LONDON/JOHANNESBURG - Spain are favourites to be crowned World Cup champions, narrowly ahead of Brazil, according to a global field of 74 football fan economists polled by Reuters.
Twenty-four respondents said Spain would shed their reputation for perennial disappointment this year and clinch the title for the first time, a tad more than the 23 who expected Brazil to add to their record tally of five trophies.
But economists are not known for their powers of foresight in matters football.
For Reuters' 2006 World Cup poll, most of them showed as much acumen in guessing Argentina would win that year as they did in predicting an impending global financial crisis. Eight out of 96 correctly predicted a victorious Italy.
In the latest survey, just one economist expected the Azzurri to retain their title in South Africa this year, and Argentina polled a distant third behind Spain and Brazil.
"I'd go for Spain because they seem to have not just the talent but also the resilience and strength which they missed in the past," said Jean-Francois Mercier, chief economist at Citi in South Africa.
"Brazil is a big threat but will they have the energy to go all the way?"
South American champions Brazil remained top of the FIFA rankings on Wednesday, with European champions Spain in second place.
Fifty-two out of 68 economists expected at least one African team to reach the quarter-finals this year - a feat matched only by Senegal in 2002 and the 1990 Cameroon team inspired by striker Roger Milla.
Nigeria were the most popular bet for this year, followed by Cameroon.
But the poll showed it was likely that South Africa, ranked 83rd in the world and facing top-20 teams France, Mexico and Uruguay in their first round group, will become the first host nation not to progress to the second round.
"It's gonna be tough for South Africa, but the overwhelming sound of vuvuzelas will scare the pants off the Mexicans and the French," said Johannes Khosa of Nedbank in Johannesburg.
Reuters asked a smaller sample of African economists and emerging market specialists in a separate poll about the economic impact of the World Cup.
They said South Africa's economy would get only a modest boost from hosting the World Cup, with fewer visitors to the event expected than was originally forecast.
MODEL OF PERFECTION?
Some forecasters have used complex statistical models to predict who will win the World Cup.
Last week, JPMorgan said England would win based on its quant models used to predict stock returns. UBS picked Brazil, Germany and Italy as the most likely winners based on a probability analysis.
Others have adopted simpler methods - old-fashioned guesswork and superstition.
"England will win if they pick Joe Hart as first choice goalkeeper as any team with a former Shrewsbury Town player will do well," said Howard Archer of IHS Global Insight in London, referring to a fourth-tier English league club.
The largely European sample of economists selected Argentina's Lionel Messi as the competition's likely top scorer, followed by Spain's David Villa and Wayne Rooney of England, the fourth-most-fancied team for victory.
"Messi is bound to come good for his country at some point - why not now?" said Noelani King Conradie at NKC Independent Economists in Cape Town.
Messi was crowned World Player of the Year and was last week joined at Barcelona by David Villa after a 40 million euro move from Valencia.comments