There is a cliche that is said often in soccer matches–and I have seen enough soccer matches to know–that quality will out. Yet this does not always happen. Anyone who has painful memories, for example, of the disastrous qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup in which the United States lost in epic fashion to Trinidad & Tobago will realize that quality does not necessarily come out. Yet in general this is so. Over the long haul, it is generally to be expected that better teams will play better, and the more games available, the more this difference in quality will show. This is a principle of good statistics, in that a given probability is more likely to be hit more often the more trials that one has. It may take well over 100 times flipping a coin to get it close enough to 50/50, and even the most rigorous of athletic seasons seldom have much more than 100 games.
Let us consider two cases that are at the most extreme when it comes to determining the best teams in a given region. The first case is a series of one-off games. Right now, for example, as I write this, a few tournaments or qualifying are going on that feature one-off games, some of them in neutral sites and some of them in home sites, that purport to determine who the best team in given regions is. Recently there was a four-team playoff for a CONCACAF Nations League played in the United States where the United States, somewhat surprisingly, won by beating both Honduras and then Mexico. Right now Qatar is hosting the qualifiers for the Arab Cup, where low-ranked teams have mostly been beating even lower ranked ones to fill out several groups for a competition that will be held later this year. Similarly, right now both the Copa America in South America and Euro championships are going on, and next month the Gold Cup will be played, again in the United States, where more hardware will be passed out and more teams will try to gauge where they are in relation to the other teams in their region.
What these various tournaments have in common is that one gets one shot at a small number of teams in a group stage before moving to a knock-out where one plays better teams until one wins it all or loses. Playing three or four games in a group is usually not quite enough to determine who the best team really is, especially where homefield advantage is heavily skewed for some teams and against others. There are, of course, other ways that this can be done. Both North and South America pit their best teams against each other in home and home competitions that last for months in order to try to determine the best few teams, those worthy of going to the World Cup. It must be said, though, that the quality that comes out in such competitions is not always the quality of the team itself but the ability of teams to leverage their home-field advantage. This is often highly asymmetrical in nature. Visiting fans can often rely on having some support, for example, when playing in the United States, but the same is not true for American teams visiting Mexico, Costa Rica, or Honduras, for example. On the other hand, the United States has a huge potential winter homefield advantage if the right sites are chosen–Bolivia, for example, receives a high degree of benefit from the high elevations of La Paz even though they are not a good team, after all.
What is the nature of such a cliche that quality will come out? For all kinds of reasons, teams sometimes come out flat and fail to live up to their potential. Some teams have loads of talent but take time to build the chemistry that is necessary to succeed. Other teams have injuries that derail promising campaigns. At least one of the greatest teams of American football that ever existed failed to even make the playoffs because of staggering problems with special teams that kept the team from even having a winning record. It is quite possible, given the many factors that play into team performance and the small number matches that a given team has to demonstrate its quality that there is just not enough time for quality to come out. We want to believe that our competitions reveal the best in teams and athletes and programs, but sometimes that is simply not the case for one reason or another. We may get great teams and great performances, but the circumstances of our athletic competitions do not provide enough chances for quality to come out. Because of that, there is always hope that with enough effort and with the right bounces, that any given gameday any team has a chance to win. Sometimes the better team is jumped in a dark alley and left bruised and bleeding and defeated. That is what gives so many fans hope that their team may prevail, after all. Otherwise, we would simply crown champions before the games were played.