Four Years is a Long Time: A World Cup Analysis

“How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!…thou wast slain in thine high places. How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!” – 2 Samuel 1:25 & 27


As we sit back and watch the Iberian Peninsula get manhandled by northern Europe and one of the only two South American countries that doesn’t border Brazil, some people are left wondering what’s going on.

Surely, the team that won the World Cup just four summers ago would be among the favorites to win this year, and indeed they were the favorite. Spain came into the 2014 World Cup ranked #1 in the world, and placed into a group that seemed easy enough to navigate, and even win outright. Portugal, on the other hand, which probably felt that this whole experience would be something of a cultural homecoming for them, was placed into the Group of Death. Still, the #4 team in the world was expected to emerge as the Runner-Up from Group G and at least put up a fight against Germany, if not knock them off in some fast-paced thriller.

Obviously, none of this happened.

Shockingly, Spain is already out, losing its second group match to Chile today after getting beat down by the Dutch. Portugal could be heading toward an early exit versus a scrappy American team with a lot of momentum, as Bento reaches into his shallow bench to replace Pepe and maybe even a second defender in Coentrao. If the Portuguese play like they did against Germany, the U.S. will eliminate them without the help of anyone named Mueller.

So, what the hell went wrong?

As it turns out, the mighty fall hard and often in international soccer, as it is difficult to maintain dynasties over multiple four-year cycles. While teams don’t have term limits like the American presidency, or graduation requirements like your eight semester stint in college, this is the World Cup, dammit, and four years is a long time. Here are some statistics to help contextualize the ongoing power struggle.

Regarding teams that won the previous World Cup:

  • Today, Spain became the 5th team to ever lose in group play after having won the previous World Cup, which means it’s actually more common than a lot of statistics to follow. The others were: Italy in 1950, Brazil in 1966, France in 2002, and Italy again in 2010.
  • Only two national teams have ever won back-to-back World Cups: Italy (1934 & 1938) and Brazil (1958 & 1962). There are two further interesting things about this statistic:
  1. Group play elimination happened to Italy and Brazil after each team won two World Cups in a row, so fans were either extremely confused or reflectively thankful of their respective squad.
  2. Italy’s run in the ’30s was bookended by Uruguay’s only two World Cups (1930 & 1950), and Brazil’s run would be bookended by Germany if the West Germans hadn’t lost to England in 1966 (in London).
  • Likewise, only two teams have ever been Runners-Up following their World Cup championship: Argentina in 1990 and Brazil in 1998. Argentina, which had won in 1978 and exited in Round 2 of the following Cup, won again in 1986, finished as the Runners-Up the next Cup, and then went out in the Round of 16 the following Cup. Brazil went on a millennial tear and won in ’94, came in 2nd in ’98, won again in 2002, then exited in the quarterfinals in 2006.
  • Three World Cup winners came in 4th place in the following Cup, and those teams were: Uruguay in 1954, Germany in 1958, and Brazil in 1974.
  • Additionally, three teams lost in the quarterfinals after winning the previous World Cup: England in 1970, Germany in 1994, and Brazil in 2006.

Runners-Up must be traumatized by the loss, because they are historically terrible in the next World Cup. Regarding those teams:

  • Only two teams have ever won the World Cup after being Runners-Up the previous tournament: Germany in 1990 and Brazil in 2002.
  • Moreover, only two teams have ever been Runners-Up following a 2nd place finish in the previous World Cup: Netherlands in 1978 and Germany in 1986. After two straight 2nd place finishes, Netherlands failed to even qualify in 1982, while Germany won the World Cup in 1990.
  • Five teams that were Runners-Up in the previous World Cup failed to get beyond the Round of 16. Two of those teams (Italy in 1974 and France in 2010) failed to even make it out of their groups.
  • Perhaps most shocking is this little item: Four teams that previously finished 2nd in the World Cup did not even compete for the Cup the next time around. Hungary did not even enter in 1950, an expression of East Bloc isolationism, and Sweden (1962), Czechoslovakia (1966), and Netherlands (1982) all failed to qualify for the tournament after having finished 2nd in the prior World Cup.

Clearly, four years is a long time. Players age out and come of age, they change nationality, and they start sucking or get dramatically better. With the sport being played faster and faster, national teams are starting to recruit younger and younger, so dynasties are harder to maintain since the optimal average squad age is getting closer to the FIFA qualifying age. There’s a reason Landon Donovan, a tremendous leader and very smart player, was not invited to Brazil this summer by Klinsmann. At 32, Donovan isn’t just four years older than he was in South Africa, he’s four years beyond the peak physical age of a man, which is commonly thought to be one’s late teens. Simply put, he just can’t be expected to keep up, and his sabbatical from soccer definitely hurt any case he might have otherwise. I mean, just look at the age of the kid who took his place…

Look at the data. Winners and Runners-Up don’t have great track records in the following World Cup. Spain is already gone at the hands of Chile today, a team that FIFA initially ranked lower than the United States and Greece. As last year’s Runners-Up, the Dutch have a lot of history riding on their shoulders now, as their 5-1 victory over Spain last week seems less impressive. Remember, the two teams that made it to the World Cup final in 2006 didn’t even make it out of group play in 2010, and the Dutch struggled today against Australia, the team ranked dead last in FIFA rankings.

Whatever happens, it’s been a thrilling Cup so far, and even the Spanish fans might stick around for the remainder of it. After all, they probably have hotels booked into July, and the last time I checked a lot of the country didn’t have jobs to go back to, anyway.

Here is the table, in all its glory.

World Cup Champions Next Year Finish



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