Yes, we're a month away from it actually kicking off... but when has that ever stopped fevered speculation about something as vitally important to life as football (soccer for some of you amongst us...)?
On paper this should be the pinnacle of football... the most prestigious event, the World Cup, being hosted by its spiritual home, Brazil, the land of Pelé
(the footballer, not the philosopher), Ronaldo
(the fat one) and samba
. Unfortunately it's also the home of unfinished stadiums
, workers dying in the rush to finish those stadiums
and social unrest at the cost of finishing such stadiums which manifested itself in riots during the “warm up event”, the Confederations Cup last year
But, much like FIFA itself, let's brush those actually serious matters under the carpet for the moment to focus on the far less serious one... the football itself.
With most domestic league seasons over and only a short time before the tournament, we're currently being subjected to the slow agony of the overhyped squad announcements where ever inclusion or omission is picked apart in exhausting detail an armchair experts (myself included) proclaim from on high that there's been a catastrophic error and if only Player A had been included by Country B they'd be odds on to win the whole thing. Of course when the tournament is done and dusted those opinions will do a complete spin but feverishly speculating about football is not an art given to honesty, integrity or reliability.
So who are the favourites? On paper, these teams look to be the ones to watch.Spain.
The defending World Champions, current European Champions and pretty much without dispute the best international team since 2008, Spain's rise and dominance matched the rise of Barcelona. Utilising many of the same players and a similar “tiki taki” possession based system Spain tend to pass opponents to death with exquisite skills, timing and having 75%+ of the ball. The depth of their squad is such that a players as talented as David Silva, Isco and Juan Mata can't be guarenteed a starting spot. They've done it before, will be looking to do it again and have a style that suits the conditions; while the opposition will be running in circles desperately trying to get the ball back the Spanish players will be coolly retaining possession.
Much like Barcelona there's a feeling we may be getting towards the end of an era with this Spanish team. Six years is a long time in football and age is really starting to show. The Barcelona continquent, notably Xavi, Inesta, Fabregas, Busquets and Pique, have had a poor season by their high standards and as talented as their replacements are there's a feeling that they don't quite fit the system as well as those who came before. An attempt at a more direct approach resulted in a loss in the Confederations Cup final and in general I think this may just be a step too far for a genuinely golden generation. That said, they're rightfully considered right up there by the bookies and it certainly wouldn't be a shock to see them emerge victorious.Player to watch:Diego Costa
has had an exceptional season for Athletico Madrid and will be looking to cap it off in the coming weeks by winning both the Spanish and Champions League. No-one expected Athletico to come close to either title and yet here they are right up there... and Costa has been an integral part of that. A powerful and athletic player Costa lacks some of the silky skills commonly associated with Spanish football but has a keen eye for the goal, is excellent at holding up play and should offer a more direct option to a Spanish team that at times can be guilty of simply holding the ball without offering much of a threat.
What makes it even more interesting is that he's not actually Spanish. He's actually Brazilian and has even represented Brazil as a full international (albeit in friendly games). However having qualified for Spain due to residence and being disapponted at the lack of appearences he had been granted for his native country he now plays for Spain... just at the moment Brazil arguably really need him. Expect the crowd to boo his every touch... especially if Spain and Brazil were to find themselves facing each other.
It's the World Cup and its Brazil; they'll always be considered contenders. It's also the World Cup in Brazil; I doubt there are many teams in history that can match the support and passion Brazil will receive despite the off-the-field issues. Their squad features star players from some of the biggest clubs in the world, has real steel to go with the traditional Brazilian flair and in Scolari they have a veteran international manager who has won it all before. They dominated the Confederations Cup a year ago, beating Spain in the final and generally looking like World Champions in waiting.Why not?
