The World Cup is probably the most coveted prize in football…in fact, it is the number one trophy on any footballers’ list. It represents the pinnacle of your career, and once it’s done, your name will forever be in the history books. As a child, one will dream of what it would be like to win it, or even play in a World Cup match. It’s aura has been passed down from generation to generation, and every four years, everything stops for a month, as the world watches the best players in the world fight it out to be crowned the best team in the world.
Right now, we’re slap bang in the middle of two World Cups. I must say that I find international football incredibly dull to watch, with the only three exceptions to this rule being if 1) there’s an interesting sub-plot (e.g. Messi vs. Ronaldo), 2) a large Arsenal contingent is present (e.g. France circa 2004), or if it’s during an international tournament. There are many reasons for my apathy towards internationals (especially mid-season ones), but the main point is that I don’t watch it all that often. That may well be an odd thing to say at this point of the article, given that I know what’s coming next (and you don’t…), but it’s just something to put out there.
Three years ago, I had the good fortune to go to three World Cup matches in South Africa – I’m going to try to keep it as unsentimental as possible, but the whole experience was phenomenal, even if the competition itself was pretty crap (the lead only changed hands twice in a match on one occasion, and that was in the 3rd/4th Place Play-off). In fact, I would say that I probably saw the 3 most exciting games of the whole thing – the aforementioned Play-off between Germany and Uruguay (3-2), Holland’s victory over Uruguay in the semi-final (also 3-2), and I also saw Lionel Messi’s Argentina side get humbled by the majesty of the German counterattacking machine (4-0).
The play-off, as I said, was statistically the most entertaining match of the tournament. As expected, neither side was at full pelt, and this led to the inevitable mistakes from both sides. Sublime goals from both sides made for spectacular viewing, as did the incessant booing of a certain Luis Suárez. Diego Forlán, arguably the best player in the tournament came close to sending it to extra time with the last kick of the game, but his free-kick rattled the crossbar. The semi-final wasn’t played with as much verve, and despite the quantity of goals, it was the quality of Van Bronkhorst’s goal that really made that game shine out for me.
But in terms of entertainment, nothing came close to matching the German’s dismantling one of the favourites (Argentina), who had also collected 9 points from their group. It should have been a really tight game – Germany had Muller’d England in the previous round, but Argentina would surely provide stiffer opponents. Defoe, Upson, Milner and Barry vs. Di Maria, Tevez, Aguero and Messi. You get my point. Germany weren’t being ruled out, but it seemed destined that this would be Messi’s moment of glory, and that he would make this game his own. In reality, nothing was further from the truth. Messi, who was being managed my Diego Maradona at the time, merged into the backdrop of the game, thanks largely to the dynamic duo of Khedira and Schweinsteiger who marked him out of the game. Di Maria came close, but the tone for the match was set when Muller scored in the 3rd minute of the game. Klose added two, and Friedrich got another one to add to his collection. It was wonderful to watch, and finally people started to take note of this young German side.
This leads me nicely onto the main part of this article – who will win the 2014 World Cup, hosted in Brazil? Germany is the name on everybody’s lips at the moment, so it seems only logical to start there.
German football has had a massive facelift since Euro 2000, when they were disappointingly dumped out of the competition after the group stages. When, a year later, England beat them 5-1 in Munich, the country went into meltdown. Emergency talks were held, and it was decided that a new brand of football would have to be utilised in order to compete for international honours in the future. Whilst an honourable 2nd place at the 2002 World Cup went some way to repair the damage, history repeated itself in 2004, and they were sent home after the group stages. The rebuilding process had to start there and then.
However, they’ve been careful with how they’ve gone about it, and nothing has been done in a hurry. Players are selected on form, not reputation, and there are some stalwarts (e.g. Miroslav Klose) that have been around long enough to guide the younger generation through. Clearly, when looking at results at past tournaments, this has worked – runners up in Euro 2008, they made the semi-finals at both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, as well as at Euro 2012. Each time, they were beaten by the eventual winner. Is this success? Or are they just bottlers?
