The World Cup kicking off in Qatar tomorrow is the 22nd such tournament held in the 22nd year of this century – a happy numerical coincidence bringing luck to somebody, one might think, but to whom? Obviously the winner but who might that be is the big question springing to most lips.
In order to answer that burning question, this column will eschew the passion of multitudes to apply pure logic. The last (and indeed the only other) World Cup to be held on the Asian continent was the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea so this must be our template.
Who were the defending champions back in 2002? France, just as now. And what happened to them in South Korea? First-round elimination (completely goalless with defeats against Senegal and Denmark and only a 0-0 draw with Uruguay saving them from being completely pointless too).
And who were the favourites then in many eyes with arguably the best build-up of all? Marcelo Bielsa’s Argentina, the runaway leader of South American qualifying by a margin of 12 points with 43 out of a possible 54 (not quite so rampant this time round with 39 points but an unbeaten streak of 35 matches surely places La Scaloneta among the favourites now). And what happened to them in Japan? Again first-round elimination (a tad better than France, all three possible results in their three matches, two goals for, two against but finishing behind Sweden and England in their group of death).
But the most central question of all is: Who actually lifted the cup in 2002? The answer is Brazil and there you have my forecast for this World Cup. As a Liverpool fan I cannot help thinking that any team which can dispense with the services of Roberto Firmino (not to mention Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa) must be too strong for anybody else. And if this forecast ends up jinxing Brazil, all the better.
Brazil it will be then but does projecting the 2002 World Cup 20 years forward doom Argentina to first-round elimination? Not exactly (and nor France either, despite their rash of injuries). While this trophy is a must for Lionel Messi, it is more a case of craving than needing it for the country as a whole with two already in the bag, a case of been there, done that – even if the late Diego Maradona’s 1986 triumph lies beyond the memories of around 60 percent of the population (hence the importance attributed to the film Argentina, 1985). Argentina’s rich World Cup history includes experience of every phase but one – it has never played on that last pre-final Saturday. So that is my forecast for Argentina – that it will plug that historic gap, playing and winning the December 17 match to clinch third place for a complete medals table of gold, silver and bronze (thus joining Brazil, Germany, Italy and France in that special category).
Unlike the above, there is one forecast I neither expect nor hope to fail – that the Qatar hosts will not win this World Cup (if they do, I shall retire from journalism). There can be no other explanation than petrodollars for the choice of this tiny sheikdom with barely the space for the stadiums, zero football traditions and an impossible climate enforcing the interruption of the normal season elsewhere in the world – it is a veritable monument to corruption, quite apart from the various human rights issues prompting widespread boycott calls.
But various structural odds are stacked against Qatar, quite apart from its total inexperience. Firstly, no host country has ever won or even reached the finals in this century, strangely enough, even though those hosts included the two most successful World Cup powerhouses ever, Brazil and Germany – by way of contrast, fully half the 16 host countries in the past century reached the final with six actually winning it.
But the main barrier facing Qatar (and many others) is the overwhelming Euro-American monopoly of this event – not only all 21 World Cups until now (nine on this side of the Atlantic) but 163 of the 168 quarter-finalists since 1930 (with three West African countries and both Koreas as the intruders). At its top level the World Cup is an extremely exclusive club with 19 of the 21 trophies hoarded by a mere six nations with just over six percent of world population (now reaching eight billion as against the two billion of the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930) – at the other end China and India with over 36 percent of world population cannot even boast a single World Cup point or goal. Even if we combine all the 168 quarter-finalists, we are only talking about just over 20 percent of the world’s population.
Yet despite such daunting statistics, it would also be dangerous to underestimate Afro-Asian countries. Argentine fans need only look back to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil to recall the shock to the system from the two brilliant goals by Nigeria’s Ahmed Musa or needing 91 minutes against Iran before Messi finally put the ball in the net. Italian woes predate their absence from this and the previous World Cup – English football-lovers of the generation of King Charles III will remember the undersized North Koreans running rings around the Azzurri in Middlesbrough and sending them home before running up a three-goal lead against Portugal in the quarter-finals until Eusebio imposed a final 5-3 score at the 1966 World Cup. Anyway it now only remains to be seen how this column’s and other forecasts will be confounded over the next month.