Upset-filled World Cup is alternative to the haves, have-nots of club football
MOSCOW -- Germany losing to Mexico and South Korea. Brazil only able to score in stoppage-time against Costa Rica. Argentina held by Iceland and thumped by Croatia. Spain struggling against Iran and needing a goal in added time to avoid defeat against Morocco. England needing an injury-time winner against Tunisia. Belgium going two goals down against Japan and only going through via the last kick of the game.
Part of the reason this World Cup has been so appealing is the upsets, but have there been more than in previous editions? If so, why?
The answer to the first question is yes, though not by a huge margin. I used the FIFA rankings to determine a favorite and an underdog for each match through the round of 16's conclusion in the past three World Cups.
Granted, they are not perfect, but they do give you a sense of the relative strength of a team. Further, I looked at 2010, 2014 and 2018 because the rankings system changed significantly after 2006.
(Someone with more time and more of an analytical brain might want to go further and factor in the relative differences in ranking: No. 60 beating No. 5 is more of an upset than No. 22 beating No. 20, for example; if they do it, I would love to read it.)
In the meantime, here is what I found, looking at results over 90 minutes.
In Russia, higher-ranked sides have won 29 of 56 games played, compared to 34 in 2014 and 29 in 2010. Conversely, lower-ranked teams have won 16 of 56, substantially more than in Brazil (eight) and South Africa (11). Goal difference was also telling. Higher-ranked teams were +13, compared to +43 in Brazil and +39 in South Africa.
It is not just an impression, then; the numbers corroborate the idea that upsets are on the rise. Why? On explanation is that, contrary to the club game, in which the gulf between haves and have-nots continues to expand, in international football things are leveling out.
Just look at the points-per-game won by last season's champions in La Liga (2.45), the Bundesliga (2.47), the Premier League (2.63), Serie A (2.50) and Ligue 1 (2.45), compared to those of the past three World Cup winners (excluding extra-time and penalties): Germany (2.14), Spain (2.28) and Italy (2.14). And then remind yourself that these three countries played just seven games on their successful runs, whereas club champions maintained their numbers during an entire season.
Polarization and the concentration of riches in the club game is something that's been talked about for some time: Clubs outside a tiny elite simply find it nearly impossible to compete. However, at the same time, international football has benefited from a number of democratizing factors since the days when Europe and South America ruled supreme.
One macro-trend, which has been ongoing, is the spread and growth of the professional game. Simply put, there are more resources for elite football -- in terms of infrastructure, coaching and development -- outside of the traditional superpowers than there were 20 years ago. And in the 1990s there were more than in the 1970s. And so on. That trend is only going one way.
But there are two other factors that have accelerated the closing of gaps at international level: Tactics and the Bosman ruling.
Everybody has come far enough in their tactical understanding to know that a well-drilled side, with chemistry and organization, can generally stop more gifted opponents from scoring for a long time unless there's something unforeseen, like an individual error, a refereeing mistake or a brilliant piece of individual skill.
This is a low-scoring sport. Compare it to basketball: The average NBA team will shoot maybe 80 times per game, whereas the average World Cup team might manage one-sixth of that. The impact of randomness and luck is greater when the sample size -- in this case, the number of times you try to score or stop your opponent from scoring -- is smaller.
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The tactical/chemistry idea also impacts mid- and lower-tier teams in another way. A Sweden or a Uruguay has a smaller pool of players on which to call than, say, Germany or France. As a result, they tend to stick around longer with their national sides and, as a group, become more cohesive over time, almost like club sides.
Incidentally, this is why, although we have seen some bad teams -- Panama come to mind -- at this World Cup, none have been embarrassingly awful. Gone are the days of Yugoslavia trouncing Zaire 9-0 in 1974 and Hungary beating El Salvador 10-1 eight years later.
The impact of the 1996 Bosman ruling, which lifted the limit on foreigners in Europe, made it easier for players from smaller nations to compete at a higher level and against better opposition, which helped acquire and develop know-how as a result.
(A similar phenomenon -- writ small -- occurred outside Europe with leagues such as Mexico's Liga MX, the Chinese Super League, Japan's J-League, Major League Soccer in the U.S. and others attracting regional talent in one place and raising the standard.)
As the club game at the highest level increasingly becomes an elitist golf club of the sort that only allows entry to the very rich, the international game is turning into a public course that does not take reservations for tee times.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.