Brazil is my pick to win the tournament.
Much as I would love to back an outsider, much as I want to tell you to throw tradition out the window, much as I wish I could rip up the World Cup rule book and choose a surprise package … I can’t see it happening. Here’s why.
When the World Cup is held in South America, it is won by South Americans. When it is in Europe, the Europeans are victorious. That’s been the case in every tournament since it began in 1930 with one exception — and that was more than half a century ago (Brazil in Sweden, 1958). The Samba boys have history on their side.
Playing at home, not just on your own continent but in your own country, is a huge advantage. Very occasionally the weight of expectation overwhelms and the hosts underperform, but usually they are swept along on a tide of homegrown nationalistic support and optimism. The home nation invariably does better than could be expected if the finals were held elsewhere, and as the Brazilians are usually favorites every four years anyway, well, I see the team in those iconic bright yellow shirts holding aloft the famous trophy July 13.
On the field, they are stylish and slick but have steel and strength as well. A formidable defense featuring Dani Alves, Thiago Silva and David Luiz, with the hard-running Chelsea midfield trio of Ramires, Oscar and Willian in front of them, means they will not concede many goals. Scoring at the other end, instead of the legendary romantic names of the past like Rivelino, Socrates and Garrincha, they will have Fred, Jo, Neymar — and the improbably named Hulk.
The other main South American challenge should come from Argentina. Extremely dangerous up front with Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi, they are perhaps suspect at the back with a defense that is as occasionally porous as their attack is potent. They have not reached a World Cup semifinal in more than two decades and are overdue a good tournament.
The main European challengers in my book are Germany and Spain. Germany has also recently underperformed by their extremely high standards — they have yet to win the title as a unified country — but their third-place finish in South Africa last time is a great base to build on this summer. They have quick, talented players who are comfortable in possession — that will be vital to success in the heat of Brazil — and a young squad who play a high-pressing game. If the trophy leaves the continent, I think it will go to Berlin.
I see defending champions Spain rounding out the semifinalists. There is a murmuring in soccer circles that the Spanish are past their best, a growing feeling that they have peaked and are no longer a powerful global force. But only a fool would rule out a team packed with the abundance of riches they can call upon, and ANY member of their 23-man roster would probably start for most of the other qualifiers. I would not be surprised to see them in the final.
Belgium is the long shot to look out for. A hugely impressive qualifying campaign fueled by an embarrassment of emerging talent, this dark horse could leave some favorites for dead in an outside gallop to the last four. Two other nations who have flown under the radar somewhat, but are capable of springing a surprise, are France and Colombia.
But anything can happen. Every four years, an unfancied country bursts onto the world stage and grabs the tournament by the scruff of the neck, demanding the attention of the global audience and capturing the imagination of billions of fans. Who knows — this time it could be the turn of the United States to upset the form book. Stranger things have happened.