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Friday, March 19, 2010
The Eliminator: Who will win?

By Paul Carr
ESPN Stats & Information

Some people consider picking a World Cup champion an art. Some consider it a science. Some take the easy way out and always choose Brazil. That isn't a bad strategy, since it has proven to be right five times in 18 World Cups. But automatically picking the favorite isn't the most entertaining way to prognosticate.

The Eliminator is.

The Eliminator doesn't pick a winner. It chooses 31 losers, using historical statistics and trends to identify the traits of a champion and apply those criteria to this year's teams, banishing countries a few at a time until only one is left standing. Here we go ...

• We'll start with the minnows. Since FIFA began its world rankings in 1993, no country outside the top 20 has won the World Cup. The rankings are often disparaged, and they will change before the tournament, but we can safely knock out any country currently outside the top 60. Goodbye to New Zealand (80th), North Korea (102nd) and host country South Africa (81st).

• No European country has ever won after suffering more than one qualifying loss. That eliminates Greece, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia. No real surprises there.

• No country has ever won the World Cup after finishing fourth or worse in its final qualifying group. This applies only to CONMEBOL in this cycle, and the rule eliminates a pair of two-time champions in Argentina and Uruguay.

• While we're in South America, let's point out that no country has ever won after allowing more than one goal per game in qualifying. Adios, Chile (22 goals allowed in 18 matches).

• Every champion except one (1958 Brazil, which played only two qualifiers) has averaged at least 1.5 goals per game in qualifying. Australia, Paraguay and Algeria may exit stage left.

• Aside from the first two World Cups, no country has ever won without reaching at least the quarterfinals in a previous tournament. See ya, Ghana, Honduras, Ivory Coast, Japan and Nigeria.

• Using this step earlier would have simplified the process but also would have deprived us all of so much fun: No country from Africa or Asia has ever won. Goodbye to Cameroon and South Korea.

• Brazil is the only country to win a World Cup in the opposite hemisphere, from an East/West standpoint. Plus no CONCACAF country has ever won. That's a double whammy for Mexico and the United States.

• As counterintuitive as this may sound, the only European country to win following a perfect qualifying campaign was 1934 Italy, which played exactly one qualifier. This drops a couple big guns: Netherlands and Spain.

• Brazil is the only country to participate in every World Cup, and no other country has ever emerged from Brazil's group to win the title. That eliminates Portugal.

• Conversely, no country has ever come out of Portugal's group to win the World Cup, which knocks out perennial favorite Brazil.

• Never has any country come out of the Netherlands' group to win the title. Tot ziens, Denmark.

• In the past 50 years, no non-host country has won the World Cup without having previously won a World Cup. The Swiss and their neutrality lasted longer than expected, but the time has come for them to depart.

• The only first-time European winners in the past 60 years are France and England. Both won as tournament host, but neither has ever won a World Cup outside its own borders, let alone 5,000 miles from home.

• This leaves four-time champion Italy and three-time winner Germany, which would be a rematch of the 1982 final in Madrid, which Italy won 3-1.

Very little separates these two traditional powers, each of which has recent and distant history working in its favor. Italy won in 2006 and Germany took third. Italy is the only European country to win consecutive titles, in 1934 and 1938. Germany won the ensuing World Cup after its third-place finish in 1970.

Italy is grouped with Slovakia and has won the World Cup all three times after playing Czechoslovakia or any of its descendents. Germany won the 1974 World Cup, which was the only other time that Die Mannschaft shared a group with Australia.

However, the bottom line is simple. Despite reaching the quarterfinals in four straight World Cups, Germany hasn't won a title since the country and its national team reunified shortly after West Germany won the 1990 World Cup. Ciao, Germany.

Say hello to Italy, The Eliminator's 2010 World Cup champion.

Paul Carr is a researcher for the ESPN Stats & Information group.