A veritable feast in store

Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta with the six cups won by Barcelona last season. How will Messi fare in the World Cup?-AP ?

Spain, which has never won the World Cup, looks the favourite this year. Ayon Sengupta takes a look at the season ahead.

For a true football devotee, it’s difficult not to smile when you think of the feast this year. Fans of every description, colour and creed, across the globe, look forward to one event above all, the quadrennial FIFA World Cup. And the 2010 mega show in South Africa, even before its start, has been marked by eccentricities, gaffes and miracles to set the stage for an exhilarating potboiler.

The qualifying rounds had thrown in its share of surprises and save Euro Cup runners-up Russia, almost all the bigwigs of the soccer world have made their way to South Africa, albeit after a little drama, like the one churned out by Argentine legend and present national team coach Diego Maradona.

He tried over 70 players during the qualifying campaign only to huff his way into the final round at the last minute. Thierry Henry’s famous Hand of Gaul assist against Ireland and El Diego’s angry outbursts at scribes were few of the moments that you and I would like to forget early.

Recurrent underachiever Spain goes into this World Cup with its confidence high, which its outstanding talent warrants. The reigning European champion made it to South Africa with a perfect group stage record of 10 straight wins — no one else came close to bettering that. Spain, though, rightly knows that sterner tests will come against the higher ranked, pedigreed teams, the final stage will inevitably throw at you. But after years of falling short of its potential, the Vicente Del Bosque-managed side is correctly the favourite to lift its first World Cup.

The international equivalent of Barcelona, Spain too, plays a free-flowing, incisive passing game, controlled by the Catalonia giant’s midfield duo, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and complemented by Fernando Torres and David Villa upfront — the most devastating of attacking forces in world football. An equally strong bench which sees Arsenal skipper Cesc Fabregas dying for a first team berth illustrates the embarrassing excess of the side’s abundant talent.

But a potential roadblock awaits, in the possibility of meeting record five-time winner Brazil in round two. With Portugal and Ivory Coast also in Group G along with the South Americans, it is guaranteed that we will see the last of at least two of these four skilful teams even before the quarterfinals stage.

Such scenarios and match-ups provide more than enough intrigue, anticipation and hype for what promises to be an interesting World Cup.

The public relations machine is working overtime and added to this are FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s over-zealous appeals. The unknown element of what the Rainbow nation has in store also contributes to the atmosphere of suspense.

This feeling could also be because the past four years following Italy’s unremarkable 2006 victory have been years of wholesome growth for football. The ostensible powerhouses — Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Germany — have gone through difficult phases, while teams from Africa and Asia have climbed the steps, producing many more players of higher stature.

Underperformers like Spain, England and the Netherlands appear to be at the pinnacle of their game. And then there is also a set of good teams that play with great heart — the United States, Australia and Mexico. Upsets can occur. Now we have to wait till June 11 for them to begin.

But before the main course in South Africa, we are served a lip-smacking appetiser, the African Cup of Nations in Angola from January 10 to 31.

Interest in the biennial tournament will be high as it offers a chance to gauge the best of the African competitors before the World Cup. Algeria, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana will be doubling their bids for the trophy this month with preparations for the big event in June.

Ivory Coast, long considered Africa’s hottest hope, will call on household names like Barcelona’s Yaya Toure; older brother Kolo, captain of Manchester City, and Chelsea’s star strikers Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou for a morale-boosting win.

Les Elephants’ likeliest challengers are Ghana and Cameroon. The Ghanaians, on a roll after their under-20 team beat Brazil to win the junior World Cup in Egypt, however, will find it difficult to go past Ivory Coast in Group B. For this reason alone, Cameroon, with Samuel Eto’o in its ranks, looks a better bet for a place in the final.

On the personal and club front, attention will veer towards the 2009 world footballer of the year, Lionel Messi and the big-spending Real Madrid.

The Argentine asserted himself in 2009, leading Barca to domestic, European and world titles. The recognition bestowed was well-deserved, but now there will be a lot more pressure on the 22-year-old to carry over the brilliance into 2010, particularly at the World Cup.

His former Barcelona team-mate and a guiding force during his early years in professional football — Brazilian Ronaldinho — was nearly invisible in the 2006 World Cup after winning the coveted world footballer award in 2005. Even with a set of talented team-mates such as Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain, Messi’s chances of lifting the World Cup looks difficult what with the ever-volatile Diego Maradona running loose at the helm. Messi may need to surpass himself and also his coach if Argentina is to lift its first World Cup since 1986, which Maradona had almost single-handedly delivered.

If Messi and Barcelona played the leading role on-field in 2009 with six trophies, no team made a bigger splash off-field than archrivals Real Madrid, with a record summer spending spree. With over 200 million pounds well spent in the transfer markets, a new look Real, with Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Xavi Alonso in its fold, has managed to hit the headlines regularly.

Though a 0-1 defeat to Barcelona in the season’s first ‘El Classico’ might have lowered Real’s spirits a little, the gap between the two sides has narrowed down no doubt. If the new set of Galacticos combine better in the New Year, it won’t be a surprise to see a new Spanish and European champion in 2010.

Over in England, the EPL has looked diluted with Ronaldo and Alonso’s departure. While the newest pretender, Manchester City, looks lost with its big bucks, the most noteworthy thing to look forward to in the English summer might be the fate of Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, whose six-year-old love-hate affair with the club looks set for a rancorous end. Rumours about a possible move to Real, a club he supported in his childhood, are already spinning in the fancy tabloids.

So here’s to 2010, here’s to a magnificent year of football and may the best teams always win, but not before a fair fight.