It's a World Cup in Brazil. The pressure the players will be under to succeed will be immense and if they struggle there's a chance the crowd will start to turn on them, Moreover, for all the talk of traditional Brazilian flair this team looks to be a victory of the pragmatic over the idealistic and there's a lack of creativity in there. Willian, Ramires, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Luiz Gustavo by all be hard working and defensively sound players (whether in midfield or played wider) but they're also not exactly the most creative. A lot of responsibility will fall on Neymar, Oscar, Bernard and Hernanes to provide the creative spark... and all four are young and have had somewhat underwhelming seasons. Moreover, for a nation with the history of Brazil the lack of striking options is pretty shocking; the human battering ram known as Hulk may be the best of them and that says a lot. Defence may also be somewhat of an issue; arguably the two best players, Valencia's goalkeeper Diego Alves hasn't even been picked with a past his best Júlio César seemingly getting the first choice nod while Athletico's Miranda is likewise excluded in favour of somewhat flakey talents like Dante, Maxwell and Luis. Player to watch:Neymar
is already the undoubted superstar of the World Cup, a national icon despite being 22 and the man Brazil will be looking for to both create and finish. Clearly exceptionally talented he was the player of the tournament at the Confederations Cup and a joy to watch. But his high profile move to Barcelona has been the subject of immense off the field controversy and on the field he's had a poor season where many use him as a scapegoat for Barcelona's failings. Will he throw that aside and react well to the pressure or will it crush him?
On paper its hard to pick against the Teutonic warriors. They have real quality in all areas of the pitch, a strong mix of experienced veterans and fresh talent (albeit fresh talent that is already used to playing at the highest level), an experienced coach and a style that mixes skill and power. Dortmond and Bayern Munich may not quite have repeated their successes of last season but they have both done well and with the majority of the squad coming from those two camps the players are not only highly talented but used to playing with each other. A midfield that can call upon Bender, Götze, Khedira, Kroos, Özil, Reus and Schweinsteiger is a match for pretty much anyone... and a defence with options from Hummels, Lahm (assuming his defensive midfielder transtion/experiment doesn't continue), Mertesacker, Großkreutz, Höwedes and Schmelzer in front of Neuer isn't half-bad either.Why not?
On paper the only real weakness appears to be up front. Mario Gomez is out entirely after an injury hit season, Volland has been in great form but is somewhat untested and while both Klose and Podolski tend to put aside such minor issues as having poor domestic seasons to both contend for the Golden Boot each World Cup surely they have to stop doing that at one point, especially when one considers Klose's age.
Moreover, fairly or unfairly Germany has a reputation for choking. Domestically Bayern have a reputation for not winning when it matters... last season's triple winning effort was an exception... and at international level they've likewise come close but failed. They should have beaten Italy in the semi-finals of Euro 2012; they lost. They should have beaten Spain at least once out of Euro 2008 and the World Cup in 2010; they lost. If Germany get to the semi-final and it's 0-0 after 60 minutes, are they able to hold their nerve? What if they're 1-0 down?Player to watch:Klose
may not be the best player in the Germany team but he could well be the most effective. The veteran striker has scored 68 goals in 131 matches for Germany including 14 at his three previous world cups. One more goal ties him with fat Ronaldo for the top all time World Cup goalscorer mark... two more gives him the record outright. Despite a hit and miss season this year (24 appearences, seven goals) you wouldn't put it past him... in 2009/10 he only scored three goals in 25 appearances but managed four goals at the 2010 World Cup.
In the above breakdowns I often lamented that while teams had strong midfields they lacked somewhat in strikers and/or creativity. That's not a problem for Argentina. They have Messi who despite a poor season is still one of, if not the, best players in the world (and to put it in perspective Messi's poor season still includes him scoring 28 goals so far). They have Sergio Aguero, arguably a top 3 out-and-out striker in the world and a man who despite an injury blighted season still has 17 goals. They have Gonzalo Higuaín, a fellow 17 goal season striker who has led Napoli's Copa Italia winning team. They have Ezequiel Lavezzi, a versitle and hardworking forward who despite operating lower down in PSG's pecking order than superstars like Zlatan and Cavani still managed eight goals. They have Ángel di María, who despite having to compete with the likes of Ronaldo (the thin one), Bale, Isco and Benzema for a spot at Real Madrid made 33 appearences, scored four goals and had 14 assists. Frankly, they have talent up the wazoo (enough that Carlos Tevez looks unlikely to even get a place) and for once a sane manager.Why not?
