OT: Measuring World Cup 2014 Favorites

Submitted by Eye of the Tiger on July 6th, 2012 at 12:28 PM

Given the interest here in the European Championships, I figured it might be fun to make some predictions about the World Cup 2014 as an OT diary. Sure it's not about University of Michigan sports, but this is the offseason, right? Hope it's okay with everyone, and please know that this is a one-time deal...my next diary is going to be another Reading the Tea Leaves installment, and very much about Michigan football, and the American kind at that.

Back to the subject at hand, I came up with a simple methodology for determining the favorites based 6 measures: quality of attack, midfield, defending and goalkeeping, as well as depth and team cohesion/tactics. Each is rated on a 5 pt, like this:


5 = Elite

4 = Good

3 = Adequate

2 = Problematic

1 = Poor


Obviously, these are all subjective measures, and are based on a combination of “on paper talent” and “recent performances in international competition.” Things can and will change by 2014. But I’m pretty happy with the results. I looked at 8 teams, 7 of which I figure are plausible “favorites,” while the other is England, a national team that will inevitably end up being treated as a favorite, regardless of how undeserved that title might be.

First, a breakdown of teams by the 6 categories, ranking them only according to the measures outlined above:


1. Spain (28/30)

3 (Attack)

5 (Midfield)

5 (Defense)

5 (Goalkeeping)

5 (Depth)

5 (Cohesion/tactics)


2. Brazil (25/30)

4 (Attack)

3 (Midfield)

5 (Defense)

4 (Goalkeeping)

5 (Depth)

4 (Cohesion/tactics)


3. Germany (24/30)

4 (Attack)

4 (Midfield)

4 (Defense)

4 (Goalkeeping)

4 (Depth)

4 (Cohesion/tactics)


3. Italy (24/30)

4 (Attack)

4 (Midfield)

4 (Defense)

5 (Goalkeeping)

3 (Depth)

4 (Cohesion/tactics)


3. Uruguay (24/30)

5 (Attack)

4 (Midfield)

4 (Defense)

3 (Goalkeeping)

3 (Depth)

5 (Cohesion/tactics)


6. Portugal (23/25)

4 (Attack)

3 (Midfield)

5 (Defense

4 (Goalkeeping)

2 (Depth)

5 (Cohesion/tactics)


7. Argentina (22/25)

5 (Attack)

4 (Midfield)

3 (Defense)

3 (Goalkeeping)

3 (Depth)

4 (Cohesion/tactics)


8. England (18/30)

3 (Attack)

4 (Midfield)

3 (Defense)

5 (Goalkeeping)

2 (Depth)

1 (Cohesion/tactics)


Spain is clearly top, and deservedly so. The only weakness, really, is their attack, and it’s still not bad. Besides, with a healthy David Villa, that could get upgraded to a 4 by the time the World Cup starts. Looking at second place, it’s debatable whether Brazil should be ranked higher than Germany, and doing so is perhaps a bit unfair to the Germans. However, I felt that the German defense and goalkeeping were exposed against Italy, and really when you think about it, they weren’t quite as good as they were cracked up to be. Another case could be made for Italy leapfrogging Germany, since they beat them handily in the semi-finals of Euro 2012. This would probably boil down to the argument that I undervalued the midfield. But I think, beyond Pirlo, it’s not great, and they probably overachieved at Euro 2012.

I’m pretty happy with the other assessments. Of course English readers (are there any?) might scoff at giving the Ashley Cole-led defense a meager 3, but I think if you look at Euro 2012 objectively, you see it’s well-deserved. Even with arguably the best keeper in the world behind them and a 1980s-Italy-style turtle strategy where the defenders and at least 2 midfielders stayed back, they still managed to allow 4 goals in 3 group stage games…and against decidedly mediocre competition as well. Add to that a lack of depth, the usual lack of cohesion and a tactical approach they don’t have the defensive personnel for, and you can see how far England has fallen behind the leaders. They might come together as a team by 2014, but a quarterfinal appearance would be their ceiling at World Cup 2014, and they'd need some friendly seeding to even get there.


