Clear favourites

Spain, as of now, looks the best bet for the 2010 World Cup. The team breezed through its qualifiers and even without star striker Fernando Torres shot holes in the Bosnia defence in an away match. Over to Brian Glanville.

At least, as the smoke gradually clears, we can discern a plain favourite for the coming, ill-omened, World Cup Finals. Ill-omened, because all the news emerging from South Africa implies, more clearly than ever, that fans, media men and indeed anyone not in the restricted magic circle protected by security, could be seriously at risk.

The latest warning has been sounded by a senior member of the Swedish Football Federation, seconded to South Africa to help with the organisation. He has returned home insisting that he has no intention of going back for the World Cup, that even those who try to travel by car will be at risk, and that he has banned his two sons, both grown men in their 20s, from attending the competition.

The actual teams, however, should be safe enough, as should be the various officials, who have all been guaranteed protection by the South African authorities. Less heavily populated competitions, such as the Rugby World Cup, have been staged with no great problems, but the bloated World Cup, with its ludicrously high complement of 32 teams is another, ominous, story.

Spain just now are the clear favourite. They breezed through their qualifying group and, even without star striker, Fernando Torres, shot holes in the defence of Bosnia away with newly capped striker Negredo scoring two of their five goals. Ten wins out of 10 for the Spaniards in their group, with Bosnia limping into the play-offs, fully 11 points behind.

What Spain do have, and few other countries, very much including England lack, is playmakers in abundance. They have Alonso, so badly missed this season by Liverpool, such an asset for Real Madrid, Iniesta, Xavi and, when they find room for him, Arsenal’s dynamic Cesc Fabregas.

Argentina, who have scraped through with a couple of belated, narrow wins, would, I feel, have some chance of success: if only they could get rid of Diego Maradona. That he was ever appointed in the first place was the responsibility and the colossal error of Julio Grondona, President and virtual autocrat of the Argentina football federation. Having appointed Maradona on the sole basis of his playing fame and after just a couple of unhappy managerial spells with minor clubs, Grondona, has since indulged him beyond logic.

Surely he should have gone after that traumatising, humiliating defeat on the breathless heights of La Paz, by modest Bolivia. It has been known for decades that visiting players will have severe breathing difficulties there, that there are just two alternatives. One, to give them time up there to prepare or two, to fly them in on the day itself, then get them out. Maradona did neither. The consequence was that his out of breath team went down 1-6. Even when the old foe, Brazil came to Rosario and cantered away 3-1, Grondona did nothing save complain.

If, as one suspects, he wanted Maradona to resign, then he was deluding himself. In the event, Argentina had to win their last two qualifying games to get through though all would not have been lost. The team finishing fifth in the South American group play-off against team number four in the CONCACAF group. In the 1994 World Cup, Argentina sensationally, if not mysteriously, lost their last qualifying game 0-5 in Buenos Aires to Colombia. Was it on the level? Who can say? There were rumours that Malaysian gamblers had got at the team, but they were never substantiated. But Argentina duly qualified for the U.S.A. tournament in the play-offs.

Latterly, Argentina, in their last two matches, won 2-1 at home to Peru with a very late goal by the veteran Martin Palermo — who once missed three penalties in an international — and 1-0 in Montevideo, against a much superior Uruguay. The measure of Maradona’s incompetence is that while almost perversely picking veterans such as Palermo and Juan Sebastian Veron, (a voice of doom) he seems to have diminished and demoralised Lionel Messi, arguably one of the best players in the world. Dazzling with Barcelona, yet an almost phantom attacking presence in the last two qualifying games for Argentina.

After the 1-0 victory in Uruguay, Maradona subjected the Argentine Press to an obscene tirade of abuse. He could, I suppose, shelter behind the fact that at least, by hook or by crook, Argentina had qualified, but should Grondona let him remain in office, Argentina’s chance are negligible.

England? We have heard so much about how Fabio Gapello, with his stern disciplines has regenerated the side and certainly it would be somewhat unfair to draw too many conclusions from their last qualifier, an easy 3-0 win at Wembley, which one saw, against a flaccid Belarus. As things stand, and given the general mediocrity of their contestants, I see no reason why England should not give a decent account, but it would surprise me if they got as far as the semifinals.

For one thing, there is no sign that Capello has been cured of this absurd Beckhamitis. Against Belararus, he brought him on for just over half an hour, a move compounded by the fatuous decision of Steve Bruce, now manager of Sunderland, to make Beckham man of the match. Which amused even Capello, himself, who compared the choice with that of giving President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize. Not so amusing when you think that putting the one-paced Beckham meant keeping James Milner, who’d made such a fine debut against Holland, off till late in the game; then bringing him on not as a winger but as a left back! In which position, to give this versatile player his due, Milner, overlapping, actually beat his man and hit the post! This is a moment when England for once are knee deep in wingers. Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright Phillips and, when he is fit, the dynamic Theo Walcott.

But there are other problems. Rio Ferdinand had little or nothing to do against Belarus, but yet again blundered badly in Ukraine, adding to his series of errors with club and country.

No Gerrard or Rooney, the two real stars, against Belarus, and no Emile Heskey; injured. Yet Heskey, who so seldom scores for England, cannot even gain a regular place in the Aston Villa team. And since Paul Gascoigne, the team has had no true playmaker, a man capable, in the Italian phrase, of inventing the game.