by Trevor Whenham - 05/31/2006
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Brazil is the overwhelming favorite to win the World Cup. Initially installed at 5/2 to win it all at Bodog, they are already down to 11/5, and could quite likely fall even further before the first ball is kicked in Germany. Though some may balk at the low price, they are unquestionably the best team in the field. Ronaldinho is without a doubt the best player in the world, and teammate Ronaldo, the star of Brazil's 2002 championship, is just as good. Add to that players like Kaka, Adriano, Cafu, Robinho and Roberto Carlos -- who would be the top player on virtually every other squad in the tournament -- and you have an almost incomprehensibly dominant side.
To back up their strength, Brazil has an unequalled history at the World Cup. They have won five titles, including the one they will be defending in Germany, and they have been runner up two other times. They have reached the semi-finals 10 times in 17 World Cups, and they have only lost 13 World Cup matches in 87 tries. They even have experience with repeating as champs, being one of only two teams to win back-to-back titles.
With all of that going for them, and with bettors and the world media fawning over them, the team must be incredibly optimistic. Not so much. In fact, everyone seems to be working overtime to lower expectations. Pele, the Brazilian legend and greatest player of all time by most measures, is telling anyone who will listen that being the favorite is not a good thing. As he told the Associated Press while in Britain recently, "Today the big opponent of Brazil is being the favorite. Always in the World Cup, the favorite doesn't succeed."
He's right, but only sort of. In 2002, France was the favorite and they didn't get out of the first round. The French weren't the favorites when they won in 1998. You can find lots of similar examples, too, including Brazil themselves in 1966, which didn't get out of the first round as two-time champs and heavy favorites. To say, as Pele hinted, that the favorite suffers from some kind of curse, though, is inaccurate. It's a 32-team field, so in most cases the favorite isn't clear-cut. France lost as favorite in 2002, but Brazil wasn't exactly a longshot outsider when they won instead. In a field of this size almost anything can happen, so it seems reasonable that the favorite won't always win. One of the favorites most likely will, however.
What makes Brazil relatively unique, and discounts the 'curse of the favorites' theory, is the relatively unique margin by which the champs are favored. They aren't just the favorites, they have been placed on an entirely different level than their opponents. They are 11/5 to win. The second choice, home team Germany, is 13/2, or 6.5/1. Brazil is not only favored, but they have odds more than three times smaller than the second choice. That would be remarkable in any circumstance, but in a 32-team field that means that they are viewed as virtually unbeatable.
Pele isn't the only one lowering expectations. Ronaldo has repeatedly called this tournament the most even World Cup in history. Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira points out that the favorites often disappoint. Pele has more to add, too. "When a national team is too superior than another technically, things can get out of control," he said recently. "The other team will enter the field knowing they have to play their best. They will play harder to try to overcome their disadvantage."
So should we be worried by what they are saying? Probably not. Brazil has a very favorable draw with Croatia, Japan and Australia as first round opponents. They have winning records against all of those teams, and have had a strong qualifying run. They will be, by a large margin, the best team on the pitch for every game they play from the first round through to the final. You can't ask for more than that.
The other thing you have to remember in a situation like this is that the history is completely irrelevant. It's easy to say that favorites always lose, but this Brazilian team has never been the favorite at a World Cup. Each time in the past the favorites have faced different circumstances with different players that have handled the pressure in different ways. The fact that France cracked under the pressure four years ago has absolutely no bearing on how Brazil will perform in Germany this year. It's a popular and compelling argument to make, but it is also meaningless.
Can Brazil lose? Of course they can. Anything can happen when there are only three first round games, and things get really hairy when it is one loss and you are out. You could argue, and I think you would be right, that the team is an underlay with all the action they are receiving (and that, in turn, they are helping several other teams be overlays). One thing remains, though - Brazil is, by a large margin, the best team in this tournament. They might not win this time around, but if you played this tournament 100 times, they would capture a significant number of them. In other words, there are no guarantees in betting, and any bet can lose, but Brazil is a better bet than most.