When Germany won the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 it was the first time a team from Europe had won the finals of the competition in South America. That achievement of winning outside your continent is unlikely to be repeated in Russia next year because its European nations that are in the best shape a year ahead of the World Cup and France and Belgium stand out.
The new head honcho at FIFA has come up with a bizarre plan for a 48-team World Cup from 2026 and guess what the idea has been accepted! The thinking is to make for fewer dead rubbers because the group stage involves 16 groups of 3 teams with the top two progressing to the knockout stages. UEFA messed with the 16-team format for the finals of the European Championships and that was a disaster.
Yes it was lovely for Iceland to humiliate England and Wales did wonderfully well. However, the format created lots of rubbish matches when there was no incentive to attack and score goals. Finals are supposed to be about the best and the elite and not a gathering of minnows. Tournament football is suited to the 16 or 32 team format but adding 8 or 16 more teams just messes the whole thing. Clearly these decisions are made on sporting grounds and money is not a factor.
The 2018 World Cup in Russia will be the last 32-team tournament because the 2022 finals are being played in Qatar. Even now it’s hard not to qualify and two tournaments down the line it will be so easy that even Scotland could make it. But they could then draw Gibraltar and San Marino in the group stage so will be coming home early. England will make the last 16 and lose on penalties after a spirited but ultimately unsuccessful campaign.
Brazil won the World Cup in Sweden in 1958, the United States in 1994 and Japan and South Korea in 2002. Every other South American winner became world champions in that continent. Spain won the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 but other than these occasions European and South American world champions won the World Cup in their own continent and that trend looks like continuing in Russia.
Uruguay won two of the first four World Cups and Brazil and Argentina have won seven between them. Uruguay is a small nation that is not competitive at the highest level which means Brazil and Argentina are the only potential World Cup winners from South America in 2018. However, the climate and playing conditions will count against them so other nations from Europe have the best prospects. Pele predicted an African nation could win the World Cup but no outstanding team from that part of the world has emerged.
France are the only team to win the World Cup and then the European Championships two years later, in 1998 in their own country and in 2000 in Belgium and Holland. Portugal won Euro 2016 but hardly lit up the tournament. They benefitted from the 24-team format because they qualified for the knockout stages despite finishing third in their group. Cristiano Ronaldo is half decent but not good enough to win the World Cup on his own so other teams are preferred.
England will qualify with ease and on paper they have a team that could progress a long way. However, while so few English players get a game every week in the Premier League their chances will be compromised. Germany peaked in Brazil and Italy have some ageing players without an exceptional new breed coming through. The glory days for Spain may be over and by a process of eliminations that leaves France and Belgium.
France were the best team in the European Championship finals last year. Nerves got the better of them in the final against Portugal who defended well and took their one chance. France have two genuine world class players in Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann and strength in most parts of the field. They were under massive pressure at home last year but for various reasons couldn’t deliver. France can go one better in Russia next summer and win the World Cup.
Belgium’s golden generation are still on the premises and they can count on Fellaini in midfield or up front when they are desperate for a goal. Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard can win matches on their own so Belgium can reach the final but beating France looks beyond them so Les Bleus are the next world champions.