By Robert Weintraub
Sunday's World Cup final between Argentina and Germany isn't merely a battle for global supremacy and bragging rights over the next four years. First place in the 21st Century Standings is on the line!
As I do every four years while corner kicks and red cards obsess the planet, I got to wondering just who is the best team in the world, not just at this very moment but over the course of this century, which now includes four World Cups. And not just the best, but who is third-best? Tenth? Fiftieth?
This time around, I decided to do something about it. In a fit of procrastination from other, more pressing work, I designed a system that assigns points based on results for every nation that has competed in the World Cup finals since 2002. I originally toyed with going back further to determine an all-time power ranking, but let's face it -- who has that kind of free time? I have two little kids jumping on my back for hours at a stretch. And do the results of the 1930 World Cup really matter that much, anyway?
As it happens, this century provides a pretty strong sample size, nearly four full cycles now. But it remains a narrow enough window to easily grasp; what happened in 2002 remains relevant for most of the teams today, either directly or indirectly (soccer terms!). The time span also encompasses the few, special players who have competed in all four Cups since 2002, including new all-time leading scorer Miraslav Klose of Germany and America's own DeMarcus Beasley (though not, alas, Landon Donovan). Plus, the millennial cutoff date makes for a neat timeline. So at a glance, we will be able to determine where Germany stands in relation to the world at the close of the Klose Era.
The scoring system is simple, and familiar to anyone who has served as the master of an NCAA Tournament bracket pool. Just making it into the World Cup finals is an achievement worthy of one point, and there are plenty of nations for whom this is an achievement to celebrate. Advancing out of the group stage and into the round of 16 earns three points. Winning one knockout game and making the quarterfinals is worth five points. A trip to the semifinals gets a country seven points. Making it to the big game on Sunday nets 10 points, and hoisting the Jules Rimet Trophy awarded to the world champion is worth a fat 20 points. So the premium is on winning it all, along with consistency from cycle to cycle.
So who reigns supreme? Unsurprisingly, the major international football powers are all represented near the top, with Brazil still the best, at least for another few days. With this year's semifinal finish (the pointless third-place game is ignored in this table), Brazil took seven points, giving them 37 overall. Germany, by dint of making the final, has 34 points -- but a victory on Sunday would give them an extra 10 points, and rocket them into first with 44 points, a seven-point bulge that will be hard for Brazil or anyone else to overcome any time soon.
Brazil's 2002 championship is the boost behind its top spot. But with two quarterfinals and a semifinal (at home), the Selecao have definitely left some points on the field over the last few cycles. Fortunately for Brazil, style points are not included in the list, so Tuesday's epic humiliation doesn't drop them down.
But Germany's still-incredible 7-1 romp in Bela Horizonte left the Mannschaft in striking position to surpass Brazil and take over the top spot, provided Klose & Co. finish the drill. Certainly, if feels like they should be on top -- since capitulating without much of a fight against Ronaldo and friends in the 2002 final, Germany has been much better than Brazil the last three cycles. Remember, ze Germans had a home semifinal heartbreak as well back in 2006, though rather than being taken out behind the woodshed, they lost in a memorable extra time encounter against Italy, by way of an incredible strike by Fabio Grosso. Had they found a way to pierce Italy's cattenacio that evening in Dortmund, Germany would already be tied for first here.
There's no doubt Germany's four-Cup final/semis/semis/final stretch is a pretty damn good run. But their entire reworked national program, set into place in part by our own, newly beloved Jurgen Klinsmann, has only one goal -- to win it all. A loss on Sunday would not only be a devastating end to a fantastic tournament by Joachim Low's men, it would also keep them behind Brazil, perhaps unfairly, in the big picture. But that's the importance of winning it all, as anyone who has debated "Michael vs. LeBron" or "Brady vs. Manning" would tell you.
Meanwhile, the brilliant Lionel Messi has far more on the line than his legacy and a chance to at last be embraced in full by his own country of Maradona worshippers. With the extra 10 points a victory on Sunday would provide, the blue-and-white of Argentina would be boosted into third place, passing Spain, whose title four years ago offsets their disastrous crash in the group stage in Brazil. With a loss the Argies will be in fifth place overall, closer in the rankings to the United States than to the Spanish.
Ah yes, the USMNT. For all the blathering among the sports chattering classes this past month over where America's Team (TM) ranks on the world stage, this list tells us exactly -- in a four-way tie for ninth.
The USA's regular qualification, steady results, and occasional moments of brilliance (in particular the 2002 Round of 16 win over arch-rival Mexico) puts us into the top 10 in the world, albeit sharing that toehold with El Tri to the south, who have actually performed to the exact same level of mediocrity for six World Cups running. South Korea is the opposite of the metronomic Mexicans. They are largely where they are thanks to a home-pitch run to the semis in '02. Yet the highly-fit, always tough, semi-skilled Koreans feel like an Asian doppelganger to our own national side. And look who else is in a flat-footed tie with the U.S. -- Portugal. Just think, if Cristiano Ronaldo would have simply jogged out the last 30 seconds of the group encounter, instead of sending in a cross for the ages, we would be looking down at those Iberian pretenders for the next four years at a minimum.
Indeed, the so-called Group of Death that the U.S. was drawn into this summer is proven by these rankings to have been difficult mainly due to the fact that we were in it, as Klinsmann himself pointed out. Germany is Germany, but we are on equal footing with Portugal as a team, if not as a collection of flouncy, perfectly-coiffed, in-fighting divas, and actually ahead of Big Bad Ghana, whose DNQ in '02 hurts them in the rankings. We also top Belgium, which takes a bit of the sting out of last week's loss.
Yes, there is a bit of bias at work here -- the USA and Mexico, as the titans of CONCACAF, are virtually assured entree into the regional finals and the quadrennial point that earns. Asian and to some extent African teams also are artificially favored by not competing in qualifying regions of death, as South America and especially Europe are. But hey, that's life. If Belgium or Sweden (Did Not Qualify for the last two finals) can't hack being European, then don't lord your universal health care, delicious chocolate and 10 weeks of vacation over us.
Other points of interest on the table:
- An amazing 52 nations have earned at least one World Cup point this century, a nod to the incredible global reach of the game. I see you there, Togo, and you too, Trinidad & Tobago. Angola, Saudi Arabia, Honduras, Bosnia, even North Korea -- everybody gets a moment in the sun, it seems.
- France is punished by the millennial cutoff date, as its 1998 championship isn't counted. Les Blues still manages a strong showing, but its 21st Century pratfalls in the group stage aren't offset by its moment of victoire on these rankings.
- Yes, England, you are still ahead of us, but barely. America could well surge past the Three Lions in 2018, replaying Lexington and Concord on the football pitch.
- The "Guays," Para and Uru, are in surprisingly strong positions. If only Luis Suarez could control his bite reflex, Uruguay might well be in the top 10.
Below, the full table for your enjoyment.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.