Adjusted for Playing in Brazil

All that said, it should be noted that no European team has ever won a World Cup in the Americas, while only one South American team has ever won in Europe.  Then there’s the way good home teams often do really well (1970 Brazil winning in Brazil, 1974 West Germany winning in Germany, 1998 France winning in France, etc.). That suggests the need to make some adjustments based on the fact that World Cup 2014 is in Brazil. My methodology here is to give Brazil +2 for playing at home, and other South American teams +1 for playing near home. On the flip side, I penalize European teams -1 for playing in South America, with the exception of Portugal, whose common language, cultural ties and relatively friendly colonizer/ex-colonial relationship should make them feel more at home than other European teams. So they get no bonus or penalty. The new rankings come out like this:


1. Spain (27/30)

1. Brazil (27/30)

3. Uruguay (25/30)

4. Germany (23/30)

4. Portugal (23/30)

4. Italy  (23/30)

4. Argentina (23/30)

8. England (17/30)


This leads to the uncontroversial notion of Spain and Brazil as co-favorites, but with Uruguay as the potential dark horse. Given their Copa America victory and 4th place finish at World Cup 2010, this may not be entirely surprising. Then there’s a 4-way tie for 4th place. I ranked Germany at the top of the pile because I think they have the highest ceiling, and Argentina the lowest because I remain unconvinced by basically everyone on that team not named Lionel Messi. 

Of course, who makes it to the final also has to do with bracketology and seeding. In the recent European Championships, Portugal might have made it to the final had they faced Italy instead of Spain in the semi-finals. (I'm pretty sure Germany would have lost to Spain, though.) Still, I'm going to put my proverbial cards on the table and say--if there aren't any major injuries or other unexpected calamities befalling the teams in question, my way-too-early prediction is that Spain, Brazil and Uruguay will comprise 3 of the 4 semifinalists.

The first two may be hardly controversial, but for good reason. No one has beaten or even scored on Spain in a knockout match since 2006. They've won an unprecedented 3 tournaments, and are still young enough that a 4th is entirely plausible. Brazil may not have the 1958, 1970 or 1994 team, but they won in 2002 with a side that had trouble qualifying, and this time they're at home. Uruguay gives me the same "hey these guys could really do it" feeling that Germany did in 2010 and 2012, which of course makes it unlikely they will, but a return to the semifinals does seem likely to me. 

The 4th semifinalist is up for grabs. After 3 consecutive tournament semifinal appearances, this is Germany's moment to prove it's not the Second Coming of Pre-2008 Spain, a gloriously talented team with dazzling skill but with the collective psychology of the Maginot Line. Can they do it? Or does Portugal surprise? I'll leave that one up to the (association) football gods. 



July 6th, 2012 at 12:59 PM ^

really follow soccer too closely, I don't have much of a comment on your content, although it looks solid/well thought out. I did want to say good work, and it's interesting seeing some OT in the diary section, especially given the time of year, and especially from people known to write solid diaries.

Keep up the good work, and as someone who doesn't get around to other sports sites often, it's interesting to see MGoAnalysis on topics other than NCAA Football, some NCAA hockey and some NCAA basketball.


July 6th, 2012 at 1:09 PM ^

...the interest of the casual soccer fan if you also evaluated the USMNT even though we know they can't be considered a "favorite" or remotely in the league of the sides you highlighted. I imagine it would be interesting to folks to see what a steep climb it is for the US. Also, if you're looking for a dark horse, don't discount Mexico.

Eye of the Tiger

July 6th, 2012 at 1:30 PM ^

It's a good idea to rate the US as well. Unfortunately, I think CONCACAF teams are comparably hard to evaluate. The US team is not doing well these days, but it's a bit hard to figure out the cause for decline, since we were very competitive at World Cup 2010 with a squad that's mostly intact today. At the moment, though, we look like a team that won't make it out of the group stages. Hopefully that changes. 

Mexico do look good at the moment, and I expect them to make it to the knockout round, and barring a bad draw, to the quarterfinals. I'm not entirely on the dark horse backwagon, though, as I have a hard time seeing them beat any of #s 1-7 on my list.



