. Still, the last column shows that the basic effect -- great improvement in the expansion years, drop in the immediately following years -- holds against the lesser confederations overall.

    What makes 2002 special is the great improvement of CONCACAF and Asia. But the Asian improvement can be fully accounted for by the presence of two home Asian teams. Saudi Arabia and China were disasters, and Europe had a +3 record against them. Had South Korea and Japan not played at home, it is very unlikely Europe would have scored -3 against them. If we give the two teams credit for reasonable improvement, and guess that Europe would have scored 0 against a combined non-host South Korea and Japan, then the total against Asia would be +3, a reasonable drop from the +6 of the expansion year.

    The real story is CONCACAF. It's the very first time in the history of the group stage that Europe has had a minus score against one of the lesser confederations. But it's only one tournament, so we won't know for a while whether it's a fluke result.

    My overall conclusion is that although this is not by any means a good year for Europe, it's not quite as bad as it has seemed. It's not that much worse than 1986, and without the dual Asian host anomaly, it might very well have been better than 1986.

    But the danger signs are there. First, there's the group stage record against CONCACAF. The record in post-group-stage games isn't that good either, and it was the first time since the round of 16 was established that Europe had a negative record there (2 wins, 3 losses). Plus, there are the things that statistics can't show: for example, in the post-group-stage games, there was no dominant performance by a European team against a non-European team (vs., for example, England-Paraguay 1986, Czechoslovakia-Costa Rica 1990, Sweden-Saudi Arabia 1994, Denmark-Nigeria 1998).

    My own gut feeling is that the gap between Europe and the lesser confederations is narrowing (there is little or no gap between Europe and South America), but that Europe will retain its ascendancy for some time to come. This has been a pretty crazy World Cup, but I think two factors are responsible: 1) the host region is equally unfamiliar to almost everybody; 2) the tournament started a little earlier than usual, making it harder for the established nations to put together a functioning, healthy team. At Germany 2006, where the organizers have already announced that the tournament will begin 9 days later than this year, I expect Europe to bounce back. And if I'm wrong, you'll probably have forgotten about this prediction anyway!



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