United States Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann caused a bit of a stir last week when he gave an interview during halftime of the Seattle Sounders game against the LA Galaxy.
NBC Sports' Russ Thaler asked Klinsmann, “If you can get them playing their best at the start of the World Cup, will the U.S. national team be good enough to win the World Cup?”
Jurgen Klinsmann responded: “No, you’ve got to be realistic.”
What? The chronically optimistic coach, a studied practitioner of the art of positive thinking, just said that his team could not win they very tournament he was hired to contest!
That, at least, was the spin that tore across cyberspace. Run a search for “Klinsmann no you've got to be realistic” and see for yourself.
Bleacher Report readers may have noticed the story tag on the USMNT page that said: “Klinsmann says U.S. cannot win World Cup.”
The link was to an article on MLSsoccer.com which opened with, "The US national team are 'raising the bar' and learning how to compete with the world's best, but they won't be raising the World Cup trophy in Brazil next summer, said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann on Saturday night."
Was Klinsmann really saying his team could not win the World Cup? Or, was he saying that it was not “realistic” to expect the U.S. to win the World Cup?
What is realistic for USMNT fans to expect next summer in Brazil and what is possible for the USMNT?
Lost in Translation
Anyone who has listened to or read Klinsmann’s interviews as USMNT head coach knows that the native German speaks clear English but often takes a circuitous route to get to his main point.
Here is what the coach said after dropping the “no” bomb:
I mean, I think we have the potential, obviously like in the past, to get out of the group stage – it depends, obviously, who you have in your group – and then it’s all down to 50-50 games. Then you give the real battles in the knockout stage.
But why not going a bit further than you ever did before? Why not giving the big nations, whoever that is, a real battle? And that’s why we play those friendlies in Italy or we play in Bosnia or wherever against top teams in the world, and we showed that we can compete there. So why not in the World Cup?
Read in context as a response to a question about whether or not his team is “good enough to win the World Cup,” Klinsmann’s reply sounds more like an honest assessment of the difficulty that 99 percent of FIFA’s teams would face at the World Cup.
How many teams are “good enough to win the World Cup?” How many teams have the talent, top to bottom, to win the World Cup? Three? Four?
Only eight teams have ever won one of the 19 World Cup Finals. Since 1966, the year of England’s one and only title, six teams have won the 11 contested Finals and only seven teams have even made it to the final game.
Apparently, there are a limited number of elite soccer nations that dominate this tournament. Of the 209 nations playing for the Cup precious few of them can claim to be “good enough to win a World Cup title.”
Every Dog Has its Day
Every time two teams take the field in sports either team can win regardless of their relative strength.
This fact gives elimination format tournaments a key feature. If a weaker team beats a stronger team, the stronger team is eliminated while the weaker team moves on to the next round.
If this weaker “underdog” team can string together a few more upset wins, then it is possible for the weaker team to win the entire tournament.
Every sports fan knows this and many follow tournament results hoping for an upset win. The underdog teams lend an enticing level of drama to tournaments because upset wins and underdog champions are possible in the elimination format.
Soccer tournaments are no different.
England’s FA Cup is usually won by a team from England’s top flight. But, in 1980 West Ham United, a second-tier team, won the title. Since 1980, non-top flight teams Cardiff City (2008) and Millwall (2004) advanced to the final game.
Weaker teams performing admirably in league tournaments are not uncommon. A nomenclature has even evolved to describe the “minnows” as “giant killers” when a weaker team pulls off the upset.
The phenomenon is also evident in major competitions. In 2004, Greece was seeded 13th out of 16 teams before the Euro 2004 began. The Greeks won the tournament with 1-0 knockout round upsets against France, Czech Republic and Portugal.
While only eight teams have ever a FIFA World Cup Final, there have been six different winners in the last seven Finals. Since the tournament began using a 16-team knockout round in 1986 there are six different winners over the seven tournaments. Two of those winners, Spain and France, won for the first time.
The domination of the World Cup Finals by a few nations has clearly been slipping as the tournament, and international football in general, has grown.
Arguably, the teams that have won World Cups could not properly be called “underdogs.” Since 1986, however, several international football minnows made deep runs into the tournament’s final four.
- In 1986 Belgium came out of Pot 4 and lost in the semifinals to champions Argentina 2-0.
- 1990 was the only World Cup of the 16-team knockout round tournaments where all four semifinalists were top seeds.
- Bulgaria was the 17th seeded team in 1994 and advanced to the semis before losing to Italy 2-1.
- In their first World Cup as a nation, 14th seed Croatia lost to eventual champions France 2-1 in the 1998 semifinals.
- The 2002 tournament saw two minnows make the final four. Co-hosts and 24th seed South Korea fell to Germany 1-0. Turkey, seeded 14th, lost 1-0 to champions Brazil.
- In 2006 historical World Cup power Germany hosted and entered the tournament as the 14th ranked team. Jurgen Klinsmann’s team lost in the semifinals to eventual champions Italy 2-0 in extra time.
- Uruguay was the 13th seed in 2010 and made the final four before losing to the Netherlands 3-2.
In the seven tournaments since FIFA expanded the elimination portion of the competition to four rounds (16 teams) there have been six different winners, two first-time winners, and seven double-digit seeds in the final four.
This is not too surprising. Weaker teams who make the elimination round only have to win two games to make the semifinals and thus we see a proliferation of lower ranked teams in the final four. The World Cup Champion is the team who can win four consecutive games and we’ve seen two new Champions since the expansion.
The expansion of the knockout stage is having an effect on the tournament and it is only a matter of time before one of international football’s “weaker” teams claims the Cup.
The Realistic and the Possible
In 2002 the USMNT advanced to the knockout round from a relatively weak group. They faced their old nemesis Mexico in the eighth round and won handily dos a cero.
In the quarterfinals the Americans outplayed Germany but fell 1-0. Had they beaten the Huns the USMNT would have played South Korea in the semifinals. In 2002 the U.S. had a realistic shot of advancing to the 2002 finals.
Given the American’s current level of play, it is realistic to expect the U.S. to advance from the group stage. If they win their group, they would next face a second place team.
Advancing to the quarterfinals in Brazil is a realistic expectation for the USMNT in 2014.
Once the U.S. gets into the elimination rounds of the tournament a deep run is possible. Double-digit seeds are not uncommon in the tournament’s final four and the Americans have the firepower and coaching to pull off a string of upsets.
Klinsmann’s comments last week indicate that this is precisely what the coach has in mind. He is preparing his lads to have the consistency to get into the knockout round and the mindset to contend with the best in the world once they get there.
Winning the 2014 World Cup may not be a realistic expectation, but modern World Cup Finals’ results strongly suggest that such an outcome is certainly possible.