July 6th, 2012 at 3:08 PM ^

While a run by the US may be unlikely, I think it would pique the interest of soccer fans here, whom I would presume to be around 90% pro-USA. Obviously we are struggling a little bit in the qualifying stages and haven't looked very good since the 5-0 pummeling of Norway a couple months back; at the same time, however, we also need to realize that Klinsmann is bringing with him almost a completely revamped attacking style (as opposed to Bradley's favorite sit back and counter approach), and that this will take time to provide positive results (much like implementing a new system in American football). In two years' time, perhaps we will be in the conversation to reach the quarters or even semis.

I'll be the first to admit I was behind in picking up on the soccer trend (started to follow somewhat in 2006 World Cup, have been trying to follow soccer relatively closely since 2010 World Cup), but I'll do my best to assess the US squad on the same measures:

3 (Attack - solid but not great with Dempsey, Altidore, Boyd, maybe Agudelo, half-Donovan)

4 (Midfield - Donovan should still be top three player for us and Bradley has impressed)

3 (Defense - assuming Gooch is gone)

4 (Goalkeeping)

2 (Depth)

3 (Cohesion/tactics)

19/30 may be a bit ambitious and somewhat biased, but I think it's a reasonable rating.

While the 4-1 mark Brazil put on us in a recent friendly looks horrendous, we really had a number of impressive chances and seemed to at least belong on the same field as them.

I'll be interested to hear other input here specifically on the US side.


Eye of the Tiger

July 6th, 2012 at 3:16 PM ^

Though I'd probably rate the defense as a "2." Brazil didn't just beat us 4-1, they beat us 4-1 with most of their younger, untested players. 

Of course it's easy to read too much into a single game. I could just as well say "the US recently beat Spain" and it would be just as misleading. 

I think an 18/30 or so seems appropriate, and I feel like--right now--we look like a team that has one good game in the group stages but struggles to make it to the knockout round.I hope that's overly pessimistic, though!




July 6th, 2012 at 5:01 PM ^

Although from what I've heard many of those younger and inexperienced players will make up the core of Brazil's team come 2014, notably Neymar, who seems to be a rising star. It is really quite amazing to me sometimes how quickly guys seem to fade from their prime in soccer. Ronaldinho was often placed among the best players in the world around 2010 but I don't even think he played a minute in the 2010 World Cup.


July 6th, 2012 at 1:30 PM ^

From now until the end of time, World Cup analysis should start with this:

Germany and Brazil are favorites to make the final

and work your way from there to find other favorites. Argentina and Spain are the only two other nations that will be in a position to contend for the title in 2014. No stats are needed to confirm this.

Eye of the Tiger

July 6th, 2012 at 1:39 PM ^

Italy. They've won more titles than Argentina, and more recently too. Actually they've had 2 final appearances since Argentina's last, which was a 1990 loss to (West) Germany. Germany made it to the final in 2006, but hasn't won since 1990. So I'm not putting too much stock in "ancient" history. 

That said, a Brazil-Germany final is indeed plausible. Brazil should be a semifinalist, and then it will come down to who they play and how important playing at home is for Brazil. Germany could be a semifinalist, and they could be finalists. God knows they have the talent for it, and it would be fittingly ironic that arguably the "most Brazilian" style of play would win in Brazil, and improbably come from the Germans.

But after 3 of 4 straight tournaments where I "got this feeling" about Germany only to see them crash out in the semifinals (oddly they made it farther in the tournament that was clearly Spain's), I'm hesitant to predict they'll go farther. Might happen, but I wonder if this team has the mettle to play rought-and-tumble with more organized sides like Italy and Spain. 



Eye of the Tiger

July 6th, 2012 at 2:07 PM ^

My bad there. 2006 is actually in the Italy bit. I meant 2002. But that's what happens when you click send before looking over what you wrote...

On another note. I'm not sure why you're responding with such an aggro tone, though. You made a strong statement, and the only reason I can think of why would be historical performance in the World Cup. Is that wrong? Or do you actually think Germany is always the 1st or 2nd best team in these tournaments? I figured you said it for historical reasons, and if so, you did forget to include Italy, who are historically one of the best sides in World Cup play, and have had more recent success in the World Cup than either Germany or Argentina. 