You’d have thought that the players there know how to win things. In goal, they have arguably the best goalkeeper in the world in Manuel Neuer, and in front of him, any two centre-backs from Mertesacker, Hummels, Badstuber, Hoewedes or Boateng. On the left side of defence, Marcel Schmelzer has come in to good effect, and in Philip Lahm, they have arguably the best right back in the world. Khedira and Schweinsteiger are the first choice central midfielders, but there is competition from Gündoğan, as well as both of the Bender brothers (Lars and Sven). Their strongest position is undoubtedly the attacking midfield option. Should Loew want to, Schweinsteiger could be deployed further forwards, but this leaves one less space – they already have Ozil, Götze, Reus, Podolski, Kroos, Muller and Schurrle. And whilst Mario Gomez is getting older (and getting less playing time), Podolski/Schurrle could play up front, as could the evergreen Klose, or even the 32 year old Cacau. Not a bad team, if you ask me.
However, they’re not certain to win it – if they were, there would be little point in religiously following the World Cup like we all inevitably will. One can’t look past the current European and World champions, Spain. So much has been said about Spanish football over the years, particularly the tika-taka philosophy that Pep Guardiola employed so effectively throughout his years as Barcelona manager…although, a season at the helm of Bayern Munich could well see him strengthen Germany’s position too.
The Spanish side consists mainly of Barcelona players, although Casillas should maintain his place in the side, as should Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso. Right back is a bit of a problem, but Arbeloa will probably play there, and if not then Ramos can slide over. Ingio Martinez may get a call up, but a lot depends on his form at Real Sociedad, as well as the form of other more established players – Del Bosque doesn’t tend to look at form, and picks on reputation (hence no Michu, or even Arteta, in recent squads); in my eyes, it’s always risky. There are worries about Xavi’s injury troubles, and so Cesc Fàbregas may be thrust into his role, although Javi Martínez may be able to do so too. Thiago, Fabregas’ successor at Barcelona, should make the squad, but once again, the most competition lies in the play-maker role (wide or central). For a start, there’s the Premier League trio of Mata, Silva and Cazorla. Then, Iniesta and Isco are up there – for an alternative option, one could look at the likes of Jesus Navas, Koke and Pedro, whilst Jose Antonio Reyes could even be in line for a shock recall.
Up front, David Villa’s lost his Goal-den Touch, as has Fernando Torres – the once formidable pairing looks set to be broken up, and whilst Del Bosque operated with a ‘False 9’, an out and out striker could be someone like Soldado, Negredo or Llorente. Should the Barcelona youngster Delofeu make a significant impact at the Camp Nou next season, then he could also be in with a shout. It’s certainly not a bad team, but one wonders whether their golden generation is finally on the way out, and lots more teams have begun to work them out recently.
Whilst the main bulk of the Spanish national side comes from Barcelona, they’re missing the one key ingredient – Lionel Messi. Surely his Argentina side can’t win the World Cup at the Maracana? Well, if you’re Brazilian, you’ll be relieved to hear that the chances of that are fairly slim. Yes, they’ve got Messi, but their defence won’t be strong enough to see out an entire World Cup campaign. Di Maria, Aguero, Tevez and Pastore all look good in attack, but Mascherano’s the only defensive player of note, and he’ll be 30 by the time of the finals in Brazil. If it’s any solace, then Messi will surely beat his main competitor, Ronaldo in terms of how far each team goes. Of course, as is always the case, the draw will make huge differences, but without an out and out goalscorer to help Ronaldo, Portugal could struggle. Nelson Oliviera could be the next Helder Postiga, but you can’t rely on someone so unproven. Moutinho, Danny and others have never really fulfilled potential, and their defence is shakier than the San Andreas Fault Line (weird analogy, sorry!).
Whilst the football ‘hipsters’ are cottoning onto the idea/fantasy that Belgium may well do well should they qualify for 2014 (Courtois, Kompany, Vertonghen, Vermaelen, Witsel, Fellaini, Dembele, Hazard, Defour, Mirallas, Benteke, Lukaku…arguably better than their Dutch neighbours?), I think that the dark horses of 2014 will be France. Lloris looks set to remain as the goalkeeper, and their defence on paper could well match Germany’s – Rafael Varane has impressed hugely this year for Real Madrid, and Laurent Koscielny has been superb at the heart of Arsenal’s defence this year; competition arises from Adil Rami, Yanga-M’Biwa and Sakho, which shows the clear strength in depth. Sagna’s dip in form could prove costly, but in Debuchy they have a more than apt replacement – Clichy, Evra and Cissokho will fight it out for the left back berth.
