When Italy defeated Germany in Euro 2012’s semifinals, the Azzurri temporarily calmed the notion UEFA was becoming a duopoly: Spain, Germany, and everybody else. The idea had been born not only from the countries’ huge stocks of talent but also their performances in South Africa and (to that point) Poland-Ukraine. But then Cesare Prandelli’s team happened. They knocked Germany from their perch before helping to confirm suspicions Spain are in a class by themselves.
In theory, there is a huge difference between a monopoly and a duopoly. If it’s just one team, their results can be written off as an aberration – a unique synergy of timing, talent influx, and luck that’s not worth trying to emulate. The solution would be to wait it out. But if two teams dominate, then not only is the aberration theory dispelled but there’s no longer a single target. While the two surging teams have each other to compete with (to use as motivation), the rest of the continent’s left to form a peloton trying to pull back the two driven leaders.
Unfortunately for 51 of UEFA’s member nations, Friday’s results hint the duopoly may still develop. Spain and Germany posted lopsided road results against decent teams. The world champions got three goals from Pedro Rodríguez en route to a 4-0 win in Belarus, while Germany put Giovanni Trapattoni’s job in jeopardy by routing the Republic of Ireland, 6-1. The results leave the teams a combined 5-0-0 in World Cup Qualifying, having scored 19 goals while allowing only two.
There are five other nations who remain perfect through UEFA qualifying, so it’s unclear these two are pulling (further) away from the pack. If they are, however, UEFA would fall into the curious pattern of confederations falling into duopolies:
- There are a number of strong teams in South America, yet there’s still an unquestioned big two: Brazil and Argentina. Although the Selecao’s absence from qualifying will give them little chance to affirm that status before 2014, Argentina’s Friday win over Uruguay (3-0 in Mendoza) may be the first hint that the Americas’ titans are rising to the Celeste’s challenge.
- Though the last Gold Cup showed CONCACAF’s pack is increasingly capable, the region is still Mexico and the United States. Although both teams have seen recent dips (the U.S. debatably still going through theirs), those are aberrations, not patterns.
- After Australia made their mark during Asia’s 2010 cycle, Japan and South Korea are again the class of the region, the confederation having adjusted to the Socceroos. The two nations have unmatched talent, infrastructure and support. They were the two AFC nations to make South Africa’s knockout rounds, a result they’re on track to emulate in Brazil.
- And for a number of reasons, Oceania was a duopoly before the Australia left. Now, New Zealand wait for the likes of New Caledonia to catch up.
It’s not difficult to see how these duopolies developed. In the Western Hemisphere, the most successful nations are their regions’ biggest, though Asia shows size isn’t sufficient. While China and India struggle for relevance, two of the region’s richer nations have leveraged their World Cup hosting experience to surge ahead. With Japanese and Korean culture having developed a true love of soccer, it’s unclear whether the duo will allow the region to catch up.
Spain and Germany are both large countries, but they’re not so much bigger than some of their rivals. One nation is affluent while the other is struggling financially. Each have hosted a World Cup (Germany hosted one as West Germany, one after reunification).
Though it’s easy to see why Spain and Germany have thrived, it’s harder to explain why they’re starting to be so much more successful than their nearest rivals. Spain was a sleeping giant, but the same was said about Portugal 20 years ago (size of the countries notwithstanding). Germany’s development has been spectacular, but France’s Clairefontaine was once the continent’s standard. Spain and Germany may be pulling away, even if it’s unclear why they’ve been allowed to do so.