Can history be made in South Africa?
In the build up to the draw for the first World Cup to be held in Africa, you can guarantee that one piece of information will be cited time and time again - that no European nation has ever won the tournament outside its home continent.
It's one way of looking at it - a Eurocentric way. The statement means just as much, if not more, if it's flipped around. Only South America has won the World Cup away from home.
There's Brazil's win in 1958 in Sweden - had it not predated the age of mass TV, it's probable that the '58 team would be considered a candidate for the all time best. There's Brazil again in Japan and South Korea in 2002, and in 1994 in the USA. And there's both Brazil and Argentina triumphing in Mexico, in 1970 and 1986 respectively.
Those last two might come as a surprise to some, with the concept (a political one, coined by the French) of Latin America confusing the issue. In cultural terms Mexico might be classed as central America, but geographically it's in the north. The distance between Buenos Aires and Mexico City, for example, is further than that separating London and Mumbai. No doubt about it, 1970 and 1986 are away wins.
Does this make the South Americans the favourites to walk away with the title in 2010? Not necessarily. History is a good guide, but predications need to take into account present day dynamics - and one of the most interesting is taking place in Africa.
When the South Americans carried the cup home from Asia and the Concacaf region, there were no local teams with realistic chances of winning the competition. That might not be the case next year. Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon - sub-Saharan Africa would seem to be well represented.
Back in 1974, when Zaire were the first sub-Saharan team to go to the World Cup, their players were not without technical ability. But they defended as if they had never seen a cross (hence the 9-0 drubbing by Yugoslavia) and they were unsure of the rules. The famous incident at a Brazil free kick - where a defender breaks ranks and boots the ball into touch before the kick has been taken - seems to happen because they are perturbed by Brazil placing men in their defensive wall, a tactic with which they were unfamiliar. It is hardly surprising, African football had been kept out of the loop.
That is emphatically no longer the case. The dreaded word 'naïve' no longer applies. The big sub-Saharan powers have been to World Cups and picked up valuable experience, and their players are well established stars with top European clubs.
It might have been thought that this development would weaken the European national teams. With so many Africans and South Americans across the continent, there are fewer opportunities for local players. On the other hand, though, those European players who do make the grade are being exposed to constant high standard football - and the evidence so far would seem to indicate that the European national teams are gaining more than they are losing from the globalisation of the continent's club game.
In Germany 2006 the vast majority of the senior players from all nations were based in Europe. But it didn't seem to eliminate the home advantage factor. Europe supplied all four semi-finalists - and what I saw of Euro 2008 (which was not all of it, since it coincided with two rounds of South American World Cup qualifiers) would seem to suggest that the standard has risen since then. The fact that next year's World Cup is the first held in winter since 1978 should increase still further Europe's chances of finally coming out on top on away soil.
The South Americans, then, will face stiff competition from both Africa and Europe. Can they overcome it?
Will Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg play host to another South American World Cup win?
It would be a huge surprise if Chile, Paraguay or Uruguay were to go all the way. The three all count on dangerous strikers. Chile's Humberto Suazo was top scorer in South America's qualifying campaign, and tricky right winger Alexis Sanchez could be one of the names of the tournament. Paraguay have the excellent Haedo Valdez, Cabanas and Santa Cruz, plus the options of Benitez and Cardozo off the bench. Uruguay have a dangerous pair in Forlan and Suarez, big Abreu off the bench and the emerging Lodeiro to set up the play.
But there are huge question marks against all three. Can Chile defend in the air? Can Uruguay defend against quick, mobile strikers? Are Paraguay brave enough to take the initiative against strong opponents?
Realistically, all three would be happy with a place in the quarter-finals - something which does not apply to the continent's big two.
Argentina went out at the quarter-final stage in 2006. At the time Diego Maradona described this as unacceptable, so he has set the bar high for himself in his current job as national team coach. There is lots of work to be done before Argentina can be seen as serious title challengers. Serious questions - such as how will the team defend, and how will they get the best out of Messi - have yet to be answered. But there is plenty of attacking talent to choose from, and Maradona can draw strength from the fact that the World Cup is exactly that - a cup. Italy, for example, did not win a game for over six months before the 1982 tournament - and did not win one for over a year afterwards. They didn't even win any of their three group games. But then they caught fire and in four games beat the best the world could put in front of them and went home as champions. Providing their defence is tight enough, Argentina are capable of something similar.
But they would seem to be some distance behind Brazil. Built on the security of keeper Julio Cesar and centre back Lucio, superb on the counter-attack and dangerous from set-pieces, sure of what they are doing and in excellent form, Brazil are looking ominous.
Normally when they are favourites Brazil can become their own worst enemy. It is unlikely to happen this time. The example of Germany 2006, with the showbiz excesses of training sessions open to the public, is still fresh in the mind. And coach Dunga can be counted on to banish complacency.
But they can be stifled - as shown by four goalless draws in front of their own fans in qualification. They are probably overdue a difficult group. If they are drawn against solid defensive teams this Friday then their bid for the title will come under early examination in South Africa next June.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) My question is about Uruguay's Nicolas Lodeiro. I thought he looked impressive against Costa Rica and had the potential to be the new superstar at the World Cup.
Would coach Tabarez build his team around Lodeiro already?
I think Tabarez has already made that decision - it's a bold move to throw in a 20-year-old playmaker for his international debut in the play-offs, and Tabarez was rewarded for his courage.
I was in Montevideo for the game, and came away enchanted with Lodeiro's performance. I've been raving about him all year - excellent left foot and vision of the game, chooses his options with great intelligence - but to play so well in such a high-pressure situation was remarkable. He improves the team in a weak area, and allows Forlan to operate closer to the goal. The worry for the World Cup, I suppose, is 'difficult second year-itis.' He's played so much and made so much progress in 2009, that he might start running into obstacles next year as defenders get to know him better.
Q) I have also just watched the first leg of Sudamericana final with LDU beating Fluminense 5-1. I find it a complete disgrace that this match, a final, has been allowed to be played in a place with such altitude like Quito. I noticed LDU lost 2-1 to River Plate in the first leg of the semi-final, and then go and win 7-0 in Quito to advance to the final.
Teams such as Fluminense simply don't have a chance on in places like this because they are not used to altitude.
It's such a huge step to ban a place from staging football matches, so there has to be a very good reason.
There is no doubt that altitude represents an advantage against unacclimatised opponents. But home advantage is part of the game. How much is too much? Games take place on artificial pitches and in extreme temperatures and this is OK - so why should altitude be singled out?
I'm not at all convinced that altitude, though it is a discomfort, represents a health risk. Extreme heat, on the other hand, is a known health risk, but plenty of games, including World Cup ones, take place in high temperatures.
The key at altitude, I think, is to adapt your game. The unacclimatised player loses part of his athletic capacity - so the idea is to run as little as possible, keep the ball, and stay compact. Fluminense did none of this - and understandably, they were tired - they've been through a marathon of games.
A couple of years back their neighbours Flamengo had trouble at altitude. The following year in the Libertadores their president was leading the campaign to ban it - while his team were making him look stupid. Flamengo had learned to adapt, and their best two performances in the campaign came at altitude.
Argentina's Velez Sarsfield only lost 2-1 away to LDU this year in the quarter-finals - and without a piece of slack marking at a set-piece they might have won. Their coach Gareca has experience of the conditions and it showed - his team, unlike Fluminense last week, kept compact.
And there is a second leg - Flu will have a packed Maracana and a hot night in their favour in Wednesday's return match.