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Why the same teams will continue to win the World Cup long into the future

Ivan Alvarado / Reuters

Before every World Cup, we hear the same rhetorical question—will this be the year that the World Cup is won by a country that has never won it before? Or, more incredibly, will it be won by a team outside Europe or South America?

Yet, predictably, every four years the World Cup semifinalists always include at least one previous winner.

And I mean always. Of this year’s semifinalists Argentina has won the World Cup twice, Germany three times, Brazil five times. Only the Netherlands haven’t won it, though they’ve made appearances in the final three times.

Among the 2010 semifinalists, two teams had won it previously, and one had been a finalist twice (though that tournament produced the first final since 1978 in which neither side had previously won a World Cup).

In 2006, three of the semifinalists were previous winners; in 2002, two were (though South Korea and Turkey made it). In 1998, Brazil were the only previous winner; in 1994 both Italy and Brazil had previously lifted the trophy (and Sweden were finalists). In 1990, all four semifinalists were once World Cup champions.

In fact, you have to go back to 1934 to find a World Cup where all four top teams (including in tournaments that did not produce a semifinal proper) had not previously won a World Cup.

This trend won’t change in the next several decades or even the next century, despite the futurists who pop up now and again predicting new future World Cup powers. These days they usually pick the United States, though other nations have been bandied about before, including India.

The reason, as Lorne Michaels once put it, is because “the longer you’re there, the longer you’re there.”

In his book Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb offers a very simple and reliable model for making predictions (though he wisely wards readers off the futurist racket): the life expectancy of a non-perishable thing —like an idea or a technology or a football program—is directly proportional to how long it has already lived. Taleb writes:

If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!

This is known as the Lindy Effect, and it may go a long way to explaining why regular finalists Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina and the Netherlands will almost always feature in the World Cup final four.

Note the Lindy Effect doesn’t offer an explanation for why certain things live longer than others, simply that longevity begets longevity. The effect isolates for the random, destructive effects of time and identifies things which are robust, like the works of Charles Dickens and the strength of the German defense.

At the risk of offending probability theorists however, it’s not hard to see why previous World Cup winners tend to be future World Cup winners (or finalists if you’re Netherlands).

I suspect it has to do with “sticking with winning formulas” or “ instilling good player development models”, and more to do with loss aversion.

If you have won the World Cup once or twice before, you are more likely to invest significantly in football infrastructure, youth soccer, club academies etc in order to stay competitive each and every tournament to match popular expectation. Standards of World Cup success for winning teams are raised, and so for some national teams semifinals are viewed as a bare minimum rather than a glorious exception (see England in Italia ‘90). Fear of losing is a much more potent motivator than the desire to win.

Moreover, being good at a sport increases its popularity, so more and more kids will choose to play football if their national team has a shot at winning World Cups.

This isn’t an absolute rule and there are exceptions (Netherlands survived two missed qualifications to stay a World Cup power while England missed ‘74 and ‘78 and didn’t do much of note until 1990—though winning Euro ‘88 likely helped the former stay competitive through the next 30 years).

Yet generally the more you win it, the more you win it. This is why it’s important for Spain to respond strongly in light of their unexpected early exit this tournament, and why the longer English football goes with making another World Cup final (or doing anything at the Euros), the more it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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