And so the knock-out stages of the 2014 FIFA World Cup have begun. Despite having the ‘home advantage’, Brazil (ranked third place in the FIFA rankings) were forced into a penalty shoot-out by Chile (ranked 14th).
Brazil are not the only nation to have faced testing opposition from supposed underdog opponents. There are several notable absences from the ‘last sixteen’ thanks to one of the most (perhaps the most) exhilarating Group Stages of the competitions history. A series of high scoring games and shock results have served to remind us of what makes our sport so exhilarating - that any team can earn a result on their day.
I’ve been reminded on several occasions of Italia '90 where a Costa Rican team considered as something of a novelty embarrassed a supposedly superior Scotland team which comprised numerous ‘star players’ of the day.
Return to the present and Costa Rica are at it again. In the group stages they stunned Italy and dispatched a lackluster England team. Italy looked awful because Costa Rica had balance, discipline, stamina, and tenacity, kept their formation and played a defensive game, man-marking and off-side trapping the Italians constantly, which frustrated them and ground them down. On any occasion that an Italian got the ball three Costa Rican's descended on him, then when Costa Rica went forward it was fluid - get the ball and immediately look for the next player to give it to, pass and move in short triangles up the pitch, keep possession and frustrate and tire the opposition. But it worked – and that's how you can win games when you aren't Brazil, England take note.
Also, watch the Costa Rican (and for that matter, the Chilean) coaches pacing the touchline and making sure the team keeps to the plan. Contrast with England, Italy and Spain whose coaches looked like dour, defeated men for 90 minutes, sat glumly watching their teams disintegrate.
Speaking as an Englishman, my observation is that our team seems to go into tournaments thinking that they are in the same bracket as the best teams, only to fail. When England played Italy, we made Italy look good because in reality we were an average side with few, if any of the qualities I attributed to Costa Rica in the previous paragraphs. We probably haven't been particularly good since about 1990 and the halcyon days of Butcher, Robson, Linekar, Shilton etc (or arguably 1996, where we did alright, but had a bit of luck and 'home advantage').
In contrast, Costa Rica have been a real talking point and last night beat Greece on penalties. Their football isn’t always pretty but they go into games knowing what they need to do, and deliver results.
In their book Soccernomics, Kuper and Szymanski pose the question are England really underachievers? Or is it just that the English population expect too much of them? They postulate about England’s achievements relative to their given resources and those of competing nations.
According to their analysis, England are one of the most experienced nations in football, and as a country has a relatively high financial income. It is however a medium sized country. When ranked on this basis, Kuper and Szymanski believe England’s peers are therefore Russia, Azerbijan, Morroco, Ivory Coast and Mozambique, rather than Brazil, Germany, and Argentina, etc.
When Kuper and Szymanski’s variables and the England football teams results are considered in relation to other footballing nations, it appears that between 1980 and 2001 they actually over-performed. Nowadays though they win plenty of friendlies but not enough ‘big ticket’ competitive matches in which they face much larger nations.
If we believe the research then, England and the English should not expect to go into World Cups expecting to just go in and win the competition playing the sort of football that its squad of ‘star’/’household name’ players might whilst representing their respective leading Premiership clubs. Instead, perhaps we ought to take a leaf out of Costa Rica’s book and approach the competition as underdogs, playing a more disciplined and well-drilled type of football where the sum of the whole is greater than the sum its parts.