By Simon Rea
It’s upon us again – the football circus that is the World Cup. Flags are appearing on cars, houses and pubs and the talk is of heat, humidity, samba football and penalty shoot outs. If you have no interest in football now is the time to book that once in a lifetime trip to Albania or Kazakhstan, or other countries who have not qualified, for the next month.
Brazil has a special significance in the hearts of football fans. They are the most successful team in World Cup history with five titles and have been represented by outstanding footballers such as Pele, Garrincha, Zico, Romario and Ronaldo. They boast iconic stadia, such as the Maracana, placed in breath-taking settings. Certainly my interest in football was cemented by watching Brazil beat Scotland 4-1 in the 1982 World Cup. I could not believe that football could be played like that. The sport of football may have developed in England but somewhere along the line Brazil became its spiritual home.
In this article I will consider some of the important factors that may contribute to one team rising above the others and claiming the title on 12th July.
Who will be in the quarter finals?
FIFA rankings show Spain, Germany, Portugal and Brazil as the top ranked teams with England rated as 11th. The Elo ratings, developed by Arpad Elo which take into account skill levels of players and teams, the performances of teams in recent competitions and home advantage are almost in agreement. They say that the semi-finalists are likely to be Brazil, Spain, Germany and Argentina with Brazil and Argentina making it to the final. These statistical predictions look fairly sound but do not take into account what may happen during the tournament – injuries, lower ranked teams over performing or the role of luck. Also, Brazil, Argentina and Germany are three of the four most successful teams in World Cup (based on matches won) with Italy being the fourth. In a bid to raise optimism it is worth noting that England are the fifth most successful team, just ahead of Spain. Brazil are the clear favourites to win a sixth title but what are the key factors for success?
The effect of home advantage
This will be the 20th World Cup and of the previous 19 tournaments 6 have been won by the host nation. Even more relevant is that 17 tournaments have been won by a team from the Continent that has hosted the event. Spain’s 2010 victory in South Africa was something of an anomaly as was European teams gaining the first three places. Pollard (2006) identified that factors such as crowd support, less travel, familiarity with grounds and conditions, referee bias and psychological factors (the expectations of success) can all play a part. Home advantage is often reframed as away disadvantage as the tiring effects of travel, living away from home, changes in diet and lack of familiarity with weather conditions can all play a negative role.
While performance on the pitch is the only thing that counts this can be effected by what happens off the pitch. Players are forced to live, eat and breathe with each other for periods of up to six weeks. There may be clashes of personality, battles of egos, loyalties divided along club lines and all manners of barriers to team cohesion. In 2010 the French team, who had been victorious in 2002 and runners up in 2006, boycotted their final training session in protest at the sending home of Nicolas Anelka. Anelka was involved in an argument with the coach and this caused a rift between players and coach. The outcome was that France went home after the group stage. Dutch teams have also often been characterised by infighting and group conflict.
Teams need to be aware of the heat when working on tactics. The high tempo, pressing game favoured by European teams, England included, is not suited to the heat of the Brazil and particularly the jungle in Manaus. Many South American teams favour a passing team where the ball does the work and saves the energy of the players.
My choice of quarter finalists
I think Brazil and Argentina will be there and joined by two of Chile, France and The Ivory Coast. I think that the Spanish team are one major tournament past their peak and their age may work against them; Germany will be hard to beat but their reliance on Miroslav Klose to score goals is risky. Chile have two world stars in Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez and they play very attacking football. France are developing as a team and in Rafael Varane and Paul Pogba have two outstanding young players. If the Ivory Coast can develop a team ethic then players such as Yaya Toure, Chiek Tiote and Didier Drogba could make them a major force.
What about England’s chances?
I think that England are developing into a very effective team and that they will have the chance to grow throughout the tournament. In 1990 the England team was introducing players such as Paul Gascoigne and David Platt to their first tournament and they excelled on the big stage. England’s Daniel Sturridge has to be scoring goals for England to progress but it is the players who supply the chances that are the central to success. The English players to watch are Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling. Lallana has neither pace nor power but he has fast feet and can find space in tight areas; on the other hand Sterling has searing pace that can scare defenders. If England are to progress they must beat Italy as it will be difficult for them when they face Uruguay.
Who wins then?
The World Cup favours the host nation, those with the best players and the most fanatical supporters. I have to tip Brazil to win and Neymar to be top scorer.
Pollard, R. (2006). Home advantage in soccer: Variations in its magnitude and a literature review on interrelated factors associated with its existence. Journal of Sports Behaviour, 29, 169-189.