July 6th, 2012 at 1:43 PM ^

Interesting analysis, but it's a little too early, I think.  Two years is a long time for rosters to change.   Some of Spain's veterans, like Xavi and Casillias, have mulled retirement from the national team before, for instance.  



coastal blue

July 6th, 2012 at 8:10 PM ^

Casillas will not retire, especially not with such a chance at history. Also goalkeepers tend to play longer than the other positions. 

Xavi is the only possible loss from the the team that played in Euro 2012. He will be 34 come 2014, so he will have a decision to make. Even if he were to retire or lose a step and be replaced, Fabregas can slide into that role with a minimal ebb in talent. Not to mention they have guys like Mata and Navas who can easily step into MF roles. 

If Villa regains his health and/or Torres finds his form, Spain should be the unquestionable favorite in Brazil. Even if they don't, I would still place them at the top with Brazil. 

Eye of the Tiger

July 7th, 2012 at 11:49 AM ^

The have Pepe Reina as the backup. Embarrassment of riches. 

Xavi would be more difficult to replace, but what they would probably do is move Fabregas back and then employ a traditional striker--or, gasp, two--up front. So the midfield would be Xabi Alonso, Fabregas and Busquets, and the attack would be Iniesta, Villa/Pedro and Silva. Navas and Matta could also play in midfield. 

Xavi may be a genius, but that's still a horrifying group to come up against. 





July 7th, 2012 at 12:27 PM ^

But it's not just an issue of talent.  Casillas is a great captain.  He's consistently been able to smooth over the differences between the Barça and the Madrid players in the Spanish locker room.  That had historically been a huge problem for Spain before he arrived.  There are lots of teams with the raw talent to win it all.  Spain has had fantastic team chemistry and has worked together as a unit.  That's been the difference.


Eye of the Tiger

July 7th, 2012 at 3:42 PM ^

When you are going from A+ to A, and you have the best international defense unit right in front, it's hardly a crisis brewing. More like something to adapt to. 

The best parallel I can think of would be Germany switching from Oliver Kahn in 2002 to Jens Lehmann in 2006. Kahn performed better in 2002 than Lehmann did in 2006, but Lehmann was still pretty damned good and Germany still got to the semifinals. 

...and that's on a team that had nowhere near the depth of talent and cohesive, goalkeeper-friendly tactics of this Spain team. 

Of course, that's also discounting the fact that there's no way in hell Casillas misses World Cup 2014. He'll still be a year younger than Buffon was this year.  


July 6th, 2012 at 1:56 PM ^

Brazil did not win the 1970 title in Brazil. They won in Mexico. Brazil last hosted in 1950, when they lost to Uruguay in the "final."

As weird as it is to say, I agree that the presence of the tournament in South America must be a consideration; World Cups have been played for too long for the existing trends not to be indicative of something real. The one caveat to this is that in decades past, there was more separation between South American and European players, so that players from each continent were more used to playing in their own region. Now, a majority of the best players play in Europe, which makes success there easier to come by (see: 2002) and advantages potentially harder to gain in Brazil. Of course, Neymar may still be playing for Santos, then, so...

The upcoming World Cup will be an interesting tournament for defining this era of Soccer as it relates to its best players. There is little question that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two best players in the world right now, and they are quickly approaching the narrow "best ever" category. They have been dominant players for their club sides over long seasons, and while they have both made important national team contributions, their national team success has thus far been limited and unmemorable. If either succeeds in a significant way at the World Cup, it will burnish their legacy considerably; if neither do, it likely indicates that individual greatness no longer translates to national team success so directly as it once did. 


Eye of the Tiger

July 6th, 2012 at 2:15 PM ^

Cheers for pointing that out...fixed now. 

Interesting point about Ronaldo and Messi. I think there's an argument that they are among the best ever, but usually you need a major World Cup legacy to cement that...even if it's in a losing effort like with Cruyff (twice).

I'm not so keen on Argentina this year, though who knows? Maybe playing in South America will help them, and they did just beat Brazil. But as good as Messi is, I have a hard time seeing them beat Spain, or Brazil when they are playing at home.

Portugal...well, they do have a killer defense, and a lot of World Cup winners have done so with the formula of killer defense + one monumental goalscorer.  Plus I figure they will be less affected by playing in South America, given the shared language and culture with Brazil. They could be a dark horse, I think. 




