The best World Cup ever?

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The best World Cup ever?


Jim O’Neill

So here we are, two and a half weeks into Brazil’s World Cup. Thirty-two teams have been reduced to eight and now we can get serious thinking about potential winners.

Or can we?

After all, one of the eight remaining teams is Costa Rica. Who would have dreamed that was possible three weeks ago? Who would have bet that Italy, Spain and Portugal would all fail to make the quarterfinals?

What a tournament - so far. There is raging debate among football experts as to how good this World Cup has been. On one side of the debate are those who say it has been one of the best tournaments ever, pointing to the record number of goals in the group stages (and the close scores of so many matches). Others say that argument is rubbish and that the flood of goals is simply a sign of bad defenses. Even if there is an aspect of truth in the second argument, I am in the other corner. I have been engrossed with the World Cup since 1966 and have been glued to a TV screen every four years since. I have also attended at least one game at every competition since 1994. I think this year’s tournament has been fantastic - and I am excited to join the fun in Brazil.

What can be said about the remaining eight teams? Personally, I’m boasting a 75 percent success rate with my picks - six of the eight teams I predicted in my opening World Cup article are still in the tournament. Costa Rica and Colombia are the two I missed. I was far too conventional expecting Italy and Spain to survive.

I wish I had the same success rate in my days as a full-time financial forecaster and market analyst. I might have even started my own fund. Maybe this means the outcomes of football matches are more predictable than foreign exchanges, bonds rates and currency markets. They probably are, although that’s not to say the sport is predictable.

Is it fair to conclude that because Costa Rica made it to the quarterfinals, and Italy and Spain didn’t, that Brazil’s climate and other conditions have aided the Latin American teams? Maybe. In any case, no team from outside South America has ever won the World Cup when it was held on the continent. This must make the four remaining American teams slightly chirpier than the four Europeans. In their remarkable comeback against Mexico, though, the Dutch showed that they cope with the blazing heat. So they must be feeling good about their chances.

And what is going on with the United States? Are Americans truly becoming global and open-minded, with so many visiting Brazil and record numbers watching the games on TV? Perhaps the United States finally may stop calling the sport “soccer” and get with the program. For some of us, the United States becoming as dominant at football as it is at so many other things would be very hard to deal with.

In some ways, and especially from a commercial perspective, American interest may be the greatest takeaway from this World Cup. Will there be a rush of non-American moguls trying to start their own Major League Soccer teams or buying existing ones? Will competition among American television networks increase the bidding for broadcast rights to football games, helping to maintain the top European clubs’ rise in value?

Turning back to the remainder of this year’s competition: The Brazilians, still the favorites, will need to up their game after being fortunate to survive their match with the plucky Chileans. While I selected Brazil as a semifinalist, I am not sure about their chances for hoisting the Cup a sixth time. Especially if, as in their match with Chile, they have to deal with a team of 11 well-drilled players - not to mention the real discovery of the tournament, Colombia’s James Rodriguez, who awaits the Brazilian team in the quarterfinals.

If Brazil beats Colombia, their likely opponent will be the Netherlands, a country that has made three finals (two with great style and flair: in 1974 and 1978) but has yet to win the trophy. Will their fourth time be lucky?

And how can I be so dismissive of the Costa Ricans? They beat Italy, so they can probably beat anyone.

France playing Germany is a quarterfinal I anticipated. This match could be a proxy battle for the future heart and soul of Europe. Perhaps, in the event of a draw after extra time and penalty kicks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande could lead the sudden-death shootout, with the winner free to design the future of Euro-area fiscal policy.

And for the final game at this stage, Argentina against Belgium - the two-time winner against the much-fancied Belgian team - I guess I have to go with the Argentines, as I did at the outset. Belgium has two players from my Premier League favorite, Manchester United, so I wouldn’t be displeased if that prediction proved wrong.

Did you know that no club had players on more different national teams in this World Cup than Manchester United? Well, you do now. My biggest hope is that they all return fully fit for the upcoming Premiership season and return us to the top.

* The author, a Bloomberg View columnist, worked for Goldman Sachs Group from 1995 until 2013, serving most recently as chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management.

BY Jim O’Neill
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