By Evan Ream

These were the four quarterfinal matchups in the Copa America this past weekend:

 

Peru vs. Colombia

Argentina vs. Uruguay

Brazil vs. Paraguay

Venezuela vs. Chile

 

Almost every single person who was a neutral in these games had Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and Chile advancing; but what happened was something unprecedented, in any tournament. All four of those teams failed to advance, leaving a final four of Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela. Making matters worse, Argentina were hosting the tournament, and along with Brazil were the favorites to win it. This, along with some other recent peculiar results prompted me to ask the question: is there a changing of the guard in the world powers of soccer?

Brazil are five time winners of the World Cup, the most successful team of all time. Coincidentally, they are hosting the next World Cup, in 2014. Up until this weekend I would have pretty much penciled them in for their record sixth win and started pondering Russia 2018, but after seeing what happened to both Argentina and Brazil, I’m starting to rethink. True, both of the superpowers, who have seven World Cup titles between them, were knocked out on penalties, but why did they even let it get there? Uruguay are a good side, but lack any standout midfielders. Argentina have the consensus best player in the world AND were playing at home AND were up a man for most of the game. Brazil fielded a very young squad, but it’s Brazil; their young players are better than most team’s regulars. What is going on?

In Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanksi’s Soccernomics, they hypothesize that in the near future, there will be a changing of the superpowers and countries like USA, Japan, Austrailia, Turkey and Iraq will start to dominate. Some of those countries are still a few years away, but their point is correct. There will be no more 12-year periods in which one country wins three World Cups (Brazil 1958-1970), nor will the domination be limited exclusively to the UEFA and CONMEBOL regions. I think what has happened in the Copa America is a micro chasm of what is about to happen in world soccer: a changing of the super powers.

If I had to bet on any five nations that have yet to win a World Cup to begin dominating the world in the near future, these are my five (mark my words, one of these countries WILL win a World Cup before 2026):

Mexico – The back-to-back CONCACAF Gold Cup Champions may have their best team ever right now. Mexico boasts a strong (and young) front four of Javier Hernandez (Manchester United, 23), Giovani Dos Santos (Tottenham Hotspur, 22), Andres Guardado (Deportivo La Coruna, 24) and Pablo Barrera (West Ham United, 24). Both Guardado and Berrera’s clubs were relegated and are likely to move elsewhere, but the key here is Javier Hernandez. Hernandez is the first true Mexican star since Hugo Sanchez. He lit up the EPL last year scoring 13 league goals. In addition he has 21 international goals in just 29 appearances.

These four players should be starters for at least the next cycle and look to be as potent as any countries’ attackers… anywhere. The only way any of these four get relegated to the bench is if better players come up, which is very possible considering Mexico has won two of the last four U-17 World Cups. Mexico has a great youth development system that requires each club team to field youth teams filled with only Mexicans before each game. Now that Mexico has finally started to take its youth development seriously, we can start expecting more from the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, including a World Cup title.

Japan – South Korea have the best ever World Cup run by an Asian team (2002), but Japan will become the first superpower from the world’s most populous continent. Japan made the World Cup round of 16 in 2010 and was unlucky to not win their game against Paraguay. They followed this up with an impressive victory in the 2011 Asian Cup. A quick look at their roster shows that their key players Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow, 25), Shinji Okazaki (Stuttgart, 25), Yuto Nagatomo (Inter, 24) and Atsuto Uchida (Schalke, 23) will all be in their primes for the next World Cup.

The thing that impresses me the most, however, is how their women’s team fared in the latest World Cup. Yes, the men’s game is nothing like the women’s game, but there are some parallels. The women’s team struggled until money was pumped into the game in the home country. Japan’s J-League is very young, but it is growing in both size and popularity. Furthermore, the capital that has been invested in youth development is clearly paying off. More and more highly regarded European teams are looking towards Japan to acquire players with the Bundesliga being an especially popular destination. At the start of the Women’s World Cup, no one believed that Japan had any chance of winning, and that is what most people will believe at the start of the 2014 World Cup, but I believe that Japan’s speed and technical ability on the ball will make them Asia’s first juggernaut.

Paraguay – Paraguay gave eventual champions Spain all they could handle in a close 0-1 loss that could have gone differently on another day in last year’s Cup. They have since followed this up by their first Copa America semifinal since 1983 where they will be favored against Venezuela. Paraguay have qualified for the last four World Cups and advanced from their group three of those times. Labeled as mostly a defensive team, Paraguay actually have a good number of forwards playing overseas in top leagues; the problem has always been that they can’t do the same for country that they do for club. Nevertheless, Paraguay still gets excellent results and is currently ranked 32nd in the World. Paraguay will be at long odds to do anything with just over six million people in their country, but what they lack in quantity, they make up in quality. If any team was to ever ride the Euro 2004 Greece defend and set pieces plan to a World Cup title, it would be Paraguay.

Australia – Australia were never going to go anywhere in world soccer, at least until they switched federations. Australia’s switch from Oceana to Asia will be the difference between being an okay nation to dominating the world. Australia has always produced decent players as a wealthy country of its size should, but it has never had consistent, quality competition until now. Consistent meaningful games against quality opponents such as Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia will be key in turning Australia into a dominant force. Like Japan, Australia has a relatively young national league, but it has already attracted top talent like Robbie Fowler and Dwight Yorke. In just their second ever Asian Cup, Australia finished in second place, stirring up a great amount of excitement at home. They will host the next edition of the cup, which should instill a soccer tradition among the locals. Australia still needs to put money into a better youth development system and soccer infrastructure, but given how far they have come in just the last five years, this seems like an afterthought. It may take them eight to ten years to rise, but by the time Qatar 2022 comes around, I fully expect Australia to be among the World’s best and challenging Japan for the best in Asia.

RussiaThis is kind of cheating because Russia will be hosting the 2018 World Cup. Out of all these teams, Russia probably has the least quality at the moment, but as we’ve seen from France and England, hosting the World Cup can have an enormous impact on how you do in it. Russia isn’t all bad though. In the 2009-2010 season, CSKA Moscow made the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals before bowing out to the eventual champions Inter. The Russian Premier League is steadily improving and becoming a more attractive destination for foreign players. Russia probably only has a chance to win the World Cup they host, but they could definitely do damage in the 2022 World Cup; that is if they ever put their massive population to work. Not qualifying for the 2010 World Cup was a travesty as we were robbed of seeing Andrei Arshavin perform in his prime. Out of the five teams, Russia is probably the least likely to dominate, but we will re-evaluate after Euro 2012. For now, the Euro 2008 semifinalists remain promising.

Astute observers may have noticed that I have zero African teams on this list; this is by design. I don’t believe that any African team has the infrastructure or organization to achieve anything on a global level. Despite a well of talent, no African team has ever advanced past the quarterfinals of a World Cup. Egypt, who have won the last three African Cup of Nations, haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 1990. No team in Africa is consistent enough or produces enough top players to make a run at the title. African players who are European stars have no incentive to perform for their national team. Why would they live their high life in Europe where they’re getting paid tons of money to go back to their impoverished nations where they may not even get paid? Corruption runs wild in African soccer, with no signs that it will be slowing any time soon. Teams from Africa will always be giant killers in the World Cup, but nothing more.

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