The old order reasserts itself
This World Cup has had most things but one thing it has lacked is a genuine upset. In the round of 16 each match was won by the team that had previously won its qualifying group. In the quarter-finals the likeliest winners in each case turned out to be the actual winners. Now we are left with four teams of impeccable World Cup pedigree whom the bookies cannot separate: any of them would be an entirely plausible lifter of the trophy (the Dutch have never won it before but with three defeats in the final and a history of heroic endeavour they are long overdue). Yes, there have been some mild shocks along the way: few people anticipated that Spain would be trounced by Holland in their opening match and Costa Rica’s victory over Italy was somewhat unexpected, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been given how the Italians were playing. On the whole, though, the form book has been an unerringly reliable guide.
Before the tournament started, Goldman Sachs issued a forecast in the manner of a market report that predicted that Brazil would meet Argentina in the final. Deutsche Bank said much the same. Stephen Hawking, using different methods, indicated that his money too would be on Brazil. None of this is rocket science. The World Cup is an extremely predictable event: it doesn’t do major shocks. There has never really been a surprise winner, certainly not since West Germany defeated Hungary in 1954, and somehow it feels wrong to call anything involving German triumph an upset. Certainly there has been nothing like the thunderbolt victories achieved by Denmark and Greece in the European Championships of 1992 and 2004 respectively (both countries were available at odds of around 100-1 before those tournaments began). In the World Cup, underdogs flirt with the limelight before getting stamped on. The old order always reasserts itself in the end.
One of the great divisions in sport is between the competitions that favour dynasties and those that favour the upstarts. American sport – above all American football – is distinctly anti-dynastic. The draft system ensures that the team with the worst record gets to select the best player next time round, which makes it incredibly hard for anyone to stay on top for long. Some put this preference for equality over inherited privilege down to America’s democratic spirit. Others, perhaps more plausibly, note that it is a function of an economic arrangement that looks a lot like a cartel (in American sport there is no promotion and relegation), so that the owners are simply making sure they all get their fair share of the spoils.
By contrast, no sport is more dynastic than football. In the European leagues the same teams dominate for years, often for decades, sometimes for ever: the aristocrats of Portuguese football, of Spanish football, of Italian football, of Scottish football (until Rangers’ recent demise, which is unlikely to be terminal) have a seemingly permanent lease on power. One question that outsiders often ask about football is why fans put up with the same teams winning year in, year out. But insiders rarely ask it: the hold of the sport derives in part from the reliability of its hierarchies. Everyone knows where they stand, so everyone knows what they are up against. This breeds loyalty. It also generates drama. Though the established order will prevail in the end, in any given match the upstarts can still dream of overturning it.
Before this World Cup, Chile had never beaten Brazil in Brazil during more than a century of trying. Nor had Colombia. Combined the two countries hadn’t tasted victory against their biggest rivals in their own backyard in more than sixty attempts. They still haven’t, though last week Chile came within a bar’s width of doing so. The World Cup is the apogee of football competitions. It seems appropriate that it should remain the most dynastic.