One interesting thing about the World Cup is how well it does its job.
We hold this tournament every four years to find out who is the best international men’s soccer team in the world and over the last, say, half a dozen editions, we’ve been able to feel good about the answers we’ve gotten. It’s been a while since a holy loser like the famous 1974 Dutch runners-up overshadowed the team that lifted the trophy. France overwhelmed teams with the weight of their talent in 2018, Germany’s revitalized modern style in 2014, Spain’s unstoppable possession that carved all comers in 2010, Italy’s impenetrable defense in 2006; they appear to be correct in hindsight. Maybe those teams were lucky at times, maybe they weren’t unbeatable, maybe 1998 will be different if OG Ronaldo doesn’t get sick on finals day, but for an event with such high variance and so few games from start to finish, that’s an impressive batting average .
So when trying to predict who will win the World Cup, one way is to think about who will seem obvious in hindsight.
Brazil is preferred, but Brazil is always preferred. It has been the betting favorite to win three of the last four World Cups. (It finished second to Spain in 2010.) It’s the default choice, either because of its strength at depth – Brazil produces a lot of very good footballers – or because of Brazil’s ongoing brand power Jogo Bonito.
However, she did not win any of these tournaments. Worse, it fell on the same hurdle every time. At the past four World Cups, Brazil have been eliminated by the top European side in the knockout rounds. In 2018 it beat Mexico and lost to Belgium. In 2014 they beat Chile and Colombia before disastrously losing to Germany in the semifinals. In 2010 Chile was defeated but not the Netherlands. It beat Ghana in 2006 before losing
Zinedine Zidane’s one man show France. Many of these casualties were close, except for one that famously was not.
Brazil fared better against their transatlantic rivals in the group stage, beating Croatia twice and Serbia once, tying Switzerland and Portugal in that period. But once the field is thrown together, they can’t keep their nerve against UEFA’s heavyweights. It’s become a less hateful version of late-period Duke men’s basketball, forever poised between superiority and impotence, forever a better bet in theory than in practice.
It is now common knowledge that the game’s balance of power has shifted to Europe. At club level, that’s where the money, the talent and a not inconsiderable part of the institutional knowledge are concentrated, and for two decades the World Cup has followed these indicators. Brazil reached all three World Cups between 1994 and 2002, but today European teams have won the last four World Cups, seven of the last eight finalists and 13 of 16 semi-finalists.
Is this the year that Brazil draws in its rivals across the Atlantic? Who could tell?
The start of this tournament is finding international football more isolated than it has been in decades thanks to a combination of the pandemic, the delays and rescheduling it has brought, and the new Nations League tournaments in Europe and North America. Brazil are the favourites, but have not contested a European team since March 2019 when they beat the Czech Republic. Since losing to Belgium in the 2018 quarter-finals, not a single one has qualified for the 2022 World Cup. The gap as it appears has not been measured in years.
It’s not the only one. Reigning African champions Senegal have only played three games against non-African opponents since the last World Cup. Mexico’s schedule was dominated by North and South American teams. The United States have played a handful of European, African and Asian sides but none currently ranks higher than Mexico (12) as of 2018. Argentina boasted an impressive win over European competition this summer, beating Italy 3-0 in a matchup of continental champions and claiming the latest victory in their rivalry against Brazil. Is that enough data to select them for winning? There is nothing better.
Perhaps the most well-travelled national side of the last two years is Qatar, who had no World Cup qualifying schedule to play. Qatar competed as a guest in the 2021 North American Gold Cup and made it to the semifinals before falling narrowly to the United States. It played numerous friendlies in Europe last autumn against teams with holes in their qualifying dance cards, losing heavily to Serbia, Portugal and Ireland and drawing 93approx-Rank Luxembourg. At least the host country knows where it stands.
Meanwhile, European teams have been beating each other up in their own private fight club, only pausing to change squads every six months or so. The 2019 European Championship qualifier became a UEFA Nations League game in 2020, which then gave way to World Cup qualifiers in 2021. They played Euros this summer, followed by more World Cup qualifiers and capped it all off with another round of Nations League games last summer. England and France have only played two non-European teams each since 2018. Germany played one. Spain didn’t play any.
But the density of top teams in Europe means these teams may be better prepared. The European qualifiers are carefully stratified, with the heavyweights separated from each other and a lot of matches being played between, say, Belgium and Estonia. The Nations League works in reverse, with teams grouped by class – Spain and Portugal play each other on one side, Andorra and Liechtenstein on the other. Four of England’s last six games have been against Italy and Germany. France had Croatia and Denmark. It’s valuable replays on the road to a major tournament, far better than anything Brazil and Argentina have had before without involving each other.
But many of the tournament favorites fell on their faces in the Nations League. England didn’t win a game in their group, which also included Hungary, losing three times and drawing three times to finish bottom. Germany finished third in the same group; France third in his. Of the European teams with the best chances of winning the World Cup, only Spain will advance to the Nations League finals next June. (The Netherlands, a popular dark horse but oddly a class below, led Belgium to win their group. Croatia, who could still be dangerous at the Worlds, and Italy, who definitely won’t be, were the other winners .)
Those teams (and the United States!) will hope that this kind of form is temporary, but it makes picking a winner difficult in advance. They won’t all be that bad. But if some of them are, does that leave the door open to an outsider?
This World Cup is a bit reminiscent of the days when the tournament was practically the only chance to see the best international teams play against each other. (Farewell, Confederations Cup. You were a poor forecaster – no winner of the Confederations Cup ever won the World Cup that followed – but you were joking.) Everyone’s been loitering in their own corner of the world. Injuries play a particularly important role as the tournament takes place in the middle of the club’s season. The 2022 trophy feels unusual to have. Sure, it’s not exactly the same as when teams showed up at the World Cup without knowing what their opponent’s deal was. The players play together in a club environment that has remained ruthlessly global. All games can be seen everywhere. If a 17-year-old Brazilian went into this tournament and scored six goals like Pelé did in 1958, we would have heard of him by now and I would try to sign him for Cádiz and fail CF in Football Manager instead of this one enter paragraph. (Endrick, 16-year-old Brazil’s next big thing, has been left out of the squad. Consider this your heads-up for next time.)
Perhaps this year the upcoming Brazilian stars – Vinícius Júnior, Raphinha, Neymar – will prove enough. Margins on most of Brazil’s losses were fine; no other nation has reached the quarter-finals in each of the last four tournaments; surely in the end it will be the year of Brazil again. (Imagine believing that Brazil have already won the last World Cup they will ever win. That feels weird, doesn’t it?) Or maybe the gap is still there, its recent shifts and upheavals unexplored. Perhaps for the first time in a long while, another surprise team is preparing to pole vault over it. Who will be world champion 2022? There is no obvious answer. At least not still.