The world's greatest sporting extravaganza starts today, and all bets are off as to who will lift the title on the 9th of July. It is often said that form leading up to a big tournament counts for nothing, because it's all a matter of form during the tournament. Some teams peak too early, some too late; the real champions show their true mettle in the knock out stages, when the team that handles the pressure best wins. Here is my guide to the World Cup and the teams who could walk away with the title, soon enough we'll know who handles the pressure best.
Being the host nation has put immense pressure on Germany to perform. But what is often forgotten by the German fans is that Germany is no longer the team it was a decade and a half ago. Germany is the footballing equivalent of the West Indies, once a great team and world beater, now merely mortal and routinely being beaten by everyone. Germany much like the West Indies have a Lara to fall back on, his name is Michael Ballack. A player can win you a match, but not a tournament. Even though Ballack has a host of youngsters to help him out, reaching the quarters seems highly unlikely. Look out for Podolsky and Schweinsteiger, that aside the home fans had better prepare for an early exit. I doubt if they will improve on their world ranking of 19.
Much like 2002, Argentina has come into the World Cup as one of the favourites, but if the last tournament was anything to learn from, the tag of favourites means nothing before a ball is kicked. This year with their hopes renewed and with a messiah by the name of Messi, the football gods have smiled on Argentina. This could be start of a golden era in Argentine football; Messi and Riquelme are already considered two of the best players in the world, helped by a squad of underachieving superstars, this is their chance to stand up and be counted. Twenty years after Maradona lifted the cup, this tournament could announce their second coming.
Where does one start, if one were simply to look at starting elevens, England would be the second best team on paper. If only that were the case, they have almost the perfect blend of youth and experience, but when it comes to actually turning that team on paper into world beaters on the field, Sven-Goran Eriksson has never managed. This year things could be different, I personally believe Rooney's injury has taken a lot of the pressure and attention off the English team. They could possibly fly under the radar into the quarters or semis without Rooney, and then with him fit and able, make their first real attempt at winning the world cup, since the Bobby Charlton and the class of '66.
Quite simply the best team on the planet, I will not bet against them winning their 6th World Cup, but history may be against them. Brazil went into the '82 world cup as overwhelming favourites only to crash out, this is a distinct possibility with this year's team. They are 23 man squad sent down from heaven, but as so often happens with teams so sublimely gifted and attack minded, no one really wants to defend. They may come unstuck in the second round against either Italy or the Czech Republic, but if they can see that challenge off they will probably go on to lift the cup.
Italy has come into the World Cup with the worst possible preparation; their country has been rocked by a match fixing scandal and several members of the Italian squad are being investigated. Aside from that their squad has a good mix of players, but as usual all the attention is focussed on their strikers. This year they have two masters in Del Piero and Totti, and two apprentices in Gilardino and Toni. With Totti only recently coming back from a major injury, it will be up to the new strikers to form a meaningful partnership with Del Piero. Their pre tournament form has also been off colour, it does not look like a good year for the Azzuri but stranger things have happened, they may be a later bloomer in this tournament, and as we all know, it's about when the team peaks.
The French have come into the world cup in confidant form, the team seems to have gelled well and their ageing wizard Zidane would like to sign off on a high note. Unlike last time France is not burdened with the weight of expectation, that weight lies wholly and solely on the shoulders of Zidane. It may stifle his game, but with a world class player like him you never can tell. Henry comes into the tournament in top form, he will finally need to show his skill at the national level if he is going to be considered one of the all time greats. Aside from the shock choice of Barthez as the number one goal keeper, the French squad is well balanced. But I doubt they have enough depth in quality, they should progress well but will not lift the trophy.
Spain and Portugal
These two countries find themselves in similar situations, both will go through to the second round, but that is where they usually lose the plot. Last time Spain went out on penalties and in Euro 2004 Portugal could not find the extra magic to beat un-fancied Greece in the final. Spain's hopes rest on Raul and Fernando Torres, but I doubt they will go very far. They are just not up there with the big boys. Portugal on the other hand is coached by Scolari who guided Brazil to the last world cup. If he can motivate them properly they could knock out a major team or two, Deco and Ronaldo will play completely different roles but both will be equally important to their success.
Netherlands and Czech Republic
For me they are the ultimate dark horses of the tournament. Both of them are in tricky groups, and once they qualify for the second round they will turn into giant killers. The Czechs have to get passed Italy and then they face a possible encounter with Brazil in the second round, no doubt Nedved will be up for that. Holland are stuck in the group of death along with Argentina and the Ivory Coast. If they can emerge unscathed from that group they will go on to great things. They are the perennial chokers; this year they could prove that tag wrong.
32 nations take part in the world cup; most of them are destined for little or no success. Of the remaining teams there are some to take note of. Japan and Australia will look for the second qualifying spot from their group, it will be a strategic battle between two great coaches Hiddink and Zico. Sweden should qualify for the second round along with England, with Larsson laying his last international tournament and Ibramahavoch in fine form they should perform well. Mexico should also sail easily into the second round, but that is probably as far as they will go. From the African nations the Ivory Coast is in a tough group and will fight hard, but for the rest of them they should bow out quite meekly. For the teams that I didn't mention, there is plenty of pride at stake but not much can be expected of them.
On a different note one of the most interesting matches of the world cup will be between Angola and Portugal. The Portuguese colonised Angola for more than 400 years and there will not be a dry eye in Africa if tiny Angola stands up and beats its former colonial master.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006