The World Cup Is South America’s To Win
10:36 AM EDT on September 28, 2022
We are currently living in a time of unprecedented European dominance of international soccer. Since Brazil won the World Cup in 2002, the old continent has claimed each of the four subsequent World Cups for themselves. Before the present stretch, the only time Europe had even won two cups in a row was when Italy did it in the 1930s. And it's not just the winners; of the 16 semifinalists in the last four tournaments, 13 have been European, including all four of them in 2018. For our proud Western Hemisphere pals in South America, all of this must feel like a 20-year nightmare. But luckily, the South Americans seem to be right on the cusp of waking up.
Tuesday marked the close of the final international break before the start of the 2022 World Cup in November. A lot can still change until then—players playing themselves into or out of form, or, thanks to the insanely condensed club schedule in Europe, players suffering injuries of overuse while playing three games a week for two months straight—but the particulars of who each national team looks to be coming into Qatar is largely set. The contenders list reads something like this: At the very top, there are four favorites (Brazil, France, Argentina, England), followed by five dark horse candidates (Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium), and then everyone else. It's very difficult to see the two finalist (and even the four semifinalist) spots going to any teams other than those nine. And of those nine, nobody is looking stronger right now than Brazil and Argentina.
Over this international break, the Brazilians once again demonstrated why they are the odds-on favorites to win it all in Qatar. Brazil won its two friendlies against Ghana and Tunisia—not exactly world-beaters, but both will be at the World Cup—by a combined score of 8–1. This team is a buzzsaw. Powered by Neymar, who has maintained an unreal start to the club season at Paris Saint-Germain and has amassed nine goals (!) and eight assists (!) in just 10 (!!!) domestic and Champions League matches, Brazil is an endless fountain of creativity and danger. With Neymar in his preferred central playmaker role, with guys like Vinícius and Raphinha and Antony and Lucas Paquetá and Rodrygo flanking him out wide, and with Richarlison (and hopefully Gabriel Jesus by the time the World Cup comes around) clearing the way up top, it is close to impossible to prevent Brazil from scoring at will. And not only does Brazil feature the strongest attack in the world, its defense is nearly as impregnable as its offense is unstoppable. Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Éder Militão, Casemiro—the four of them, who will likely all play together if and when Brazil reaches the deeper stages of the knockout rounds, combine to form a brick wall capable of flattening any type of attack.
Brazil has everything: world-class talent at almost every single position, great depth along every line, a very good manager who has won the players' trust and commitment, and concrete proof not just that they can be great, but that they already are and have been for a long time (the Seleção won the 2019 Copa América, got to the final of the 2021 edition, and obliterated all comers in World Cup qualifying, going undefeated while winning 14 of its 17 games). If you're searching for flaws, you could only really point to the squad's shallow pool of unremarkable full backs, and maybe manager Tite's conservative streak that could, for instance, persuade him to bench an exploding star like Vinícius in exchange for a more disciplined player. Brazil's team is maybe not quite as good as its assorted talent, but there's probably only one national team that you could argue is currently in a better, more settled position than the Samba Boys. This is the best team Brazil has taken into a World Cup since that star-studded 2006 team that disappointed in Germany. With a team this strong, and a Neymar in this type of form, it feels like only an injury could keep Brazil from doing something special.
I mentioned before that there's only one team you could argue is at the moment better or at least more complete than Brazil. That team is Argentina. Ever since finding itself during the 2021 Copa América, the Albiceleste has been soaring. Tuesday night, Argentina capped the international break with its second-consecutive 3–0 victory, this time over Jamaica. In doing so, it extended its unbeaten streak to 35 games, a running dating back to a loss to Brazil in the 2019 Copa América. Lionel Messi put two goals past Jamaica, just as he'd put two goals past Honduras in the break's previous match. Its competition over the past week wasn't the stiffest, but the main takeaways from Argentina's latest two wins are the unparalleled levels of confidence and cohesion this team has reached.
Argentina is sort of like an inversion of Brazil. Where Brazil has amazing talent and a good team concept, Argentina has an amazing team concept and very good players. Besides Messi—who, it's worth pointing out, is back in God Mode this season after a mediocre-for-him debut campaign at PSG—Argentina doesn't have another player you'd say is definitely one of the top-five players at his position. But what the Argies do have is a roster full of excellent players who are experts at amplifying their star's strengths while compensating for his weaknesses. Messi hasn't played in a team that compliments his game so perfectly since 2015. Everything he needs, he has with the national team: players to run for him in defense, players blessed with the technique necessary to match him in combination play, players to run onto his killer passes, players to accompany him as he roams the field. As the 35-year-old has physically declined over the years, his unique abilities and predilections have required more and more compensation amongst his teammates to build a team that can compete at the highest level. He didn't have that during his last few years at Barcelona, and so his teams struggled in big games. He does have that with Argentina, and so the sky is the limit.
What's arguably even more important to Argentina's fortunes than its tactical fit is its emotional state. For once, it just feels good to play for Argentina. The size of Messi's talent, and the shadow of Diego Maradona's, meant that success, in the form of trophies, was something demanded of Argentina rather than something it hoped for. The weight of expectation clearly took a toll on Messi's generation of Argentines, especially as the team came so agonizingly close to trophies in a procession of tournament final failures, most indelibly at the 2014 World Cup. This is why Argentina's 2021 Copa América victory was so big. It finally gave Messi the trophy he'd labored so hard for, the one that banished the oppressive air of failure that had surrounded his international career. With that trophy, Messi and Argentina were liberated. For that reason, the 2022 World Cup is the least fraught one Argentina has played in probably since his very first in 2006. Because the prospect of losing no longer means LEGACY-STAINING FAILURE OF HISTORIC PROPORTIONS, Messi and his teammates are free to once again dream of success, to get excited about winning rather than to be terrified of losing. And that could make all the difference.
If you look around at the other World Cup contenders, none of them are in as good a place as the two South American giants. France might have top to bottom the best roster in the world, but the team is hardly clicking the way you'd want coming into the big tournament, and the only solution manager Didier Deschamps seems to know how to come up with is "Be more defensive." England too has oodles of talent, but has no idea how to use it all, and also has a conservative-minded manager who doesn't seem all that interested in figuring out how. Spain lacks elite players; Germany is wildly inconsistent; Portugal is similar to France and England in that it has great players but an unexceptional manager; Belgium has gotten old and is pretty bad defensively; the Netherlands plays very well as a team, but maybe lacks the match-winners needed to consistently win tough games. There really are only two complete, well-rounded, well-integrated teams going into the World Cup, and both are South American.
Knockout tournaments are inherently difficult and flukey, which is a large part of their appeal. It would not be no shock if one of Europe's large number of contenders pulls off another World Cup win to stretch the continent's streak to five. But from everything we know right now, Argentina and Brazil appear to be best positioned to end South America's continental drought by winning the trophy. Those two teams have the world's best two players, have the best combination of great talent consolidated into a great team, and have the coolest style of play. I know I will have a blast following the World Cup no matter who wins, but I do think that the best possible ending would be one where South America, the colonized continent that took Europe's sport and turned it into something beautiful, regains its spot as the kings of soccer. Whether it be white-and-sky-blue or green-and-yellow, soccer is better when there are more, vibrant colors.