An International Power Shift? It Will Take Much More Than A Few Group-Stage Wins

African or Asian success is likely to remain elusive in 2022
12:00, 02 Dec 2022

Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina. Japan have beaten both Germany and Spain from losing positions. Australia knocked out Denmark, while Senegal have reached the last 16 and Tunisia humiliated holders France. And who had Morocco down to win Group F ahead of Croatia and Belgium?

This World Cup has had its fair share of wacky results. In fact, it has arguably had about three tournaments’ worth of unpredictability. But the talk of this being a sign that the balance of power has somehow shifted away from Europe seems premature to say the very least.

What came of Cameroon’s 1990 run to the quarter-finals? Or Saudi Arabia and Nigeria making the last 16 four years later? Was that the start of a power shift? What about when Senegal reached the quarters and South Korea the semis in 2002?


Just as Ghana’s last-eight appearance in 2010 and Costa Rica’s in 2014 preceded European triumphs in the final against familiar foes, this run of results for non-powerhouse continents threatens to mean exactly what it always has when the time comes for passing out trophies. The USA’s third-place finish in the inaugural World Cup in 1930 remains the best return for any country outside of Europe and South America, and that doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.

Of course, it would be a lot to ask for an Asian, African, North American or Australasian team to mount a serious challenge over seven games in 2022 given the relative resources available to nations from those areas of the world. But Twitter talk of there being a swing away from the norm ignores plenty of examples throughout history of the traditional big names bouncing back quickly and the renaissances elsewhere being short-lived.

What we seriously need to see for this to be considered a longer-term phenomenon is two non-European and South American semi-finalists this year. Or maybe the same Morocco and Japan who have topped groups in Qatar repeating their feats in North America in 2026.

Calling this a momentum shift less than halfway through a World Cup in the middle of the European winter when many of the top players from the global game look way short of their usual fitness levels is every bit as myopic as the claims that there will never be an African or Asian winner of the World Cup.

Pele announced in 1977 that “an African nation will win the World Cup before the year 2000,” but in the competition’s history African and Asian teams have racked up fewer wins combined (60) than Germany (68) and Brazil (75). And sure, the legendary striker has been way off in other predictions in the past, but it is telling that people have been trying to read too much into the odd result here and there for at least 45 years now.

It would be magnificent for the sport, and for the World Cup brand in particular, if there really was a rise in the power of international football beyond Europe and South America but in a wider context it looks less likely than ever.

All of the big money goes to European clubs, with players from the traditional two continents remaining most prominent. So many of those who could choose between their birth country and that of their ancestors plump for the powerhouse nation. And the differences in infrastructure remain as exaggerated as ever.

The likelihood is that the 2022 World Cup final will be played between any two of France, Argentina, Brazil and Spain. And in 2026, it will probably be the familiar names battling it out once more. If a Morocco, or a Japan, or a Senegal are truly going to alter the course of international footballing history, they need a whole lot more than a couple of good results to do it.

Only deep, lasting change will precipitate a power shift, not three rounds of group games played in the desert in December.


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