The Brits’ confidence on the pitch, you see, is a sad case of imperial hangover for a country past its prime. The English have won the World Cup only once, and that was when they hosted the event in 1966.
Indeed, beneath all that breezy confidence is a secret fear that the national team could face humiliation in its first game of this year’s tourney: a match with that revolutionary upstart on the other side of the Atlantic.
Happily, the England-USA row will not be the only chance for some post-colonial embarrassment. Spain will have to ward off both Honduras and Chile in first-round play. And the Portuguese have a good chance of having their faces rubbed in it by onetime colony Brazil.
But the most compelling opportunity for revenge falls to the six African squads: Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and host South Africa. The continent’s teams have never been a major factor in the tournament. But this is the first World Cup in Africa and confidence is running high, perhaps because, for 17 of the continent’s 53 countries (including Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, and Nigeria), 2010 is the 50th year of independence from colonial rule.
Boers go home!
The world’s soccer fans, like followers of all sports, cling to their own comforting — and often contradictory — set of myths: this is the sport of the poor! Or, conversely: England is destined to rise again!
But seven years after Michael Lewis upended the nonsense that passed for baseball’s conventional wisdom with his data-driven book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, soccer’s own legends are crumbling before a stack of calculators and multiple-regression analyses.
The most prominent gate-crashers are soccer writer Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski, who dabble in demography, epidemiology, and geography in their recently published book Soccernomics.
Among their findings: Brazilian players are overvalued, the Norwegians love the sport more than anyone else, and soccer fandom prevents more suicides than it inspires.
But the book’s absurdly long subtitle — Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the US, Japan, Australia, Turkey — and Even Iraq — Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport — hints at the authors’ boldest argument, which forecasts the future of international soccer.
After a bit of number-crunching, Kuper and Szymanski find that wealth, population size, and a nation’s experience with international soccer are the best predictors of success on the field.
By this measure, they write, the relatively small England — always thought to be underperforming by its swaggering fans — is actually punching above its weight. And though it is a long-held truism “that poor people are somehow best equipped to make it as sportsmen,” the authors note, “facts show that the world’s poor people and poor countries are worse at sports than rich ones.”
This would all seem to suggest that the Americans are in line for world domination. But Kuper says our insistence on employing an American coach, rather than importing a bit of experience by way of a European manager, is holding us back. The question is, then: given what is happening to immigrants in Arizona, can we find a coach who’d want to come here?