As the FIFA World Cup gains momentum with group stage matches, perhaps this is an opportunity to reflect a bit and make predictions based on factors that determine eventual winners.
This is the last FIFA WC with 32 nations. The next one, a joint tournament by Canada-Mexico-US will have 48. However, it is worth noting that while it is the last, there are many things that are “firsts” about it.
It is the first FIFA World Cup to be hosted in the Middle East and the first to be held in November.
The last four FIFA World Cups have gone to “unfamiliar” territories having started in Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and now in the gulf, having started in 2002 with the co-hosting in Korea-Japan.
The host team is the lowest-ranked team in its group. The same happened in 2010 in the first FIFA World Cuo on African soil.
The new scenario is that this particular tournament is played when most “summer leagues” have just kicked off and therefore, the challenge of fatigue that is often seen at the tournament in June/July, is eliminated.
One may expect the teams with big name players who often go to the quadrennial tournament after 60/70 matches, in a season, are now in this tournament fresh and bubbling with energy. Having played 30% of their match program, and are approaching full match-competitiveness, we should brace ourselves for some excellent performance by top class players, playing their hearts out.
This is a huge boost for nations with big name players who play in big leagues. After the World Cup and for a change, it is the clubs that will welcome tired players from 5/7 matches of the highest level in the world.
France are the defending champions and it would be interesting to see how they fair, in this one. Who can forget that after they won their first one in 1998, they bombed out in the first round as defending champions in Korea-Japan, without a single win in all 3 matches in their group. France, as defending champions, finished bottom of the group with 1 point, and left without scoring a goal. But that is already out of the way, with their 4-1 win over Australia on Tuesday having given an indication of what to expect in this tournament.
But following Les Blues’ disappointing showing in 2002, and except for Brazil who won it in 2002 (and continued to win all their group matches in 2006, as is the norm for them), it became the norm that defending champions were eliminated in the first round, of the subsequent tournament.
Italy won it in 2006, and were eliminated in the first round in 2010, after drawing two of their three group matches and finished with two points.
Spain won it in 2010, and were eliminated in the first round in 2014. They only won one match beating Australia and finished 3rd in their group
The same fate befell Germany in 2018 who came in Russia as defending champions, but only won one match beating Sweden and finishing bottom of their group.
It is notable that only Brazil have defended the FIFA World Cup. After winning it in Sweden in 1958, they successfully defended it in Chile, 1962. They hold the longest record of 13 unbeaten run at the FIFA World Cup finals between 1958 and 1966, when they fell out of the first round after finishing 3rd, behind Portugal and Hungary.
They hold all the records for the FIFA World Cup having qualified for all editions and having won the most, at five and lost two. They have played in most finals. They have played most games and won most matches. Brazil and the World Cup are synonymous.
Germany have appeared in eight (winning four and losing four). However in five of those, they were still West Germany, and East Germany was also a participant.
While the rankings would suggest that the host Qatar is the lowest at 50 in their group with Netherlands (8), Senegal (18) and Ecuador (44), it is worth noting that they are a “closed book”, but are also that they are the current AFC Champions.
They won all three of their group matches (against Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and North Korea), to advance to the knock-out stage where they beat Bahrain (last 16), South Korea (last 8), UAE (last 4) and topped it by beating Japan (3-1), in the final of the tournament held in UAE, in 2019.
This on its own makes them a dangerous team. When one adds that they are playing at home, under the conditions that most players and teams will not be familiar with, may give them an edge. Much as the Netherlands are the highest ranked and therefore expected to advance, they were not in Russia in 2018 and that may present a new challenge for them.
On the basis that most of the teams that would advance and make a mark in this World Cup, as in all others, are the nations who have a clear playing philosophy, it puts a big question mark on all teams from Africa as it did in the last tournament, in Russia, where all 5 were eliminated in the first round.
The dry and dusty conditions of the Middle East, the humidity of over 60% at this time of the year and the temperatures of between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius in Doha, make it a very strange place for most of the teams. Those that will adjust quickly will stand a better chance to progress to the next stage. The fact that the official release date for players was Tuesday 9 November when the kick-off was only 11 days away, presented a completely new dimension.
With the World Cup kicking off on Sunday 20 November 2022, that meant only teams that are better prepared through their qualifications and other rigorous forms of match preparations stand a better chance to progress. The CONMEBOL qualification system, gives their teams an urge. UEFA has a similar system now, with the Nations League on top of the WC qualifiers, themselves.
On this aspect alone, CAF teams have a limited opportunity to compete successfully at this particular World Cup, more than any other. If anything, this tournament demands that teams would have been prepared before this year and definitely this month.
CONMEBOL nations would have played 18 matches per team (except for Brazil and Argentina who played 17), which gives them the best preparation for such a gruesome competition. It is no surprise that Brazil and Argentina are ranked 1st and 3rd, and having won 14 and 11, and drawn three and six matches with no losses, respectively. This is an extremely demanding qualification system that is played at very different and awkward conditions.
CAF nations only played eight matches in total. They played six in their respective groups and two in the 3rd round. This already puts them at a disadvantage. This is a continuous “disability” on the side of African teams at the FIFA World Cup. All other issues only add to this existing challenge.
UEFA countries who qualified directly would have played a minimum of eight matches and if one adds the Nations League matches, the number moves up sharply. This already puts the UEFA nations a step ahead of the CAF nations.
While this is always the case in all FIFA World Cups, it is amplified in this one as a result of the point made above of the minimal time available for the tournament preparation. National team coaches who did not find their teams, starting line-ups and team strategies during the qualifiers, would have very little time, if any, to work on that. Those who would have had enough time to set up their teams, line-ups, strategies, etc. during the qualifiers, will start and maybe finish ahead of the rest.
This is further strengthened by the shared game concept – the national playing philosophy – within each nation, irrespective of where each player might be playing his club football. Those who share the same philosophy and also play in the same league should be in a better position to progress.
France won the World Cup four years ago with players who played in different leagues but who were developed in the same philosophy in the French academies. That made them understand better what each needed to do and were assisted by the time of preparation prior to Russia. That time is not available in this World Cup.
The international games played last month gave a glimpse of what one might expect in this particular World Cup.
I would still expect that teams with a clear playing philosophy, would progress from the group stage to the last 16.
From then on, only those with special players and who are also on form, will make it all the way. I would expect different teams, from the last four that we had in the last World Cup in Russia. From those four nations, I expect a different champion, not any from the last four World Cup. There will be no new name still on the cup. Whoever will win it, has won it before. That seems more a rule than an exception.
The following nations are predicted here to make it through to the 2nd round:
Netherlands and Ecuador
England and USA
Argentina and Mexico
Franc and Denmark
Spain and Germany
Belgium and Croatia
Brazil and Serbia
Uruguay and Portugal
The good thing about football is that nothing is given and surprises are always possible. At this level though, not many surprises are possible and no miracles have happened before.
One thing worth mentioning is that while UEFA teams have been given a better chance to progress, it would not be a surprise to see at least one AFC nation emerging from their group at the expense of a UEFA powerhouse.
Let the games begin!
By Ziphozonke Dlangalala