I am picking Spain. This shouldn't surprise any of my normal readers, given my beliefs in the omnipotence of Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, and Pique, but I don't think that I'm being led astray by the Barca card in my wallet. In the lead-up to the tournament, most discussions of Spain and Brazil have been marked by the inevitable caveat that favorites have tended not to do well in recent World Cups. However, Spain is a better favorite than any team I can recall. (West Germany 1990 probably comes close.)
A team is usually the World Cup favorite for one of three reasons: (1) it won the most recent European Championship or Copa America; (2) it looked great in qualifying; or (3) its players are in great form, as evidenced by performances in the Champions League. Spain is the first team I can remember that checks all three boxes decisively. They won Euro '08 with a dominating performance in which they did not concede a goal in the entire knock-out stages. They won all ten qualifying matches, including two wins over the Euro '08 and World Cup '02 semifinalists. Their spine forms the core of the best club team in the world. (If Inter were really better [as opposed to better over 180 minutes with the help of a tactical genius], why did they park the bus at the Nou Camp?) Moreover, they play the same tika-taka style at Barca as they do for Spain, so there are no stylistic transition issues. Spain's players will be playing in the same way that they play for their club sides.
The fact that this is a cold weather World Cup also helps Spain. I know that the conventional wisdom is that the climate will help the northern Europeans, but the bigger impact will be that attacking, pressing sides will be able to do their thing. If the tournament were played in oppressive heat, then pressing would be very hard for anything other than short stretches. Thus, teams that play on the counter and conserve energy would have the advantage. In cold weather, Spain can press with its forwards and midfielders for longer stretches, which means they'll monopolize the ball and also protect their back line. In a hot environment, I'd take Brazil over Spain. On a colder day, I see Brazil having a hard time getting the ball. (Counterpoint: Brazil depend on their right backs for offense. Maicon and Dani Alves can run their tails off in the cooler weather.)
Brazil, the other favorite, checks the boxes for winning the last two Copa Americas and also looking good in qualifying, but they have some worries in terms of the form of their key players. It's true that Julio Cesar, Lucio, and Maicon were all instrumental in Inter's European triumph. However, Brazil have major questions further up the pitch. Kaka, their key offensive player, had a bad year at Real. 2007 seems like a long time ago for Ricky. Robinho washed out at City and has been picking on minnows in a regional Brazilian competition. Luis Fabiano was hit-or-miss for Sevilla this year. Felipe Melo was a major disappointment at Juve. Gilberto Silva is well past his sell-by date. I'm well aware of the fact that players can look bad for their clubs and then good in a different system for their countries (Zidane looked finished at this time four years ago), but Brazil have an awful lot of question marks for the supposed favorites.
The fact that Spain are the best team doesn't mean that they'll win. Futbol involves far too much variance to make that prediction confidently. (Goldman Sachs' preview listed Brazil and Spain as the favorites and gave them 13 and 10 percent chances of winning, respectively.) One inspired counter from a drug-addled former superstar, one wall that is marginally misplaced, or one intimidated referee from Egypt can be the difference between success and failure. However, I refuse to pick against the best team simply because they have never won the tournament before. Spain have the reputation of being bottlers, but when have they ever been the favorites before? They come to South Africa as the European Champions and with a collection of players who are winners on the club level. Shouldn't that matter more than Zubizarreta's near post or Tassotti's elbow?
One more thought: in editing this piece, it occurs to me that France '02 could be described in the same way as Spain '10. They had the same credentials, with the added benefit of having also won the World Cup. That France team was undone by losing Zinedine Zidane before the tournament. That illustrates another of Spain's strengths: they have two of everything (unless you think that Xabi Alonso and Sergi Busquets aren't proper Makeleles, in which case they have none of one thing. That is Spain's one weakness. If they are undone, they'll be missing Marcos Senna.) France's attack revolved around Zizou. Without him, they were lost. Spain can afford an injury to any of their players because they have replacements of the highest quality. It's a fool's errand to state with confidence that a particular team is going to win and injuries are a major reason why, but this Spain side are better equipped to deal with absences than any other team in the tournament. If I'm not drinking sangria on the night of July 11, an injury or two will not be the reason why.