THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Tradition says surprises will end before final

icon worldcup30 June ~ Costa Rica are in the quarter-finals of a World Cup now missing holders Spain and four-time winners Italy; former champions England exited at the group stage with one point while Colombia have won four straight games to reach their first quarter-final. But World Cups always lose this air of infinite possibility before the final. Chile's penalties loss to the hosts on Saturday – followed by Holland's late comeback against Mexico the next day – heralded the inevitable sea-change. Regardless of who's gone home, the winner and runner-up will come from the giants remaining in Brazil. 

In the 21st century no one's retained the World Cup and only one reigning champion has survived the group stage. It's easy to believe the trophy has become more winnable, especially in the middle of a tournament as entertaining as this one. But Spain, in 2010, were just the eighth different winner in 80 years. It's not an entirely closed shop but countries must serve long World Cup apprenticeships before reaching the deciding match.

Dues must be earned. Spain finished fourth at Brazil 1950 and accumulated two European Championships before their ultimate triumph in South Africa. France lost three semis, and won Euro 84, before reaching their first-ever World Cup final. An excellent Turkey lost their 2002 semi almost because it was only their second World Cup.

A new champion every decade is the perfect average. With its trickle-down effect on all levels of the game, the planet's premier competition should be neither easy nor impossible to win. Croatia at France 98, as per Bulgaria in 1994 and South Korea in 2002, defined exactly how far a sense of adventure, lack of expectation or home advantage can take an unheralded nation: the third-place play-off. The last four is the cut-off for surprises. Colombia's current exploits resemble those of Senegal 12 years ago, or Ghana in 2010. Both exceeded expectations and delighted neutrals, but both lost their quarter-final.

The regional tournaments, with their truncated formats and surprise winners, are merely consolation or preparation for the World Cup. Holland exemplify this. The 1988 European champions currently head the World Cup queue, being the only nation to lose three finals without ever lifting the trophy.

Sweden are unique in losing their only final. England won theirs. Generally, however, countries who get there will do so again. Czechoslovakia may no longer exist but its national team were runners-up in 1962, proving their 1934 silver medals were no accident.  So despite this summer's humiliation, Spain shouldn't revert to the perennial World Cup under-achievers they were before South Africa.

Having finally lifted the trophy in 1998, France reached the final again eight years later comparatively unnoticed. And Brazil meeting Germany in the 2002 decider seems routine when they've won eight World Cups between them. Yet both began that tournament with squads derided by their media. Reaching the final had simply become part of their national football character. Alex Anderson

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