TWENTY years have now gone by since South America last won the World Cup.
Brazil won title number five in Japan and South Korea in 2002. Ever since then, every World Cup campaign of theirs has come to an end as soon as they met a western European side in the knock out rounds.
The lost to France in 2006, Holland in 2010, Germany – in astonishing style on home ground in 2014 and Belgium last time out three years ago.
The story of Argentina is not radically different. True, they did get past Switzerland, Belgium and Holland on their way to the 2014 final, but all of their campaigns in the last two decades have ended in defeat to the Europeans – Germany in 2006, 10 and 14 and France last time.
With four rounds of qualifiers still to go, both Brazil and Argentina have already booked their place in Qatar. They have breezed through the campaign.
Brazil are unbeaten, and Argentina have not lost a match for two and a half years. Both can build towards Qatar with some confidence – not least because they are looking good defensively.
Titles are so often won by tight defences. Brazil at the moment rarely even look likely to concede a goal, while Argentina are much improved in this department.
The emergence of Aston Villa’s Emiliano Martinez has been important. He looks like Argentina’s first top class keeper for decades, and ex player and top pundit Diego Latorre named him as the country’s footballing personality of the year in his newspaper column.
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And there is another reason for the South American giants to believe – last year’s Euros. The tournament was exciting and had its moments.
But it did not have a truly great team. Perhaps the proof is that winners Italy are by no means certain of a place in the World Cup.
The impression left was of a continent with considerable strength in depth, but without a genuinely outstanding contender for Qatar.
On show in the Euros there were probably ten teams who, on a good day, might be capable of eliminating Brazil or Argentina.
But flipped the other way round, there was no one at the tournament that the South Americans are not capable of beating.
There is, though, an entirely new factor coming in to play in Qatar. This is a World Cup taking place in November and December, rather than the traditional June and July.
This is a huge change – and whatever the problems about the way it has happened, it promises to be a change for the better.
The big problem for all recent World Cups has been that of end of season burn out. There is no better example than Argentina in 2014. True, they reached the final.
But to get that far they had to become a completely different team from the one that had qualified.
Under former Leeds and Sheffield United midfielder Alejandro Sabella, Argentina had qualified with a bold 4-3-3, featuring Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain up front, and Angel Di Maria in the midfield trio. They conceded a few – but scored plenty more.
Come the tournament Sabella realised that his players simply were not fit enough to play that way. Argentina tightened up.
In four knock out games, three of which went to extra time, they scored just two goals. Di Maria broke down, Aguero was nowhere near fit, Messi rationed himself.
In Qatar, though, there will be no end of season burn out. The planet’s best players will be in mid-season, and should be much closer to the peak of their powers.
The Europeans should be better than anything they showed in last year’s Euros. South America is going to have to come up with something special to win its first World Cup in twenty years.
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