Chasing a record

Pope Francis with Fuleco, the Official Mascot of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which was presented to him by the FIFA President Sepp Blatter (left).-AP Pope Francis with Fuleco, the Official Mascot of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which was presented to him by the FIFA President Sepp Blatter (left).

The Brazilians, as a team, have hardly played any competitive football over the past four years, but an amazing amalgamation of attacking talents, backed by a partisan crowd, will hold them in good stead as they try to break Europe’s and particularly Spain’s recent stranglehold, writes Ayon Sengupta.

Psepholigists and legislators are gearing up for the big fat Indian elections of 2014, looking for another hefty payday even as ordinary citizens, like us, are hoping for some respite and stability to our already over-burdened lives.

With little to look forward to — even a change in government is not going to change our plight — we down a few (eggnogs) but suddenly remember, in an inebriated stupor, the overpaid prima donnas. A brand of athletes, who, though not our own, can surely send some cheer our way, playing in the greatest sporting spectacle, probably in the brightest and merriest place (despite the economic strife), Brazil — the footballing soul of the world.

FIFA’s quadrennial showcase returns to the South American nation after a long gap; Brazil hosted the tournament in 1950, where it was ambushed by Uruguay. This time, the Samba faithful will want their footballers to deliver a record sixth World Cup crown.

The Brazilians, as a team, have hardly played any competitive football over the past four years, but an amazing amalgamation of attacking talents in Neymar, Oscar and Fred, backed by a partisan crowd, will hold them in good stead as they try to break Europe’s and particularly Spain’s recent stranglehold.

Indeed, 2014 could well be the year when La Roja finally loses its cloak of invincibility. The team’s meek capitulation to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final is probably an indicator. The defensive frailties of Vicente del Bosque’s side are out in the open, and the heavy burden of too much game-time has taken the sharpness off his midfield.

Spain has also failed to address the problems of its misfiring forwards and a 4-6-0 headless formation fails to give it adequate teeth to surpass quality opposition.

Germany, with a spectacular concoction of procedural proficiency and physical prowess, has been one of the most efficient international teams in the past few years. A midfield studded with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Mario Gotze is surely not to be taken lightly, and its amazing consistency in premier tournaments makes Germany a title contender.

However, the world will be expecting the most from Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, winner of four Ballon d’Or awards. With a staggering 327 goals in 395 appearances for Barcelona (including 247 in just 234 matches over the last five seasons), the virtuoso has firmly established himself as the top player of his generation. But despite scoring 37 times for Argentina, the 26-year-old is yet to shepherd his team to any international title and the tournament in his home continent might be the ideal place for the diminutive playmaker to leave a lasting impression.

Messi, who has missed large parts of the current club season because of a hamstring injury, will need to recover soon and hope for optimal support from the likes of Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero and PSG’s Ezequiel Lavezzi to keep his much-awaited date with destiny.

The Argentine, though, is not the favourite for the ‘Best Footballer’ tag at the FIFA gala in Zurich on January 13. The French winger, Franck Ribery, an integral part of Bayern Munich’s quintet title-winning side, might be the surprise winner.

Bayern, now coached by former Barca player and manager Pep Guardiola, continues to be the foremost club team in the world, recently winning the FIFA Club World Cup crown in Morocco. Opting for a 4-1-4-1 system — a refreshing change from 4-2-3-1 that had almost become every manager’s staple formation since 2010 — Guardiola’s Bayern plays a high backline, concentrating on his usual motto of ball retention. The team is also effective on the counter.

Bayern actually employs a blend of formations. Using the pace of Ribery and Arjen Robben on the wings, it plays 4-3-3 while on the attack. It then uses a combination of 4-5-1 and 4-1-4-1 when defending.

However, in 2014, most managers are likely continue with the defensive 4-2-3-1 style with its holding midfielder, but 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 are expected to stage a strong comeback. The advent of exciting attacking players worldwide will surely change the outlook and teams will want to be more adventurous in order to best utilise the talents at their disposal.