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...and why England cannot win

If you are looking for the winner of France '98, says World Cup historian Alan Hudson, round up the usual suspects - Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy - and forget about the rest

  • Only six countries have ever won the World Cup
  • Between them the 'big four' have won 10 out of the previous 11 championships
  • Germany have contested four of the past six finals
Next time somebody tries to tell you that the invisible hand of 'globalisation' has changed everything on Earth in the past few years, ask them how come the same handful of countries dominate international football today as have done for the past half century. As the World Cup in France approaches, you would have to abandon all critical faculties in order to look any further for a winner than the big four of Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina.

Stuck in the past? Ignoring the changing dynamic of the world game? What about the rise of African and Asian football? What about England and the host country France? The answer to all these questions is look at the facts.

Only six teams have ever won the World Cup: Brazil four times, Germany and Italy three times each, Argentina and Uruguay twice each, and England once. Look a little deeper and the patterns become even clearer.

Habits in technique, tactics, preparation and success provide the basis of achievement, and give a handful of countries the accumulated raw material to challenge for supreme success in the greatest team competition in the world. Football is a very simple game. This is why it is beautiful. But in order to make it simple you must work incredibly hard. You must pay attention to technique. You must pay attention to tactical awareness. You must have team spirit and discipline. You must have the habit and certainty of winning. There is an inherited capital in the world of football which is very difficult to overturn - so much so that it is becoming more concentrated.

Here I have looked at all the world championships since the competition began in 1930, and allocated five points for the victors, three points for the runners-up and one each for the losing semi-finalists. To give a sharper focus on the trends in the modern game, I have separated the prewar and postwar results. PostwarPrewarTotal










10 Czechoslovakia336

(*England did not enter until 1950) - >

The six winners make up the top six and the international pecking order is pretty much established already.

At fifth, Uruguay's position may appear strangely high today, but it was relatively recently that Argentina replaced it as the second power of South American football. Uruguay beat Brazil in front of 200 000 in the Maracana to win the Jules Rimet in 1950, and reached the semi-final again in 1954 only to go down to the Magical Magyars of Puskas, Hideguti, Kocsis et al. The Uruguayans remained strong in succeeding World Cups but the difficulty of qualifying from the limited number of places on offer in South America, plus the limited success of South American sides in Europe, has told against them.

For the record I have placed England at six, ahead of four others with the same points total, only because they have actually won it. Holland and Hungary feature next, above Sweden and the former Czechoslovakia, because the Hungarian team of 1954 and Cruyff's Dutch side of 1974 are incontestably the best teams not to have won the trophy.

But these are marginal matters in comparison with the overwhelming domination of the big four. The axis of world football power runs between Europe and South America, with two sides at each end; and they are now Germany and Italy and Brazil and Argentina.

Let us exclude the issue of semi-finals and get down to the real nitty gritty - the finals. The next table gives a breakdown of which nation has contested each final. It is followed by a summary of the finals records of all the teams who have got that far. Together they show that only 10 teams have ever contested a World Cup final, only six have won one, and the big four are pre-eminent.

The appearance of the Hungarians and the Czechs in the finalists' table highlights one change which has occurred in international football. Central Europe is the lost centre of football excellence. It was in prewar Central Europe that the first major tactical innovations of the modern game were made. You could have probably seen them first in the compelling derby matches between Rapid Vienna and Ferencvaros of Budapest. They bore fruit in the Austrian breakaway from the static centre-half which had been inherited from the English game, providing a mobility that could equally become the libero or the more defensively oriented sweeper of the Italian catenaccio. More thrillingly, this new thinking about the game produced the deep-lying centre forward that the Hungarians deployed to sweep England aside 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 the following year in Budapest.

This tradition should have reached its apotheosis in the World Cup in Switzerland in 1954. But the Hungarians fell foul of Puskacs' injury after the semi-final 'Battle of Berne' with Brazil, and lost the final after failing to focus on the task in hand against Sepp Heppberger's very physical German team. Within two years that great side was torn apart in the maelstrom that followed the Soviet Union's crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. So politics does count a bit after all.

