I was all set to back Brazil to win the World Cup, told everyone they were bound to win. It was poetic. The Kings of Football, winning in their own back yard. Everything seemed to be pointing in their favour: home advantage, consistently one of the greatest sides in the world, even the latest news about the terrible state of the pitch at the Maracanã seemed unlikely to faze them. I watched them beat Panama 4-0, on a woeful sandy pitch. The visitors didn’t seem particularly outclassed for the first 15 minutes, until Neymar went into third gear and pretty much ran the show. Point proven, Brazil are amazing and bound to reclaim the trophy.
Then I went and looked at a few stats. Statistics, damned statistics. On the past three occasions where Brazil have won the World Cup, or finished runners-up, they have had a substantial number of their squad plying their trade at home. Sound crazy? Look at the numbers. The last time Brazil won the World Cup, in 2002, more than half of their squad – 13 players – were playing domestic football. At France 1998, where Brazil finished runners-up to the hosts, 10 players were at Brazilian clubs, and in 1994, Brazil lifted the trophy with the help of 11 home-based players.
I am not suggesting this is the definitive algorithm on which to judge everyone’s World Cup campaign, but it could be one significant contributing element. Not only is domesticity important in terms of team bonding, but for Brazil it also means benefiting from a league that starts months later than their European colleagues. Fewer games for the players means fresher legs, a huge advantage when your major rivals will have played a full season already.
This time around, however, just four of the squad have been playing for Brazilian clubs. It is not a good omen. The previous two World Cups in 2010 and 2006, where on both occasions Brazil were knocked out in the quarter finals, the squads contained three Brazil-based players.
To some extent this decline in locally-based players is an inevitable result of the increasing globalisation of football. While trophy holders Spain had 20 locally-based players in 2010, they have 14 this time around. Achieve success, and someone will want to buy you. At this World Cup 13% of the players will have been playing club football in an English league. It is an extraordinary statistic that reaches beyond the Premier League – with Massimo Luongo of League One side Swindon Town making his World Cup debut for Australia, while from the Championship Charlton’s Reza Ghoochannejhad will be there for Iran, and Nottingham Forest’s Gonzalo Jara will turn out for Chile. Only four World Cup squads don’t have an English-based player in their number.
In terms of England’s chances the make-up of the squad is a contributing factor in a different way. In my view England perform better when they have a strong nucleus of individual winners in the side. In past England camps this has often meant a cluster of trophy-laden Manchester United players. It’s that feeling of sitting down at the dinner table with the best players in the country. It’s a quiet admiration, even if you may have hated them all season. Successful players bring something with them. They are the champions, the benchmark. If a third of your squad have won the league, or won something that season, there’s a winning mentality that feeds and drives the rest of the England players. Everyone else is in awe of them, they want to emulate them, let some of that success rub off on them. It’s inspiring, and most importantly of all, it’s empowering.
As a contrast look at the make-up of the England squad who travelled to South Africa in 2010. The largest club contingent came from Tottenham, with five players. What did they win that season? Nothing. They finished fourth. It was a big achievement for them, breaking into the Champions League spot for the first time, but it is hardly the driving force needed to foster a winning mentality. To my mind that devalues the squad and I say that as the goalkeeper who wore the No1 shirt for the tournament, having lost a Cup final and been relegated with Portsmouth that season. Which probably tells you all you need to know.
As happy as I was to be making my World Cup debut, the sad truth is that when the manager has to pick a 39-year-old goalkeeper from a relegated side because he’s the best England have got then there has to be something wrong with the system.
This year the main nucleus is from Liverpool. I don’t think they will have been too flattened by missing out on the title. Unlike Arsenal, who sat on the top of the league for weeks on end, Liverpool’s loss was like whipping a plaster off quickly rather than a slow agonising pull. But players who have won something this season number four – two league winners with Manchester City, and two in the FA Cup with Arsenal (who looked more relieved than truly victorious in their accomplishment). That’s not the nucleus of a squad, that’s a sideshow.
Whatever happens – and I predict England will get through the group stage – I can’t wait to watch this World Cup. It will be my first tournament as a fan since France 1998. That year I was back home in Liverpool watching the games on TV with a few beers. When Michael Owen scored that super strike against Argentina I went running around my house celebrating like a mad man. This time around I will be out in Brazil for the latter stages of the tournament and I am really excited.
Who’s going to win? Germany. They’ve got 11 trophy winners in their team, 17 Bundesliga-based stars, they’re ranked second in the world, finished third in 2010. And they always nail a penalty.
David James has donated his fee for this column to charity