Continental Home Advantage
People with a passing interest in football often ask two questions about the World Cup. When will an African team win it? When will the United States win it? Both good questions. It’s long been clear that some of the world’s most talented footballers come from Africa and they often emerge in clusters from particular places (Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast). But as yet this hasn’t translated into any world-beating teams. In the US the appeal of soccer has been on the rise for a while now, leading to the suspicion that when the Americans put their mind to it they could translate their enormous global clout into on-field dominance. But again, it hasn’t happened yet.
It is still conceivable that this World Cup will produce an affirmative answer to one of those two questions. But you have to say it is extremely unlikely. The US are through to the next round, along with two African teams (Nigeria and Algeria), but all three were pretty fortunate to get out of their groups and none looks up to surviving four matches against the big boys. So there’s another question to ask. When will a Latin American team outside the big two (Brazil and Argentina) win the World Cup? This tournament looks like a golden opportunity for one of the unheralded South American sides to make the breakthrough. (It’s true that Uruguay have won it twice but that was back in the early days when the competition was nowhere near as fierce as it is now.)
A notable feature of all modern World Cups has been the phenomenon of continental home advantage, which means European teams do better in Europe and Latin American teams do better in Latin America. In 2006 in Germany all four semi-finalists were European (France, Italy, Germany, Portugal). This time round in Brazil five of the six South American teams have made it out of the group stages, where they have been joined by Mexico and Costa Rica. By contrast only six of twelve European sides are still in the competition. Familiarity with the climate seems to have something to do with it. So does familiarity with the surroundings. In this World Cup the Latin American teams have simply looked far more at home.
But events have conspired to mean that 2014 will not produce a repeat of 2006, with all four semi-finalists drawn from the same continent. Uruguay have been deprived of their star player (in circumstances that look to many Uruguayans like a genuine conspiracy). Colombia are also without their top striker Falcao, who was ruled out of the tournament by injury. The real misfortune, however, has been the luck of the draw, which has resulted in four of the five remaining South American teams finding themselves in the same quarter, meaning only one can reach the semis. Chile play Brazil in the round of 16 and the winners of that match will have to face the winners of Uruguay v. Colombia. Brazil and Argentina have been kept apart – you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe that was always going to happen – so a Brazil v. Argentina final is still a realistic possibility. If that happens it will be because Brazil have disposed of their local rivals along the way.
Brazil remain the likeliest winners, if only because national home advantage can still trump continental home advantage. South American teams might feel more at home playing in Brazil than, say, England did, but they won’t feel nearly so at home when facing Brazil themselves. It will be a big shock if Chile, Colombia or Uruguay can defeat the hosts. But it’s not impossible. After all, this was the year when another big two (Real Madrid and Barcelona) were finally outgunned in their domestic league by Atletico Madrid, something that would have seemed barely credible when the season began. If Brazil do lose, the narrative surrounding the World Cup will shift. For now, the talk of popular discontent has been stifled by the vibrant excitement of the football: so far it has been a markedly successful tournament. The promised protests against the waste and corruption surrounding the event have been muted (bar the routine booing of Sepp Blatter). But if Brazil crash out to one or other of their noisy neighbours, that’s unlikely to last. It certainly won’t look like value for money then.