July 6th, 2012 at 5:05 PM ^

Your second paragraph correlates my point: If Messi and Ronaldo are unable to have strong impacts on the next World Cup, it will likely be viewed less as an indictment of their legacies and more as an indicator that individual greatness is less defined by one's success in the World Cup than in years past.

Now this may be because the nature of World Cup success has changed, or because the media landscape allows one to better appreciate greatness as demonstrated by a player's week-to-week play for their club, or because the Champion's League has gained greater prominence and is, perhaps, just as hard to win. But the chances that Lionel Messi will always have a World Cup asterisk on his final career evaluation are small.

And this probably makes sense. If Messi has a decent World Cup but Argentina's team is so mediocre that he bows out in the quarterfinals, that shouldn't be held against him. Back in "the day," the World Cup defined so much of a player's legacy because that was the only time many contemporary pundits really got to see that player work. Nobody was watching Pele play in Brazil every week, but for a month of a World Cup his brilliance was visible and became a disproportionate section of his legacy. Even players in Europe weren't widely seen by people outside of the country they played in: people don't have much in the way of vivid memories of Diego Maradona's spectacular (and tumultous) reign in Napoli, but everyone who cares about soccer has seen his two big highlights from that England game over and over again. 

But now, in our digital age, Lionel Messi's four-goal game against Arsenal is broadcast on national television in the United States and around the world. Every one of Cristiano Ronaldo's goals (and there are a lot of them) are viewable almost instantly on the internet. And for both, their biggest games in the Champion's League, where they have had so many incredible moments, have been ratings bonanzas around the world. 

So things have changed. Cristiano Ronaldo had a great European Championship, but I haven't seen a lot of buzz about how this changes his legacy; it is seen as part of a larger narrative, one aspect of a season of greatness. And so it will be if Ronaldo and Messi have "meh" World Cups.

Of course, hyperbole and fandom being what it is, if one of them carries his team on his back to the final, it will be lionized forever. The potential legacy positives, in this instance, far outweigh the potential negatives.


July 6th, 2012 at 2:34 PM ^

Spain has lost in a knockout stage in a "major" competition since 2006. And it actually came at the hands of the USA in the 2009 Confederations Cup.

And before we dismiss the victory under the ground that Spain probably put out their 'B' side...

Spain Starting XI

Casillas/Pique/Puyol/Sergio Ramos/Capdevila/Riera/Xavi/Xabi Alonso/Fabregas/Torres/David Villa

The only main guy missing from that squad is Iniesta.

Considering the US ended Spain's 35-game unbeaten streak in international competitions and are one of two teams to beat them since 2006 (Switzerland in the 2010 WC Group Stage, being the other)

Eye of the Tiger

July 6th, 2012 at 3:23 PM ^

If so, then yes you are right. But most commentators don't rate it too highly (though that could always be a function of bias). In the end, it's subjective, and if you count it then of course you are right. I don't, which explains why I didn't mention 2009. The argument goes that the major sides don't really take it seriously, and look at it as more of a tuneup to the real action than as real action in and of itself. But again, it's a matter of perspective. 

Regardless, the US victory is, I think,  impressive any way you cut it. We also beat Italy in a friendly not long ago. So those are things to build upon. 

However, that still leaves Spain as a team no one has scored on, in the two biggest and most fiercely competitive tournaments in the world, since 2006. That's still a mightly feat.

Wisconsin Wolverine

July 6th, 2012 at 3:09 PM ^

I will go (way) out on a limb & adventurously predict a startling Dutch phoenix rising from the ashes of its historic Euro Cup meltdown this year.  Holland figures out how to stop messing around long enough to finally put together a winning World Cup campaign.  Hoorayyy!

And just to make things even weirder, I'll kick this thing into another dimension & predict that they'll face off against Australia in the finals.  Why?  I have no idea.  I really don't think it'll happen, I'm just daydreaming now.


July 6th, 2012 at 3:54 PM ^

There are only 2 actual teams who are likely to win this thing.

