World Cup preview — the favorites

Before the last World Cup, I wrote:

Handicapping the World Cup is difficult in one sense because the teams don’t really exist as such. They are simply a collection of all-stars who come together from time to time, but always with different personnel. This lack of continuity makes it difficult to know what to expect from a national team. Some good teams like Sweden and the Czech Republic tend to minimize player churn, perhaps because their pool of talented players is less deep. But it’s also difficult to predict the performance of these teams because you never know when age will catch up with them. . . .[note; age did; neither made it to South Africa for this year’s Cup]
On the other hand, a few rules of thumb tend to simplify the handicapping. If the Cup is being played outside of Europe, pick Brazil or Argentina, whichever is stronger on paper. No European team has ever won the Cup away from Europe. . . .

The notion that the national squads at the World Cup don’t really exist as teams when the tournament starts is becoming less true due to the ever-increasing amount of “international” matches. And it may not be true at all with respect to this year’s favorites — Brazil and Spain. That’s because both teams played six matches last summer in the Confederations Cup in South Africa (as did the U.S. and South Africa), and their coaches have kept the same basic group of players on the field together since then. In fact, the Brazil and Spains teams that played in the summer of 2009 were very similar to those that won the South American and European (respectively) championships in 2008.
The combination of those successes and squad cohesion make Brazil and Spain the favorites in this World Cup.
Let’s start with Brazil which, after all, is the non-European team and the winner of last year’s Confederations Cup. There is an “I” in Brazil, and thankfully there has always one or more of them in its soccer team. But Brazilian coach Dunga has done his best to change that. He has created a tough, cohesive, hard-working midfield, like the one in which he starred when Brazil won the 1994 World Cup. And he has refused to select some of Brazil’s most glittering stars, including Ronaldinho who is still probably one of the 20 best players in the world.
Brazil has no forward the caliber of Romerio or Ronaldo, stars of the 1994 and 2002 champions (respectively). But the attacking trio of Kaka, Robinho, and Fabiano can do the business. Brazil also features top-notch center backs, and unlike in 2006, they are not likely to be stretched thinned due to problems with the fullbacks. Maicon, the right-back, is considered the best in the world at his position. Finally, in Julio Cesar of European champions Inter Milan, Brazil has a goal-keeper who not only exceeds the Brazilian norm, but arguably is among the best in the world.
It’s a team with no apparent weaknesses. If it doesn’t run out of attacking ideas against top defenses, as the Dunga-led 1994 team almost did, they have a great chance to bring home the Cup.
Spain also is without an obvious weakness and, owing to Dunga’s approach to squad selection, may have more “on paper” than does Brazil. The midfield — to be selected from among Xabi Alonso, Busquets, Fabregas, Xavi, Iniesta, and David Silva — may well be the best in the tournament. Forwards Fernando Torres and David Villa both rate among the best 10 in the world. The back four doesn’t hit that standard, but it’s a repuatable group backed up by a world class keeper — Iker Casillas.
I see two possible clouds on the Spanish horizon. First, Torres has struggled all year for fitness. Second, the team will be without midfield hardman Marco Senna (a Brazilian by birth). Senna was reasonably passed over after a less than stellar season with Valencia (correction: Villareal, I meant to say). And Xabi Alonso is a better all-around defensive midfielder. But Senna’s rugged play was an essential ingredient in Spain’s triumph at Euro-2008, and absent his presence as a shield for centerbacks Pique and Puyol, Spain’s defense may be put to a stern test. For what it’s worth, that defense was shaky in a 3-2 tune-up win over Saudi Arabia.
Finally, if we follow the rule that says for tournaments held outside of Europe pick Brazil or Argentina, whichever is stronger on paper, we should consider Argentina. For there is a case that Argentina is better than Brazil on paper. Its four top forwards — Lionel Messi, Diego Milito, Carlos Tevez, and Gonzalo Higuaín — may be the best group assembled for a World Cup since 1970 (Brazil). Messi himself may be that once in three decades player with whom a team that’s otherwise merely sound can win it all. And there’s plenty of talent throughout the rest of the squad.
The problem is that Argentina is the classic case of a team that doesn’t quite “exist.” Coach Diego Maradona, the last player whose feats won a Cup for a team that was otherwise merely sound (in 1986), failed to settle on a team during the qualification stage, and Argentina struggled to qualify (they lost to lowly Bolivia 6-1). Moreover, Maradona continued his eccentric pattern when he selected his 23-man World Cup squad. For example, he chose to exclude veterans Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti — the heart and soul of Inter Milan’s European club champion.
Perhaps Argentina will come together as a team during the next five weeks or so. It wouldn’t be the first team to begin a World Cup in relative disarray, yet lift the trophy when all was said and done. Italy, for instance, accomplished this in 1982 when France and Brazil were roughly what Spain and Brazil are this time. At this juncture, though, I prefer the prospects of Brazil and (the continental jinx aside) Spain.

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