Here at FIO HQ we’ve been wondering whether the European nations house the greatest football teams in the world and, if they do, whether that has been consistently the case? We decided to take a look at what has happened in the last 6 World Cups to see if there is any trend.
First off, it’s clear that in all 6 finals there are more teams from European countries than from any other continent:

This suggests that the European teams are consistently better in the qualifiers, always getting the most teams into the final rounds. However, they have been slipping over the 7 World Cups we considered with a reduction from 54% of European teams to 38% this year.

We’re actually also interested in whether, once the final tournament contenders are lined up, the Europeans play better than the other continents.
We started by considering 1986 where Argentina won the top honour with the Europeans just behind. Three of the four semi-finalists were European teams with 5 of 8 of the quarter-finalists and 9 of the last 16 all European too. In that year, 54% of the teams were European, so until the final the proportion of European teams still playing was higher than the number starting the group stages – but was that significant?

We checked.
If 54% of the teams in the cup (that’s 13 out of the 24 entrants) are European, then if teams were randomly selected from the 24 to progress to the quarter final, the probability of 9 being European is 19.5%. That is, in Mexico, there was about a one in five chance that 9 European teams would progress, based solely on the numbers of teams from the continent, without considering their footballing ability.
This is actually the lowest probability for the year for the actual outcomes – there was nothing of any statistical significance showing how European teams either excelled or failed at any of the competition stages.

Actually, the same story was true in 1990 – there was nothing in the progression of European teams from the group stages that couldn’t be explained by random selection of teams to progress.

However, in 1994, the Europeans did much better…

With 7 teams through into the quarter final, a progression rate with only a 2% probability of occurring randomly; and all 4 semi-finalists (less than 5% probability of occurring randomly) the Europeans really dominated in the US.
They had another good year in 2006 too, with all 4 of the semi-finalists again being European teams in the German hosted cup. There was a less than 4% chance of this happening by chance, given the number of European teams in the group stages.
The other continents haven’t had any significantly better rounds than the Europeans – in none of the 7 years that we considered did they progress to later rounds in numbers higher than could be explained by random probability.
As such, as Europeans, we can hold our heads high in the knowledge that (despite the continuing decline) our continent qualify most every year and have had a couple of exceptional years in the last two decades, where we out-performed expectations in our progression through the Cup.
Of course, with World Cup fever afrenzy, we’re also all interested in which countries are going to make it through to this year’s semis. We can tell you that, if the teams in the semis were randomly chosen from all the teams that competed in the group stages then the most likely number of European teams in the semis is one (37%).

Of course, we already have some idea – it’s certain that at least one semi final team will be European because France meet Germany in one of the quarters. It’s also certain that at least one team will be non-European because Brazil meet Colombia.
Still looking at random selection, given the quarter final line-up that we already know, we’ll predict that two European teams will make the final, which is slightly higher than originally expected.