The Russia 2018 Favorites
Over 20 tournaments, since its inception in 1930 through to Brazil 2014, only eight countries have ever lifted the World Cup. All hailing from either South America or Western Europe, the “World Game” may be played all across the globe but it’s dominated by two regions.
Almost all the World Cup winners have another thing in common — a large population. Brazil, the most successful footballing nation in the world, has 209 million football-crazed denizens within its borders. Germany, the four-time champions, boasts a population of 82 million. A large population means a bigger pool to draw from, and it’s seemingly a must-have for any footballing powerhouse.
There is, however, one small exception.
Uruguay: A Football Anomaly
The tiny nation of Uruguay is a stubborn exception to the rule. Wedged between footballing giants Argentina and Brazil, the tiny country of 3.4 million managed to force itself into football history. After winning the inaugural World Cup in 1930, they claimed another twenty years later in 1950.
In the years since, Uruguay has taken a backseat to nations like Brazil, Argentina, Italy, and Germany. Still, the story of Uruguay is a glimmer of hope for smaller nations hoping to make an impact at Russia 2018 and beyond.
The Russia 2018 Favorites
The list of favorites for Russia 2018 holds no surprises. According to this site, defending champions Germany (11/2 odds) are favored to win back-to-back World Cups (a feat last managed by Brazil in 1962), with the other favorites — France (6/1), Brazil (7/1), Argentina (10/1), and Spain (10/1) — not far behind.
All five countries have a few things in common. Most notably, they’re all previous World Cup winners. In fact, those nations have won seven of the last eight World Cups. Italy (20/1) and England (25/1), two more previous world champions, are among the top contenders as well.
And then there’s Uruguay (55/1), the only previous World Cup-winner not among the favorites.
The old guard remains strong. Nations with a rich history of World Cup success continue to dominate international competitions, and every country with 10/1 odds or better has a population of at least 45 million.
But there’s still hope for the little guy, and it comes in the form of chocolate and male models.
A David Among The Goliaths
Portugal – home to Ronaldo, the best(-looking) footballer on Earth – and Belgium – home to Godiva, the best-tasting chocolate on Earth – are both nations of around 10 million people. Yet, on paper, they have the talent to compete with the giants of international football. If you’re hoping for a David-versus-Goliath moment in Russia, they have the best chance. with Portugal placed at 30/1 odds and Belgium at 16/1 to win the next World Cup — not exactly favorites, but certainly outside contenders.
Belgium reached the quarterfinals in 2014, finishing first in their group and defeating the US in the Round of 16. With players like Kevin De Bruyne, Yannick Carrasco, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku developing tremendously over the last four years, Russia 2018 could finally be their moment. But they don’t have a great track record at the World Cup; their best finish ever was a fourth-place all the way back in 1986. And this talented core of players suffered another letdown at Euro 2016, getting bounced by the even smaller Wales (3-1) in the quarterfinals.
Portugal have had some impressive results recently – including a monumental triumph at Euro 2016 in France, their first European Championship — but they have a history of underperforming at the World Cup, just like Belgium. They finished third in 1966 and fourth in 2006, but were knocked out in the Group Stage in two of the last four tournaments, including Brazil 2014.
Russia will be the team’s last World Cup with Ronaldo in his prime. If they don’t win the trophy next year, it’s likely to be a long wait. Just like World Cup titles, the history of the Ballon D’Or – FIFA’s player of the year award – is replete with winners from massive nations. Yes, the Marco Van Bastens (Netherlands) have had their time at the top. But, for the most part, the winners-list is riddled with the flags of Brazil, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the USSR.
Without Ronaldo’s peerless talent, Portugal would be a fringe team in qualification. Even massive nations with tens of millions more people and top-flight development programs go decades without breeding a player of Ronaldo’s caliber. For smaller nations, that’s likely what it will take to break the Goliath’s stranglehold on the trophy: lucking into one or two nonpareils who can get incredibly hot and make up for the lack of depth that teams like Brazil, Germany, Spain, France, and Italy are always going to boast. Because, at the end of the day, footballing success seems to be a numbers game.