One striking feature in the win/lose statistics is the Brazilian hit rate. When they get to the final they win (only final loss 1950). Good and even great Brazilian teams have, however, succumbed earlier on in the tournament: the 1966 side proved vulnerable to the attention which Bulgarian and Portuguese defenders paid to Pele's legs, the 1982 side to Paolo Rossi's inspiration of the Italians. Brazil also has an intriguing weakness against Argentina (check out the 1990 quarter-final and the overall record between the two sides, including the friendly that Argentina won 1-0 in May).

Before we look forward to the only thing that really matters, the coming World Cup in France, I want to introduce one more table to demonstrate, if you were in any doubt, that the modern game has concentrated power even more than in the early days. The last time that a final was not won by a big four team was in 1966 when England (at home) beat Germany. The following table works backwards to the great day in 1966 with the winning team first. (Non-big four teams in brackets.)

This is a good point at which to evaluate the significance of playing at home. It is not the advantage it is cracked up to be; five wins by hosts and 10 by travelling teams in 15 tournaments hardly speaks of home bankers. Even Brazil and Italy have contrived to lose at home. Are France in 1998 more like England in 1966 or Chile in 1962?

England won in 1966 not only because they played all their matches at Wembley, but because they had the minimum requirement of three world-class players in Banks, Moore and Bobby Charlton. They also had a system that worked under a ruthless but effective coach, and a striker, Geoff Hurst, who came good during the tournament. Any winning team needs most if not all of these attributes as well as the breaks with injuries and suspensions. Even in these circumstances, England needed to take advantage of Pele being fouled out of the tournament, Argentina's inability to adapt to tournament conditions, and the help of a Swiss referee and a Russian linesman.

When you look at Brazil as warm favourites for France '98, at least consider for a moment that the Brazil side of 1958 is still the only one ever to win the World Cup outside its own hemisphere. The home side is not guaranteed a victory but a side from the same geographical area is a good bet. That being said, the Brazilians (and the Argentinians) are now more attuned to European conditions than they have ever been, with stars like world player of the year Ronaldo plying their trade on the Continent.

Who is going to survive the month-long tournament to win the World Cup? Would you rather trust to a faith healer or the accumulated habits of a professional lifetime? Raw talent and even genius is not enough at the highest level. What is needed is applied talent; only application makes the intervention of genius possible. I was very struck by the comments of Enzo Bearzot, the Italian World Cup-winning manager of '82, who said that he was confident that Italy would beat Germany because of a superior
heart-weight ratio. The Germans were strong but sluggish. Pace will always win out, both in the sense of speed and in pacing a tournament.

All things considered this time around, England will do well to keep one of the big four out of the semi-final. While the French are good bets to reach the semis, the lack of a class striker will do for them in the end. Spain should have a shout but look at their poor record in top-class internationals, especially against the big four.

So round up the usual suspects. Germany are the most consistent tournament team in the world but the victorious team of Euro '96 was almost at its sell-by date, and what has happened to improve it since compared with the loss of Sammer? Italy have a quality keeper in Peruzzi, a wonderful striker in del Piero and an efficient defence, even if it lacks the commanding figure of a Baresi, but their midfield lacks a touch of speed and mobility. Argentina are less of a known quantity. Batistuta and Simeone are good but perhaps not quite as good as the other superstars - although that will not matter if Ortega really is the new Maradona (a possibility which has prompted the Maradona-worshipping editor of this magazine to back them at a
generous-looking 12-1).

My feeling remains that it should be Brazil, who recently went to Germany and won despite the home team's roughhouse tactics. Brazil appear to have everything, including two world-class strikers in Ronaldo and Romario, but is the goalkeeper weak again and is the defence ageing?

The final may not be a good game (arguably it has not been since 1970), but it will take a good team to win through the tournament overall - and an exceptional team to buck the trend of history. To win the World Cup, this unidentifiable team will have to beat at least two and probably three of the big four. Any outsider who manages that will deserve the trophy and all the glory going. But I just cannot see it. Sorry Scotland.*

England's footballers seem of late to have been in the news as much for their exploits off the field as on it. Lurid tales of sex, drink, drugs, gambling and domestic violence have led to demands that players grow up and recognise that their irresponsible behaviour is setting a bad example to the youngsters who idolise them. Under the born-again Glenn Hoddle, it has become clear that England internationals in particular are expected to mend their ways and, with the help of counsellors and a supportive media, become role models for the nation's youth.

