World Cups are not won by the best team over the last four years. They are won by the best team over the next four weeks – and that’s not always the same thing. Tournament football has a unique dynamic: it’s nothing like the normal routines of everyday club football and one-off internationals.
The World Cup of 2022 will be won by the team that gets on a roll. They might start slowly, they may have a dodgy result or two in the group stage, but once the knock-out matches come along they will build up a head of steam. It’s all about the meshing of personalities, establishing a routine of excellence, the emergence of new talent while established players sink their differences and find a good rhythm.
We find football at its best when highly talented individuals create something better than themselves. But when a tournament starts, no one knows which teams will create such a thing, still less sustain it as the tournament progresses.
So here’s a tip: watch the group matches and look for the team that seems to grow: the one that comes together: the one that finds a new star: the one in which the big names are clearly playing for the team rather than their reputations. Look for the team with all eleven players on the pitch operating as one: remember them and see if they get better as the matches start to matter more. Brilliant starts mean very little: what matters is a brilliant finish.
Brazil are inevitably favourites, even though they haven’t won for 20 years. They’ve got great players in every position and if Neymar concentrates on scoring goals rather than rolling about every time he gets a nudge, they have a Golden Boot contender. Perhaps more importantly, a confident and united Brazil have a sense of entitlement that no other nation can match.
Argentina blow hot and cold, and everything in the team revolves around Lionel Messi. Messi has never played at his best in international football, but if he gets the rest of the team playing round him, Argentina could go all the way. It’s all about team dynamics: if Argentina get seriously hot then few could stop them.
Only two nations have managed to retain the World Cup: Italy in 1938 and Brazil in 1962. France are aiming to do the same thing. They won with some style four years ago, not least because of the emergence of Kylian Mbappé, who has come on a street since then. His partnership with Karim Benzema is a thing to be feared by any team in the competition.
Talent and anxiety
England go into the tournament with a team packed with talent and anxiety. Self-doubt has been an English footballing tradition for the last half-century, but they were good value as semi-finalists last time. Perhaps they rely too much on Harry Kane: but Kane, who won the Golden Boot with six goals last time around, is all about reliability.
There are some notable absentees from the tournament: Italy, Egypt, Nigeria and Colombia all failed to make it. Some long-shots are worth keeping an eye on: Senegal with Sadio Mané might get on a run for Africa. Belgium have Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bryune. Netherlands are always innovative and adventurous, and they traditionally delight in punching above their weight.
Watch the group matches and wait for the click: the moment when luck and skill and team spirit all come together. The team that finds that click will win the World Cup.
Simon Barnes is author of a dozen books on sport, including Epic and The Meaning of Sport. He was formerly chief sportswriter of The Times.