DOHA, Qatar — For around 80 years following the first World Cup in 1930, there was a hard and fast rule when it came to predicting which part of the world the winner would come from.
It went like this. When the tournament was being held in Europe, a European team was going to win. When it was in South America, a South American team was going to win. And if it was anywhere else, well, a South American team was going to win then, too.
The formula held true, time after time, with just a single exception, when the brilliance of Pele lifted Brazil to victory in Sweden in 1958 — although so superb was the teenage maestro’s performances that his team would probably have lifted the trophy if the final had been held in Lapland, on the moon, or underwater.
And though there were a couple of recent variations, in 2010 when Spain won the only World Cup to have been staged in Africa, and 2014, when a magnificent Germany squad toppled Brazil, 7-1, in the semis and outdueled Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the final, there is still enough historical precedent to pay attention to.
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“Geography does give an edge,” FOX soccer analyst and former USA defender Alexi Lalas told me. “It is not as simple as saying that if it is in Europe, a European team is definitely going to win, but it certainly happened with great regularity. I like how this year shapes up. Everyone is going to adapt to the conditions in their own way and no one has an automatic advantage.”
Across 21 World Cups, 16 have been held in Europe or South America. Of those, 14 were won by a representative of the host continent. Many who enjoy World Cup history also point to the two World Cups held in Central America (Mexico) and won by Brazil 1970 and Argentina 1986 as further solidifying the trend.
So, what does it all mean this time?
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When it comes to the favorites for the 2022 tournament, Qatar can be fairly seen as neutral territory.
The top eight countries in the FIFA world rankings and in the oddsmakers’ list come from soccer’s most powerful pair of continents. It would be a legitimate surprise if the ultimate champion is anyone other than Brazil, Argentina, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, England or the Netherlands.
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Factors such as familiarity and climate and subtle differences in conditions are not so much in play this time. Qatar’s desert climate doesn’t have much in common with either European or South American weather, though there is one school of thought that suggests southern European teams such as Spain and Portugal, and South American nations, might enjoy the warmth of Qatar a little more than the likes of England and Germany.
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In truth, if there is an advantage to be had, it might help the five teams from the Asian confederation — Qatar, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Australia — who have all experienced competitive action in Qatar before, perform better than expected.
“Don’t be surprised if some of the Asian teams put in a strong performance,” former Iran assistant coach Dan Gaspar told me in a phone interview. “Many of those squads will be comfortable and familiar with what they find in Qatar and will have a good idea of what to expect.”
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If a new location (this is the first World Cup ever held in the Middle East) brings some unpredictability, Lalas is looking forward to it.
“Maybe we have a new ordering of the status quo,” Lalas said. “Brazil and Argentina are my favorites, but while we are always looking to see who is going to win the tournament, for some countries getting out of the group and going on a run to the quarterfinals is an incredible achievement that elevates them a soccer nation.
“In that sense, it is wide-open. We are going to see some surprises, which is part of what keeps the tournament invigorated.”