World Cup picture

When Robinho, a hugely expensive disappointment at Manchester City, plays for Brazil, he is a very different proposition, deploying his manifold talents.-AP

The talent available to Brazil, most of it playing in Europe, quite a lot of it even in Russia, is super abundant.

As things stand, and as recent results suggest, the two favourites for the coming World Cup must be Brazil from South America and Spain from Europe. Two teams which can produce scintillating football, the Spaniards carrying on ebulliently from where they stopped in the finals of the European Championship, Brazil recovering from a bleak beginning have hit form in the present year, as dramatically emphasised by their 4-0 Montevideo win over Uruguay, who so often in the past have proved their bogey team. Dunga, their former captain and manager, has survived heavy criticism for his supposedly cautious and negative approach. But you certainly could see none of that a few months ago when Brazil, even without the resilient Kaka, came to the Emirates in London and made mincemeat of an Italian side which, their manager Marcello Lippi curiously alleged, had been intimoriti, intimidated. What? You thought. Intimidated? The holders of the World Cup?

The talent available to Brazil, most of it playing in Europe, quite a lot of it even in Russia, is super abundant. And there are those like the attacking midfielder Elano, who may not have done the job with his club, Manchester City, where he has been ill at ease, but can emphatically do it for Brazil. He showed it at The Emirates, and he set up a goal in Montevideo. When Robinho, another hugely expensive disappointment at Manchester City, plays for Brazil, he is a very different proposition, deploying his manifold talents.

Spain have won all their group matches and their dazzling little midfield men, Iniesta, Xavi and company, were far too much for Manchester United in that one-sided European Cup final, in Rome. Under the new management of Vicente Del Bosque, once booted out absurdly by Real Madrid, the club for which he did so much in midfield and coached so well till a ludicrous club President decided he wasn’t “elegant” enough, Spain flourish. With the hugely talented and incisive Fernando Torres to lead their attack, Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal’s inspiration, finding it hard to win the place in central midfield he would surely occupy by right, for almost any other nation.

Holland sail through to South Africa, even though the agile veteran Van der Sar won’t play in goal any more and Ruud van Nistelrooy is no longer prepared to play up front. But the team has solid talent, with the likes of the abrasive Van Bommel and the fluent De Jong, both scorers in the 2-1 win in Iceland, in central midfield, and the energetic unselfish quicksilver Dirk Kuyt ubiquitous in attack.

They do not, however, think they have quite the old star quality — despite the elusive presence of Arjen Robben on the left wing — finally to prevail in South Africa. Where one can only hope and pray that the fans who go there do not fall prey to the horrifying prevalence of rape and violence which, alas, disfigures that country.

There are, as we well know, lies, damned lies and statistics, so the seemingly impressive record of England under Fabio Capello should not be taken at face value. Any more than the 4-0 victory they eventually achieved in Kazakhstan, where they could so easily have given away a couple of goals in the opening minutes; and then what kind of a game would it have been? Can we be sure that the hosts, unlucky to be a couple of goals down at half-time, wouldn’t have found the stamina they so crucially lacked in the second-half when England at last began to play?

Let me not dwell too long on the fact that Capello has still to be cured of that strange disease, Beckhamitis. The fading warrior perhaps inevitably was trotted out for the last quarter hour to win yet another of his dubiously awarded caps. Talk about lying statistics! Perhaps, while making his token or cameo appearances, he will one day even overhaul, however notionally, the record 125 caps won by goalkeeper Peter Shilton, who actually gained them by playing 90 minutes plus.

Speaking of goalkeepers, England still desperately need one. In the absence of “Calamity” James, injured but previously, with Portsmouth, making yet more of the strange blunders which chequer his long career, West Ham’s Robert Green got his second chance and botched it horribly. Twice in those opening minutes, he blundered badly — as alas, did Portsmouth’s right-back Johnson, so much better going forward than defending. Twice, Green got away with it by the skin of his teeth. Horribly inept on a curling free-kick from the right, when only a narrow offside decision saved him from still greater embarrassment; he thought the goal would stand, but offside was given.

Matthew Upson still lacks class and mobility as a stand in centre-half for Rio Ferdinand. But what a horror of a goal Ferdinand himself gave away in Rome, in the European Cup final, when he criminally failed to mark Barcelona’s little Lionel Messi. While Capello has still to resolve the dualism of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Using Gerrard wide left is no answer. Could he play just behind Wayne Rooney, his Liverpool role?

Germany will qualify, but still seem to be in the melting pot. Argentina did squeeze through at home 1-0 against Colombia, but that five goal defeat in Bolivia still lingers in the mind and Diego Maradona was never going to be an ideal manager, much though President of the Federation Grondona so imperiously wanted him to be. They’ll qualify, but expect relatively little more from them and even Carlos Tevez.