Ghosts at the Feast
At every World Cup there are ghosts at the feast: teams who ought to be there but aren’t. Some of these sides do actually show up but turn out to be shadows of their former selves, like poor old Spain, dead men walking after just a couple of games (there will be a certain ghoulish fascination to seeing how they perform in their final zombie match-up with the Australians). But there are also the teams that you would expect to be watching who have somehow failed to qualify. During the 1970s the ghosts were England, who went from being one of the best teams in the world to no-shows at both the 1974 and 1978 finals. In this tournament part of an entire continent is missing. Europe remains notably over-represented in what is supposed to be a global competition. But it’s not the whole of Europe that is in Brazil. It’s the south and the east. The far north and the east are more or less absent. You could walk (or swim) from Turkey to Norway through an arc of countries with a proud World Cup heritage that have failed to make the cut this time: Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland all missed out. This is the first World Cup since 1982 with no Scandinavian representation, and in that tournament there were plenty of sides from the old Soviet bloc to make up the numbers (Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were there).
Poland reached the semi-finals back then, part of a long line of Eastern European teams to emerge as dark horses. One of my very favourite World Cup matches was the quarter-final in 1994, when Bulgaria beat Germany 2-1 with a brace of late goals from Stoichkov and Letchkov. The fun was watching a supremely confident German team crumble in the face of a sudden reversal of fortune (I believe they have a word for that). If anyone is going to take the Germans down a peg or two this time it will have to be from some other part of the world. Eastern European football is not as strong as it used to be. Why aren’t the Scandinavians here? Perhaps it’s just chance (Zlatan Ibrahimovic was certainly unlucky to run up against Cristiano Ronaldo in the Sweden-Portugal qualifying play-off), though it is one of the ironies of the footballing universe that real prosperity does not seem to translate into sporting fortune (Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark regularly rank at or the near the top of lists of the best places in the world to live). When it comes to throwing their weight around in European politics the Nordic countries are increasingly assertive. But the impoverished south can still boss them on the football field.
The outlier in this geographical divide is the little pocket that consists of Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. The old Yugoslavia has a strong presence in this tournament. It’s ghostly in a different way. In an earlier post I wrote that there is less national cross-dressing in international sport than once seemed likely. But a notable exception to that rule is Switzerland, whose squad contains four players born in the FYR (two in Kosovo, two in Macedonia), in each case as a result of their parents leaving for Switzerland in the early 1990s. A number of other players, including the entire forward line, were born in Switzerland shortly after their parents emigrated from Bosnia and elsewhere in the FYR. Croatia are going strong in their group. Switzerland, despite a rough time against France, still have a good chance of reaching the next round. Bosnia – or ‘rump Bosnia’ as someone put it to me – are very unlucky to be heading home (the perfectly good goal by Edin Dzeko that was ruled offside in their match against Nigeria was probably the most serious refereeing mistake so far). The children of the Yugoslav wars have been performing well in this tournament, which has come when many of them are at their peak. Some were born during the violence; others only after their parents had fled from it. Affluence doesn’t necessarily breed sporting success. Misfortune sometimes can.