1.  Brazil.  B/c they are Brazil and will be at home.  And don't have to risk injuries through difficult qualifiers.

2.  Spain.  B/c of the 3 trophies they hold right now and are, on neutral territory, flat-out the way best team on the planet, and one of the 3 best in world history.  BUT... no Euro team has won the WC when it has been played in South America.  Spain will have to overcome history in order to win.

I give no one else a realistic chance, saving some kind of amazingly unpredictable upset.  Germany is young and far from perfect and NOT from South America either.  Argentina has Messi, but he can be neutralized (e.g. Spain's players for Barca and Real Madrid know all about that).  Holland is, well... shackled to its history.  England always thinks more of itself than it should, and the new goal-line technology isn't going to really help them much.

There is only one sleeper I see.  Uraguay, given their talent and location, are a definite threat.  But Brazil playing at home is worth a goal a game.  Ask the French -- who utterly flamed out 4 years after winning on home soil.

coastal blue

July 6th, 2012 at 8:05 PM ^

Im sorry, did you miss that 6 year stretch where Spain won Euro 2008 (over Germany), World Cup 2010 (beat Germany in the semifinals) and Euro 2012? Or the part where they will take basically the same team in their prime into World Cup 2014, with the possible exception of Xavi and perhaps the inclusion of a healthy David Villa? 

Clearly the favorites are Spain, followed by the home team Brazil.

If you're gonna be a dick, try and be correct. 

Edit: This was in response to jg2112. Glitch. 

coastal blue

July 6th, 2012 at 10:54 PM ^

Since a puzzling amount of people seem to be discounting Spain, these are the ages of the the key players going into 2014.

Starters in Final

Casillas: 33 (not that old for a keeper)

Alba: 25

Arbeloa: 31

Pique: 27

Ramos: 28

Xabi Alonso: 32

Xavi: 34

Iniesta: 30

Busquets: 25

Fabregas: 27

Silva: 28

The only guy who could be considered "old" in this line-up is Xavi at 34. I suppose you could possibly include Alonso at 32, but even that leaves 8 guys in their prime and the best goalkeeper in the world at a stage where most goalies play 7-8 more years.

On the bench you have guys like:

Mata: 26

Torres: 30

Pedro: 26

Villa: 32

Navas: 28

Albiol: 28

it goes on like that for a while. 

Barring mass injuries, Spain should have yet another roster in its prime. 

I like their chances of the back to back. 

Eye of the Tiger

July 7th, 2012 at 11:55 AM ^

He was 33 this time around, and widely considered to be one of the top 5 players in the tournament. Certainly he was the best player on his team, and one of the biggest reasons Italy made it to the final. 

In 2014, Xavi will be only one year older than Pirlo was in 2012, has a better supporting cast and plays on a team that has plausible substitutes for him if he gets tired. 

coastal blue

July 7th, 2012 at 1:04 PM ^

I'm with you. 

People seem to think that Spain should be getting old, simply because they've been so good the past 6 years, when in reality, almost their entire team will be in their prime or near it going into 2014. 

My only point was that Xavi is the one guy who MIGHT show some noticeable decline. And really, as you said about Pirlo, I doubt it. 


July 6th, 2012 at 11:04 PM ^

I love how disgustingly good Spain's lineup is when you're calling David Villa and Torres as people on the bench.

I think you're going to see Brazil with less of a solid defense but more of an attack in the next World Cup back to playing the beautiful game.

At some point you would think that Spain playing longer into tournaments and Real Madrid and Barcelona always in games is going to catch up with them but so far it hasn't.


July 6th, 2012 at 11:05 PM ^

Also, England's lineup in the last world cup had no reason but to make a deep run but the tactics (oh and Emile Heskey of all people touching the ball every damn time they had a shot) just sucked.

swan flu

July 10th, 2012 at 6:49 PM ^

I'm betting on Argentina for one reason only.  Leo Messi has accomplished everything there is to accomplish except for winning big with Argentina. 


He will be 26 for the WC, in the prime of his career (though it is hard to imagine he can be better than 3 Ballon d'Or awards in a row) and it will be a major tournament on his home continent.


You can discount the argument with as many stats as you want about his international play, but as Diego Forlan demonstrated in South Africa, it only takes a few spectacular moments to change a tournament.


Im puttin a big bet on Argentina in 2014.