World Cup: The Contenders and The Pretenders

The Brazilian team sparkles with stars. It is hard to see them troubled in their qualifying group of the World Cup by teams such as Croatia, writes Brian Glanville.

There seems no doubt that the World Cup finals in Brazil will go ahead, whatever the fears last year at the time of the Confederations Cup there, where riots, substantially provoked by the colossal expenditure on the competition while millions lived in poverty, appeared to threaten its existence. The word now is that such riots will no longer be widespread or as massive. First because the populace at large has been deterred by the number of violent activists who were involved; secondly because unlike the synthetic Confederations Cup, the World Cup has colossal prestige and renown, not least because Brazil have won it so many times. And one way and another, it has taken fully 64 years for Brazil to stage the competition again. A distinction to which they are surely entitled, both sportingly and even morally, yet which has been denied them thanks to the too often chaotic situation in the vast country.

But there is alas a suggestion that FIFA may have undermined the coming tournament with their obstinate, commercially engendered insistence on staging something known as its World Cup fan fest. Celebrations staged around the various stadiums. Already the idea has been hotly opposed by the city of Recife. It has been warned that these so-called fan fests could double the cost of policing.

One way and another most of the stadiums will be finished on time. How ironic to remember that in 1950, when the enormous Maracana Stadium in Rio was built, the fact that it wasn’t entirely ready when the tournament began arguably helped the Brazilians to win their opening match. It was against Yugoslavia, a strong and combative team, but just as the players were due to take the field, Rajko Mitic, the star constructive Yugoslav inside right, spilt his head open in the dressing room on an uncovered girder. That meant he had to be treated and bandaged, unable to come on to the field till several minutes after the game began, during which time Brazil scored, and went on to win.

In the thrilling, decisive 1950 match against Uruguay, gallant in defence, lethal on breakaways, it might be said Brazil choked. In front of 200,000 people, they went ahead just after half time, then lost to two deadly Uruguayan counter-attacks. Uruguay, this time, have scant chance of winning the trophy again. Though they have such major stars as the prolific Luis Suarez and the incisive Edinson Cavani, Uruguay look too long in the tooth to progress far in a group that includes Italy and England.

Though it is to be hoped there will be no repetition of Suarez’s biting an opponent, as he did with Liverpool, or shamelessly handling on the goal-line a ball which was going into the net to give Ghana a goal; then exulting on the sideline after being sent off, on seeing Ghana miss the resulting penalty.

Brazil’s team sparkles with stars. Recently they went to South Africa and thrashed the home nation 5-0, three of the goals going to the supremely elusive Neymar looking more at home in Brazilian colours than he does at Barcelona. Add the refulgent attacking talents of Oscar, Ramires, Fernandinho and, in central defence, the adventurous (sometimes to a fault) David Luiz and it is hard to see them troubled in their qualifying group by teams such as Croatia. Even if Luka Modric remains a playmaker of renown.

Spain are the holders; they hold the European titles as well. But their passage to the finals has not been an easy one. Though they led their group with 20 points, they were held at home both by France and a modest Finland. But it looks as if they will at last solve a centre forward problem which has induced them to play with what you might call a false striker in the shape of the ebullient Fabregas. This because Diego Costa, Brazilian born with one appearance for Brazil already made, has elected to play for Spain. A striker of power, skill and drive who came up the hard way through a variety of clubs, he has settled splendidly and prolifically at Atletico Madrid and should be provided with the bullets to fire by Iniesta, Alonso and Xavi. A new life has been put into the midfield by Thiago Alcantara whom Barcelona sold to a Bayern Munich team in which he has excelled this season. Holland and Chile will challenge them in their group, but the Dutch need a Robin van Persie firing on all cylinders, which they certainly didn’t get in the European Championship finals, any more than have Manchester United this struggling season. Nor are Chile in this group to be taken lightly. As we saw when inspired by the centre forward prowess of Barcelona’s Sanchez, they comfortably beat England at Wembley.

Germany will be among the favourites as even if the expensive Ozil, such a star in South Africa, has gone badly off the boil for both club, Arsenal, and country. Even to the extent of being booed by the German fans. A somewhat laborious 1-0 win over Chile in Stuttgart perhaps should not be taken too seriously. Germany lacked the attackers Julian Draxler, Marcus Reus and Thomas Muller. But Portugal, with the irresistible Cristiano Ronaldo, are in that group. Ronaldo’s cornucopia of goals pulled Portugal into the finals via the play-offs and on his day, he can decide any game. These two though should surely qualify.

Italy, who recently lost 1-0 to Spain in a friendly, meet England in their opening game in what will be the afternoon torrid heat of Manaus. Their style will be better suited than England’s to such conditions. England’s manager, Roy Hodgson, was unwise to say before the draw was made that he hoped to avoid the Amazonian locale. Only to find himself salaaming apologetically to the local leaders there. But with a head of Brazilian World Cup authority like the now disgraced and exiled Ricardo Teixeira, you do wonder how Manaus was chosen at all.

England have several highly promising youngsters, not least Alex Oxlade Chamberlain who did so well last year when England so surprisingly held Brazil to a draw in Rio. But it was all too plain in the defeat by Chile that Wayne Rooney and the free-scoring Sturridge of Liverpool just cannot play together up front. Rooney has lately been off form with Manchester United and failed in his last two World Cups. What will Roy do? And with John Terry gone, there are serious problems in central defence which must face the physical challenge of the explosive Mario Balotelli and the probing skills of Italy’s midfield general, the veteran Pirlo, who has tormented them in the past.

Belgium, with such stars as Eden Hazard in attack, Vincent Kompany in defence, should do so much better than they have done. The defence tends to wobble. Russia and South Korea stand in their way.

Argentina? Clearly among the favourites with Messi and Aguero. But surely manager Sabella won’t omit Carlos Tevez, in terrific form for Juventus, as he did during the 0-0 draw in Romania.

And France under Didier Deschamps are back on song.