What makes a World Cup winner? Are there commonalities between the 19 teams who have lifted the trophy? And, if so, could those common characteristics be used to predict the winner of the 2014 installment of the world’s biggest sporting event with any accuracy?
Given that the next World Cup will be held in Brazil, it wouldn’t be all that unreasonable to suggest that the teams from the Americas will go into the tournament with an advantage simply because of its location. Seven times previously the competition has taken place in either North or South America, and on each occasion the winner has come from this side of the Atlantic.
There have also been five World Cup finals hosted south of the equator, and of the winners only Spain (South Africa 2010) hailed from the Global North. Of the 20 semifinalists in South America-based tournaments, 10 have represented the host continent—a number disproportionate to the World Cup’s geographical makeup.
This will no doubt come as welcome news to the likes of Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador. 2014 hosts Brazil—who, based on recent results, may struggle to contend—will be glad to know the tournament patrons have won the World Cup nearly a third of the time since Uruguay claimed the inaugural title in 1930.
The manager of that Uruguay side was Alberto Suppici, a diminutive former left-half who was one of his country’s football pioneers.
But for a brief spell at Montevideo side Central Espanyol, his entire career was spent in the national setup, and the only two trophies he won as a manager—the World Cup and the 1929 South American Championship—were won with La Celeste.
More often than not, the World Cup-winning manager has been an international specialist rather than a club football journeyman, although the most recent winners—Spain’s Vicente del Bosque and Italy’s Marcello Lippi—are notable exceptions.
Vittorio Pozzo, for example, won nothing at club level, but he guided Italy to World Cup glory in both 1934 and 1938 and also coached the Azzurri to Olympic Gold in Berlin in 1936.
Italy’s other World Cup-winning manager, Enzo Bearzot, spent 27 years working for the Italian Football Federation and only three for Tuscany side Prato.
The three managers who won World Cups for Germany—Sepp Herberger, Helmut Schon and Franz Beckenbauer—combined to win just two domestic titles (one in France, one in Germany and both by Beckenbauer).
Then there's longtime England manager Sir Alf Ramsey, who won one league title with Ipswich before an 11-year stint with the Three Lions that included the 1966 World Cup.
The day-to-day demands of the club game would seem to require a rather different skill set than the more intricate, premeditated methods required of international managers, whose very positions require that their approach be broader than that of their counterparts.
Given the cobbled-together nature of their squads, it’s no surprise that managers will often transfer chemistry developed at club level to the national setup. This is especially true along the back line, although most World Cup winners have deployed duos with some familiarity further up the pitch as well.
De Bosque’s Spain side that won the 2010 World Cup relied heavily on the combined chemistry of La Liga heavyweights Barcelona and Real Madrid. Nine of the 11 players deployed for the final against the Netherlands played their club football for one of the Clasico rivals, and a 10th—David Villa—moved to Camp Nou ahead of the following season.
Barcelona pair Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique operated together in the centre of defense, and Blaugrana midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta were among the top playmakers of the competition.
Spain are by no means unique in their reliance on two club teams, but theirs is an extreme example of transplanted chemistry.
In 1974, Schon picked selected seven players from Bayern Munich and five from Borussia Monchengladbach to his West Germany team, and Bayern teammates Beckenbauer and Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck started alongside one another in the final against the Netherlands.
Four years later, River Plate pair Leopoldo Luque and Oscar Ortiz started up top for Argentina in the final, and four years after that Bearzot’s Italy side featured Juventus defenders Antonio Cabrini, Claudio Gentile and Gaetano Scirea in front of Bianconeri goalkeeper Dino Zoff.
There are, however, World Cup winners that have blown the club-chemistry theory out of the water. France of 1998 and Brazil of 1970 come to mind.
But a common thread does seem to exist when it comes to the age of successful players at a World Cup finals. FIFA data tabulated by ESPN ahead of the 2010 event found that the teams that tended to progress from round to round were, on average, slightly older than the ones they left behind.
And there is also something to be said for the best players in a World Cup-winning team coming off successful seasons for their clubs.
Spain in 2010 were loaded with recent La Liga winners from Barcelona; in 1998 France talisman Zinedine Zidane had just completed a Ballon d’Or-worthy season at Juventus. In 1962 Garrincha was in the midst of a treble-winning season with Botafogo, and in 1994 Romario had just won La Liga with Barcelona.
But is any of this helpful in projecting which teams will enjoy success in Brazil?
Probably, at least to some degree. Then again, we could always end up with a Spain that defies the hemispheric pattern or a France that doesn’t rely on transferred chemistry.
Hosts Brazil have a number of things going for them, including geography and a manager in Luiz Felipe Scolari who is an international specialist. David Luiz, Ramires and Oscar offer a Chelsea connection, but when it comes to age and experience the five-time World Cup winners are still a bit green behind the ears.
Argentina, too, would seem to come out of this exercise as a legitimate World Cup favourite. Manager Alejandro Sabella, while relatively new at coaching, looks to have taken to the international game, and both their previous world championships came in the Americas (both times in Mexico City). So they have location working in their favour.
Then there is Lionel Messi, who has scored 56 goals in 44 matches so far this season and could well lift a fourth European Cup to go along with an almost certain sixth Spanish title.
Germany, aside from the fact that they have never won a World Cup outside Europe, hit many of the right notes. Joachim Low is as specialized an international manager as they come, and many of their best players, including Phillip Lahm, Jerome Boateng, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller, are having superb seasons at Bundesliga champions-elect Bayern Munich.
Spain, finally, are the only European side to have won a World Cup in the Southern Hemisphere and have experience on their side as well.
And as long as Xavi and Iniesta are in the team they’ll always be in the mix for international silverware.
The Barcelona contingent is headed toward another league title and both they and Real Madrid are in the last eight of the Champions League. Manager Vicente Del Bosque, while accomplished at club level, has earned his stripes internationally, winning both a World Cup and European Championship in his time with La Roja.
A combination of geography, managerial specialization, chemistry and a good season of football from your best players would seem to add up to something resembling World Cup contention, but the anatomy of a winner—especially in tournament play—is hardly an exact science.
While these items make for good talking points it’s the unpredictable variables that make international football exciting. It’s the luck, the refereeing and the occasional penalty shootout that tend to dominate post-match discussion.
Unpredictability, after all, is why we watch.