Will Spain reign?

Only seven teams — Uruguay, Italy, Germany, Brazil, England, Argentina and France — have laid their hands on the World Cup. Of the teams looking to break their hegemony, Spain boasts of the most talented, cohesive squad and enters the tournament with an awe-inspiring record, writes Karthik Krishnaswamy.

A significant proportion of humanity cannot do without sport. This belief gnaws at the bones of sports fans, but most would struggle to rationalise it. Simon Barnes, in his book ‘The Meaning of Sport', attempted to explain this. “Sport goes deeper than the mere human in us,” he wrote. “Sport goes to the heart of our mammalian selves.”

And so we spend inordinate lengths of time watching (if not playing) sport, eyes glazed dully from tracking the path of aimless long balls, throats hoarse from railing at ineffectual players and coaches, all in the hope of a moment of beauty that will outweigh the pain and transform us, momentarily, into human pogo sticks.

It isn't surprising, therefore, that South African President Jacob Zuma compared the mood in his country, days away from hosting Africa's first World Cup, to a watershed moment in its political history. “The enthusiasm, joy and excitement that has engulfed the entire nation in recent weeks has not been witnessed since President Nelson Mandela was released from prison,” he said.

This festive atmosphere has remained undiminished despite predictions of the adverse effect the World Cup may have on the country's economy. Reports have suggested that the South African government's infrastructure expenditure has escalated to 750 per cent of original estimates.

A lot of this could have been avoided. The newly-constructed stadium in Cape Town, which will stage eight World Cup games including a semifinal, is a case in point. Athlone Stadium, located in a low-income suburb and home of football clubs Ajax Cape Town and Santos Cape Town, was the preferred venue of the City of Cape Town for its potential to trigger economic development in a previously underdeveloped area.

Instead, FIFA opted to build a new stadium at the site of the old Green Point Stadium in an affluent neighbourhood with scenic views of Table Mountain at the cost of 4.5 billion rand. In comparison, redeveloping Athlone would have cost an estimated 1.1 billion rand.

“I really think that we're going into Green Point because (FIFA President) Sepp Blatter says ‘I like Green Point,' not because it is the best thing for South Africans,” said Helen Zille, Premier of the Western Cape and former Mayor of Cape Town, when the decision was taken.

FIFA has maintained this top-down approach right through the preparatory phase, enforcing its needs and the needs of its sponsors on the host nation. Everything at the World Cup from food at the venues to the air transport of players and officials will be handled by foreign multinationals. A New York Times story quoted Greg Fredericks, a senior manager for South Africa's World Cup organising committee, as saying: “This is not our World Cup ... It is FIFA's World Cup. We are just the organisers. We are the stage.”

Once the tournament begins, however, the corporates will (hopefully) recede into the background, while the players, coaches and fans take over.

On the pitch, none of the African teams looks likely to bring to belated life Pele's prediction that one of them will “win the World Cup before the year 2000,” especially with major stars like Ghana's Michael Essien, Nigeria's John Obi Mikel and Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba, all of whom play for Chelsea, missing or likely to miss the tournament through injury. To judge the fate of sides based purely on their single biggest names might be fallacious, but it's still hard to see any of these three teams, especially Ghana and Ivory Coast which have been placed in difficult groups, going too far. The host, the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams, has the tricky task of qualifying out of a group that contains France, Uruguay and Mexico. It's hard to see the South Africans maintaining the World Cup tradition of host nations never failing to get past the first group stage.

Of the other teams, Cameroon has a genuine chance of making the second round out of a group that also includes the Netherlands, Denmark and Japan. Whether or not the Indomitable Lions can emulate its predecessors who reached the quarterfinals in 1990 depends greatly on the talismanic Samuel Eto'o, three-time Champions League winner and one of the world's most complete attacking players.

The 29-year-old striker starts the tournament looking to silence the 1990 hero, Roger Milla, who alleged recently that Eto'o “brought lots to Barcelona and Inter Milan but never anything to the Cameroon team.” Apart from Eto'o, Cameroon's major names include Tottenham defenders Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Sebastien Bassong, Marseille's versatile Stephane Mbia, who can slot into midfield or defence and Arsenal midfielder Alexandre Song.

Only seven teams — Uruguay, Italy, Germany, Brazil, England, Argentina and France — have laid their hands on the World Cup. Of the teams looking to break their hegemony, Spain boasts the most talented, cohesive squad and enters the tournament with an awe-inspiring record. Spain won all of its qualifying games, and has an array of game-changers lined up all over the pitch — one of the world's best goalkeepers in Iker Casillas, a ball-playing centre back in Gerard Pique, midfield technicians in Xavi and Andres Iniesta, tricky wingers in Jesus Navas and David Silva, and the best strike partnership in the world in Fernando Torres and David Villa. The prolific Villa could quite conceivably go past Raul's Spanish goal-scoring record at the World Cup itself, and pick up the golden boot on the way.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, has a mouth-watering array of attacking flair in Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Rafael van der Waart, all capable of flights of genius. The key to Dutch hopes will lie, however, in what sort of base the defenders and defensive midfielders provide behind this quartet. Portugal, meanwhile, has undergone something of a goal-scoring crisis ahead of the World Cup under coach Carlos Queiroz. For the Portuguese to progress beyond a group containing Brazil and Ivory Coast, much rests on the shoulders of the explosive Cristiano Ronaldo, who hasn't scored for the national team since February 2009.

Of the traditional powers, Brazil looks the likeliest winner. The five-time champion enters the tournament with a team similar to the 1994 winners, based on solidity at the back and a selection of fast, athletic counterattacking players. Coach Dunga's tactics may have few admirers in Brazil, but there's no doubting their efficacy, as the 2007 Copa America and 2009 Confederations Cup triumphs show.

Meanwhile, a second-straight title for 2006 champion Italy and coach Marcello Lippi seems a distant possibility, with an underperforming squad hit by the news of a calf injury to playmaker Andrea Pirlo.

Pirlo is one of a line of star players hit by an injury curse on the eve of the tournament, a line that includes Germany's Michael Ballack, England's Rio Ferdinand, Uruguay's Diego Forlan and Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba.

Argentina has no such worries (so far). But other concerns remain, such as its patchy qualifying form and the possibility of coach Diego Maradona's controversial selections backfiring on the Albiceste. However, nobody can underestimate a squad that contains weapons as devastating as Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Diego Milito, Gonzalo Higuain and the peerless Lionel Messi. The World Cup could springboard the diminutive Barcelona forward to a second straight Ballon d'Or and FIFA World Player of the Year award, and into the realms of all-time greatness. Will Messi leave behind goals and memories as vivid as those etched into World Cup history by his current coach?