If you want to know who will win the World Cup, you should come talk to me. Not all those over-stuffed pundits on tv. No, I’m your guy.
Why me, you ask?
And, well, that’s a valid question. Indeed, how am I different than those myriad blathering pundits?
To that, I must admit, I am not anything special. I do not have a special door into the locker rooms. I’m not pouring over player secrets. And I don’t have a complicated algorithm to guide my hand.
No, I am nothing special. And that is why I do not offer my mere words. I offer my process.
I have been making World Cup predictions for 20 years, all the way back to my childhood. And I have been off on the eventual winner one time in all of those years (Lesson Learned: it’s NEVER the Netherlands). And, to mark the occasion of a new World Cup before us, I give to you this special gift, a detailed explanation of how I know who will win at the start of each World Cup. I merely ask that you use such power wisely.
Remember, Every Team Deserves Respect
The first World Cup I can remember is the 2002 edition co-hosted by Japan and South Korea. In the first game of that tournament, we saw France, the reigning champions, take on Senegal, a small West African country making its World Cup debut.
Senegal won, 1-0.
France would go on to limp their way through the group, crashing out with just a single draw after three games.
Upsets turned out to be a bit of a hallmark for that particular World Cup. Longtime fans of the United States men’s national team might remember a stunning 3-2 win over Portugal that year, a Portugal side with Luis Figo, the best player in the world at the time. After losing to the USA, Portugal got dumped out of the tournament by hosts South Korea. And South Korea would go on to make a run all the way to the semifinal, taking out Italy and Spain before stumbling on Germany.
And here is the lesson I took from that World Cup: Every team needs to be treated with respect.
If you approach a tournament with blinders on and only focus on the biggest names, you are going to miss huge details. You set yourself up to get shocked. This doesn’t mean that every team is a serious challenger to win the whole thing. I’d actually go so far as to say that only about a quarter of the teams have a realistic chance. But a lot of these “minnows” can perform upsets that really shake up the whole tournament. Take 1966 for example. North Korea canned Italy. North Korea!
But it’s not just a matter of small teams outright knocking bigger teams out. You also have to look at how results in the group stage can affect the shape of the rest of the tournament.
Take the 2018 World Cup. At the close of the group stage, you had one side of the bracket that had 5 of the top 8 highest ranked teams in the world according to FIFA. On the other side, you only had No. 8, Spain. And even there, Spain lost their first knockout round to Russia, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament.
As a result, you had this lopsided knockout stage where, on one side, a middling team like England (ranked 12th at the start of the tournament) could waltz through the World Cup without playing a single knock-out match against a higher seed. Seriously, the only team England played that had a higher ranking than them was Belgium. And even then, England and Belgium played in their final group stage match only after both teams had already qualified to the knockout round, and then again in the third-place match (Belgium won both). But on the other side of the bracket, you had a gauntlet where only one of Brazil (2), Portugal (3) Argentina (4), Belgium (5), and France (7) could emerge to the final.
Every tournament has changes like this that really end up changing the outcomes.
Follow the Trend Lines
If you peruse long enough through the annals of World Cup history, you will undoubtedly come to notice certain trends that appear. One trend is teams that seem to perform a certain way in a shockingly consistent matter. Trends like this, frankly, must be respected. I learned that the hard way, with my one miss in 20 years. You see, the Dutch always lose their World Cup finals. Always.
It goes all the way back in 1974, when the Netherlands had the famed Johan Cruyff and were, not merely the best team in the world but the most innovative team in the world, and strolled into a final against a stodgy and dull Germany team. The Dutch started off in tremendous fashion, toying with the Germans from their first kick. Literally. The Netherlands won a penalty and scored before any of the German players actually touched the ball. And then they lost. Four years later, the Netherlands made it back to the final, this time against Argentina. As the clock ticked down with the score tied at 1-1, the Dutch took one last effort … only to hit the post. They wound up losing 3-1 after extra time.
And here I was in 2010, with no real care for such history, declaring that the Netherlands would win the whole thing, defying the Spaniards who were obviously the best team in the world. To my credit, the Dutch came close. Twice, Arjen Robben drove into the box for a threatening chance, and twice he came out with neither a goal nor a penalty. It was astonishing from a player so renowned for both his clinical accuracy and his high dive technique. The Netherlands lost, with Andres Iniesta scoring in extra time.
