Six hosts have won the championship in 19 World Cups. However, despite being the five-time champion, with a huge stock of talent, and a superb coach, Brazil will be playing at home, during the most heightened political atmosphere I have ever seen at the eight World Cups I covered.
There are always issues at a World Cup, but this is different. In a time of instant social media, a rising generation of Brazilians has identified futebol and FIFA and its deceptively loopy president Sepp Blatter as part of the problem in contemporary Brazil.
Building roads and stadiums and upgrading hotels and airports for rich tourists has been linked with rising bus fares, disruptions in the favelas, and other indignities of modern life. The land of the beautiful game is questioning its patrimony.
Does that matter to the outcome of the World Cup? The Brazilian players will be sequestered, but not immune to cell-phone calls from wives and girlfriends, perhaps relaying news that their aunt was tear-gassed in her neighborhood or their uncle was hit over the head by police while crossing a street.
As professional as they are, the Brazilian players will be aware of divided feelings in their own land. This cannot help the concentration needed to survive a seven-match marathon following the brutal European season most of them endure. The injuries are mounting for almost all teams.
So I think Brazil could have trouble. I’m not sure the home-continent advantage (no European team has ever won in South America) will work for Argentina or Uruguay, either. I doubt Luis Suarez can stay on keel for 90 minutes much less seven matches. And Lionel Messi is at his best getting passes from Andrés Iniesta at Barcelona, but that smooth playmaker plays for Spain in the World Cup.
What about the European squads? I love Spain. Who doesn’t, in this generation? It has brought passing and patience and brains to a heightened level. But Spain may have played one too many dog years in winning two Euros and one World Cup.
Among the other European powers, there is sometimes room for a different face in the semifinals – Turkey or Greece, lightning in a bottle, a decade ago; Belgium now, or maybe Portugal, but always Italy and now Spain have the muscle memory of playing deep into the World Cup. That is vital in the endurance contest. The Buffons and Piques have been there.
Remember the wonderful quip by the English captain Gary Lineker after losing to West Germany in 1990 in Italy?
“Football is a simple game; twenty-two men chase a ball for ninety minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
Quite a compliment, under the circumstances. And perhaps relevant again.
Germany has been coming on since 2006 at home when the Mannschaft taught Germans to wave their flags and wear national jerseys and cheer in public. There is a straight line from Jürgen Klinsmann and Joachim Löw to Löw’s semifinalists in 2010 in South Africa to the new Deutschland 3.0 version this time.
The multi-ethnic and talented German squad is ready to win for reasons as tall as Schweinsteiger (Bastian) and as short as Lahm (Philip.) Germany has a good young keeper in Manuel Neuer and a terrific distributor in Mesut Özil, the first major German player from its large Turkish population, and Thomas Müller, plus Miroslav Klose, who scores goals better with the national team than his club, because he fits in so well, because the ball is often right there for him.
If this sounds like some old national stereotype, please excuse, but from admiring German squads over the decades, I think Germany has the talent and mental strength to go into Brazil, concentrate, and get through seven matches. Gary Lineker will be right, again.