"We all know the American sports cliché: On any given day, any team can beat another one. But it’s a cliché that has never applied to soccer’s World Cup. Every four years, the same four teams tend to dominate this 32-team tournament – along with the home team. Whether it’s the fact that pedigree really does count more with this sporting event than any other or that certain nations can weather spending a month in a strange environment far better than others, only four teams have consistently gone home with the trophy in modern times – Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Argentina. If you want to know who’s going to win, history tells us they are by far the likeliest choices, along of course with the home team – except this time, the problem is the home team, South Africa, isn’t good enough to win.
Some stats: First, no team from North America or Africa has ever even made the tournament semifinals; maybe an African team can do it on home soil this year since that is a considerable advantage but ultimately winning the Cup would be a huge surprise. Second, since 1966 – a period of 11 Cups – even the 2nd place finisher has been a team that has already won a World Cup, with the exception of Holland twice in the 70’s when the Dutch had a fantastic team. Third, when the Cup is held in Europe, a European team has won every time but one. But when it’s held outside Europe like this year, a European team has never won. Finally the only team ever to win a Cup outside its own hemisphere is Brazil, which has done it twice.
Now maybe this year will be different: Spain is a powerhouse and the choice of many pundits. England has convinced itself that football is coming home as they say but of course the English think that every four years. And there are those who say this tourney will be different: It’s being held in the southern hemisphere for the first time since 1978 meaning cooler winter temperatures and for the first time at altitude since 1986 in Mexico.
But old truths die hard and as the poet once said those who don’t know their history are condemned to repeat it. If form holds look for two of the big 4 of Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Argentina to be in the title game. And look for Brazil to likely win it all again."
Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.