Ladies and gentlemen, it is upon us at last. Football’s greatest festival starts on the 12th of June with a match between the host nation and sure-fire favourites Brazil, and Croatia, a solid team praised for nurturing great footballing talent for a nation of it’s size. And already, many micro-stories have developed; Neymar, Brazil’s golden boy, goes over on his ankle in training and remains a doubt for the opener, Eduardo will sing the national anthems of both his birth country Brazil and his national team Croatia before the game, and of course, the riots rage on, continuing to cloud what is supposed to be a wonderful event that serves to bring the world closer, not drive it apart.
As a result, I start off this post by offering a few words on the situation. To those that have been negatively effected in any way by the riots, I speak on behalf of the world when I say our thoughts are with you. Pictures like the one below are examples of things no one wants to see happen, and the emotional and physical harm caused to innocent citizens over the last year by rioting is something I cannot articulate in mere words.Brazil brought the World Cup back for the first time in 64 years to catalyse a change in fortunes for the largely impoverished nation. Instead, it’s served to only anger the public further. The corrupt democrats in charge have pumped all their resources into the World Cup, leaving those sectors in real need of monetary defibrillation to survive on their own. Indeed, some $10bn has been spent on stadiums and infrastructure alone. How dearly could those in need have used a mere fraction of that money? And, given this state of affairs, is the World Cup affordable? Will it leave the country in a more dire situation than before? As someone who doesn’t claim to be a financial expert, I’m not really in a position to answer these questions, but I assume those in charge will have to at some point, as more and more people, enraged by a corrupt, ethically uneducated and financially unstable system, continue to be ravaged by racism and poverty, and prove that the face we see of a nation that is all about samba, heat, partying, women, and of course football, is nothing more than a facade.
Nevertheless, the show must, and will, go on. As a result, I shall now proceed to not predict the path of the World Cup. Indeed, I have learned my lesson from the last time I tried to do that.
The Small Matter of England
What will the starting line-up be against Italy?
This question can be answered two ways: 1) Who I want to start, and 2) Who Roy Hodgson will actually select. Below are the answers to both of those questions.
I have gone for the line-up that I feel that most people would like to see walk out in the first game; a standard back 5, a Gerrard-Henderson central partnership, starts for Lallana, Barkley, and Sterling, and a complete lack of Wayne. I don’t feel the need to justify this too much, but this, in terms of momentum and form from the Premier League season just gone by, is our strongest XI. Plenty of attacking guile and creativity, Gerrard pulling the strings, and Henderson doing the legwork. The back 4 looks suspect, but it’s more or less the best we have available to us.
My prediction for Hodgson’s XI is based in a couple of things. Firstly, the infatuation with HAVING to playing Rooney, as staggeringly unbelievable as it is after the completely uninteresting season he has had, is present, and we have to deal with it. Crow-barring Rooney in the side is seemingly Hodgson’s priority if recent friendlies are anything to go by, so expect to see Wayne fill in at right-back if Glen gets injured just to squeeze him in (you never know, it might work, not hard to be a better defender than Glen is it). Secondly, is a similar infatuation with Wilshere as the saviour of our central midfield. This isn’t necessarily Hodgson’s problem, but the country seems to love him to bits, so I could see Hodgson going with him. I have so many issues with this; he’s barely played this season and, given how much of a glass cannon he is and how people target him, it’s a bit like putting a plate of Jaffa Cakes (other cakes/biscuits are available) in front of a 7 year old and telling them not to eat them. Not to mention, what do people see in him exactly? 4 assists from 29 games for someone who supposedly has such a great eye for a pass is poor. All I see him do is run forward with the ball and give it away, it’s frustrating. He mustn’t start. Finally, the inclusion of Welbeck in friendly teams is very divisive. His record for England speaks volumes; 8 in 23 is decently prolific for someone stuck in a left midfield position. However, I would not consider any Manchester United player for the starting XI. They’ve been dreadful this season, and none of them should feel entitled to starting place just because of the badge they wear on weekends. You have to earn your place, and Sterling, Lallana, and Barkley have all done that.
How far will England get?
I wasn’t entertaining the idea of anything above 3rd place (in the group, of course) up until this recent bout of friendlies. Italy however, have lost a crucial player to a broken leg in Montolivo (we wish him a speedy recovery). A 0-0 against Ireland and a shock 1-1 against Luxembourg of all teams sees them enter the tournament with precisely no momentum. At this stage, I can’t see them trouncing us, and a draw could see it go down to goal difference for second place, and we can do that. Uruguay will win the group with 9 points, of course, but 4 points and a lot of goals will see us through. I would then expect a match against Colombia, and on paper, the two are very evenly matched. Should we beat them, the quarter finals would see us more than likely face Brazil, and that is as far as I could see us going. Realistically, reaching the last 16 can be seen as a relatively successful campaign.
Who will be top scorer?
