One interesting thing about the World Cup is how good it is at its job.
We hold this tournament every four years to figure out who the best men’s international soccer team in the world is, and for the past, say, half-a-dozen editions at least, we’ve been able to feel good about the answers we’ve gotten. It’s been a while since a hallowed loser like the famous Dutch runners-up in 1974 has overshadowed the team that lifted the trophy. France overwhelming teams with the weight of its talent in 2018, Germany’s revitalized modern style in 2014, Spain’s unstoppable possession lathe carving all comers in 2010, Italy’s impenetrable defense in 2006; they seem correct in hindsight. Maybe these teams got lucky at times, maybe they weren’t invincible, maybe 1998 looks different if O.G. Ronaldo doesn’t get sick the day of the final, but for an event with such a high variance and so few games from beginning to end, that’s an impressive hit rate.
So, if you’re trying to predict who’s going to win the World Cup, one way to go about it is to think about who’s going to seem obvious in retrospect.
Brazil is favored, but Brazil is always favored. It was the betting favorite to win three of the past four World Cups. (It was second to Spain in 2010.) It is the default choice, either because of its strength in depth—Brazil produces a lot of very good soccer players—or because of the enduring branding power of jogo bonito.
Yet it won none of those tournaments. Worse, it fell at the same hurdle each time. In each of the past four World Cups, the Brazilians were eliminated by the first European team they played in the knockout rounds. In 2018, it beat Mexico and lost to Belgium. In 2014, it beat Chile and Colombia before falling disastrously to Germany in the semifinals. In 2010, Chile was vanquished but not the Netherlands. It pounded Ghana in 2006 before losing to
Zinedine Zidane’s One Man Show France. Many of these losses were narrow, except for the one that was famously not.
Brazil has fared better against its cross-Atlantic rivals in the group stages, beating Croatia twice, Serbia once, and tying Switzerland and Portugal during that time frame. But once the field gets winnowed down, it has been unable to hold its nerve against UEFA’s heavyweights. It has become a less-hateable version of late-period Duke men’s basketball, forever balanced between superiority and swooning, forever a better bet in theory than in practice.
By now it’s common knowledge that the game’s balance of power has shifted to Europe. At the club level, the money, the talent, and a not-insignificant portion of the institutional knowledge has pooled there, and for the past two decades, the World Cup trophy has followed these indicators. Brazil made all three World Cup Finals between 1994 and 2002, but today European teams have won the past four World Cups, made up seven out of the past eight finalists and 13 out of 16 semifinalists.
Is this the year Brazil reels in its cross-Atlantic rivals? Who could possibly tell?
The start of this tournament finds international soccer more siloed than it has been in decades, thanks to a combination of the pandemic, its associated delays and reschedulings, and the new Nations League tournaments in Europe and North America. Brazil is the favorite, but it hasn’t played a European team since March 2019, when it beat the Czech Republic. It hasn’t played one that qualified for the 2022 World Cup since it lost to Belgium in the 2018 quarterfinals. The gap, as it stands, hasn’t been measured in years.
It’s not the only one. Senegal, the reigning African champions, has played just three games against non-African opponents since the last World Cup. Mexico’s schedule has been dominated by North and South American teams. The United States has played a handful of European, African, and Asian teams, but no one currently ranked higher than Mexico (12) since 2018. Argentina boasts an impressive victory over European competition from this summer, topping Italy 3–0 in a matchup of continental champions, and has the most recent win in its rivalry against Brazil. Is that enough data to pick them to win? There might not be anything better.
Perhaps the most well-traveled national team in the past two years is Qatar’s, which hasn’t had a World Cup qualifying schedule to play. Qatar participated as a guest participant in the 2021 North American Gold Cup and made it all the way to the semifinals before falling narrowly to the United States. It played numerous friendlies in Europe last fall against teams with holes in their qualifying dance cards, losing badly to Serbia, Portugal, and Ireland and drawing with 93rd-ranked Luxembourg. At least the host nation knows where it stands.
Meanwhile, the European teams have been beating each other up in their own private fight club, pausing only to change groupings every six months or so. European Championship qualifying in 2019 turned into UEFA Nations League play in 2020, which then gave way to World Cup qualification in 2021. They played the European Championship that summer, followed it with more World Cup qualifying, then topped it all off this past summer with another round of Nations League games. England and France have played just two non-European teams apiece since 2018. Germany has played one. Spain hasn’t played any.
But Europe’s density of top teams means that those teams might be better prepared. European qualifying groups are carefully stratified, with the heavyweights sequestered from one another and an awful lot of matches played between, say, Belgium and Estonia. The Nations League works the opposite way, with teams grouped according to tier—Spain and Portugal playing each other on one end, Andorra and Liechtenstein on the other. Four of England’s past six games have come against Italy and Germany. France had Croatia and Denmark. Those are valuable reps heading into a major tournament, far better than anything Brazil and Argentina have had that didn’t involve each other.
But many of the tournament favorites fell on their faces in the Nations League. England didn’t win a game in its group, which also included Hungary, losing three times and drawing three times to finish last. Germany was third in the same group; France third in its. Of the European teams with the best odds to win the World Cup, only Spain will advance to the Nations League finals next June. (The Netherlands, a popular dark horse but a tier below, oddswise, topped Belgium to win its group. Croatia, which could still be dangerous at the World Cup, and Italy, which definitely won’t, were the other winners.)
These teams (and the United States!) will hope that this kind of form is temporary, but it makes it tough to pick a winner ahead of time. They won’t all be this bad. But if some of them are, does that leave the door open for an underdog?
This World Cup then is a bit of a throwback to when the tournament was practically the only chance you had to see the best international teams playing one another. (Fare thee well, Confederations Cup. You were a poor prognosticator—no Confederations Cup winner ever won the subsequent World Cup—but you were fun.) Everyone’s been off grinding in their own corner of the globe. Injuries are playing a particularly large part, with the tournament happening in the middle of the club season. The 2022 trophy feels unusually up for grabs. Sure, it’s not exactly the same as when teams would show up at the World Cup with no idea about what their opponents’ deal was. The players play together in a club environment that has remained ruthlessly global. All the games can be seen everywhere. If a 17-year-old Brazilian kid was going to sweep into this tournament and score six goals the way Pelé did in 1958, we’d have heard of him by now, and I’d be trying and failing to sign him for Cadiz CF in Football Manager instead of typing this paragraph. (Endrick, the 16-year-old Brazilian next-big-thing, was left off the roster. Consider this your heads up for next time around.)
Maybe this year the Brazilian stars who are coming—Vinícius Júnior, Raphinha, Neymar—prove to be enough. The margins on most of Brazil’s losses have been fine; no other nation has made the quarterfinals in each of the past four tournaments; surely, eventually, it will be Brazil’s year again. (Imagine believing that Brazil has already won the last World Cup it will ever win. That feels weird, doesn’t it?) Or maybe the gap is still there, its latest shifts and upheavals uncharted. Maybe some other surprise team is, for the first time in a long while, preparing to pole vault over it. Who’s going to win the 2022 World Cup? There is no obvious answer. At least not yet.