Before the Euro '96 tournament, members of the England squad found themselves in hot water over a tequila binge in Hong Kong and some casual vandalism on the flight home. In the run-up to France '98, by contrast, Hoddle was at pains to assure us that his players were getting in touch with their spiritual side through faith-healer Eileen Dewery.

Is all of this fuss about footballers behaving badly justified? Not according to Garry Whannel, co-director of the centre for sports development and research at the Roehampton Institute in London. 'Professional footballers lead fairly cosseted lives, and have not gone through a lot of the processes of maturation that people in other circumstances go through. If you add to that the huge rewards now available to our top players, it would be surprising if incidents like the one in the Hong Kong nightclub with the dentist's chair didn't happen. I don't think that English footballers squirting tequila cocktails down each others' throats when off duty is really an issue that should concern anybody unduly.

'Behaviour is not in any natural sense bad; we produce bad behaviour by a process of labelling. The things about sportsmen's behaviour that are highly publicised are often incredibly trivial. Ian Botham spent months in the press because the police found a small quantity of marijuana in his house. It is only by dragging somebody's name through the papers that it becomes a much more elaborate and highly exposed issue than it perhaps might be.'

Through his extensive research into issues of sport and morality, Whannel has become convinced that the notion of the sporting role model has little to do with the actual behaviour of the sportsman, but reflects a wider concern in society. 'The idea of the role model', he suggests, 'is a political concept at root, and there is a moral agenda lurking not far below the surface. A lot of things in society are supposed to be in crisis: masculinity is in crisis, morality is in crisis, family values are in crisis. Now that is not to say that those things actually are, but they are talked about as though they are. Sport is a great provider of major celebrities on to which these concerns can be condensed'.

'When Bobby Moore died a couple of years ago', Whannel recalls, 'he was eulogised as an exemplar of a set of lost values, rather than just a sporting hero. Moore became the means through which the sixties were mythically reinvented as a time in which family values were in place, when crime was low, when there was a respect for authority, and of course when England won the World Cup. But if you go back and examine the period, a lot of those claims look rather questionable - except of course England winning the World Cup'.

Switch on the news or pick up a paper these days and you are likely to find some player or another fronting a 'socially responsible' campaign about knives or racism or doing your school homework. The New Labour government's Football Task Force says it wants 'to develop the opportunities for players to act as good role models in terms of behaviour and sportsmanship'. Whannel is concerned about the possibly authoritarian consequences of this demand for role models.

Take the FA's random drug-testing initiative, which has led to several young professionals being banned, their careers virtually terminated before they have begun, after testing positive for recreational drugs like cannabis. 'The implications of the drugs cases', Whannel suggests, 'raise huge questions about the responsibility of employers. In what circumstances are we asking employers, such as football clubs or the FA, to be the moral guardians of the private lives of their employees?

'The worrying thing is that sport is now at the cutting edge of a new extension of a moral guardianship over an individual's private life. There is a very clear distinction to be made between the use of performance-enhancing drugs and recreational drugs. But that distinction is being blurred, more so in football at the moment than any other sport. It is quite strange that they seem to catch far more people using recreational drugs than performance-enhancing ones.'

It is not just the lifestyle of the sports star which suffers in this process. There are also worrying implications for the rest of us. As Whannel points out, the assumption of the need for role models within society rests upon a very bleak view of the way people and their children understand the world they live in. 'The idea that young people need sports stars to set them a good example posits a very one-sided view of children', says Whannel, 'where they simply pick a particular player they admire and model themselves according to that star's behaviour. It seems to me that children are far more subtle and sophisticated. They are quite able to distinguish for instance between Gascoigne the football genius, Gascoigne the clown, and Gascoigne the wife beater. The concept of the role model, I think, is completely inadequate when accounting for how people really live their lives and make decisions about different kinds of behaviour'.

A society that demands role models is one that believes people are inadequate, unable to cope if left to their own devices. Deeply patronising and insulting, the demand for role models, sporting or otherwise, reduces everybody to the level of the ill-behaved child. It is about time some people realised that football is only a game; it is not a way of life.

Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998



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