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Saturday, July 7, 2018

Has World Cup 2018 been that different from the past?

Credit: FIFA

Russia 2018 has shown us plenty of surprises and some out there think it is the best World Cup ever. But is this really true? History suggests otherwise.

I thought I would return to blogging for some thoughts on Russia 2018. Yes, no USA and no Ecuador this time around. But also no Italy, Chile or Holland. Big teams tend to miss out on the tourney every 4 years. No biggie.

Major teams got knocked out of the World Cup early on. Specifically, eternal-favorites and current champions Germany. It has been quite common for this to happen. Since 2002, France, Italy, Spain and now Germany have all exited in the group stage. Perhaps out of overconfidence. But more likely because their game style hasn't evolved while the rest of the world has.

Surprises abounded in 2018 early on: Mexico and South Korea beat Germany, Iceland tied and Croatia dismantled Argentina. The rest of the scores were quite ordinary for the tournament: Spain being tied by Morocco, Colombia falling to Japan. These things happen. Have we forgotten Cameroon beating Argentina in 1990? Senegal defeating France in 2002? USA defeating Portugal in 2002?

Really, it comes down, at the end, to the weight of history. Further, conferences outside of South America and Europe have done worse in 2018.

For instance, there were no African teams in the round of 16. Only one Asian team and one Concacaf team made it through. Japan fell to Belgium and Mexico did not reach the coveted fifth game once more when they fell to Brazil.

The last time an African team made it to the quarterfinals was Ghana in South Africa 8 years ago. In 2014, three Concacaf teams went through to the round of 16, but only one made it to the quarterfinals: Costa Rica. And the Ticos got through via penalties versus a weak Greek team, although major credit goes to them for their games versus Italy and England in the group stage.

As we look at the semifinalists so far we see some familiar faces: France, England and Belgium. All three have been to the semis before and England and France are former champs. The two teams set to play in a few minutes are Russia and Croatia. Rusia, as the Soviet Union, was a mainstay in the semis for decades in the past. Croatia was a part of the former Yugoslavia, which reached the semifinals in 1930 and 1962 with Croatian players. Independent Croatia had a magical run to the semifinals in 1998 with the aid of the great Davor Suker.

Typically, European teams tend to win in Europe, with Sweden's 1958 being the sole outlier mostly thanks to 18-year old Pele.

So, weight of history, folks. The real, at least partial, game-changer would be a champion not named England or France, but it's not for a lack of trying by the rest of the squads still alive in 2018. They have been knocking at the door since the founding of the World Cup 88 years ago.