World Cup: Why do certain countries dominate?

So, no more World Cup for four years. I thought this was a good one overall, although the goals mostly dried up and caution took over from the quarter-finals onwards (with the obvious exception of Germany–Brazil). The Netherlands couldn’t manage a single goal in four hours of trying against Costa Rica and Argentina. But at least the final was a good game.

In the end it came down to some of the old reliables, after Colombia, Belgium and Costa Rica had looked like they might shake things up. The upshot is that Europe now leads South America 11–9, and Brazil, Italy and Germany between them have won 13 of the 20 World Cups. Why have three countries been so dominant?

In South America, Brazil (five World Cups) is first and Argentina (two World Cups) third in terms of population; Uruguay is just tenth (with a smaller population than Ireland), yet it has won two World Cups, and the Copa América more times than anyone else. All five of the European winners are in the west of the continent and have large populations – Russia and Turkey (both in Europe for football purposes) are the obvious anomalies, with huge populations but little World Cup impact.

Relative affluence may be a factor in success, then, but Chile is ahead of Uruguay on this parameter as well as in population. Perhaps degree of Europeanization is significant, with Argentina and Uruguay being the most ‘European’ countries on the continent (hence getting a head start in the imported European game), and Brazil compensating through its huge population?

The greatest anomaly of all may be England’s relative lack of success – a winner at home in 1966, but with just one other semi-final and no Euro finals to its name. It would appear to have every advantage: tradition, population, relative affluence, and a strong domestic league.

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