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The Netherlands Is In A World Of Trouble, And Argentina Might Be Too

In 2014, Argentina and the Netherlands — two of the world’s most established soccer powerhouses — met in the semifinals of the World Cup. After 120 scoreless minutes, Argentina prevailed in an agonizing penalty shootout. It’s very unlikely, though, that the Dutch will be able to exact revenge on Argentina during next year’s World Cup in Russia. That’s because the Netherlands most likely won’t be there — and Argentina may not be either.

The Netherlands is on the brink of soccer disaster: To make the 2018 tournament, the Dutch must beat Sweden by 7 goals in their final qualifying game, at home on Tuesday. If they don’t, it will be the fourth time that the Netherlands has failed to qualify for the World Cup since 1982, or the last 10 tournaments.

More than 6,000 miles away in South America, an even bigger crisis is brewing for Argentina, which has won the World Cup twice and made it to the final in 2014. If Argentina were to fail to qualify for 2018, it would be the first time that the team has missed the tournament in 48 years. But the Argentines have more ways to get in than the Dutch do (although they’re still in deep trouble). Depending on what happens elsewhere, a loss to Ecuador on Tuesday could mean elimination — but, likewise, a win doesn’t guarantee that Lionel Messi’s men will earn a berth in Russia either.

Things are so bad that the Argentine Ministry of Health has issued instructions on how to avoid a heart attack during Tuesday’s game.

Deep breaths, Argentina

South American standings in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers

TEAM GP WON TIED LOST GOALS FOR GOALS AGAINST GOAL DIFF. POINTS
1 Brazil 17 11 5 1 38 11 +27 38
2 Uruguay 17 8 4 5 28 18 +10 28
3 Chile 17 8 2 7 26 24 +2 26
4 Colombia 17 7 5 5 20 18 +2 26
5 Peru 17 7 4 6 26 25 +1 25
6 Argentina 17 6 7 4 16 15 +1 25
7 Paraguay 17 7 3 7 19 24 -5 24
8 Ecuador 17 6 2 9 25 26 -1 20
9 Bolivia 17 4 2 11 14 34 -20 14
10 Venezuela 17 1 6 10 18 35 -17 9

The top four teams automatically qualify for the 2018 World Cup; the fifth-ranked team must win a playoff against a team from another region to make the tournament.

Source: FIFA

For countries with as rich a soccer history as the Netherlands and Argentina, not qualifying is unthinkable. For the Dutch, however, they’re used to struggling to make the World Cup on the heels of a good showing. They failed to make the 1982 tournament after finishing as the runner-up in 1978, and in 2002, they didn’t qualify after making the semifinals in 1998.

The Oranje have been in turmoil since Louis van Gaal left for Manchester United after leading the team to third place in 2014. They failed to qualify for the 2016 European Championship in France with Guus Hiddink and then Danny Blind in charge — the first time they failed to make Europe’s national team tournament in 32 years — and are on their third manager in as many years, with Dick Advocaat at the helm. In context, the KNVB’s current crisis may be the worst in its illustrious history. In August, the Dutch dropped to 36th in the world, their lowest spot in the rankings since FIFA started them in 1992. The team’s 3-1 win over Bulgaria in September nudged it back up to 29th. Among Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain — the seven teams that have made a World Cup final since 1994 — none has been ranked as low as 29th since 1994. Although FIFA’s world rankings are flawed, this is just one measure of how far the Netherlands have fallen relative to the other top nations in the world.

Levitt-NetherlandsWC-1-update

In defense of both the Dutch and the Argentines, each has had a brutally tough path to Russia, unlike some other countries (cough, America). According to the Soccer Power Index rankings of all teams on Sept. 4, 2016 — the day that the first round of European qualifiers were played — the Netherlands’ Group A was the third-toughest of the nine European qualifying groups, with an average SPI ranking of 57. And Argentina — ranked No. 1 in the world in SPI on Oct. 8, 2015, the day of the first round of South American qualifying games — faced an even gloomier schedule. The sole South American group had an average SPI ranking of 19, including five teams rated in the top 10 in the world.

Why both teams have been this bad is baffling. OK, the Netherlands hasn’t had the star-studded lineup that made the World Cup final in 2010, but the Dutch have still had stalwarts Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, among others, at their regular disposal. For Argentina, a lack of talent is also not an excuse. In its 0-0 tie with Peru on Thursday, Argentina’s squad included 10 players who are on teams playing in the Champions League this year — and this doesn’t even include Manchester City star striker Sergio Aguero, who missed the game because of injury. No, for the Argentines, they simply haven’t scored enough — which is unusual for a country where you seemingly can’t throw a rock without hitting a world-class striker. Through 17 qualifying games, Argentina has scored just 16 goals, and in seven of those matches, the team didn’t score at all. That’s the lowest goals per game in their qualifying history since, well, ever.1

Argentina’s attacking firepower has dried up

The number of goals scored per game in each of Argentina’s World Cup qualifying campaigns

YEAR GAMES PLAYED GOALS SCORED GOALS SCORED/GAME QUALIFIED
2018* 17 16 0.9
2014 16 35 2.2
2010 18 23 1.3
2006 18 29 1.6
2002 18 42 2.3
1998 16 23 1.4
1994 6 7 1.2
1986 6 12 2.0
1974 4 9 2.3
1970 4 4 1.0
1966 4 9 2.3
1962 2 11 5.5
1958 4 10 2.5

*Argentina has one game left to play in its 2018 qualifying campaign.

Source: FIFA

For soccer fans around the world, Tuesday may be an emotional day. This could be the last time that Robben, who is 33 years old, appears in an orange shirt on the field. And for Messi, arguably one of the greatest players ever, the 2018 World Cup is his last great opportunity to fill the one glaring hole on his stellar résumé as he will be in his mid-30s the next time the tournament comes around. It would be a shame if that chance ended before it even started.

Footnotes

  1. For years not listed in the table below, qualifying was not yet needed, Argentina withdrew or did not enter, or Argentina qualified automatically through either hosting the World Cup that year or winning the previous World Cup.

Daniel Levitt is a sports writer at FiveThirtyEight. He’s an alum of the University of Missouri.

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