How to predict a World Cup: Look at injuries

Germany beat Armenia 6-1 in its last friendly match before the World Cup but influential midfielder Marco Reus picked up an injury and was ruled out of the tournament. (Michael Probst/AP)

The latest one down is Marco Reus, his role at the World Cup reduced to something purely hypothetical—what might have been—by ankle ligament damage. Before him, it was Franck Ribery, hobbled by a back injury.

They join Radamel Falcao, Giuseppe Rossi, Riccardo Montolivo, Ilkay Gündogan, Thiago Alcântara, Theo Walcott, Kevin Strootman and Christian Benteke in the group of major players missing the most major tournament going. A pretty awesome collection of individuals, by anyone’s measure.

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Why is it only at around this point every four years that you remember that World Cups are as much an exercise in being the last-team standing as a competition of skill and strength? Maybe because it represents the slightly unglamorous side of sport—that all that talent and willpower don’t necessarily count for anything if you’re crocked—so we’d rather blank it out until it’s actually forced on us.

But it’s true, regardless of whether it’s nice. Unlike in high-end club football, where replacements can be brought in for big money, international football outcomes arrive out of a limited number of resources. To put it as eloquently as possible, you’ve only got the players you’ve got, and when they get injured, you can probably only call up your reserve right-back.

Worse still, the tighter a competition gets, the more this shady, anti-meritocratic element impacts on who wins. If you’re Spain at the last World Cup, you’re so good that hardly anything can stop you—you’ve got the best set of 23 players and an almost risk-free way of winning. But if you’re Spain at this World Cup—one of many quite-good-but-not-outstanding contenders—then injuries and fitness issues don’t just translate into something important; they could end up being something decisive.

As such, I’m afraid it’s time for my theory.

Going into Brazil 2014, a tournament in which any of Spain, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Portugal, Netherlands or even Belgium all have realistic claims to being the best team, injuries and fitness are as good an indicator as any as to which team might win. Something needs to separate them and they don’t obviously separate themselves, so injuries it is.

Thus, Germany isn’t looking good. Reus is gone, as we all know. Gündogan too. And there’s Mario Gomez, injured for most of the season. Or the Bender twins. Or, maybe worst of all, Sami Khedira, who has made the team, but has hardly played all season. These aren’t just good players; they’re crucial ones. Germany’s gone from seeming like the most dynamic team going into the tournament to seeming like it’s ready to collapse at any moment.

As soon as you start thinking of teams in these terms, it gets much easier to pull apart who might win and who might not.

Portugal says of Cristiano Ronaldo’s tendonitis: “We hope that Cristiano is in good enough shape to play,” which doesn’t sound convincing, does it? If its main goal scorer, playmaker and talisman is playing on a “we hope it’ll be alright” basis, I’m counting it out.

The Netherlands has similar words on its own star player and main goal scorer: “[Robin] Van Persie had a heavy injury. So I think of course he is not 100 percent fit. He is not 100 percent fit. But he can play.” He “can” play? This is hardly emphatic, now, is it? Merely being capable of playing football does not sound like a brilliant endorsement of your ability to win the world’s premier football tournament. So that’s The Netherlands gone too, I’m afraid.

Then Spain. Ever since the loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup—and perhaps before that—Spain has looked a little stagnant. It’s understandable after winning three major tournaments consecutively. The squad selections have been conservative and so has the football. But then feisty Diego Costa got involved and the possibility of reinvigoration arose. It was all so perfect, until he got injured. Now, instead of a new driving force, he will either be unfit (see the Champions League final precedent) or replaced by the ghost of Fernando Torres. Which rules Spain out, if my theory holds.

That leaves us with three major contenders. Brazil, Argentina and Belgium have fully fit squads, almost unsoiled by injury (whilst Cristian Benteke is out for Belgium, Romelu Lukaku is actually the better striker.) These are the favourites for the tournament based on my system. Gamble your lives on them if you must.

It’s not a perfect system. I’ll admit it’s an over-simplification. Obviously there are millions of other factors at play in making predictions. But at its heart my “injuries are bad” theory has a couple of really solid ideas. Teams that are carrying players who aren’t fit don’t tend to win and it’s hard to see teams that don’t have their best players winning either. And if you’re arguing against either of those ideas, at the very least you better have some pretty strong points.

The only problem I have is figuring out how Brazil, Argentina and Belgium can play in a three-way final.

Ethan-Dean Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter