The key qualities of every World Cup-winning team
There is a significant intangible element to football, unquantifiable factors which affect players on the day, rendering it gloriously impossible to make scientific predictions about even individual phases of play within a game, let alone its eventual outcome. Good luck, then, forecasting the winner of a 64-game, 32-team tournament.
There are, though, noteworthy patterns throughout the history of the World Cup which can guide our thinking and narrow down the likely contenders.
Fifa's world ranking system has some regrettable drawbacks. Nations that qualify for the World Cup as hosts miss out on ranking points as they do not play competitive football for two years. The system was also only introduced in 1993.
However, the team ranked No 1 in the world going in to the World Cup does not tend to win it. In the past 17 tournaments, dating back to the 1950 World Cup, only Brazil in 1962 have been victorious as the highest-ranked team on the planet.
In fact, perhaps struggling with the expectation that comes with being the top-rated team, the country ranked as world No 1 almost invariably under-performs significantly. Five of the last 17 world No 1s going into the World Cup have crashed out at the group stage, including France in 2002 and Spain in 2014. Six more have failed to make it past the last eight. Only three have made the final.
Verdict for 2018: Being ranked second, third or fourth in the world gives you the best chance historically. At present those teams are Brazil, Belgium and Euro 2016 winners Portugal. Germany, as world No 1, should be wary of complacency.
2. QUALIFYING FORM
It is difficult to see what impact a 4-0 win against Malta in September will have on England's chances in Russia nearly a year later. Qualifying games spread out over 18 months are almost an entirely new sport, so distinct is that format from a packed tournament schedule. As expected, qualifying form can be more or less disregarded.
The last two World Cup winners have enjoyed almost perfect records in qualification, Germany winning nine and drawing one of their 10 games ahead of 2014 and Spain winning all 10 before the 2010 tournament. But before that the eventual winners made plenty of mistakes in qualifying.
Pre-2006 Italy lost to Slovenia; pre-2002 Brazil lost six of their 18 games and finished in the fourth of four automatic qualifying positions; pre-1990 West Germany won half of their games and only qualified as one of the best runners-up.
Verdict for 2018: Get to the tournament by whatever means necessary and forget about qualifying results.
3. TOURNAMENT CLOUT
England were the last first-time winners of a major international tournament to do so at a World Cup.
Spain in 2010 and France in 1998 both won the World Cup having never previously even made it to the final, but both had a European Championship title to their name. Argentina were first-time World Cup winners in 1978, but had won the Copa America a whopping 12 times previously.
Verdict for 2018: Experience, know-how, nous. All quite nebulous notions, but clearly important: winners win. We are unlikely to see a new tournament winner this summer, but Portugal's experience in France in 2016 could be a significant help.
4. SQUAD AGE
The average age of the players making up World Cup-winning squads has remained largely consistent since 1950, it is about 26 years old.
The oldest winners were Italy in 2006, with 10 players aged 29 or older, including 36-year-old Angelo Peruzzi, and an average age of 28.2 in the squad. The youngest winners were Brazil in 1970, who had five players aged 20 or under and nobody over 30. Their squad's average age was just 24.4.
The average age of the 17 World Cup-winning squads since 1950 is 26.4, which confirms the received wisdom of when footballers hit their peak. It pays to have as many players as possible around that age.
Verdict for 2018: By this logic, Brazil and Spain could both struggle this summer, with both their squads averaging 28 years of age. Argentina's 23-man squad is even older, with an average age of 28.7 years. Portugal's is slightly younger at 27.8.
5. INTERNATIONAL SQUAD EXPERIENCE
The average number of caps in World Cup-winning squads is on the rise. International teams play more football these days which is at least part of the reason, but that alone cannot account for the extent of the average cap rise of winners in recent tournaments.
In 1954, the players in West Germany's squad had just 154 caps between them - an average of seven each. Through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the average number of caps among World Cup winners was always between 20 and 28, but since the turn of the century experience has become even more important, even though the average age of winning teams has not increased.
Italy's 2006 winners had 32.9 caps each, on average, Spain in 2010 had 38.3 and Germany in 2014 had 42.2, which is the highest by a distance.
Verdict for 2018: Both Spain and Germany have lost big players to age in recent years and go to this summer's tournament slightly less experienced as a result, but they both still possess that experienced core. Brazil, Argentina, France, Belgium, Portugal, Uruguay, Colombia and Croatia all have plenty of caps in their ranks, too. England's squad is distinctly lacking an experienced core, meanwhile.
6. SQUAD REPRESENTATION
It may be slightly circular reasoning to say that clubs that do well have the best players, but World Cup-winning squads tend to be most strongly represented by teams that have been successful in the lead-up to the tournament. It is also beneficial to have several players playing (well) together at club level as they have an understanding they can transfer to the international stage.
Bayern Munich were heavily represented in West Germany's victorious 1990 squad, having just won the Bundesliga. Monaco made the Champions League semi-finals prior to France 98 and then had the most players in France's squad. Sao Paulo won the 'league' stage of their domestic top flight before heavy representation in Brazil's triumph in 2002.
Juventus stormed to the 2006 Serie A title (though that was the one that was later taken away from them). Barcelona won La Liga and made the semis in Europe in 2010, and won the Champions League a year earlier. Bayern Munich won the Bundesliga and made it to the Champions League semi-finals in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup, having been European champions in 2013. Each team had the most players in the respective World Cup-winning squad.
Verdict for 2018: Real Madrid are the most successful team of recent times, and Spain will benefit from being well-represented by Zinedine Zidane's players, like Isco, Marco Asensio and Sergio Ramos. They also have a few Barcelona players, who have just enjoyed winning La Liga.
7. MANAGERIAL PEDIGREE
It is very rare indeed for an inexperienced manager to succeed at the World Cup. Each of the last six World Cup-winning managers have had at least 20 years' experience prior to the tournament. West Germany coach Franz Beckenbauer is the most recent winner to have had fewer than that, having been a manager for just six years before the 1990 competition, but he had a decent playing career under his belt. He is one of only four managers to win a World Cup since 1950 with less than 10 years' experience.
Verdict for 2018: Argentina's 58-year-old manager Jorge Sampaoli fits the mould of a World Cup winner, having previously led Chile to Copa America glory and earned plenty of honours at club level. Brazil's Tite, 56, with 26 years' experience to his name and trophies including the Copa Libertadores, also seems like he could be a potential winner. Joachim Low could become the first manager to win it twice since Italy's Vittorio Pozzo in 1934 and 1938.
SO WHO WINS IT?
Leicester may have shown the bookies aren't always right, but we reckon we can be fairly confident in writing off the 21 teams with odds of 50/1 or higher. Russia, Belgium and Croatia have never won a major trophy, while Uruguay's ageing squad (they have 10 players over 30 years old) could struggle with the demands of tournament football. That also could be an issue for Brazil, Argentina and Portugal.
Spain's manager Julen Lopetegui has just 13 years' experience and has only won competitions at youth level, and that could be their downfall.
France, meanwhile, are 6/1 to win the tournament and have a decorated (almost 50-year-old) manager in Didier Deschamps. They have a squad with an average age of 25.6 years, an experienced core with five players boasting 50 or more caps and plenty of trophies won at club level in the last few months. All that could be telling. (© Daily Telegraph, London)