Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A World Cup History Lesson

Today was the first day in a while without live World Cup soccer - which makes it much easier to concentrate on one's work. The Round of 16 games bought few surprises. Every group winner beat the group runner-up they were matched against, with the exception of the United States losing to Ghana. The officiating continued to be a problem, most notably in the Germany-England and Argentina-Mexico matches, though the superior team clearly won in both cases and would have won even without assistance from the officials. The exit of the United States was disappointing, but understandable given one fairly damning statistic: the US, which accomplished amazing things at this Cup by winning its group and with exciting comeback results, led for exactly 3 minutes out of its 390 at this World Cup, after Landon Donavan scored against Algeria. You can't dig yourself a hole and escape every game. Ghana became only the third African team to make it to the quarterfinals, and will try to become the first to make it to the semifinals, and Uruguay is beatable. But after they knocked my team out for the second Cup in a row and given their pathetic time-wasting measures such as lying down on the pitch without reason in the final few minutes against the US, I wouldn't mind seeing Ghana lose to another team with a compelling story, Uruguay. Uruguay are by far the smallest country to have won the World Cup, about a tenth of the size of Argentina in population, and they won the first Cup, in 1930, at home in Montevideo, then shocked hosts Brazil when the Cup resumed in 1950.

Three compelling match-ups await in the quarterfinals, along with Spain vs. Paraguay (two reasons to root for shock Paraguay victory: their gorgeous superfan, and the possibility of a Uruguay-Paraguay final to determine which nation is the guay-est). I think Spain will play against Brazil or the Netherlands in the final.

But for now, here's some World Cup history factoids since I've gotten so into the all-time records this year:
  • At the first World Cup, 1930 Uruguay, only four European teams decided to sail for South America, and random ones at that: France, Belgium, Yugoslavia and Romania. A odd total of 13 teams competed. The United States had their best ever result: not only did they finish in third place, but American Bert Patenaude recorded the World Cup's first-ever hat trick against Paraguay. Uruguay beat Argentina in the final.
  • For the second World Cup, 1934 Italy, defending champions Uruguay decided not to make the trip to Europe because Italy hadn't bothered to come to South America four years earlier. Mexico made the trip over the Atlantic, but then found out they had to play the United States in a play-in game in Europe even though the Americans had turned in their application late. The US won, so Mexico didn't get to compete. Sorry, that was sort of a dick move. The tournament did take on its long-running 16-team format here. Mussolini's Italy won the World Cup.
  • Only 15 teams got to play in 1938 France, because GERMANY ANNEXED AUSTRIA. Austria was one of the best teams in 1934, so maybe this was another reason for the Anschluss. World War II canceled the Cup for a while, when the fourth edition was finally held, in 1950 in Brazil, Germany was red-carded and had to stay home. The US shocked England in this Cup, but even more importantly, Uruguay shocked Brazil in the final.
  • 1954 saw favorite Hungary lose to Germany in der Wunder von Bern. No small European country like Hungary has ever managed to win the World Cup, this was probably the best shot. Instead, it was the beginning of Germany's impressive haul of championships.
  • In 1958 Brazil won the Cup in Sweden. This is the only time a South American team has won in Europe. The pattern has been Europeans win in Europe, Brazil and Argentina win in South America and Mexico, and Brazil wins everywhere else. Brazil won in 1962 and 1970. England won in 1966 at home against Germany, and had deja vu when a goal off the crossbar, much their winner in 1966, was discounted against Germany on Sunday.
  • If you look at just the last nine World Cups, Brazil, which has won the most total titles, doesn't look quite as dominant. Beginning with 1974, Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Italy have each won two World Cups, France has won one and lost another final in penalty kicks.
  • The tournament finally expanded to 24 teams in 1982 and again to the modern 32 teams in 1998.
  • So right now, 5 Cups for Brazil, 4 for Italy, 3 for Germany, 2 for Argentina, 2 for Uruguay, 1 for England, 1 for France. Four teams look to add to their totals in the next two weeks, while Spain, the Netherlands, Ghana and Paraguay aim for their first Cup first-place trophies.
  • The 20th World Cup will be held in 2014 in Brazil. Guess who will win.

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