It’s been over a decade and the mistake still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. My perfect record tarnished all because I had ignored one of the grand rules of World Cup Soccer: The Netherlands lose their finals.
There are, of course, more trends than just the Dutch Finals curse. Some are more precarious — like Mexico always losing to Argentina — but others I personally put weight into.
The first is that the World Cup almost always goes to a team that’s won it before.
In the first 21 World Cups, only eight teams have won the tournament. Only three of those teams have won their first World Cup title in the last 50 years: Spain in 2010, France in 1998, and Argentina in 1978. It seems winning the first is much tougher than winning the second.
But there’s a flipside to being a World Cup winner, and that brings us to our second trend. World Cup winners basically never successfully defend their title. It’s only happened twice. Italy won two consecutive tournaments before WWII, in the primordial age of soccer that nobody really remembers. The only other time was 60 years ago and that team just so happened to have been Brazil with Pele.
But not-winning consecutive tournaments isn’t merely a product of a difficult task. No, there’s an apparent winner’s curse in there as well. In 4 of the last 5 World Cups, the winner of the previous tournament crashed out in the group stage. France were bounced in 2002. Italy crashed out in 2010. Spain collapsed dramatically in 2014. And Germany fell apart at the end in 2018. The one exception was Brazil in 2006, who — another trend! — always get out of the group.
Now, these are of course just trends. There are times when they don’t come true. Eventually, new teams do win the World Cup, as we saw with Spain in 2010. But dismiss these trends at your own peril.
Location, Location, Location
People don’t really like to admit it, but location has a big effect on tournaments. Regional differences are real and they have an effect on tournaments. For most of the World Cup’s history, travel was a big issue. When teams had to travel by ship over the course of days or weeks, it really affected their performances. We’ve long seen patterns where teams perform better within their own region. This has been mitigated somewhat in recent tournaments by a few factors. Obviously, it is now much easier to travel anywhere in the world. Just about anyone can get on a plane and reach anywhere else on the globe in just a day or two. And athletes naturally travel with a great deal of luxury to further mitigate the effects of travel. Then there is the simple fact that so many of the best players play in Europe. That means that the players for most of the teams, and most certainly all the major real contenders, all come from a similar geographic club situation.
However, there remain difficulties associated with tournaments. A big change in time zone can undermine players’ internal rhythms and physiological clocks. Climate has historically been a big factor in tournaments, with rules like substitutions and water breaks implemented to deal with rough conditions in Mexico and Brazil, respectively. In 2010, there was a great deal of controversy because of how the ball would behave rather unexpectedly in the high altitude of South Africa. And, of course, there’s the issue of familiarity for the conditions. And the less said about international referees, the better.
Add it all together and it has resulted in a major regional bias. Historically, with rare exceptions European teams tend to win when the tournament is in Europe and South American teams win when it’s played in the Americas.
However, you may have noticed that this year’s World Cup is in Qatar, and that Qatar isn’t exactly in either Europe or South America.
In the 20 years since the World Cup has moved away from the Europe/Americas rotation policy, we’ve had lots of winners from outside the hosting region. Brazil won in Korea/Japan. Spain won in South Africa. And Germany won in Brazil. So does that mean that regional effects are gone? I am skeptical. European teams generally struggled in 2002, with an East Asian tournament. And we can see European teams perform better while Europe hosts. So my intuition is that regional effects remain real, but perhaps they aren’t as pervasive as they once were.
There is another geographic effect. The hosts themselves tend to improve when they host the World Cup. In 2018, Russia may have been the tournament’s lowest-ranked team, but they still managed a run to the quarterfinals. The two occasions where Mexico hosted happened to also be the only two times the team made it to the quarterfinals. You can also look to 1994, when the US hosted. Widely considered the weakest team to host up to that point, the USMNT still made it to the knockout stage, even with soccer still a very minor sport in the country. Indeed, the only time the hosts didn’t make it out of the first stage was 2010, when South Africa came close but ultimately fell short. This spells good news for Qatar, widely regarded as among the weakest teams in this tournament.
Talent does not lie
I would be remiss to not mention talent and team quality. We can talk all about trends and history and geography, but maps and histories don’t take the place of the actual players on the field. So let me talk for a bit on how I approached evaluating the talent for the respective World Cups.
How did I know that Brazil would win in 2002?
