World Cup quarterfinals spell doom for outsiders. Will that change in 2018?
Germany, Argentina, Holland and Brazil; Spain, Holland, Germany and Uruguay; Italy, France, Germany and Portugal. The more observant might spot a common denominator: Germany. Those with even a comparatively basic grasp of football history might spot the theme: Germany are the only team to reach the semifinals in the past three World Cups.
You have to rewind a little further for a genuinely different name to appear: South Korea in 2002. They remain the only semifinalist from outside the same two continents (Europe and South America) since the United States in 1930. To put it another way, 78 of 80 semifinalists (or "top-four" finishers in tournaments that didn't have actual semifinals) have been either European (56) or South American (22). In all, 16 countries have reached multiple World Cup semifinals: the three South American superpowers of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay and 13 European representatives. Meanwhile, Sweden have played in more World Cup semifinals than Asian, African and North American teams ... combined.
The World Cup can feel like a bit of a misnomer, not in the way of the World Series or the cricket and rugby World Cups, in which large swathes of the planet go completely unrepresented, but at its business end. The closest thing to a truly global World Cup was 2002, with quarterfinalists from five continents, very different semifinalists in the perennials (Germany and Brazil) and the surprise packages from South Korea and Turkey.
Sixteen years on, that South Korean surge, propelled by fervent home crowds, aided by levels of fitness few of their rivals possessed and benefiting from the occasional dubious decision, looks still more of an anomaly. The last eight has proven the undoing of the Asian, African and North American sides before and since; if underdogs find it famously hard to break into the top four of the Premier League, that is more pronounced in the World Cup.
Two seemingly contradictory statements are true: At the elite level, the game is still dominated by the traditional powers, yet the rest of the world has improved. Their teams no longer have novelty value; they are rarely whipping boys. The supposed favourites can be more fallible, yet the survivors from the two dominant continents tend to camouflage their neighbours' failings.
Three of the past four World Cups have been notable as some of the supposed forces faced an early exit -- Argentina and France in 2002, France and Italy in 2010, Italy, Portugal and England in 2014 -- often because of the efforts of teams from continents with lesser history of footballing success. France lost to Senegal in 2002, and to Mexico and South Africa in 2010; Italy drew with New Zealand in 2010 and lost to Costa Rica in 2014.
Yet just when European and South American hegemony has seemed under threat, the ancien regime's remaining representatives have reasserted their authority. Europe supplied only five of the last 16 in 2014 -- a far cry from 20 years earlier, when it had seven of the eight quarterfinalists in 1994, a fact that sometimes goes overlooked because the other, Brazil, was the eventual winner -- yet four of them reached the last eight.
The sense that the gap between the best and the rest is closing is reflected in the hard-luck stories, which often come in the quarterfinals. Africa often gets cruelly close to supplying a semifinalist, but time and again, the canniest European and South American sides have prevailed because of brinkmanship. They have won the major moments, sometimes controversially and sometimes fortunately. Some combination of mentality, ability and luck has just about staved off seismic change. A tradition of escaping embarrassment dates back to the 1966 quarterfinal, in which Portugal trailed North Korea 3-0 but roused themselves to win 5-3.
More recently and most notoriously, there was the skulduggery of Luis Suarez's goal-line handball against Ghana in 2010. Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting spot kick, and Uruguay won the ensuing shootout. But there was also Louis van Gaal's mind game of changing his goalkeeper for Holland's shootout against Costa Rica in 2014, planting the idea that Tim Krul was a specialist in penalty saves.
For what it's worth, penalties are a recurring theme: Cameroon still lament the two spot kicks Gary Lineker was awarded and converted in the 1990 quarterfinal, in which England were the inferior team. Australia remain aggrieved at the spot kick Fabio Grosso contrived to earn in added time of the round of 16 game against Italy in 2006.
Then the eventual champions were given tougher games by the United States and Australia than by Ukraine, just as, in 2014, Germany were troubled more by Ghana and Algeria than France or Brazil. The margins are narrowing, and not just over 90 minutes: Since 1986, the 2006 World Cup is the only one in which at least one group was not topped by a country from Asia, Africa or CONCACAF.
Along with 1998, 2006 feels like the last of the "old-order" World Cups, and not merely because they were staged in western Europe. Each had six European and two South American quarterfinalists; if a repeat is just about plausible now, 2006's four European semifinalists might never be repeated. Yet the last week of the tournament remains the exclusive domain of the continents that have dominated World Cups since the 1930s.
Perhaps 2018 will mark a change, bringing a brand of globalism to the global game. If so, someone will have to smash through a glass ceiling.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.