I’ve earmarked five potential top scorers for this tournament. Some come as no shock, some do.
As much as his injury scare could throw this into doubt, and as much as I strongly dislike the little wussbag (1. n. bag of wuss), he is Brazil’s star man, and his record of 31 goals in 49 appearances speaks volumes of his ability to conjure goals. The Confederations Cup Player of the Tournament goes into the World Cup as the man to take the Golden Boot from.
Looking to steal Neymar’s spotlight is strike partner Fred, who has come right back into the fold in recent years after a baron patch in his career between 2006 and 2010. Now that he is back firing on all cylinders, and fresh from being joint top scorer with Fernando Torres at the Confederations Cup with 5 goals, he can be considered a real threat to opposition defences.
As sentimental as this selection may be, Klose has the opportunity to go down in World Cup history. Currently on 14 goals, he needs 2 goals to beat Ronaldo’s record of 15 goals at World Cups. No one will be hungrier for goals than Klose.
He’s in the very lucky position of having accomplished everything there is to do at club level at the age of 26. He has 86 appearances for Argentina and 39 goals, but only 1 at a World Cup, in the 6-0 drubbing of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006. Trust me, he will be as motivated as anyone there to cap of his gleaming collection of medals and trophies with a World Cup win, and the conditions will suit him down to a tee. But first, he has to break his scoring drought, and I can see him doing that in fine style in a group Argentina are set to walk through.
My surprise inclusion here is Edin Dzeko. In the same group as Argentina, he will be up against Iran and Nigeria, and with a record of 35 goals in 62 games, he’s more than capable of causing severe damage. Providing they fend off Nigeria for second, which I predict they will easily, they’re likely to meet Switzerland or France in the last 16, and again, Dzeko can make them pay too. Definitely one to keep an eye on.
Probably the biggest omission is Luis Suarez. After the season he has had, the momentum he is carrying into the World Cup is tremendous, and he is also someone acclimatised to the heat and humidity of South America. He is however, in a group with Italy and England, who tend not to roll over easily.
Similarly, Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t make the list. His group is very difficult much like Suarez’s (Germany, Ghana, USA), and Portugal have been wholeheartedly unimpressive in qualifying. He’ll need his team to up their game if he wants to progress out of the group stages and score goals.
The likes of Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard miss out too. With Lukaku potentially out for the first two group stage games, his task could prove too difficult, and Eden Hazard, despite a quality season for Chelsea, only has 6 international goals from 45 games, which is simply not good enough.
Last tournaments’ Golden Boot winner Thomas Muller also doesn’t make the cut. He’s been totally anonymous this season, and, despite being excellent for Germany overall, Joachim Low could opt against starting Muller altogether. We’ve sen both Gotze and Schurrle play down the middle, and Klose and Podolski are both experience international strikers.
Finally, Brazilian-come-Spaniard Diego Costa doesn’t make the list. A big advantage he has over other European strikers is… he’s Brazilian. This will feel more homely for him. Currently being treated for a hamstring injury though, he may not be match fit, by which point Vicente del Bosque may have already decided to stick with his tried and trusted false 9 formula which bought him the European Championship in 2012. Then there’s the question of whether he’ll fit into the tiki taka style of play, and also his lack of international experience.
I touched upon Dzeko being a surprise contender before, and I would like to extend that to Bosnia and Herzegovina. They should finish 2nd in their group, and a game against Switzerland or France could see them advance to the quarter finals, some achievement given they were nearly banned from competing in 2011 by FIFA, which would surely have set them back.
People keep talking about Belgium as surprise contenders. With their squad, what exactly is a surprise? If they got 9 points from Russia, South Korea, and Algeria, I would be totally unsurprised. If their beat second place in Group G, likely Portugal or Ghana, again, not surprised. They should make the quarter finals at least with their team. A more likely surprise would be if the Netherlands could repeat 4 years ago and beat Brazil, provided they can advance from a tough group B.
My major pick for a surprise though is Ghana. The World Cup 2010 semi-finalists* could go all the way there again this time if recent dominant results in friendlies give any indication. With Kevin-Prince Boateng and Asamoah Gyan back out of retirement, their side is full strength, and I would love to see them get retribution for that act of footballing terrorism.
It’s boring to say Brazil or Argentina, but they’re too obvious to look past. However, I do fancy Germany to go the distance, their team is ridiculously strong and they all have a lot to prove given a lack of international trophies since 1990.
Everything said, let’s try and enjoy the World Cup as a united World. We can joke about Martin Demichelis and watch in awe as Luis Suarez commits sin again. Our jaws can drop to the floor as one as Ross Barkley spanks one into the top corner from 25 yards, and we can cry in unison when we do tumble out. But let us not forget about the tragedies and realities the World Cup is bringing, and pray that in the end, football can bring everyone together and to their senses, and someone does the right thing.
*Uruguay don’t count