Wednesday 14 November, 2018

Europe assured of extending World Cup winning streak to 4

Brazil football fans cry out as they watch their team lose 2-1 to Belgium in a World Cup quarter final match, on a live telecast, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, July 6, 2018. Belgium knocked Brazil out of the World Cup and advanced to the semi-finals. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo).

Brazil football fans cry out as they watch their team lose 2-1 to Belgium in a World Cup quarter final match, on a live telecast, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, July 6, 2018. Belgium knocked Brazil out of the World Cup and advanced to the semi-finals. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo).

The World Cup is staying in Europe, and it's not even a close race.

All four semifinalists at this year's tournament in Russia will be European. The most powerful continent in world football is also assured of having its fourth straight title winner from a fourth different country.

Europe's overwhelming dominance in club football — fueled by wealth to hire the best global talents — is also playing out on the World Cup stage.

South America's last hopes at the tournament were eliminated Friday in the first two quarterfinal games. Brazil, the last non-European title winner in 2002, was beaten by Belgium 2-1, and Uruguay lost to France 2-0.

The all-European final foursome will be completed Saturday: England play Sweden and Russia face Croatia in the other two quarterfinal matches.

Asked Friday about Europe's strength, Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez said "reality from a financial point of view, from a historical point of view" could not be ignored.

"Don't ask me something that is self-evident," said the veteran coach, who led Uruguay to the semifinals in 2010.

Back then, Uruguay was eliminated by the Netherlands, who lost to Spain in the final.

Europe's winning run began with Italy in 2006, Spain followed four years later, and Germany took over in 2014.

A title for France or England in Moscow on July 15 would keep the glory within a closed circle of countries whose national teams, domestic leagues and television markets are known as Europe's "Big Five": Spain, Italy and Germany are the others.

They are home to the richest and most storied clubs, attract the most valuable broadcast deals worldwide, and place most teams in the Champions League. The five will have 21 of the 32 places next season.

It is a virtuous circle helping earn more prize money and build lucrative global brands.

It also attracts the best players from other continents, and Neymar was almost a late arrival coming from Brazil to Barcelona when he was 21. If the wave of talent flowing to Europe denies playing time to domestic players, it also raises the overall level of play.

In those five countries, national federations and clubs have the money and an obligation to invest in youth coaching programs and keep producing talent. National centers such as Clairefontaine in France and more recently St. George's Park in England have their own strong identity.

Now even Croatia and Sweden are close to their first World Cup semifinal berths since the 1990s, revealing European depth that South America craves.

Since the 1982 World Cup, when a semifinal round was reinstated, 40 teams will have been involved and Europe has provided 31 of them. South America has eight, and 2002 co-host South Korea was the other.

Africa has never had a semifinalist and failed to advance any of its five teams from the group stage in Russia. Japan was the only one of five Asian confederation teams to reach the round of 16, losing to Belgium.

It adds up to another European semifinal sweep, following 2006 and 1982.

Europe got 14 places in the 32-team World Cup lineup in Russia (44 percent), even though it currently has 20 of the top 32 teams in the FIFA rankings. European dominance increases deeper into the bracket: 10 of the round of 16 teams (62 percent); six of the quarterfinalists (75 percent); all of the semifinalists (100 percent).

European club dominance is even greater when looking at World Cup rosters. A total of 74 percent of players selected across the tournament — 544 of 736 — are employed by teams in Europe.

This hegemony could be tough to maintain when the World Cup increases to 48 teams in 2026. Only three extra places were given to Europe, raising its guaranteed number to 16 — one-third of the total.

Regardless, the final World Cup week in Russia is all Europe, all the time.