June 30th will mark the 20th anniversary of Brazil’s World Cup triumph in Japan and South Korea. In the two decades since, no South American nation has lifted the famous trophy – the longest ever wait (in terms of the number of tournaments) for the continent which supplied the very first World Cup winners, Uruguay in 1930. But with five months to go before the big kick-off in Qatar, optimism abounds in Brazil and Argentina.
The former are the current favourites to emerge victorious in Doha in December. It is not hard to see why. South America’s marathon qualification process is notoriously difficult. Before winning the 2002 World Cup, Brazil finished third in the 10-team qualifying table. Uruguay finished fourth in the 2010 edition after coming fifth in qualification.
This time, though, Brazil made light work of the continental competition. Tite’s side were dominant throughout, accumulating 45 points from a possible 51, scoring 40 goals and conceding just five. With European teams tied up with the Nations League, Brazil registered back-to-back wins over South Korea and Japan on foreign soil this month. They have lost just one of their last 27 matches, although that was a painful defeat as Argentina pipped them to the Copa America last summer.
Brazil have tremendous strength in depth all over the pitch. It is feasible that players of the quality of Ederson, Fabinho and Thiago Silva will not be in the starting XI come the World Cup. There is a useful blend of youth and experience within the squad, and Tite is the best manager Brazil have had for some time.
Argentina are in decent shape too. Lionel Scaloni was only ever supposed to be an interim boss following the departure of Jorge Sampaoli in 2018, but the former West Ham United defender has probably exceeded even his own expectations. The Copa America triumph in 2021 was no fluke. Scaloni has given Argentina more structure and the sort of attacking coherence that they have lacked for a while.
Crucially, Lionel Messi looks like he is enjoying playing for his country right now. He was phenomenal at the Copa and continues to be hugely influential for Argentina despite an underwhelming debut season at Paris Saint-Germain. Scaloni has also brought the best out of Lautaro Martinez, Giovani Lo Celso and Rodrigo De Paul, while Angel Di Maria is still going strong at 34.
Neither South American giant is perfect. There are doubts over Argentina’s defence, whose continued inclusion of the 34-year-old Nicolas Otamendi is illustrative of the paucity of options. As for Brazil, they have not had the chance to test themselves against a major Western European nation since the 2018 World Cup, when they were knocked out by Belgium in the quarter-finals.
European countries have won every edition of the tournament since Brazil last came out on top in 2002. The likes of France, Spain, Portugal, England and Germany look capable of going all the way in Qatar. With a bit of luck, the Netherlands, Belgium and perhaps even Denmark could be contenders. But if the evidence of the last couple of years is anything to go by, the challenge from South America’s big two will be strong.