My former landlord is a Harvard PhD in economic history, a nice guy, and is paid to write a blog for one of the nation’s biggest newspapers. He wrote a post (in spanish) “Four eternal World Cup myths.” His are: 1) Play is really bad this year, 2) There are so few goals, 3) Watch out for African teams, and 4) So many upsets.
As for (1), he contends that this is the first year everyone is really trying to play possession football. A fair point, I think, although I think this has more to do with parity among nations. The business of football is booming, and the World Cup field hasn’t expanded for a few years, so there’s more parity and thus more teams have the ability necessary to try to play possession football.
As for 2, did anyone not think that there would be some regression to the mean? It was almost impossible for goals to stay that low. As you will note, I predicted this, as I said that the primary reason goal totals were low was variance.
African teams. To be honest, this is what spurred me to write this post. He writes, “The African teams are bad.” He doesn’t really develop it much except to note how bad the African teams record is in this World Cup. To which I say, “Che, Lucas, miraste los mismos partidos que yo?” (Dude, did you watch the same games I did?)
So let’s review briefly. Six african teams: Algeria, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, South Africa and Cameroon. Nigeria. I didn’t see Nigeria’s match against South Korea (due to the fact that the Argentines had the remote and refused to even let me flip over to Nigeria-Korea when the first half was done), but people seemed to indicate that Nigeria played better. They also played well against Argentina, and although Argentina was quite profligate in their opportunities to score, the score was 1-0 and Nigeria had two excellent, excellent opportunities to score late in the game. They also outplayed but were pretty unlucky against Greece. While they finished with a bad record, I have zero doubts that Nigeria was the second best team in their group.
South Africa: They had a pretty hard group, but they only made the World Cup because they were the host nation. I thought they acquitted themselves reasonably well trying Mexico and beating France, although studies do show that home field advantage is worth slightly more than half a goal in international football.
Algeria: Could still qualify if they beat the US. Tied England and only lost to Slovenia by a goalkeeper error. I don’t want to say anymore because they play the US tomorrow.
Cameroon: The first team eliminated officially; it is definitely not good to lose to Denmark and Japan. They have a bad coach who put one of the best strikers in the world at right midfield. Enough said? I still thought they played attractively, and — I know I already said this, but… — are probably the second best team in their group (can we replace the manager please?)
Ivory Coast: Tied Portugal, but most agree that they had the better run of play against Portugal. I think they got a little unlucky against Brazil, although it is clear Brazil was the better team that day. They won’t advance unless Brazil beats Portugal and they score something like 8 goals against North Korea. They won’t advance, but I’d also consider them a bit unlucky. Again, they replaced their manager right before the World Cup, have had some internal strife, etc etc. Picking Sven Goran Eriksson as your manager doesn’t help.
Ghana: They control their destiny right now. If they win against Germany, they advance. I think they probably won’t, but let’s keep in mind that they are missing Michael Essien, someone I rate in the top 20 footballers in the world.
In short, I think it’s a more than a little dismissive to say African teams aren’t good. They’ve gotten very unlucky so far, and seem to be a bit riven by internal dissensions and frequently bad coaching.
It is a mistake to draw conclusions from small sample sizes. One World Cup is an extremely small sample size, and we aren’t even 75% done with group play yet! There’s alot of luck in football, especially when the teams are relatively even…as they seem to be this year. And using data from other World Cups is fraught with statistical danger. You are making an apples-to-oranges comparison and essentially assuming your conclusion.
So, I don’t really know how far Africa has come. Obviously not far enough for their teams to have alot of success. Yet some of the African teams seem to lack in the coaching department, and I think perhaps depth might be an issue as well.
[And yeah, I don’t think there are more surprises this World Cup than normal. Most of the world powers will still advance to the next round…although we will see in the next few days.]