Does hosting a World Cup help your football?
One good generation, or a period of sustained success, is insufficient to firmly put a nation at the top of world football
London: Great generations of a national team should ideally build a platform for sustained greatness. But often they don’t.
Consider the muted fortunes of Hungarian football since the 1970s. In the 1950s and 1960s, a Hungarian side with Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Nandor Hidegkuti struck fear in the hearts of opponents all over the world. The Magnificent Magyars didn’t just beat you, they picked you apart.
In 1953, they played England at Wembley and for the first time in 90 years beat the English at home 6-3. The next year, in the reverse fixture, the English were thrashed 7-1. In the final of the 1954 World Cup, the Hungarians led 2-0 at one point, before the Germans came back to win 3-2.
And yet this year it will be 32 years since Hungary last qualified for a World Cup. For a multitude of reasons, the Hungarians have struggled to come close to replicating the feats of that remarkable Aranycsapat, or Golden Team.
Just one good generation, or a period of sustained success, is insufficient to firmly entrench a nation at the pinnacle of world football.
Sustained footballing success needs systems, infrastructure, manpower and, as we have said in these pages before, membership of a regional ecosystem of competing footballing nations. Not to mention good fortune.
As Lionel Messi can attest, two better finishes from Gonzalo Higuain and we’d now be speaking of an Argentine golden generation with a World Cup and Copa America in the trophy cabinet.
But by those measures, hosting a tournament should provide a boost to your football.
Hosting involves investments in expensive infrastructure, establishment of administrative skills, the injection of a ‘footballing culture’ and, most of all perhaps, automatic qualification. All factors that should result in a boost in a nation’s footballing prowess. In theory, the stadiums should enable local footballing clubs, the systems should improve local administration, and the “tournament spirit” should foster a footballing culture in the host nation.
But does it?
One simplistic way of looking at this could be to study the positions of host nations in the Fifa world rankings over the years, with particular emphasis on hosts that are not already established footballing superpowers.
Since the current system of rankings goes back to 1993, let us confine this investigation to tournaments from 1990 onwards. In 1994, the US hosted the World Cup. The US had a Fifa ranking of 22 in 1993. Twenty-five years later the US are ranked 25. This might seem to suggest that hosting did little to boost quality, but the Fifa ranking chart shows that the US have had its ups and downs.
After a largely flat few years following the 1994 tournament, the US had a stellar patch in the early 2000s when they hovered around the top 10 in world football, before slowly slipping down the rankings again.
The ranking history for South Africa makes for more conclusive reading. Hosting the 2010 tournament gave the Bafana Bafana a massive boost. They went from 85th in 2009 to 51st in 2010. They are currently at 74th. The ‘hosting boost’ appears to be dwindling away.
Similar trends pop up for both South Korea and Japan.
The two co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup enjoyed brief boosts in rankings before “returning to the mean”, so to speak.
Two things, however, must be kept in mind here. First, the Fifa rankings themselves are not exactly the best metric of a national team’s fortunes. There are ways and means of gaming these rankings, and Fifa has just announced an overhaul of the ranking system after the World Cup.
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Second, it is imprudent to reduce a nation’s footballing ability to merely a single numerical score. Not to forget the fact that investments made in football may take many years to bear fruit.
Regardless of these issues, if you are a Russian football fan, and you’re hoping for a boost in Russian footballing fortunes, it may take more than just hosting a World Cup to make that happen.
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