DOHA, Qatar — For some 80 years after the first World Cup in 1930, there was a firm rule when it came to predicting which part of the world the winner would come from.
That is how it goes. When the tournament was held in Europe, a European team would win. When it was in South America, a South American team would win. And if it was somewhere else, well, a South American team would win too.
The formula has applied time and time again, with just one exception, when Pele’s brilliance led Brazil to victory in Sweden 1958 – although the teenage maestro’s performances were so superb that his team would likely have lifted the trophy had the final would have been in Lapland, were detained on the moon or under water.
And although there have been a few variations lately, in 2010 when Spain won the only World Cup to be held in Africa and in 2014 when a great German team beat Brazil 7-1 in the semifinals, dueling Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the Finale, there are still enough historical precedents to watch out for.
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“The geography gives an advantage,” FOX soccer analyst and former US defender Alexi Lalas told me. “It’s not so easy to say that a European team will definitely win if it’s held in Europe, but it certainly did with great regularity. I like how this year is developing. Everyone will adapt to the conditions in their own way and no one automatically has an advantage.”
16 of 21 world championships were held in Europe or South America. Of these, 14 were won by a representative of the host continent. Many fans of World Cup history also point to the two World Cups held in Central America (Mexico) and won by Brazil in 1970 and Argentina in 1986 to further perpetuate the trend.
So what does it all mean this time?
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When it comes to favorites for the 2022 tournament, Qatar can certainly be considered neutral territory.
The eight best countries in the FIFA world rankings and in the odds maker rankings come from the football-strongest pair of continents. It would be a legitimate surprise if the ultimate champion was someone other than Brazil, Argentina, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, England or the Netherlands.
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Factors like familiarity and climate and subtle differences in conditions don’t matter as much this time. Qatar’s desert climate doesn’t have much in common with either European or South American weather, although there is a school of thought that suggests that southern European sides like Spain and Portugal, as well as South American nations, might enjoy Qatar’s warmth a little more than England and Germany.
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If there is indeed an advantage, it could help the five teams from the Asian confederation – Qatar, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Australia – who have all seen competitive action in Qatar before, fare better than expected.
“Don’t be surprised if some of the Asian teams are performing well,” former Iran assistant coach Dan Gaspar told me in a phone interview. “A lot of these teams will be familiar with what they will find in Qatar and have a good idea of what to expect.”
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When a new location (this is the first World Cup ever hosted in the Middle East) brings with it some unpredictability, Lalas looks forward to it.
“Maybe we have a new order of the status quo,” Lalas said. “Brazil and Argentina are my favorites but while we’re always looking to see who’s going to win the tournament, for some countries to drop out of the group and storm into the quarter-finals is an incredible feat that makes them a footballing nation.
“It’s wide open in that sense. We’re in for a few surprises, which will help keep the tournament lively.”