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#Stephen’sNiche: And so it begins

#Stephen’sNiche: And so it begins

The wait is finally over. The most eagerly anticipated global sports event, the quadrennial football fest that is the World Cup, kicks off tomorrow in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. As a pensioner now, it’ll be the first time I can watch every match without having to take annual leave, and I fully intend to: there’s 64 of them, so family beware!

MISSING HEAVYWEIGHTS

Before discussing the potential winners, a moment’s silence for two notable absentees. The Dutch reached the final in 1974, 1978 and 2010, and finished third four years ago, but they’ve not qualified this time around. Their famous orange shirts, so dashingly sported by Johan Cruyff’s golden generation, will be sorely missed.

So will those of gli azzurri. For the first time in 60 years Italy, one of the giants of world football, have failed to make the cut. For a nation that’s won the trophy four times and appeared in two other finals it’s the greatest humiliation since 1966 when Sandro Mazzola, Gianni Rivera and company were beaten by North Korea and returned home in disgrace. Reports that coach Gian Piero Ventura, sacked after Italy’s loss to Sweden in the playoffs last November, is in hiding from the mob are apparently unfounded!

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THE ALSO-RANS

So, to those who have made it to Russia. In a previous column I reluctantly discarded England. They have a young, inexperienced team that will hopefully stand them in good stead for the future, but the quarter finals is the best they can reasonably aspire to in my opinion. The hosts, meanwhile, have a poor side and are currently 70th in the FIFA rankings, the lowest of all 32 participating teams.

With all due respect to them, I also rule out the representatives of the Asian Football Confederation: Australia, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran. None is better than 200-1 with the bookies, and they know a thing or two. Debutants Panama and Iceland are already celebrating; any goals or points they get will be a bonus.

No African nation has ever won the World Cup and I don’t expect that to change this year. I hope our neighbours Morocco do well, although they have their work cut out in a group that includes Spain and Portugal. Keep an eye out for Senegal though. They’re in an evenly matched group and could progress at the expense of Poland or Colombia.

As usual the main contenders will be from Europe and South America. Eight countries from these two federations have shared all 20 World Cups between them. Can anyone break their hegemony and inscribe their name on the trophy on July 15th?

THE OUTSIDERS

Belgium seem the best bet. They have an outstanding squad and two of the world’s finest outfield players in Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. Goalie Thibaut Courtois and striker Romelu Lukaku aren’t too shabby either.

Croatia, with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, have possibly the best central midfield duo of the competition. And you discount reigning European champions Portugal, complete with five-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo, at your peril.

In the end though experience and squad depth are crucial, and that’s why it’s difficult to see beyond five teams for the title, all of them previous champions.

THE GENUINE CONTENDERS

After their disastrous 2014 campaign when they were thrashed 5-1 by Netherlands and also lost to Chile, Spain have rebuilt and are in with a chance. They beat Italy 3-0 on their way to qualification and have not lost a match in nearly two years. Recent results include a
6-1 hammering of Argentina in March. The physical condition of midfield maestro Andrés Iniesta could be crucial to Spain’s fortunes. Iniesta became a legend after scoring the only goal of the 2010 final, but he’s now 34 and will be playing his football next season in the less demanding Japanese league, after 16 years at Barcelona. Will he stay fit enough to help his team-mates through to the latter stages?

With the mentioned 6-1 reverse against Spain and a lacklustre qualifying campaign, twice-winners Argentina don’t look at their best. They also have the oldest squad in the tournament. But in Leo Messi they possess one of the best players ever to grace a football field, worthy of being mentioned alongside legends like Di Stéfano, Pelé and Maradona. Messi turns 31 during the competition, which means this is probably his last chance to lift the coveted gold trophy. With a strong supporting cast that includes Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Ángel Di María who’s to say he won’t succeed?

France are notoriously inconsistent, and there are doubts about the effectiveness of coach Didier Deschamps. But he’s blessed with a staggeringly good squad. On their day, France can beat anyone. Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane and Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti form a redoubtable centre-back pairing. In midfield there’s Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté while a front line led by Antoine Griezmann should guarantee plenty of goals. Watch out too for rising stars Thomas Lemar and Kylian Mbappé.

THE FAVOURITES

That leaves just Brazil and Germany, the two most successful sides in World Cup history with five and four wins apiece respectively. Not surprisingly, they’re first and second favourites.

Germany, previously West Germany, have actually been in more finals: eight to Brazil’s seven. They’re the reigning world champions of course and, despite the retirement of key players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm, they remain a formidable proposition. They sailed through qualification, winning all ten matches and conceding only four goals. The squad has bags of experience: Manuel Neuer (if he’s fit) in goal, one of the world’s best centre backs in Jérôme Boateng, and midfielders Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira. It’s in attack where there may be a slight concern. Thomas Müller isn’t an out-and-out striker and Mario Gomez isn’t the best centre forward Die Mannschaft have ever had. On the other hand 22-year-old Timo Werner, with seven goals in twelve international matches, could be one of the stars of the tournament.

Finally, Brazil.

Four years ago they were in crisis. As hosts they struggled past Chile and Colombia in the knockout stages, before being mauled by Germany in the semi finals. They lost 7-1, the worst defeat in Brazil’s history, and were also thumped 3-0 by Netherlands in the third-place play off match. The omens weren’t good at the start of the campaign for this World Cup either; a third of the way through, they were outside the qualification places. But a change of manager had the desired effect. Dunga was dumped and his replacement, Tite, restored much of the attacking flair the yellow jerseys are famous for. They eventually topped the South American section, ten points clear of second-placed Uruguay.

MY TIP

Brazil have won all their World Cup warm up games against Russia as well as Germany, Croatia and Austria. Their swagger is back, and they’re my tip for the tournament. Wouldn’t it be great if they met Germany in the final?

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Stephen Neish
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