Not long to go until the renewal of the greatest football tournament on Earth, the World Cup. The pre-tournament warm-up matches are coming to a close and the final preparations by each country are being made. This is my guide to those competing in Brazil this summer, with predictions.
To the untrained eye, Brazil would look to have this all-but sewn up before a ball is even kicked, but Maracanzo is the word on every Brazilian’s lips. If you’re not familiar by this Spanish word by now, it’s the summing up of the host nation’s shocking defeat by Uruguay in the 1950 tournament at the home stadium of the Maracana. Fear can be more of a hindrance than an assister in success and Gene Hackman’s ‘Big’ Phil Scolari’s men have got to overcome that.
Those naysayers who feel that something that happened 64 years ago shouldn’t affect players who weren’t even born then, obviously don’t understand the emotions of the most successful international nation. All of this reverberates around the country and the feelings of the public are passed onto those 23 players representing them during the 31 days of competition.
Within the squad, the team seem to rely too much on their marquee player. While the rest of the players aren’t exactly a group of useless clowns, few possess the skill and ingenuity of the 22-year-old Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior. The Barcelona man has 31 goals in 48 appearances for Selecao – none too shabby a record at all – however, just one other player in the squad has double figures. That man is Frederico Chaves Guedes (Fred) and he as 16 in 32, but the rest are a way behind and if Neymar doesn’t deliver, the pressure will be on. They should get through the group, though with Mexico struggling through the CONCACAF qualifying section and a Croatia side which lost home and away to Scotland in their European group.
The surprise package could be the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. The Africans proved a tough nut for Germany in one of the final warm-up matches in Berlin and Samuel Eto’o showed that he still has enough to trouble even the best defences in the world. Although lucky to have got through their CAF group, with Togo rightly penalised for fielding an ineligble, there is a possibility that they can take advantage of their place at the finals. The only thing is, while they are formidable in defence, like Brazil, they rely on their talismanic striker for goals. They shouldn’t get taken apart in any game – unless the opposition is inspired or the sides are uneven in numbers – but they are unlikely to be doing the same to the other teams in their group. They could sneak second place.
Mexico had a woeful qualifying campaign and could even finish bottom, here and there is a worry that they could lose all three games – for the first time since Argentina 1978. They conceded 12 times that summer and also only scored twice. This time around should see them be less sieve-like and maybe also net more at the other end, but still fall short in their quest for the knockout stages. In fact, coach Miguel Herrera has already put the feelers out for winning the trophy itself. After mopping up my tears and other liquids of laughter, I looked at their squad, laughed a little more and then composed myself. They won’t get out of the group and the only reward for them will be a wooden spoon.
Croatia will be without the suspended Mario Mandzukic for the opener against Brazil, following his dismissal in the playoff against Iceland in November last year. They do have the once-prolific Everton frontman Nikica Jelavic and Rio de Janeiro-born Eduardo who finds the net in almost one of every two internationals. It will be either him or the vastly experienced and much-travelled Ivica Olic who replaces the banned Bayern forward, Mandzukic and should give at least Brazil something to think about. For me, their clash against Cameroon on Wednesday 18 June, should decide who accompanies the hosts through to the last 16 and most probably has the uneviable task of facing Spain.
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