By Tushar Bhaduri
It has been 20 years since a non-European (read South American) team lifted the FIFA World Cup. A Ronaldo-inspired Brazil triumphed in the Far East in 2002, and Italy, Spain, Germany and France have since been on top of the world in the last four editions.
The Samba sorcerers and Argentina (with one Lionel Messi in their ranks over the last 16 years) have gone into the competition with high hopes every single time, but have fallen short in front of the European challenge. In fact, all four semi-finalists at the 2018 World Cup in Russia came from Europe.
When the latest fight for football supremacy kicks off in Qatar next month, it will be a chance for Brazilian talisman Neymar to etch his name in the pantheon of the immortals, while it will be one last opportunity for Messi to add the missing piece of silverware to his trophy cabinet which many feel will finally put him on par with another Argentine icon, Diego Maradona.
Brazil and Argentina occupy two of the top three spots in the current FIFA rankings, but European nations have nine of the first 11 slots. And this strength in depth is what regularly proves too much for the South American giants to overcome. The likes of Uruguay and Colombia do possess some eye-catching talent but are – more often than not – outgunned by the European giants.
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As far as individual players are concerned, neither Messi nor Neymar made it to the 30-man shortlist for the prestigious Ballon d’Or, with France and Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema favoured to clinch the top honour. Europeans make up two-third of the elite list.
Spain was the first European team to win the World Cup outside their home continent – in South Africa in 2010, breaking another barrier. Now, sides from there are most likely to come out on top anywhere in the world. Germany even triumphed in Brazil in 2014, humiliating the hosts 7-1 in the semi-finals.
Hope springs eternal
However, the rest of the world can take heart from the only previous instance when the World Cup was staged in Asia – Brazil reigning supreme in Korea and Japan in the first edition of the 21st century. This time, the tournament will be held in the unusual November-December slot to avoid the searing Middle East summer, which may add another unpredictable variable to the mix, increasing the chances of upsets. That the tournament will arrive with the top European domestic leagues and continental competitions halfway through their seasons may have the best players in less-than-optimum conditions going to Qatar.
But the top European teams have quality replacements ready and even the mid-level sides from the continent are tough to beat, as proven by reigning Euros winner Italy failing to make it to the World Cup for the second successive edition. Some even argue that the standard of competition in the European Championship is higher than that seen in the global showpiece.
The level of scrutiny and interest in the South American giants before and during the World Cup, and the disappointment suffered when they end up without the trophy often defy logic and reason. If one thinks that England is the European team that comes closest in this regard, the interest in the Three Lions is largely media-driven with club football dominating most fans’ mindspace. Some even secretly wish for the national team to be ousted early for their club stars to be fresher for domestic and European competitions. In contrast, World Cup elimination is considered akin to a national tragedy in Brazil and Argentina, which increases the pressure on their teams many folds.
Unlike in Europe, World Cup qualification for the South American big guns is almost a foregone conclusion. The Brazil-Argentina encounters in the campaign are more about bragging rights than any realistic impact on their chances of making the tournament proper. This puts the focus on winning a World Cup almost immediately after one edition ends.
How it may unfold
Brazil find themselves in a strong Group G with Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon, but should have enough quality to top the pool. In the first knockout round, they may face fellow South Americans Uruguay. It could be a feisty encounter but the Samba boys should be confident of going through. Then it will depend on how they deal with the topmost teams in a bid for a sixth world title.
Argentina have Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Poland for company in Group C. If they top it, they are likely to come up against Denmark in the Round of 16. Over the years, they have often made heavy weather of games they should have won convincingly, but it will be a surprise if Messi & Co don’t make it to the last eight.
In a nutshell, the Qatar World Cup provides a great opportunity for South America to end its long wait for a World Cup title, but Brazil and Argentina need to play out of their skins for that to happen.