I’ve been so busy at work that the World Cup has snuck up on me. Normally, that would be like a presidential election (also held once every four years) sneaking up on me — in other words, an impossibility. But here we are, less than a week away from the first match, and I haven’t memorized the eight Groups and can name the likely starting 11 for only a handful of countries.
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. Ideally, a World Cup team consists of a core of seasoned players who have been together for a good while, along two or three younger stars who have emerged more recently, and perhaps an “x” factor player who bursts onto the international scene just in time for the tournament.
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 sronger on paper. No European team has ever won the Cup away from Europe. If the Cup is being played in Europe, pick one of the three or four top European sides giving some extra credit to the host country if it is one of the three or four. Only one non-European team has ever won the Cup on European soil (Brazil in 1958).
This year, with the tournment in Germany, the smart money, I suspect, is betting against this rule and on Brazil. There are three good reasons for this. First, this Brazilian team may be as talented as any national side in decades. Second, there is no obvious standout European national team. Third, the modern Euorpean soccer schedule seems to conspire against the emergence of such a team. I’m referring to the fact that the big European clubs — Real Madrid, Juventus, Arsenal, etc. — play so many matches. By the end of the season players on these clubs tend to wear down, and these are the players who largely populate the national teams of Spain, Italy, England, etc.
This, I believe, is the main reason why none of the top European soccer nations (Italy, France, Spain, Holland, England, and Germany) was able to play at close to a World Cup winning level either in the 2002 World Cup or the 2004 European Cup. The latter tournament was particularly instructive. The Greek team, which lacked any starters from the big European clubs, won the tournament. It did so by playing in a defensive shell and daring the more talented teams to break them down. With so many super-stars playing below their normal level, no one could do it. The best player in the tournament was probably Wayne Rooney who, as an Everton player that year, didn’t have to worry about participating in lots of big European matches.
Brazil, of course, has many players who are with major European clubs. But not all of them start regularly, and as a group they should be less tired. Moreover, they seem more talented to begin with.
Even so, I expect that at least one top European side will emerge to challenge Brazil (and let’s put Argentina in the mix as well). England would have been my top candidate had Wayne Rooney not been injured. As it is, I don’t really have a candidate at this point.
Finally, how will the U.S. do? I’ll leave that one for a subsequent post.