It’s hard to believe — mostly because it’s currently November and not June 1 — but the 2022 World Cup kicks off at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, on Nov. 20. The host nation will square off against Ecuador in the first World Cup match ever played in the Arab world. And the start of the tournament comes with plenty of questions about who might lift soccer’s most prestigious trophy.
Will it be Brazil, the betting favorite? Or could France become the first nation to repeat since 1962? Is Spain’s new golden generation — piloted by teenagers like Barcelona midfielders Gavi and Pedri — as good as its previous golden generation? 2 Does Lionel Messi have enough left in the tank to lead Argentina to glory and further cement himself as the G.O.A.T.? Is football finally coming home?3 Which squads could shock the world? Is there any shine left on Belgium’s underachieving golden generation?
Last week, we used Elo ratings to measure historical Groups of Death at the World Cup, and also to see where this year’s groups rank — or if a Group of Death even exists this time around. (TL;DR: We’re not sure/it’s complicated.) Today, we’re back with our full-fledged World Cup forecast model to take a broader look at the field and try to answer who’ll be the last team standing on Dec. 18.
|Team▲▼||Group▲▼||SPI Rk▲▼||Make Rd of 16▲▼||Win Group▲▼||Make Final▲▼||Win Final 🏆▲▼|
The obvious team to start with is Brazil. Like we said up top, the Seleção has the shortest betting odds to win in Qatar. Brazil is also ranked first by the FiveThirtyEight Soccer Power Index, and our model gives it a field-leading 22 percent chance of winning the whole thing. Its squad features superstars from the world’s biggest and most competitive leagues — players like Alisson (Liverpool), Casemiro (Manchester United), Gabriel Jesus (Arsenal), Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), Raphinha (Barcelona) and Thiago Silva (Chelsea). In fact, Brazil is so stacked up front that it left Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino off the squad, despite the fact that he ranks ninth in the Premier League in non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes.4 Brazil will have to navigate the tournament’s toughest group by Elo rating, but if it gets through unscathed, the rest of the field should be terrified.
Next up: Spain. La Roja enters the tournament in something of a strange position — probably not as great as the iteration that won three consecutive major tournaments from 2008 to 2012,5 but certainly good enough to be considered a contender. Our model thinks Spain is the second-best men’s national team in the world, and gives it the second-best odds at winning in Qatar (11 percent). Jordi Alba and Busquets are the only players remaining from the team that completed an historic treble at Euro 2012 in Kyiv, but the kids are alright. If they come to play, Spain has a real shot at celebrating the winter holidays as world champions. (If they don’t, Spain could find itself in the same position it did in Brazil in 2014: eliminated in the group stage.)
France, the defending champ, enters the tournament with the third-best odds according to our model (9 percent). Les Bleus have plenty of continuity from their cup-winning squad four years ago — for example, Ousmane Dembélé, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, Hugo Lloris, Kylian Mbappé, Benjamin Pavard and Raphaël Varane — and have added current Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema to the mix.6 With Benzema leading the line and flanked by the likes of Dembélé and Mbappé, France will be amongst the most dangerous teams in the attacking third in Qatar. It hurts to lose midfield geniuses N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba to injuries, but Real Madrid teammates Eduardo Camavinga and Aurélien Tchouaméni should help blunt the pain. No one should be shocked if France pulls off the repeat.
Finally, there’s Argentina. La Albiceleste (The White Sky and Blue) will likely go as Messi goes. Messi is 35 now, but he’s still among the game’s elite players. After a slow start to his time in Paris, he’s now shredding Ligue 1 defenses with the same regularity he shredded La Liga defenses for the previous decade-plus. The same is true in the Champions League. So far this season, Messi has 26 goal contributions in just 19 matches across all competitions. Messi has probably done enough in his career to stake sole claim to the G.O.A.T. moniker, no matter what happens in Qatar. But a World Cup championship would remove any doubt.
Knocking on the door of contending
Our model gives Portugal the joint fourth-best odds (tied with Argentina at 8 percent), but its most famous player — Cristiano Ronaldo — is a shadow of the superstar he used to be. In 10 Premier League matches, Ronaldo has scored just one goal and hasn’t registered a single assist. His decline comes at an inopportune time for Portugal, which will be without Liverpool forward Diogo Jota, who’s nursing a calf injury. Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Rafael Leao will have to do a lot of heavy lifting on the offensive side of the pitch for Portugal to have any chance of winning its first World Cup. Prediction: Ronaldo retires without the thing he desires most.
Let’s move from the Iberian Peninsula to Germany and England (the rivalry that keeps on giving). According to our model, each has a 6 percent chance of winning soccer’s biggest prize. Despite its long-ish odds, Germany has the third-best men’s national team in the world according to FiveThirtyEight’s SPI, so expect Die Mannschaft to mount a legitimate challenge. A win would give Germany its fifth World Cup title — and draw them level with Brazil as the most successful team in the history of the tournament. As far as England goes, football either is or is not coming home — it all depends on who you ask. As expected, national team manager Gareth Southgate made headlines for his squad selection. The omission that sticks out more than most: AC Milan center back (and Serie A winner) Fikayo Tomori. The defender is one of the best playing in Italy right now, but therein lies the issue: Southgate doesn’t appear to have much time for players who do their thing outside of the Premier League. Instead, the England manager stuck with his guns and made the curious move of selecting Harry Maguire ahead of Tomori. (Maguire has fallen out of favor at Manchester United.)7
Last among the next-best tier of teams: the Netherlands. Oranje will rely heavily on defenders Nathan Aké, Matthijs de Ligt, Jurriën Timber and Virgil van Dijk. Manager Louis van Gaal likes to play three at the back, and it will certainly consist of some combination of these four. They’re all world-class defenders — with van Dijk being arguably the best center back in the world — and they’re all goal threats from set pieces. Typically, international tournaments are more tactically rudimentary than league play, mostly because players don’t get as much time to train together and internalize the kinds of hyper-intricate systems they’re used to playing in during a club campaign. In these cases, sometimes the path to glory is paved with stout defending and well-organized set piece play. So don’t count the Flying Dutchmen out.
The dropoff from the “next-best” to this group is sharp. Belgium is unquestionably the most talented team in this category, boasting the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, 8 and Romelu Lukaku. Perhaps no golden generation has received as much criticism as Belgium’s, which has underachieved at every major tournament it’s played in. Is this the last hurrah for this crop of players — or is their best already behind them?
And while we don’t expect Croatia, Denmark or Uruguay to go the distance, they should all be fun to watch in Qatar.9 Things to watch for include: Luka Modrić playing in his last World Cup (probably); Christian Eriksen continuing his incredible comeback from suffering cardiac arrest at Euro 2020; and Darwin Núñez creating chaos for every defender in Group H (and maybe beyond).
Let’s be honest: Probably none of Switzerland, the United States, Mexico, Senegal,10 Ecuador, Morocco or Serbia will win the World Cup. But our model gives them all a 1 percent chance of doing just that. We’re including them here because it’s fun to dream — and isn’t that what World Cups are all about anyway? As for the remaining 13 teams — including the host nation? Each has a less than 1 percent chance of glory in December. There are dreams, and then there are delusions.
Check out our latest World Cup predictions.