World Cup: Why some succeed and some fail

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by Michael Y.P. Ang

Countries around the world have jostled for global football supremacy 19 times since 1930, but only eight countries have achieved the ultimate success – winning the World Cup. Of the elite eight, a super-elite trio (Brazil, Italy, and Germany) have reached the apex of football excellence at least three times.

The super-elite trio’s domination of the beautiful game is demonstrated by how often at least one of them competes in the title-deciding match – 16 times out of a possible 19. Together, this trio of football immortals have taken the World Cup home 12 times.

Why is football supremacy so heavily concentrated in so few countries?

Countries seeking World Cup success may be interested to know that the planet’s three greatest footballing nations share common qualities with the other five countries that have been crowned world champions – Argentina, Uruguay, France, Spain, and England.

One commonality: Each World Cup-winning country’s citizenry is dominated by people whose ancestral language is either a West Germanic or Romance language.

Romance languages are derived from the language of the Roman Empire, known as Vulgar Latin, and include Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian.

West Germanic languages are the group of Germanic languages that developed in the North Sea region, along the middle Rhine and Weser, and along the middle Elbe river. The many local West Germanic dialects gave rise to modern languages such as English and German.

While it may be impossible to prove that ethnicity is linked to football success, no one can deny that the countries where the aforementioned languages originated from – Germany, England, Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal – have one thing in common: They are all former colonial powers.

The South American countries that have lifted the World Cup – Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina – may not be former colonialists but their citizens are largely descended from colonial-era settlers and immigrants from Europe. Most Uruguayans and Argentinians have Spanish or Italian ancestry, while the majority of Brazilians are of Portuguese descent.

Arguably, the majority of Uruguayans, Brazilians, and Argentinians share certain characteristics with their European ancestors, characteristics which former colonialists possessed:

  1. Spirit of adventure
  2. Sense of superiority that gives one confidence
  3. Deep desire to compete with other countries to gain colonies and boost national pride
  4. Just-do-it attitude without dwelling on possibility of failure

In other words, the crème de la crème of international football consists of players brought up in societies where it is natural to have a winner’s mindset and be fearless about facing challenges, regardless of their magnitude.

Most of the countries that have yet to win the World Cup perhaps never will. Only four have come close to lifting the golden trophy. Other than the Netherlands (thrice), the former Czechoslovakia (twice), Hungary (twice), and Sweden (once), no other country had played in the most important football match – the World Cup Final.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the best performer among all non-winners – the Netherlands – also falls within one of the aforementioned language groups (Dutch is a West Germanic language). Not only that, the Netherlands is also a former colonial power.

Lesson for Singapore

While a country’s football success boils down to its system of talent identification and development, as well as the level of talent among its players, other factors also play a part. A player’s temperament, mental strength, even his outlook on life can determine whether he succeeds as an elite-level footballer.

Do Singaporean footballers possess the characteristics of colonialists, such as an adventurous spirit, high self-confidence, a deep desire to be the best, and the courage to take on new challenges without dwelling on the possibility of failure? Or do they have the mindset of one who is content with just a little extra than what a tiny island kampong can offer?

Fandi Ahmad’s biggest regret in his career is having rejected a contract offer from Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam in 1982. At that time Ajax was a three-time European

Fandi Ahmad’s biggest regret in his career is having rejected a contract offer from Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam in 1982. At that time Ajax was a three-time European champion. Instead of venturing outside his comfort zone, Fandi chose to play for Indonesian club Niac Mitra.

Although Fandi eventually played for F.C. Groningen, a smaller Dutch club, he lasted only two seasons in the Netherlands’ top league. After that, he played in the Malaysian league. A rare Singaporean talent but one who lacked a spirit of adventure and a just-do-it attitude, had wasted a golden opportunity to develop his skills and career with one of Europe’s best clubs.

Unfortunately, a similar story appears to be repeating in Hariss Harun, the youngest Singaporean to make his international debut and widely regarded within the local football fraternity as having the ability to play professionally in Europe.

Last year, Hariss rejected an offer to play for Portuguese top-division club, Rio Ave. Although, technically speaking, he is still playing professionally overseas, it is just across the Causeway. Instead of the highly respectable Portuguese league, Hariss is playing in the humble setting of the Malaysian league for a Johor team.

If Singapore’s best players are not enterprising enough to try out something vastly different which could help lift their standard of play significantly, is it any wonder why the Lions are almost always toothless against Asia’s big boys?

I am not referring to qualifying for the World Cup finals, but even reaching the Asian Cup finals appears to be mere fantasy.

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