Marcotti: UEFA nations fail to deliver
The sample size is small, but the trend seems evident: Europe isn't what it once was, at least when it comes to World Cup performances.
Since FIFA moved to a 32-team format in 1998, UEFA has always been the best-represented confederation. European teams have also traditionally done well, sending 10 of 15 teams to the knockout stage in 1998 (67 percent), 9 of 15 in 2002 (60 percent) and 10 of 14 (71 percent) in 2006.
Then came South Africa and a sudden about-turn, with less than half (six) of the 13 European sides advancing out of the group stage. This time around? It's again looking tough for the old world.
Going into the final group games, three of the 13 UEFA nations are already eliminated -- Bosnia, Spain and England -- and another two -- Belgium and Holland -- have secured passage to the next round.
Taking a look at the others, France and Germany are virtually there: only the unlikeliest astral conjunction could trip them up.
Croatia and Italy control their own destiny, but they have tricky opponents in Mexico and Uruguay.
Russia and Switzerland need to get at least one point and need matters elsewhere to go their way (plausible), and Greece and Portugal need victories and a bucket-load of help from elsewhere (rather less probable).
Theoretically, Europe could have as few as four teams in the knockout phase and as many as 10. Realistically, the number surely will be somewhere between five and seven, which is more in line with the continental underachievement of 2010 than with past World Cups.
That also appears to call into question the validity of the FIFA rankings -- purely mathematical calculations -- as a predictive tool. Of the top 16 sides at the World Cup, 10 are European, yet as many as five are guaranteed not to or unlikely to make the last 16.
It's the sort of thing that's bound to come up before the next FIFA elections, where horse-trading is an inevitable by-product of democracy. And, frankly, the rest of the world might have a point: it's hard to argue that Europe isn't overrepresented somewhat if more than half their teams can't get out of the group stage.
As to why that's the case, there are plenty of theories. 2010 and 2014 are non-European World Cups, and that probably penalizes UEFA sides (Though the old chestnut about no European team ever winning on South American soil is probably a red herring: there has only been one World Cup in South America in the past 50 years and, although it's true that a European team did not win it, it's equally true that times have changed since 1978 and, in any case, it's not much of a statistical sample).
There's chance and probability, of course, and, over two World Cups they play a part, though, of course, they can work for you or against you. There's the fact that non-European teams are often (but not always) more settled, with less turnover of players, and, in a short tournament, familiarity and chemistry evidently matter.
But, most of all -- and most uncomfortably of all -- there's the possibility that European sides, taken as a group, are simply overrated. The media are Euro-centric, and we simply see more of these players more regularly in the Champions League, Euros and the continent's top leagues.
Whatever the case, Europe emerges from this group stage with a bloody nose. France, Belgium and the Netherlands are the only European sides to have run the table thus far, and the latter two looked shaky in parts. Spain and England, of course, haven't yet won a single point and are going home early: Italy could yet join them, Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal probably will. Even Germany, though they're well placed to advance, were given a heck of a scare by Ghana.
Two World Cups don't necessarily make a trend -- though it's worth noting that it is happening in this "open" tournament to the same degree that it occurred in South Africa, when teams were more conservative -- but it doesn't look great for UEFA if they want to preserve their slots in the competition.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.