On paper, Spain should be one of the teams to beat. They are coming off an unprecedented streak of titles, having won not only the previous World Cup but also the European Championships in 2008 and
2010 2012. They were drawn into a difficult five-team group with a dangerous French side, and they ran through with six wins and two draws.
Among European qualifiers, no one had a better performance by expected goals than Spain, despite a more difficult schedule than most.
So why is Spain being treated as a second-tier or even third-tier challenger for the Cup? A big part of the story here is probably the Confederations Cup. The championship match, held in Brazil, pitted the Spanish against the Seleção in what many considered a preview of the World Cup final. Brazil won big, 3-0, and spawned a heap of stories about the now-dominant Brazilians and the death of Spanish tiki-taka.
Spain took a 3-0 defeat to its top competitors, in the closest thing to a World Cup environment that could be simulated. But by expected goals, this match was much closer than the scoreline would suggest. Spain flubbed a number of good chances, in particular a 41st minute Pedro shot from the danger zone assisted by an Andres Iniesta through-ball. Spain easily could have drawn even at 1-1, but instead Pedro’s attempt was brilliantly cleared off the line by David Luiz and just a few minutes later Neymar hit a perfect strike from wide in the box to open up a 2-0 lead. The match may have played out entirely differently if Pedro had finished more powerfully or if Luiz had been a half-second late. Overall, Brazil had the better of the contest, but it was not the stomping that it has become in the postgame narrative.
This map shows the location of the shots taken in the Confederations Cup final, with size relative to the expected goals value of the shot. Brazil deservedly won, but Spain fought hard and should have been rewarded with more than a goose egg.
The other part of the story, most likely, is the issue of home continent or home hemisphere advantage. No European side, in fact no non-South American side, has ever won a World Cup played in the Western Hemisphere. This sounds impressive, but it’s an extremely small sample. The 1990 World Cup final went to penalties and Brazil beat Italy there 3-2 after 120 scoreless minutes. That is hardly the stuff of hemispheric dominance. The 1970 Brazilian side that won in Mexico probably would have won a World Cup anywhere in the world.
There have been only two South American world cups, and the first, in 1950, was in a different age of international football altogether. There have only been four South American World Cups, and the first two in 1930 and 1950 were in a different age of international football altogether. Even 1962 in Chile, won by a repeating Brazilian squad, is still far in the past. The 1978 final was tied at the end of regulation between home Argentina and a great second-generation Dutch Total Football side. It was a match marred by some controversy, and it was won by the home nation, not by a continental side.
Home-field advantage, unlike home-continent advantage, has ample evidence to support it. Home sides in international matches scored nearly 40 percent more goals than away sides. But while we should expect Brazil to have a significant advantage at the World Cup, the evidence that Spain should struggle because of the continental location of the Cup is thin at best. My numbers suggest that Spain should be favored against anyone in the tournament other than Brazil, and the defending champions will have more than a fighting chance if the final is indeed a Confederations Cup rematch.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
More on the World Cup: