World Cup: misery for 29 out of 32

Only four teams remain in contention for the FIFA World Cup. Of the other 28 who qualified for the final tournament, a number have gone home in disgrace while others have merely disappointed.

The mathematical reality of the World Cup is that the supporters of only one team can be truly happy at the end. In most World Cup tournaments there is one team that reaches the semi-final unexpectedly and goes home as heroes. This time it could be Uruguay (not that I’m ruling them out). And then there is often a team which makes it through to the knock-out stages, exceeding expectations. Slovakia fits the bill, who defeated defending champions Italy.

Before the tournament starts it is natural for all of the teams to be optimistic because they have all had some good results in qualifying and, as we all know, it’s not always the best team that wins.

However, a quick glance at the world rankings serves as a reminder of the form.

Teams which under-performed (eliminated at least one round earlier than world ranking in April 2010 would predict):
Brazil (1)
Portugal (3)
Italy (5)
France (9)
Greece (13)

Teams which over-performed (reached at least one round further than world ranking would predict):
Uruguay (16)
Ghana (32)
Republic of Korea (47)
Japan (45)

Leaving aside the question of the reliability of the rankings themselves, that means 23 out of 32 teams performed more or less as expected.

Media criticism in some countries has been harsh (France – Libération, Italy - Gazzetta dello Sport, England – Daily Mail), while successful teams enjoy rather more positive coverage (Uruguay – Ovación). It’s difficult to tell whether media coverage mainly reflects public opinion or leads it when teams are eliminated but it seems intuitively probable that journalists are guilty of building up hopes to unrealistic levels in many countries ahead of the tournament.

The frustrating truth is that the supporters of about 29 out of 32 teams will feel let down, whatever happens. It may be that your team in particular lost out only because of a cross-bar or a refereeing decision but that doesn’t change the bigger picture.

Sponsors can dare to hope, along with the rest of us, but they also need to recognise that their financial and emotional investments are highly risky. Unless you’re German, of course.

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