In midfield, Yohan Cabaye is almost certainly guaranteed a place, alongside Mavuba, Capoue, Gonalons or even M’Vila – Diarra would be an outside call, but this is somewhat unlikely, as is the return of the injury-plagued Abou Diaby. Established stars of the world game in Ribery and Nasri will provide the creativity, but help will come from Valbuena, Ben Arfa or Menez (for more, see my article on Yoann Gourcuff). Up front, Karim Benzema, having missed the 2010 débâcle, will be keen to lead the line, whilst Olivier Giroud and Bafetimbi Gomis will provide the back up. Personally, I’d like to see Jeremie Aliadiere in the squad after his fantastic displays for Lorient this season, but I don’t pick the squads. This is all without two players who could be key for them in the future, Moussa Sissoko (Newcastle) and M’baye Niang (AC Milan). With everyone fit, France have the potential to go all the way. It’s just a question of whether collectively they have the temperament.
Every year, England are touted as possible winners…and every year (bar 1966, of course), the Barmy Army come home empty handed. A lot has been said on the topic of why we tend to fail on the biggest stage, and unfortunately I can’t see the trend being bucked in Brazil. England don’t tend to do too well in warmer climates, and the squad looks thin, to say the least. Even with Gary Neville dictating some of the tactical play, against some teams England can look distinctly one dimensional – there are still the rugged players of yesteryear, Gerrard and Lampard spring to mind there. But there’s suddenly an influx of more creative players, and certainly more technically able players – Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverly etc. Phil Jones fits into the school of ‘run into the opposition’, but he could well also play a part. The left back slot is one that’s contentious, with Baines possibly edging Cole out (an honourable mention goes to Kieran Gibbs here, but I don’t want to come across as too pro-Arsenal!). Ross Barkley’s an interesting one – I’m a massive fan of his, I just wonder whether he needs to move away from Everton to really give himself the best opportunity on the international stage.
And that’s that in terms of potential World Cup 2014 winners! Oh, but it’s not. There’s just one more, right at the bottom of the barrel, who could, maybe, stand a chance of winning the World Cup…Brazil. Of course – the hosts, the record holders for most World Cup wins, for decades the best team in the world. Don’t let their low world ranking fool you (this is because they’ve not played any in any FIFA competitive games recently, which count much more than friendlies). This Brazil side could well fulfil their destiny, and bring the World Cup back to Brazil.
Whilst they’ve always been known for their attacking prowess and flair, it’s been a long time since their defensive stability has been their strongest unit. Julio Cesar and Diego Lopez will strive to become the number 1, but in front of them, there is Thiago Silva (in my eyes the best CB in the world), and then one of Dante, Dede and David Luiz. Luiz’s transformation into a deep lying midfielder could see him keep a place in the side there, but I think that it’ll be the man dubbed Dede-ckenbauer who plays alongside Silva. Marcelo and Dani Alves seem natural choices for the wing back positions.
In the holding role, Liverpool’s Lucas faces competition from Paulinho, Sandro and Casemeiro, and the aforementioned Luiz. The other Chelsea Brazilians, Ramires and Oscar should make the squad, but playing time will be limited, with the likes of Ganso, Lucas Moura, Hernanes, Fernandinho, Diego and who knows, maybe even Kaka and Ronaldinho all vying for a spot in the coveted Selecao. Hulk’s form in Russia hasn’t been great, but he should make the squad, as should the reborn Alexandre Pato, but Leandro Damião may keep him out of the starting XI.
And then there’s the star of this crop of players…Andre Santos…or not. Neymar could well be the man to lead his country to World Cup glory – that’s not to say that Brazil are a one man team, far from it. It just happens that every World Cup winner has a special talent, and Neymar is this. I think that staying in Brazil until after 2014 would be a wise move for his career, but naturally, in order to fully flourish, the long protracted move to Europe will need to happen.
So there it is (for real now). Personally, I’d say it’s between Brazil and Germany, although unfortunately, the bookies agree with me! Behind them, France could prove to be a handful, and Spain will have that special something.
(At the time of publication of this article, Brazil are 7/2 favourites followed by Spain and Argentina at 5/1 and Germany at 6/1. Belgium are at 20/1, while England are at 22/1 and France are out at 33/1. All odds sourced from bet365.)