Because everybody knew Brazil would win in 2002. They had Ronaldo and Ronaldinho and Rivaldo, quite likely the best attack in World Cup history.
2006 was when my intuition really showed. How did I know Italy?
Well, it certainly wasn’t a case of following the crowd. Hardly anyone was picking Italy to win in 2006 … except me. Really, what stood out was the Calciopoli Scandal that rocked Serie A that year. Cheating and bribery allegations came roiling out in May 2006, eventually sinking a number of players and referees, and even getting Juventus stripped of a title and relegated. People understandably expected that to ripple out and undermine the national team, especially considering that, while none of the players on the team were involved, several saw their clubs punished.
But that all happened outside my radar. I didn’t so much as hear about Calciopoli. I was too busy pouring over a little pamphlet about all the squads and teams that had qualified. And I could see, this was Italy’s year.
It wasn’t a single thing, but a whole collection of circumstances that made me sure of Italy’s success. They did really well in qualifying, with only one loss in 2004. Italy also had a strong league with a lot of Italian players, probably the strongest league in the world at the time. Money in soccer was slowly transferring to the other leagues, particularly England, but 2006 still had Serie A right up there. It didn’t lead to any Champions League titles in those years, but for two consecutive seasons, Italy sent three teams to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. There was talent there. And it justified a closer look at the players on the national team. And the truth was, top to bottom, Italy was solid. At striker, you had Luca Toni, who had just scored 31 goals in Serie A, the highest tally in decades. Alongside him was the creative marvel that was Francesco Totti, the man credited with inventing the “False 9” striker role. In midfield, you had a pair of AC Milan players in Genna Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo, of course, would go on to become an incredible icon of Italian soccer. And then, finally, you had the real gem of the Italian national team, their incredible defensive players. Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro, and then Gianluigi Buffon, for my money, the best goalkeeper of the 21st century.
Italy had the squad and the talent, of course they would win! And they did.
I of course slipped with the 2010 World Cup, so we will skip that one (what can I say, I was dazzled by the talent of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie). How did I know Germany would win in 2014?
Well, it felt like destiny. Despite my antipathy for the German team (no, I haven’t forgotten what happened in 2002), they undeniably had the talent in 2010. And, four years later, it looked like that world title was theirs for the taking. They had strength in the center of the field, with the ability to control the midfield, just like Spain did in 2010. A midfield core of Bastian Schweinsteigger, Sami Khedira (then at Real Madrid), and Toni Kroos, with Mesut Özil and Mario Götze providing world-class service on attack. They had strong defensive players in goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and centerbacks Per Mertesacker (I will not stand a negative word for our Big “Friendly” German!), Jérôme Boateng, and an in-form Mats Hummels. While the squad was thin at outside backs, they did actually have the best fullback in the world in Phillip Lahm.
The astonishing thing about this collection of German talent was how all of Europe could see it coming together. Just the year prior, Bayern Munich beat Dortmund in the Champions League final with 12 Germans in the two starting lineups. Nine of those players were included on the German squad for 2014. In the modern game, that’s an incredible level of both talent and consolidation!
Why France in 2018?
Well, it was a lot like 2014 with Germany. This France team felt undeniable. In particular, they had a really impressive midfield core made up of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante. Those two were arguably the best midfielders in the world, at least in their respective roles. Kante in particular was a major force in driving Leicester City to a shock Premier League title in 2016. I really can’t name a stronger defensive midfielder from that tournament. And then Pogba… well, suffice to say, after the tournament, Juventus sold Paul Pogba for €105 million to Manchester United, then an English record.
But it wasn’t just the midfield. They had 19 of 23 players from Champions League teams. On top of that depth, France had a really cohesive attack. Mbappe, Griezeman, Giroud worked really, really well together. This of course came before everyone realized that Giroud was some sort of special glue that made teams work together, but I at least realized that during his time at Arsenal. As a team, this France squad was solid. And it showed, with France emerging out of the nasty side of the bracket having beaten Argentina, Uruguay, and Belgium.
Now, what did these teams all have in common?
Yes, all of them were quite good and talented, but they had particular strengths that pushed them to the top. What I look for are:
- Strong cores: That midfield, especially that defensive midfield, needs to be world class. We can see that with these teams: Pirlo/Gattuso, Schwiensteigger/Khedira/Kroos/Özil, Pogba/Kante. At a very basic level, these were really strong players in the very middle of the field providing solidity for the rest of the team.
