World Cup: Why oh why must it be this way?

June 11, 2010

In a wonderful interview conducted by our own Euan Hague, Simon Kuper, the author of Soccernomics, gives great insight into how national teams succeed and fail. Some of his claims are counter-intuitive, but they are supported by cold, hard data. The entire conversation is very scientific, until the very end, when it turns to Holland, the team Mr. Kuper supports. And that's when he says something quite unscientific. He talks about watching the 1998 Holland-Brazil final, and being 'medically unable' to watch the end of extra-time. But then, he says, "the extra-time ended, so they were going to penalties, and I relaxed, because I knew the Dutch would lose." Of course, I myself am a huge supporter of the Dutch, and I, too, was watching that game. Not at the stadium or even live, mind you, but 6 hours later, on ESPN2, sprawled on shag carpeting in an Urbana apartment. And because ESPN ruthlessly, mercilessly, streams all scores on its ticker tape, I had a piece of tape stuck across the bottom of the TV screen. But I had no medical difficulty watching the game, all 120 minutes of it. You see, it's not easy to attach a foot of electrical tape perfectly to an area that you cannot look at. The tape went on slightly crooked, and within the first few minutes my reluctant brain was able to reconstruct the final score - it was 1:1, and there was something about a penalty shootout. So I relaxed, because I, too, knew right then that the Dutch would lose. Now, how could we both be so sure of this outcome? Well, we knew, because there is a rule, and the rule is ironclad. Are you ready for this? Here goes: - Holland never wins on penalties There is more where that came from. They are cold and unyielding, like statistical data, except they offer no deep insight, only pain. - England never wins on penalties - Germany never loses on penalties - Brazil can never beat France - France can never beat Germany - Germany can never beat Italy - European teams only win the Cup on European soil. - No nation wins its first ever Cup away from home. Some of these weren't always true. After all, Brazil did beat France in 1958, but after France dispatched the Brazilians in '86, '98, and '06, who remembers? I believe in these. I think they are inviolate and cannot be broken. If, through the vagaries of the bracket, France had to face Germany 4 years ago, no matter how early on, Zidane's swan song would have been a headbutt to Schweinsteiger's chest. If Holland had beaten Portugal and gone on to play England, that game could never go to penalties. Someone has to win. So, England and Holland can never go to penalties. Neither can Germany and Italy. You can never have a Brazil-France semifinal if the Cup is held outside of Europe and the other semi is all-European. It gets complicated. With every Cup that goes by and these constants hold up, I feel this tension building. It is like a bubble is about to burst. In 2006, Germany and Italy were 3 minutes away from penalties. Saved by the bell, but it cannot continue. It is almost like a house of cards is being built too tall. This year, if all of these hold, Brazil or South Africa has to win. That is why just about everyone is picking Brazil, and they just might win. Or, perhaps, now is the time. After all, the reason FIFA moves the tournament far and wide in the world is to break the stranglehold these traditional powers have on the Cup. It didn't work in North America, or Asia. Will Africa be the charm?