World Cup 2014: Still a usual suspects game
By : Fernando Duarte
The 2014 World Cup will be the 20th edition of the most prestigious sporting event in the world and while millions of supporters of 32 teams around the globe are dreaming of seeing their team lift that famous golden trophy come July 13th, the statistics shows this is a tournament of usual suspects, including hosts Brazil, who kick-off their campaign this Thursday against Croatia in São Paulo. Winners of five titles (1958, 62, 70, 94 and 2002), the Brazilians lead a meager pack of eight nations that can boast at least a star on their shirts — Italy (four), Germany (three), Uruguay and Argentina (two), France, England and Spain are the others. And between England’s maiden victory in 1966 and Spain’s South African triumph four years ago, only Argentina and France managed to force their way into the frame. One cannot see another newcomer joining the Champions club in Brazil.
While the 2014 World Cup promises to be one of the most exciting tournaments in recent history thanks to FIFA’s changes in the seeding system, I still believe no new names will be added to the trophy after the final game in Rio. It is true that the decision to ditch tradition and look at FIFA’s controversial team ranking to determine the draw last year brought some interesting developments, such as the clash between Uruguayans, Italians and English for survival in Group D or the mouth- watering 2010 final revival between Spain and Holland in the Group B opening match. Some mighty might fall, but there will be enough of them to still keep the club very exclusive.
Brazil are a natural choice of favorites. As they say in Portuguese, that shirt inspires respect and fear in the opposition, even though it is now 12 years since the “Seleção” won the cup for the last time. Their quarterfinal elimination at the hands of Holland in 2010 caused an identity crisis that only began to be properly addressed in November 2012, when Luiz Felipe Scolari replaced Mano Menezes as manager and imposed an intimidating brand of high-pressure and high tempo football that sent shockwaves when Brazil thrashed World and European champions Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup. In Neymar they have a lethal weapon that averages more goals for his country than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. They also rely on other European-based stars such as PSG’s defending duo Thiago Silva and David Luiz, as well as Chelsea’s Oscar, but it is pretty much Neymar’s show and Brazil tend to struggle when he is kept quiet by opposition.
While Brazil have been dealt a “normal” group with Croatia, fading Mexico and eternal underachievers Cameroon, their knockout draw is the stuff of nightmares, starting with a possible showdown with Spain or Holland and a possible World Champions showdown on each round till the final. Argentina, on the other hand, can help but smile. handed a group with newcomers Bosnia alongside Iran and Nigeria, they should qualify without a problem to find most of their more dangerous rivals on the either side of the draw. Unlike in the previous tournament, where they fell victim of Maradona’s narcissism, Messi is now Argentina’s focal point in a formidable offensive line. Their back four might look fragile but as long as Messi and co can outscore the opposition, they are serious candidates for a title the country has been waiting since 1986. Argentina, however, haven’t cleared the quarterfinals in the last five World Cups and that shows things can go awfully wrong for them.
Germany are another team dealing with a trophy drought. One of the most successful footballing nations, they have not won anything since Euro 1996 and their Italy 1990 title looks ancient history as well as the physical style they used to apply. Thanks to a revolution started by Jurgen Klinsmann last decade, Germany is now known for an exciting brand of passing football that still keeps the ruthless shot accuracy of past years. They will be feared by Group G colleagues Portugal, Ghana and United States and one cannot see their campaign finishing early, as much as manager Joachim Lowe hasn’t been able to find a solution for the lack of a reliable number 9. Miroslav Klose, Germany’s top goalscorer, looks past his prime even though he has a precious chance to beat Ronaldo’s World Cup scoring record in Brazil.
Italy would be a very decent outside bet thank to their habit of thriving in the World Cup when people least expect. Nothing could exemplify it better than their 1982 and 2006 winning campaigns. Under Cesare Prandelli they have bounced back from a horrendous first round exit in South Africa to being second only to Spain at Euro 2012. The squad lacks firepower but Italy are masters of squeezing victories from tight games.
This is not to say outsiders could not mount an impressive challenge in Brazil. There are huge expectations about what Belgium can do in their first World Cup in 12 years and they have brought an exciting group of young players to Brazil led by Eden Hazard. It’s unlikely they will be champions but they could be nightmare to play against and none of the usual suspects will be willing to play the Belgians. Colombia’s run to the World Cup, that included a seeding place, has been derailed by Radamel Falcão’s injury, while Portugal’s campaign will once again rest on the shoulders of Cristiano Ronaldo, a much more mature and team-oriented player than in the last two campaigns.
The field is quite open. The only guarantee is that we are in for a peach of a football tournament.
(Fernando Duarte is a Brazilian football writer and author of “Shocking Brazil: Six Games That Shook the World Cup”, Birlinn Books.)