World Cup: Why Some Teams Just Can't Win

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KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP

Why are Brazil and Germany always playing in the World Cup finals while most other teams simply take turns serving as their victims? After all, this may be the first time the two teams have ever faced each other at the World Cup, but except for 1978, one of the two has played in every final since World War II. How is it that Brazil or Germany are almost always in the final, while a perennial powerhouse of European club football such as Spain has never even reached the semis?

I had plenty of time to ponder that question last week, on the long subway ride home to my love motel in Seoul, exhausted from my first World Cup as a journalist (although it was my eighth as a fan). And after years of wrestling with the baffling question of why some nations are football winners and others simply are not, I have reduced it to a question of psychology, or sociology, or social psychology, or some sort of combination of guts and brain, attitude, style and substance. And luck and, oh yes, some football skills. For some inexplicable reason, the World Cup brings to the surface character aspects buried in the most atavistic nooks of a nation's psyche. Some people will say that this is all psychobabble and hackneyed, but for me it is more like Taoism — trying to comprehend the empty space at the center of the wheel that makes the World Cup go round. Really. It's there, somewhere, but we can't see it, so we talk about it. Let's see...

The first thing that comes to mind is the failure of France and Argentina to reach the second round. That makes me wonder whether the French, who showed an exquisite touch in their own World Cup (1998) where they were crowned as champs for the first time, merely had a bad year this time around or simply couldn't shake out the soufflé factor — you have to eat it while it's fluffy and hot, and it can't be reheated. Four years later, and playing away from la patrie, they may just have cooled off. The Argentineans had too much to cope with. It's very hard to play while carrying on your shoulders the hopes of nearly 40 million economically depressed people who look to you as the only glimmer of light in a stark daily landscape.

And what about Spain? The toreros came to Korea to win the Cup and, as usual, went back home singing piercing, lamenting flamenco songs of despair, squandered chances and conspiracies. In short, after struggling past Ireland and failing to bump Korea in traditional fashion, they resorted to the national pastimes of making excuses. They may have somewhat of a point this time, but what about the other 16? The truth is that Spain plays with the flair of the promising matador that always fails to insert the sword in the neck of the bull in the first try, which is the mark of a good fighter. The Spaniards love to use the cape, but the close sight of the horns freezes them up.

Which brings us to Italy, another soccer powerhouse sent home by host Korea. Italy usually is the opposite of Spain — their game is boring, but they always know how to place the dagger in the opponent's heart. The azzuri's sense of entitlement wore off this time at the coming out party of an up-and-coming Korean side. Korea the introvert, the middle brother who struggles to find its place in the Asian family, took the Cup by storm as a country and as a team, in a perfectly planned and executed effort to let the world know, nicely and with a smile, that this is a nation to be reckoned with.

Just like the US of A, who handily exceeded their own pre-tournament expectations. Why? They put their mind to a task and did it fearlessly. They backed down from nobody but played with the conviction and the humility of a newcomer — something surprisingly refreshing coming from the world's only superpower. If not for a missed handball call by the referee in their quarterfinal against Germany, they might even have gone further. But Germany is Germany. Like Brazil, they can reach the final even in a year when their national team is struggling.

For Brazil, the World Cup is not only the biggest showcase for their national passion, but also a vehicle to redeem themselves from their sense of underachievement in world affairs. After all, Brazil is a country with the resources, economic potential and the sheer size to be a global power. But it isn't, and until such time as that moment arrives, futebol provides the proud Brazilians with their best chance to be taken seriously as undisputed world leaders. That's why failure to bring home the cup is almost akin to treason. Less so for the Germans, who take their dominance in stride, as a mere byproduct of the Prussian efficiency they are so proud of.

And so to Yokohama, to watch the showdown between the two sides who are best at what they do. Resourceful creativity versus flawless organization and execution of a plan. Personally, I prefer Ronaldinho's genius and Rivaldo's magic touch to Kahn's mountainous presence and Ballack's surgical strikes. But the Yokohama gods may see differently. After all, what do I know? But the very fact that the final is between this Brazilian and this German team, both of whom were judged prior to the tournament to fall far short of the standards set by their illustrious forebears, is testament to the power of tradition in international football.