- A capable and solid defense: None of these teams are necessarily defensive, but they all had excellent defensive players. Oddly enough, teams don’t necessarily need that absolutely amazing striker to win a World Cup (this was a criticism of both the Spain 2010 and Germany 2014 teams), but they do need to have a solid defensive structure. In that regard, most of these teams had centerbacks who were among the best in their respective generations.
- A Strong Identity: That 2002 Brazil team is fondly remembered for wielding a free-flowing, joyous attack. But in the years after, they lost sight of that identity, particularly when they had the defensive-minded Dunga as their head coach. Correspondingly, Brazil didn’t really shine on the World Stage over those years.
In contrast, you had that 2010 Spain side that was completely bought in on maintaining control of the ball and playing quick and incisive passing. That team’s strength came from how organized and bought in they were to that singular vision.
- Good Qualifying Campaigns: Good teams win.
If you are looking for a good team that will win the World Cup, you should look to see how often they won while actually getting to the World Cup. The other part of this is how well the team did more recently, in the time between qualification and the start of the tournament. Past performance is not a guarantee for future success (and teams that actually make it to the World Cup must already have a certain level of quality), but when a team that starts struggling right before a tournament, it suggests an underlying problem.
2022 Case Study: France
One of the most highly regarded teams in this World Cup happens to be France. Which is natural given that they are the reigning champions. France has a highly talented team, particularly in their attack and defense. As a result, many believe France are the favorites for this World Cup
But this gives us an opportunity to apply our factors.
Sure, France won the Last World Cup, but remember, the last time a team won back-to-back World Cups was about 65 years ago.
But there are also questions about talent and team cohesion.
France have changed a huge portion of its team from four years ago.
In particular, France’s defense has changed a lot. Only the goalkeepers, Benjamin Pavard, Raphael Varane, and Lucas Hernandez have returned from 2018. And not all of these players are in the same form. Varane has had a rough few seasons with Manchester United and is not in the same form as in 2018. He might not start. As for the others, well, you have six defenders with less than 15 caps apiece, and five of them have less than 10. That’s not a shot at the quality of the likes of William Saliba (who has been excellent in the Premier League). Rather, it is a simple statement that these players have not played much together.
But that midfield is in even worse shape. France doesn’t have any of their midfielders from 2018. They are missing Kante and Pogba, the midfield core that propelled them to the title in the previous World Cup. On top of that, nobody actually in their midfield has even 30 caps. And, once again, a lack of experience playing with each other is a bad sign.
There is no doubt that France’s attacking talent remains world-class. In particular, there is the addition of Karim Benzema, one of the best strikers in the world and the reigning Ballon d’Or winner. Olivier Giroud remains effective and in good form. Since 2018, he has won the Europa League, the Champion’s League, and a Scudetto, a Serie A title. In less good form is Antoine Griezmann. Griezemann bounced from Atletico Madrid (where he was HIGHLY effective) to Barcelona, and back to Atletico when that didn’t work out. I would still say Griezemann is a strong player. And to round them off is Kyllian Mbappe, who broke out in the previous tournament as a generational attacking talent and has done nothing to dissuade that belief since then. But age is a real concern with this group. Benzema is 34 (turns 35 just after the World Cup), Griezmann is 31, and Giroud is 36. On top of that, while Mbappe remains really, really good, he has not quite ascended to “best in the World” the way many thought he would after his 2018 World Cup. And there is talk that he’s maybe playing out of position at PSG. In any case, how do you play all four of Giroud, Benzema, Griezmann, and Mbappe? That’s the strongest part of the roster, but how do you manage to get them all on the field in a cohesive way?
Finally, France is going into the World Cup with poor form. In the calendar year of 2022, France has a record of 3-3-2, with two of those losses against Denmark in the Nations League. Did I mention that France plays Denmark at the World Cup as part of their group stage?
Weighing all these factors, I don’t think France are going to win.
Well, that’s it from me! That’s all the information you need to figure out for yourself who will win the World Cup!
Who do I think will win the 2022 World Cup?
You really want to know? Well, okay. I like Brazil. I think they’ve got really impressive players in every part of the field, they won the last time we had an Asian World Cup, and there are no curses holding them back this time. But I’ll let you decide if that’s a good bet or not.