Europe's World Cup stranglehold tested by Brazil, Argentina

When Gianni Infantino told a gathering of European soccer officials in Vienna he hoped the winner of the World Cup came from their continent, the FIFA President quickly stated — with a smile — he adapts the comment to whichever region he’s in.

It’s no laughing matter for the rest of the world.

Seven of the last eight World Cup finalists have come from Europe. Thirteen of the last 16 semifinalists, too.

Only three non-European nations — Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay — have reached the World Cup final. Uruguay hasn’t played in the title match since 1950.

And only two non-European nations other than Brazil and Argentina have reached the semifinals since 1970 — South Korea in 2002 and Uruguay in 2010.

No African country has ever gotten to the last four — in part because of Luis Suárez's last-minute, goal-line handball for Uruguay to deny Ghana in the 2010 quarterfinals — and nobody from North America since the United States in the first World Cup in 1930.

Nations from around the world are invited to the party but, really, it’s mostly the Europeans staying until the end.

“You want the World Cup to be a world tournament,” soccer author Jonathan Wilson said. “Ideally you’d have a team from every confederation in the quarterfinals.

“You want the best teams, but you want the best teams to come from as many different places as possible. This is a global sport. If it becomes entirely focused on a rich pocket of western Europe, that’s boring for everybody.”

Wilson puts the recent European dominance down to the continent’s top soccer nations pumping lots of money and resources into the development of young players — what he calls an “industrialization of youth production,” starting with France at its national soccer center in the 1990s. That was followed by the likes of Germany, Spain and most recently England doing the same.

These young players are then exposed to their own soccer leagues, which are the strongest and richest in the world.

“You have the best facilities, the best teachers, the best people to learn from,” Wilson told The Associated Press. “Then you are testing yourself against the best.”

The only nation to have prevented a European triumph at a World Cup since 1994 was Brazil in 2002. Brazil’s coach that year, Luiz Felipe Scolari, said he had a “spectacular generation” — remember its storied front three of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho? — and that European nations are now producing better players than before, having studied the 1958 Brazil team which earned the country the first of its record five titles.

Speaking to the AP, Scolari said the current European domination is a “phase” which could be ended by Brazil in Qatar or, maybe, in 2026.

After all, Brazil will enter the World Cup as the top-ranked team, undefeated in South American qualifying and with only five losses in 76 matches under coach Tite.

“This class of 2022 is great," Scolari said. "If we don’t win now, we can do it in 2026 with one of the best teams.

“These kids playing now might give the result we expect but you can’t pressure them to give everything. Maybe in four years we can because then … they will hit the pinnacle at age 26, 27.”

Typically, it’s Argentina, ranked No. 3 by FIFA and a two-time World Cup champion, rivaling Brazil as the most likely winner from outside Europe. And that should again be the case in Qatar.

While Europe’s best have been struggling — England is winless in six games, France and Germany have won only one of their last six games, Italy hasn’t even qualified — Argentina has gone 35 games unbeaten under Lionel Scaloni, who has a well-balanced team with more than just a slew of star attackers led by Lionel Messi.

There’s a caveat, though. The introduction of UEFA’s Nations League — and, to a certain extent, the impact of COVID-19 — has meant top European teams go head-to-head more often and rarely face Brazil and Argentina.

Only one such game stands out since the 2018 World Cup: the Finalissima, a newly devised match between the European champions and Copa America winners that saw Argentina beat Italy 3-0 in London in June.

Argentina has played three European teams since the last World Cup. Brazil only one.

“It’s pretty hard to get a true read on them,” said Wilson, whose books include “Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina." "It might not be the worst thing that they go into this tournament with confidence, without a sense of inferiority.”

Take away Brazil and Argentina, and it’s hard to look beyond another winner from Europe, which has the other 10 teams in the top 12 of the FIFA rankings and 13 of the 32 nations in Qatar.

There’s even greater depth to the European challenge these days, too, with nations like 2018 World Cup finalist Croatia, Euro 2020 semifinalist Denmark and Switzerland as consistent and hard to beat as the traditional heavyweights, with more of their players sprinkled around Europe’s top clubs.

As for African teams, whose World Cup challenge is fronted by African Cup of Nations champion Senegal, they still seem to be held back by a lack of resources off the field more than a lack of talent on it.

“(African countries) have so many players playing in Europe at good teams now, I think they should perform better than they do,” Lars Lagerback, who coached Nigeria at the 2010 World Cup, told the AP. "There’s a lot of challenges, so many people involved around the logistics and everything.

“They have the players with the individual skills but you have to have everything around it.”

And that, ultimately, is where Europe has the edge.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

Steve Douglas, The Associated Press