It's a global spectacle, but few winners

It's a global spectacle, but few winners

It is the only true World Cup in sport, with a qualification process so vast and rigorous that 207 national teams spent more than two years jostling for the 32 slots in Brazil.

Unlike other sports which boast limited global representation but still use terms like world championship or world series loosely, football's World Cup is truly the tournament that the whole world stops and takes notices of.

Yet, despite the wide global reach - over three billion people, just under half the world's population, are expected to have watched at least one minute of Brazil 2014 - only a very elite group of countries can claim that the World Cup is really theirs.

In 19 editions of the tournament, only eight national sides have won it - Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Italy, Germany, England, France and Spain. They hail from only from two continents, South America and Europe.

It is interesting that less than four per cent of competing teams ever win the tournament because the spread of winners in other aspects of world football is more diverse. In 19 Fifa Under-20 World Cups, for example, nine teams have won the title.

While the usual suspects from South America and Europe remain, Portugal (twice) and Ghana have at least managed to win at the youth level.

The Olympics has seen a much bigger group of football champions, with 18 different winners since the 1900 Games.

They come from four continents, North and South America, Europe and Africa, with countries like Canada, Hungary, Nigeria and Cameroon among the nations to have an Olympic football gold but not a World Cup.

Although for the Olympics, it has to be said that before the 1984 Los Angeles Games, only amateur players were allowed to compete. It was only in 1984 that some of the world's best footballers began to take part. In 1992, another change was made to restrict participation to those under the age of 23, with a provision to allow three over-23 players per team.

It then begs the question, why are these other nations from other continents not able to repeat their success at the World Cup?

Before that issue is tackled, it is perhaps pertinent to rule Canada out of the conversation, going by current football standards. Canada are currently ranked 110 in the world and their only World Cup appearance was in 1986. A Canadian club side, Galt FC, won at the Olympics in 1904, but that edition was only contested by two other teams, both of them US club sides.

That just leaves the Africans. With Olympic golds in 1996 (Nigeria) and 2000 (Cameroon) and a Fifa Under-20 World Cup title in 2009 (Ghana), one would assume that the continent would have a strong foundation on which to build teams capable of making a good World Cup run.

More African players are now playing in foreign leagues than ever before. More than 90 per cent of players from the five African nations which qualified for Brazil ply their trade in Europe.

Yet, Ghana's quarter-final appearance at the 2010 edition and Cameroon's similar achievement in 1990 remain Africa's best showing. In Brazil, only two teams, Algeria and Nigeria, have made it to the knock-out rounds. But they can at least take some consolation in the fact that it is the first time more that one team has advanced.

From Roger Milla's Cameroon in 1990 to the stunning Senegalese in 2002 and the energetic Ghanians in 2010, African teams have shown flair and quality, but have lacked the ability to go all the way.

Often, Africans are the cause of their own downfall.

Reports of internal strife and clashes over bonuses have become the norm for every World Cup.

In the lead-up to, and during, this World Cup, three of the five African teams here have threatened to boycott matches unless the payment of bonuses was settled.

As Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o told the Confederation of African Football. recently: "The only problem in Africa is our leaders, who do not respect us. Until we are respected, other (continents) will never have any consideration for us."

Ultimately, while players can improve and teams can be better coached, the basics of a strong domestic league and clean football associations and administrators play a crucial, if not bigger, role in a team's success.

It is no coincidence that World Cup champions come from nations which either have the best leagues in the world, or a rich football history. Organisation, proper long-term and succession planning and budgeting go hand in hand with exposing players to the best competition in the world. What these countries do on a daily basis is as important as what they do every four years.

But there is hope that the rest of the world is catching up.

In Brazil, many coaches have talking about how the football field is increasingly being levelled, with no more easy games in the tournament. In the United States, the only non European or South American country in the world top 10, World Cup viewership is breaking new records as the popularity of the sport reaches new heights.

In Asia, plans are in place to stimulate both the Chinese and ASEAN football league, as Japan and Korea continue to carry the flag for the continent.

But any breakthrough is still some time away. For now, while the world may go football crazy every four years, it will remain a small group of countries that can truly lay claim to the World Cup.

marclim@sph.com.sg

Twitter: @STmarclim


This article was first published on June 29, 2014.
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