So here we go – a cornucopia of style, speed and drama; a heady mix of sport rich in story lines and the creation of heroes and villains. Aside from coming to terms with a new, roundly criticised ball, the test of mettle at a world cup is more often than not a mental one: who can withstand the eyes and pressure of a worldwide audience and not only perform fault-free but play with the inhibition talent demands.
So who will triumph? The Brazilians are traditionally the team who have been able to mix style with physical brawn and mental strength – the country most able to produce when it matters. But they appear a team moulded in their image of their new manager, Dunga, a midfield enforcer of tough repute in two successful Brazilian teams. They possess a couple of star names up front in Kaka and Robinho, but will the former shrug of a loss of form and fitness to shine and the latter adapt once more to the paucity of time given on the ball by European opposition? He has the touch and technique to do so –does he have the mental fortitude?
It’s far more likely in this year’s competition that the pass and move ethos favoured and expressed so artfully by those aesthetes from Iberia will triumph when it matters. Spain’s victory at Euro 2008 may have banished for good the mental baggage in tow at all tournaments played before, and a glittering array of relatively young superstars in a squad committed and shaped in a singular style lends itself to the formation of a formidable gestalt three years in the making.
But what of England? Another team boasting an array of experienced and talented players, and who, it cannot be ignored, qualified out of their group in style. Like Spain before them, any tournament victory would go some way to banishing the demons of the past, but surely a move away from Capello’s four-four two formation will be necessary to overcome sterner tests than the USA, Algeria or Slovenia. Undoubtedly the psychological pressures on England players’ have stemmed from our countries obsession and fear of the ignominy of defeat rather than a meditation on the rewards of success; let’s hope that our most experienced and talented players can help us break the hoodoo. If nothing else England, have displayed a proclivity for scoring goals in the last couple of years, but can we marry it with obduracy? And do we have the strength in depth?
Holland and Argentina are two sides who could do with some defensive steel. Both boast an array of attacking talent to be coveted; not only evincing finesse in the finish but pace, creativity and a robustness to frighten most. But can they balance it will defensive prowess under pressure? Is Maradona up to the tactical battle of wills that will inevitably follow in the later stages of the tournament? Argentina could play like a madman’s work of art and veer from the fantastical to the farcical, but regardless of who Maradona injudiciously left at home they have a side to scare any on their day.
The French are another side who may suffer from the whims of unpredictable coach. Raymond Domenech, the beleaguered man who proposed live on TV to his wife in the aftermath of France’s failure at Euro 2008 (he still hasn’t married her), is facing player revolt over the decisions to put Abou Diaby and Thierry Henry on the bench. He also somehow saw fit to leave prodigious talents such as Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema at home, and as such France may struggle to deliver as a unit akin to the one which triumphed in 1998, despite boasting some excellent footballers.
Should their talisman be fit, the Ivory Coast have a team of adroit players to give group opponents Brazil and Portugal cause for concern, as do Serbia, an unheralded side hording a striking mix of young talent and experienced European-based players. Expect them to surprise a few people and reach the later stages, likewise Chile, who possess some exciting attacking players capable of changing a match on their day. Elsewhere, Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo and several technically gifted midfielders but may find the loss of Nani and the absence of a player emerging to fill Nuno Gomes’ boots their usual hindrance, and Germany’s loss of Michael Ballack could prove decisive despite the talents of emerging playmaker Mesut Ozil.
Expect Spain to win. For surely their combination of artistry, ball retention and experience will be too much for most teams. England, well my heart would love it to be their year and we are capable, but whether or not it will be remains to be seen. In the very least, let’s hope this year’s tournament is an eclectic mix of goals, tackles, excitement and story lines unparalleled by those in the past.