The Brasil 2014 edition of the World Cup is upon us and while everyone is talking about FIFA’s corruption, pre-tournament injuries, and Brazil as heavy favorites, not enough are talking about what could be a deciding factor: the weather.
Brazil is a country slightly larger than the (continental) United States, boasts a population of 200 million people, and has a staggering 17 cities with over one million residents. This is presumably one of the reasons they decided to host the tournament in twelve cities, including some very remote ones.
The tournament venues can roughly be divided into two groups: The Southeast and The North/Rest of Brazil. The former, which is the home of the Brazil we all know and is the center of the country culturally, politically, economically, in football terms, and is simply where you want to play. The heat and humidity of the North and interior of the country is most certainly an undesirable draw.
The North/Rest of Brazil (June temp avg hi/low in Celsius, precipitation) – an undesirable draw
Fortaleza – 29/22 160mm
Cuiabá – 31/17 15mm
Recife – 28/21 392mm
Manaus – 31/23 114mm
Natal – 28/21 210mm
Salvador – 26/22 251mm
The Southeast of Brazil (June avg hi/low in Celsius, precipitation) – a mild winter
São Paulo – 22/12 56mm
Rio de Janeiro – 25/19 81mm
Brasilia – 25/13 9mm
Porto Alegre – 19/11 132mm
Curitiba – 18/8 99mm
Belo Horizonte – 25/13 15mm
What follows is a group preview based largely on what we’ll call the Climate Draw, which we’ll use to assess the chances for success or failure of the countries involved following the basic principle that adverse climate conditions favor the weaker team, and that non-European countries will be more used to hot/humid conditions.
Group A Brazil (São Paulo, Fortaleza, Brasilia) Croatia (São Paulo, Manaus, Recife) Mexico (Natal, Fortaleza, Recife) Cameroon (Natal, Manaus, Brasilia)
This is one of the harder groups in the tournament, featuring no less than the hosts and favorites, as well as three other sides with notable talent. No surprise that Brazil got the kindest draw of the group and should win rather easily. The second spot is up for grabs considering that while Croatia have the best midfield, their game will be stifled by the conditions in their second and third matches. Mexico got the worst draw but along with Cameroon should not be as affected by the conditions.
Prediction: Brazil and Mexico qualify
Group B Spain (Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba) Netherlands (Salvador, Porto Alegre, São Paulo) Chile (Cuiabá, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo) Australia (Cuiabá, Porto Alegre, Curitiba)
This is a group of death featuring the 2010 finalists and one of the dark horses of the tournament in Chile. Each play a hot game in the first match day followed by two cooler games. No one is expecting much from Australia here, so the second spot, behind Spain should be in dispute between Chile and the Netherlands. With Holland likely dropping points in their first match, they will need a result in the final match to qualify, but it might not be enough if Chile can get their confidence in the first match and get a heroic point against Spain.
Prediction: Spain and Chile qualify
Group C Colombia (Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Cuiabá) Greece (Belo Horizonte, Natal, Fortaleza) Cote d’Ivoire (Recife, Brasilia, Fortaleza) Japan (Recife, Natal, Cuiabá)
Japan got the short end of the stick with the draw here and will have to sweat it out in order to qualify. Colombia who have a Golden Generation should win the group and the second spot is very difficult to predict. The Africans will be best able to deal with the hot matches and should go through if their star players can perform.
Prediction: Colombia and Cote d’Ivoire to qualify
Group D England (Manaus, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte) Costa Rica (Fortaleza, Recife, Belo Horizonte) Italy (Manaus, Recife, Natal) Uruguay (Fortaleza, São Paulo, Natal)
A clear Group of Death where the climate may indeed play a decisive role. While it’s hard to count them out, Italy will face a twelfth man in terms of the heat in each of their encounters. England, for all of their complaining about having to play in Manaus, actually got the kindest draw here. If they can get at least a draw from that first match, they should be in decent shape to qualify in their final match against the Costa Ricans. The Uruguayans and Costa Ricans will be the best suited to the conditions as they come from similarly subtropical and tropical climates respectively, but the South Americans have the clear advantage in terms of quality and should go through.
Prediction: Uruguay and England to qualify
Group E Ecuador (Brasilia, Curitiba, Rio de Janeiro) France (Porto Alegre, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro) Suisse (Brasilia, Salvador, Manaus) Honduras (Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Manaus)
A very interesting group. Ecuador and Honduras, two countries who would otherwise have wanted to play in the heat, will play in what could be the only match with temperatures close to freezing: a night fixture in Curitiba. The Swiss have quality in their back line, but if the French can take advantage of their favorable draw, they should qualify over their neighbors. The worry for Ecuador is that they do not have the heat or altitude advantage here, but they have a highly energetic squad with excellent play on the wings and could go through if the Swiss don’t find their scoring form in two brutally hot matches.
Prediction: Ecuador and France to qualify
Group F Argentina (Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre) Bosnia (Rio de Janeiro, Cuiabá, Salvador) Iran (Curitiba, Belo Horizonte, Salvador) Nigeria (Curitiba, Cuiabá, Porto Alegre)
There are no easy draws, but it cannot be denied that Argentina lucked out in the climate draw at the very least. Indeed, if they qualify as everyone expects them to, their path to the final would never travel north of Brasilia. With Iran being my pick for last place in the tournament, Bosnia or Nigeria will progress. The Bosnians have it tough facing the group favorites in their first match and the Nigerians in the heat of Cuiabá in the second.
Prediction: Argentina and Nigeria to qualify
Group G Germany (Salvador, Fortaleza, Recife) Ghana (Natal, Fortaleza, Brasilia) USA (Natal, Manaus, Recife) Portugal (Salvador, Manaus, Brasilia)
This is for many the Group of Death. The draw was kind to no one of these sides and the Germans and the Americans in particular have amongst the worst draws of the tournament. Germany have one of the best midfields in the world and while the heat favors a slow and deliberate possession game, the squad selection will be important as players like Özil and Götze are not known for their physicality and work rate, but you can’t exactly bench them for all three matches. Each of the other three sides will be more accustomed to playing in the heat, which could offset their inferiority on paper. Another factor that may prove decisive is, ironically, advertising money. While both European sides play two noon fixtures for their audience and sponsors, the US similarly has two night games and this could mean they stand an off chance to qualify in that decisive noon match in Recife against Germany. But the difference in squad strength is likely too significant and they’d have to go in needing only a draw.
Prediction: Portugal and Germany to qualify
Group H Belgium (Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo) Algiers (Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Curitiba) Russia (Cuiabá, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba) South Korea (Cuiabá, Porto Alegre, São Paulo)
This is the most difficult group to predict. Belgium have a Golden Generation and a sparkling geographic draw. Only the inaugural match between the Russians and Koreans will be played in the heat, meaning that as of the second match this group will be wide open. Not many are looking for good football from Group H, but I would look out for open games between sides playing in comfortable conditions.
Prediction: Belgium and South Korea to qualify
This tournament will highlight why the South American game evolved the way it did. The close control, the short passing, the possession-based approach comes from playing in the alleys under the tropical sun. The compact defensive and sprint/counterattack approach employed to great effect by so many sides will be difficult to pull off in matches where chasing the ball and fast breaks will be difficult to recover from physically.
It quite literally takes a different skill-set to play in conditions described as inhuman by no less than the locals themselves. And it will be those sides with talent and adaptability for contingency that fare the best in Brazil. Those who attempt to ignore the conditions do so at their peril. But expect the unexpected and always keep the climate in mind as an equalizer between sides of varying quality.