“Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
English footballer Gary Lineker thus broke down the beautiful game after suffering a close loss to the Fritzes in the 1990 World Cup. Germany underlined the definition this past week by whomping hometown favorites Brazil in a shocking 7-1 rout, and then finishing off Argentina to win this year’s World Cup. A fight (in last week’s case, more like a shit-show) between Germany and Brazil, or between Germany and Argentina, epitomizes classic World Cup soccer. This year’s semifinal group reflected more of the same: two South American dynamos taking on two European powerhouses. But despite the traditional makeup of 2014’s advanced rounds, the pattern of South American and European teams sweeping the field is changing. Costa Rica, giving up just a single goal in the whole tournament, was barely beaten by Holland in quarterfinal shootouts. Mexico took an earlier shot against Holland, and had win in the bag through 88 minutes, and then—brief pause to let you bang your head against the wall—lost with a penalty (que #noerapenal) in injury time. The US team made it through the Group Stage as well and, despite a lackluster showing against Belgium, were inches away in the 90th minute from sending them back to Europe. Even Germany, despite their dazzling semi-final magic show against Brazil, needed extra time to eek out a 2-1 win against Algeria in the Round of 16. But for a bit of luck, favorable wind, extra spin on the ball, or a more commiserating goalpost, the semis could have included upstarts Costa Rica, Mexico, the United States, Colombia or Chile (though Mexico and Costa Rica, as well as Chile and Colombia, would have been battling each other for a spot). Not one of those teams is traditionally considered to be part of soccer’s haut monde.
The first three of those hypothetical semifinal combatants (Costa Rica, Mexico, the US) are from the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF)—one of the two rising regions (Africa is the other) of international soccer. Despite the improvement, however, the region still doesn’t boast a team in the top ten, according to (oft disputed) FIFA rankings—the US currently pulls in at 13th place, Mexico at 20th and Costa Rica at 28th. 20 years ago, before the 1994 World Cup in the United States, the highest ranked CONCACAF team was Mexico, in 15th place; the only other team in the top 50 was the US, at 22nd. To put CONCACAF, and specifically the US Team’s rise in perspective, consider that from 1950 to 1990 the US didn’t qualify for a single World Cup.
Is international soccer democratizing? Are Europe and South America losing their hegemony on the pitch? Perhaps. There’s been a spate of recent analyses discussing why some nations are better than others at soccer. Unlike Olympic medal counts, however, economic strength isn’t a good weathervane for soccer success. And though an economist might, indeed, one day break through and find the formula as to what makes a good national team, putting a ball in the back of the net isn’t about statistical alchemy.
Thankfully, despite the spike in sophisticated analysis, soccer is still a pretty simple game. That is to say, you don’t need expensive gear or specialized equipment to play the sport. You barely need anything at all: a ball, or at least something that will roll (think of those slum-tourism photos of barefoot boys playing with a ball of tape), and maybe a couple coats or a few rocks to mark the goalposts. That’s it. From there the game burgeons into nation-captivating, soul-crushing levels of intensity. Tracing the game from the rock-riddled field to the caught-breath of a television-glued population might lead to clues as to why, as the saying goes, the Germans always win. But the saying reveals less of a truth about the German side than about soccer as a whole: that, historically, it is a nationalistic sport. Linneker lipped his aphorism at the end of the Cold War, when relations between recently unified Germany and the rest of Europe were still a little raw and nationalism still had piquant existential meaning. Earlier in the century, a World Cup qualifying match went so far as to spark a war between Honduras and El Salvador. Examples of cathartic/vindictive wins or spirit-bruising losses pepper the last eighty years of the sport. As Simon Kuper writes in his essay The Global Game, “Nationalism needs an enemy.” Equally, underdogs need overdogs, or however we call them, favorites. Maybe, as Kuper goes on to argue (and as I’ve referenced before), both political and sporting varieties of nationalism are dwindling, but especially in Central America and Mexico (and the same seems to be true in Africa, with two of its teams both reaching knockout stage for the first time in history) there is still strong regional soccer support.
As our favorite teams either didn’t qualify or got bumped out of the World Cup, many, Latinos especially, started rooting for our nearest neighbors. For CONCACAF nations, Costa Rica held out the longest. As a whole, the region did better than ever before, sending three teams to the knockout stage and, in the group stage, overall tying against both European and South American teams (3-3-1 and 1-1-1, respectively). So, as less jingoistic weight gets lumped on the backs of English or German footballers, we might be seeing a slight leveling of the playing field, giving room for the rise of the underdogs, the Mexicans, Ticos, Ghanians and even the Americans, to not only challenge the Germans and Brazilians, but actually burst through the glass ceiling of the semi-finals, and win a World Cup.
But what’s the cause for CONCACAF’s rise? Theories abound.
Population seems to have something to do with it. Then the sport’s popularity is nearly a trump card. And, in the last twenty years, it’s increasingly common for players to cross borders to play on elite club teams. Today, more Africans are playing in the best European leagues than ever before. When these experienced players go back to their home countries, they bring with them skills to share with their teams in international tournaments. With the rise of reputable MLS competition in the States, more European players are even coming to play in America. Beckham touching down in LA (to play for the Galaxy) in 2007 was as much of a blessing for the MLS as Adrian telling Rocky it was time to win.
The Global Game is getting globalized.
But, beautifully, there’s always something inexplicable about an upset. And there’s a lot of upsets in soccer. With low-scoring games and no best-of series, unlike American baseball or basketball, even the wealthiest and most talent-stacked teams can make a single mistake and… Algeria knocks out Germany, or the US blows out Belgium. And such an upset might be all it takes to keep tipping the balance even more towards CONCACAF teams—surely some more Mexican players (I mean Memo), after a few eye-popping evenings in Brazil, will get offers from top Euro leagues. Same with some of the Tico stars. And that, as the parable goes, is invested talent—bringing skills and experience back to national teams four years down the road.
Soccer is like evolution: a freak accident (a simple mistake, an own-goal, a beautiful run, a golazo from thirty meters) can quickly turn into an advantage. Then advantage turns into success. And, as we know, success usually leads to more success. That’s to say, expect Costa Rica to be feared in Russia 2018. Expect the US team to continue its rise. Expect Mexico to shuck off their Round of 16 curse. And expect CONCACAF to give Europe and South America a run for that malachite and 18-karat trophy.