European teams a model of consistency
As late as 1978, when the World Cup was a 16-team tournament, the soccer kingpins of Europe could still claim more than 60 per cent of the spots.
That year, Europe had 10 of the teams on the field. There were three teams from South America, and one each from Asia, Africa and CONCACAF.
More spots for weaker continents
As the World Cup field expanded to its current 32-team format, so too did FIFA's attempts to broaden its appeal to all corners of the globe. This has resulted in the current situation where the three weakest soccer continents (Asia, Africa, and CONCACAF) will have as many combined berths (13) for this year's tournament as Europe.
But has this reflected an evolution in the results of the World Cup?
Let's use quarter-final qualification as an indicator of a continent's success at the World Cup. To reach the final eight, a team must finish in the top half of its group, and then win an elimination playoff game. There have now been six World Cups (1986-2006) with this 16-team "knockout" format, in a field of 24 or 32 teams. That means there have been 48 quarter-finalists to draw upon for analysis.
Europe has claimed 34 of these 48 berths (71 per cent) from a remarkable 18 different nations. South America (exclusively Brazil and Argentina) earned nine of the remaining 14 spots, which roughly reflects their 15 per cent share (4.5 spots) of the current tournament field.
Of the other three continents, Africa had two successes (Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002). CONCACAF also placed two entries into the final eight (tournament host Mexico in 1986, and the United States in 2002). Finally, Asia claimed the remaining quarter-final spot with South Korea's hotly contested win over Italy in 2002.
So, to revisit the earlier comparison, Europe has nearly seven times the number of quarter-finalists as the three weakest continents combined (34 to 5).
Europe continues to dominant
Looking at this in another way, nearly three of four quarter-finalists have been European, during this period when they comprised barely half of the field. What makes this even more impressive is that Europe's success rate has remained consistent as its proportion of teams has gone down.
Between 1954 and 1978 when teams advanced directly to the quarter-finals from group play, Europe received 64 per cent of the World Cup entries. During this period, European teams reached the quarter-final stage 40 times out of a possible 56 - that's the same 71 per cent success rate they continue to enjoy.
Few would suggest that the World Cup should include 20+ teams from Europe at the expense of the other regions. But there may be an argument to be made that they are deserving of an extra two or three berths, based on their consistent record of achievement.
About the Author
Karl Creighton joined CBC Sports in 1989 and currently works as a senior researcher. He's worked on more than 20 different sports as a graphics coordinator for live telecasts, as well as eight Olympics. He has particular interest in soccer, figure skating, hockey and tennis.