The build-up is practically over. For weeks and months we have been ritually patronised by all manner of marketing people wishing to convince us that they “understand” the passion of football fans for the world’s greatest sporting event, and meanwhile an idiotic debate rages on about flag-waving. So it’s a relief that we’re finally there now. The tournament kicks off tomorrow – here are some thoughts and predictions.
BRAZIL will not win this World Cup. In 2002, they were aided in no small measure by a favourable draw and the demise of many of their biggest rivals, the best of a rather mediocre bunch. The awesome attacking prowess of Ronaldinho, Kaka and Adriano should carry the holders through to the knockout stages, but a lack of solidity in defence will cost them dear against more physical and well-organised opponents than they will meet in the group stages – the group game against Croatia could in fact prove an early indicator that, contrary to the predictions of experts such as Elton John (he identifies Argentina as “dark horses”, probably because he is a knob who doesn’t know that one of the top three or four favourites can hardly be considered a dark horse) will come to nought.
Defensively solid, ultra-motivated by years of underachievement and blessed with the skills of Messi and the passing of Riquelme, ARGENTINA are a more serious proposition, though there are concerns about a lack of defensive midfielders to help out Mascherano. This will be the first time that the highly-rated Corinthians player, and his club-mate Carlos Tevez, will be on show in front of a European audience.
Clever bookmakers who know a thing or two about making money very easily have made ENGLAND second-favourites to win this tournament. Here are some reasons while this will not happen. Rio Ferdinand. Rio Ferdinand. Rio Ferdinand. Rio Ferdinand. The man is an over-rated buffoon, with a laid-back swagger unbecoming of any world class footballer but especially a centre-half. The man clearly wishes he was a musician, and only a combination of nostalgia (the spurious ‘66 – West Ham – tall centre-half connection) and a succession of spineless, awestruck coaches at club and international level, have earned him such a huge reputation in the game. I would feel more comfortable with an ageing Les Ferdinand in defence – come to think of it, the manky remnants of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand would probably be preferable to the moronic prankster Rio. The England team are reported to have had the dining room in their Baden Baden base specially refurbished and turned into a massive games arcade for the boys, and one wonders whether the encouragement of that same chronic immaturity might not contribute to the inferiority complex which plagues England when tougher opponents await in the knockout stages. Should England fail, the media will blame the beanpole Crouch as the epitome of our ordinariness, but in reality it will be the midfield and the defence that will more likely let England down. Against the top teams, playing a right-footed player on the left of midfield will effectively nullify him, and there remains the danger that Beckham, in his doomed bid to pass himself off as an all-action midfielder, will get himself in disciplinary trouble. Paraguayan keeper Justo Villar: “I was in the chemists the other day and there was a poster of David Beckham advertising a razor, so I guess he must be a real man” – we’ll see. If Sven had just given the captaincy to Terry or Gerrard, we would perhaps be saved the ritual indignity of Beckham’s contrived grimaces and mistimed challenges. Apart from set-pieces, where he is superb, he offers the team little, and the added pressure of his captaincy and iconic status have been of little benefit to an England team who would be better off using Gerrard, in every way a better all-round player and natural leader, as the focal point of their midfield. The supposedly easy group – with Sweden, Trinidad & Tobago and Paraguay – is in fact not easy at all. As Dwight Yorke and co. will almost certainly lose all three games, it means three teams having a 3-point start, cancelling each other out. There will be no room for error, and a 4 point tally probably won’t be enough to go through. Should England progress, only the introduction of the classy Michael Carrick in the midfield will prevent further heartbreak.
FRANCE are an interesting proposition. The team is ageing but, I suspect, an ageing Thuram is a better player than a youthful Rio Ferdinand. And there is Thierry Henry, a man at the peak of his powers, and desperate to make up for the heartache of Arsenal’s painful European Cup defeat in Paris in May. Wonderful things have also been written and said about their left-sided midfielder Malouda, who currently plays for Lyon in France, as well as defender Abbidal, who also plays for Lyon. With the eccentric slaphead Fabien Barthez likely to play in goal ahead of Coupet, the opposition will always have a chance, but it will take a very good side to beat the French nonetheless. Like the French, ITALY massively underachieved in 2002, and many of their current squad may also feel they have a point to prove in the wake of the corruption and match-fixing drama currently rocking Italian football. They have quality throughout the side – Nesta and Cannavaro are a formidable central-defensive pairing, Buffon is one of the world’s best goalkeepers, and Pirlo’s distribution form midfield is superb, while Toni and Gilardino are both good bets for the Golden Boot. But the Italian national side, much like its club sides in European competition, always seem vulnerable when attacked with pace or trickery. There is a lofty aloofness about their manner which almost makes you want them to fail. Whereas England have wilfully crippled themselves with poor team selection and bad management, the Italians’ fate is very much in their own hands.
Fans of GERMANY are divided over Jurgen Klinsmann’s attacking style of football. If the history of German football is anything to go by, then Michael Ballack will be proved right and, home advantage notwithstanding, Germany will fail miserably. Ballack will be free to hook up with his new Chelsea team-mates nice and early, where he will be able to enjoy as much defensive and unattractive football as he wants. He’s a pillock anyway and should fit right in. Archrivals Holland have gone to the World Cup without Seedorf, Davids, Kluivert and Mackay. Marco Van Basten’s youthful approach should pay off up to a point, but it would take a superhuman effort on the part of a relatively inexperienced squad to go all the way in 2006.
Expect PORTUGAL to dive and cheat and be rubbish. Cristiano Ronaldo will cry and I for one will be laughing.
Of the underdogs, Serbia & Montenegro are a good outside bet at 100-1. They’re defensively mean, strong in midfield and boast a 6’8” beanpole in highly-rated striker Nicola Zigic. I have staked a fiver that they will go all the way, just in case. The Czech Republic play attractive, fluid passing football and were the best team at Euro 2004 and, provided they overcome a potentially tricky game against the USA in the group stages, they too could go on a run. Spain will doubtless benefit from having been drawn in the “Group of Life” (with Tunisia, Ukraine and Saudi Arabia), and most a squad which, on paper at least, should be capable of going all the way. But politics is never far away where the Spanish team is concerned and if Raul gets an undeserved nod ahead of the likes of Torres and David Villa, then Spain will fail yet again. Poland and Sweden are well-organised and have some skilful individuals – it wouldn’t be too shocking if one or other of them went on a run, but it probably won’t happen. Unless there is some massive plate movement in Germany in the next few days, Ecuador will not achieve much.
It is hard to see any of the Asia or African teams doing very well. Saudia Arabia are too rubbish to merit further comment, while Japan have landed in a difficult group and South Korea are unlikely to recapture the form of 2002 without an army of fans and dodgy officials behind them. Ghana will struggle in a difficult group, and Togo and Angola have, by common consensus, reached the finals thanks to a certain degree of luck. Only perhaps Iran, with the irrepressible Ali Karimi, or the Ivory Coast, with their Premiership contingent of Eboue, Toure and Drogba, could spring a surprise. Tunisia could conceivably progress from their group, but technical inferiority should cost them in the knockouts.