For all that attacking talent defence and a strong midfield is still somewhat of an issue. You can't really look at any of the defensive options Argentina have avaliable to them and think that any would make it close to a World 11 and few would even be mentioned in passing. As such they're seemingly dependant on being able to outscore the opposition and blast them out of the game... but that's been the case for the last six years or so and they haven't ever quite managed it. Messi's never quite been able to make his club form reappear at international level even when playing well... will he be able to do it now? Will any of them?Player to watch:
I'm not sure I really have to spell it out. Messi
. Sumptously talented, depressingly skillful and on his day the best footballer in the world... possibly ever. If he does well Argentia will do well and we'll likely have a bunch of clips to make highlight videos out of. If he struggles Argentina will probably struggle despite their other skilled players... he's that good that everything almost has to come through him. The one real knock on his career so far is that he's made no real impact internationally despite Argentina having a strong team... this is probably his best chance to do so.
may not quite have the squad depth of certain other teams but they're used to Brazilian conditions, Luis Suarez is in the form of his life, Edinson Cavani's one of the better strikers in the world, Cristian Rodriguez is brilliant sitting just behind the two strikers and some good options in those positions (such as the talented but eratic Gaston Ramirez). Much like Argentina they're dependant on their strikers to get enough goals to make up for a more shakey midfield and defence... but those two are certainly good enough to do that,Belgium
are probably the hipsters choice with a squad filled with young, talented players. Thibaut Courtois is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, Vincent Kompany had a few mistakes but led Manchester City to the Premier League title, Jan Vertonghen may have looked disinterested in the last half of the season but is an excellent centre-back, Dembélé and Fellani (despite a poor season for Manchester United) provide drive and iron at the heart of midfield, Hazard, De Bruyne and Mirralles bring creativity and flair while Lukaku is probably the best young striker in the world. They're the sort of dream team one comes up with on a game of Footballer Manager. Unfortunately, like Football Manager, it doesn't work like that in real life and friendly results have been disappointing. Can the young squad keep it together to make a real run or are they a little too naive and inexperienced?The Netherlands
are the perenial underachievers at the World Cup, as likely to self-combust in an explosion of petty egos and inter-squad hatred as actually put it all together. That said, if they do put it together any team that can call upon Van Persie, Huntelaar, Robben, Sneijder and Strootman has a shot.Chile
arguably lack superstars outside of Barcelona's Alexis Sánchez but they are used to the conditions, in great form as a national team and are pretty much a definition of “more than a sum of its parts”. I'm not sure they quite have the firepower to make it all the way but they can certainly spring a few surprises.The Ivory Coast
remain Africa's best hope on paper and for once appear to have avoided either serious injuries or a group of death. This tournament may be four years too late for Drogba, Kolo Touré or Didier Zokora to be at their best but Yaya Touré and Bony are in exceptional form while Gervinho has recovered from a poor period at Arsenal to be a star for Roma.
If there's a team that can match the Dutch for self-destruction then it's France
. Players going on strike, rebellions against the coach, arguments with the media... this French squad has done it all and paid the price for it. They're pretty much been an embaressment in the last international tournaments going out at the group stage at Euro 2008 without a win (and only one goal), repeating that feat at the World Cup in 2010 before struggling through the group before being outclassed by Spain at Euro 2012. That said there have been occasional promising signs through a difficult qualifying period and any squad with Benzema, Ribbery, Cabaye and Pogba stands a chance even if the aformentioned issues mean a talented player like Nasri looks unlikely to make the squad.
So, ladies and gentleman... thoughts, comments, opinions? Who'll win? Who'll fail miserably? Who'll get the Golden Boot? Who'll embaress themselves?