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Fall of Europe, or Rise of the Periphery?

On a near daily basis you've seen me make comments about the strength of the Americas and on the failures of the traditional European powers. But is this the reality? Is it "continental" homerism? Or is it the easy nature to forget that the Group Stage is, in essence, a mini-league, and no one result finishes a team?

There have certainly been more unexpected results as a few of the mid-tier, and even minnows, have held their own against traditional powers. But these traditional powers, particularly the European ones, haven't been finished off yet. As today opens up the third match of the group stage, Nate Silver's Soccer Power Index isn't predicting much outside of what was expected at the start of the tournament. Europe will be as present as ever in the Round of 16, and the Semi-Finals are going to be UEFA, CONMBOL, one of either of those and just maybe one from outside of the bi-polar axis of soccer power when viewed on a regional basis.

AREA Sub Region One Knockout Semis Sub Region Two Knockout Semis
EUROPE West 5.487 1.446 East 1.558 0.219
NEW WORLD North 1.603 0.310 South 4.824 1.677
OLDER WORLD Asia/Oceania 1.389 0.177 Africa 1.134 0.192

Those numbers  show how many teams are expected to make each stage, figured by adding each nation's chance to make that stage and lumping them into one of those regions or sub-regions. Of note is that I threw Greece in with Eastern Europe, as the West in this case really has the traditional powers (Germany, Italy, England) and the emerging powers of France, Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. More on calling those emerging powers in a bit.

While many, including myself, have focused on the odd draws, and occasional losses by the traditional powers, the real story has been the success of the South American nations, the Netherlands, Portugal and Mexico. What we are seeing is a continuation of the previous two decades when France emerged from being an also-ran to Germany, Italy and England and became a dominant nation if only for a brief period of time.

But there are nations that are looking to mimic the French success from their host year and 2006, and this year they may not need to be the host nation. If we look at the history of the Finalists we see that unlike the geo-politics of the late 20th Century the footballing world was really quadripolar - Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina were the powers with a few others sitting on the perphiry and flexing their muscle at times, but not often.

National team↓ Final appearances↓ Winners↓ Runners-up↓ Years won Years runners-up
 Brazil 7 5 2 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002 1950, 1998
 Germany 7 3 4 1954, 1974, 1990 1966, 1982, 1986, 2002
 Italy 6 4 2 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006 1970, 1994
 Argentina 4 2 2 1978, 1986 1930, 1990
 Czechoslovakia 2 0 2 1934, 1962
 France 2 1 1 1998 2006
 Hungary 2 0 2 1938, 1954
 Netherlands 2 0 2 1974, 1978
 Uruguay 2 2 0 1930, 1950
 England 1 1 0 1966
 Sweden 1 0 1 1958

Uraguay has its two titles. England its one. The Netherlands made the Finals twice, but didn't quite pull through. Czechoslavakia, Sweden and Hungary made some noise.

This year though the noises are being made from new nations. The depth of playing talent is as great as ever. Coaching has become a global commodity, and national will amongst some of the rising nations is powerful enough to get their handful of stars to treat their national team as well as they treat their club teams.

Of previous non-Finalists, there are some strong performances that are showing not that the powers are weakened, but instead we are seeing in this era of globalization that the periphery has gained strength.

Mexico is listed with a 24% chance of making the semi-finals.
Paraguay at 22%.
Portugal at 35%
Chile at 20%
Spain at 23%

Previous non-winners the Netherlands are at 40%.

When Japan and South Korea hosted we saw some upstarts break through, but one was a local side. This year, unless Ghana makes a run, it won't be an African side that claims the Cup, but with each passing day it seems more likely that we are seeing nations with long histories in the game, but lacking the largest trophy, make a statement.

This is the year of the periphery. It isn't Old World v New World. It is an era where tradition, and history of success aren't enough. It is an era where tactical organization, talent and will can exert itself. France went from the periphery to power in '98. Twenty years prior to that the Netherlands made the climb without the crown. In fact these are the only two newbies since England won it all in '66.

2010 looks likely to produce a new nation to declare itself. History means nothing over these next few weeks when it will take a solid run of 6 games to find a Champion. At this point I'm willing to bet that a nation on the Periphery will be in that title game, if not the winner.

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