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The Unbearable Weight of World Cup History

To anticipate Argentina versus Germany or Brazil versus Holland is to again hear World Cup history whisper ever more urgently as the tournament approaches its conclusion. The coaches and players will insist that such talk is nonsense; a distraction. The game must be won on the pitch in South Africa. Eleven against eleven. The future scripts are yet to be written. What's past is irrelevant. So said the English, to a man, on the eve of being knocked out by Germany yet again.

If you want to see how unusually heavily World Cup history weighs upon the present, ask yourself this: Which was the last team to win their country's first ever World Cup, without enjoying home advantage?

The answer is Brazil. All the way back in 1958, as a 17 year old Pele helped them to the first of their record five World Cups. Ever since, the World Cup winners’ club has only been open to those who are already members, with only host nations—England in 1966, Argentina in 1978 and France in 1998—breaking into the elite.

This World Cup winners’ cartel seems at odds with the "leveling out" of tournament football, as can be captured clearly in the curious contrast with the European Championship. Europe's quadrennial tournament is not much easier to win than the World Cup. Yes, one thing makes it easier: Argentina and Brazil are not eligible. But that's about it. The tournament structure is pretty similar, and can be slightly more perilous in that there have usually been fewer weak teams in the first round. And European teams have consistently won every second two World Cups. So if you could win the European Championship, it stands to reason that you would have a decent shot at winning the World Cup.

Yet Europe has hailed six different winners (and ten finalists) in the last six tournaments since 1988, while the World Cup has honored just seven champions and eleven finalists in its whole 80 year history. The last ten World Cups have been won by Brazil (three), Germany, Italy and Argentina (two each), plus only France as hosts. Those five sides have monopolized the final line-up too. Since 1970, only Holland's unfortunate footballing aristocrats have made the final without being previous champions or hosts.

In other words, the European tournament could hardly be more open. Two of Europe's four World Cup winners (England and Italy) were not even among the six nations to triumph since 1988. There have been European champions playing the best international football on the planet, like Platini's France, Gullit's Holland and perhaps the 2008 Spanish champions too. Yet the victories of Denmark, who had not qualified in 1992 but got a late call to make up the numbers as Yugoslavia imploded, and Greece grinding their way to victory in 2004 shows how just about any team, which can make the knock-out stages and perhaps find it has decent organization and an in-form striker, has a chance of winning the three or four games of cup football, and entering the pantheon of footballing immortals.

The World Cup, in contrast, is entirely different: a defiantly closed shop. Yet there is a broadly similar phenomenon of lucky and mediocre winners mixed in with greatness. It is only that, this time, only teams with the requisite history need apply. Think Paulo Rossi's Italy in 1982, lucky to still be alive after three draws in the group stage; how Italy and France emerged surprisingly from the pack in 2006, or how the extremely open tournament of 2002, with no obvious or particularly deserving champion, resulted in a final between a solid enough Brazil and a truly mediocre Germany, oddly the first ever World Cup finals meeting of the tournament's perpetually consistent contenders.

(Oddly enough, there has been a strikingly wide spread of World Cup semi-finalists. Turkey, South Korea, Croatia, Bulgaria, Sweden, Portugal, Belgium and Poland have all made it in the last 25 years, but the nations without a World Cup pedigree can never seem to go further. Even great teams—the Dutch in the 1970s and again in the 1990s; Platini's France in the 1980s—have been unable to break this winners' cartel. Plenty of other sides—Denmark in 1986, Romania in 1994, perhaps the best Yugoslav and Soviet teams, the perennial dark horses of underachieving Spain and Portugal—have had the credentials to beat any team at the tournament. None has actually done it.)

Why the difference? Perhaps it is just a fluke. Spain might feel they are as well placed to break the jinx as any team has ever been, their European title perhaps ending the nagging self-doubt about whether they can play tournament football. But I think there is more to it. The World Cup is suffused in history in a way the European Championship will never be. Once you get to the semi-finals, the reputations, perhaps the famous shirts and colors, of Brazil, Argentina, Germany and (usually) Italy simply intimidate their opponents. They expect to win—and you expect them to win too.

And if you haven't won the World Cup, then the odds are, you choke. You might be Puskas, Cruyff, Platini or Gullit and have given every joy to the world. But you choke. Think here of the Dutch when a goal up in the 1974 final in Munich; think of the French, 3-1 up even during extra-time against Germany before being robbed blind and chucked out on penalties in the semi-final of 1982. A footballing tragedy, but a great sporting choke too.

One day, history's strange grip on the World Cup must surely be loosened. (In the meantime, aspirant new champions—whether from Africa or the United States—might want to think very strategically about the optimal timescale for mounting future hosting bids). But this time around accumulated history may yet take another twist, with the emergence as dark horses of World Cup 2010 of the first great footballing nation, Uruguay. As Alex Massie blogged on Saturday, "Uruguay has the history and the underdog status that makes their revival immensely satisfying." And that could make them very dangerous underdogs, carrying not just the hope of victory but the memory of it too. 

As for upstart Ghana, let's say that Brazil make it past Holland to the semi-finals. What romance there would be across the globe if they were to find Ghana ready to play them. What hope Africa will have of them to become the continent's first ever finalists. Yet, as the Black Stars take to the field against their opponents in those famous yellow shirts, how many—in Ghana, in South Africa, across the world, and among the team themselves as the anthems play—would truly believe they would do it?

But imagine now that it is Uruguay, La Celeste, who face Brazil for a place in the World Cup final. Might Brazil, again as favorites, not suddenly find that status more oppressive?

Uruguay may not have got even to the quarter-final again since 1970, but nobody in either country will ever forget the epic trauma of the 1950 World Cup in the Maracana. The words used by Uruguayan captain Obdulio Varela to inspire his team to silence that crowd of two hundred thousand and more—"the ones outside are made of wood"—resonate in Uruguay to this day. The sad fate of the Brazilian goalkeeper Barbosa, his mistake never forgiven or forgotten for half a century, may remind the Brazilians that a World Cup can bring national infamy as well as glory.

We all think that nobody has more World Cup history than Brazil. Might the team in those famous yellow shirts yet find that they must play the one and only country with the myth and memory to intimidate them at a World Cup?