Is the football World Cup bigger than the Olympics? One could probably fill up a library with the response to that question without coming anywhere near a definitive answer. Some would argue that the Olympics give the minnows a chance to compete with the big boys, to be held in the same esteem as them and to maybe (and it's a really big maybe) prize a medal away from the better funded and coached countries. The football World Cup offers up the same chances, but a minnow will probably never take the ultimate prize, there may be an upset or two along the way, but nothing more than that.
Why then does the tournament generate such global attention? Why do nations come to a collective halt when their teams are playing? And why every four years does Bangladesh along with dozens of other non participating countries come to live and breathe a game they play so abysmally internationally?
The answer is simple; football truly is the 'beautiful game.' In 90 minutes it generates more emotion than many will feel in a lifetime, it inspires hope and extinguishes dreams. Most importantly its beauty is in its simplicity, twenty two players, two goalposts and one ball.
This year the show shifts to South Africa for the first time as football's marquee tournament belatedly makes its African entry. While many had claimed that Africa was not ready to hold such a challenging tournament they seemed to have been proven wrong. There were some delays along the way, online ticketing problems persist to this day and security seems to be on everyone's mind but in the end Africa is ready and the world awaits.
When it boils down to the football, this World Cup will probably be like so many of the past. The traditionally strong teams of Argentina, Brazil, England, Germany and Italy all stand a decent chance of adding to their trophies. But realistically those chances are not too good for the latter three, with major players out for England and Germany along with an impotent and ageing Italy team, they look good to chase for the title, but one doubts if they will go the whole way. Their strength is in their wisdom, they know what it takes to win even when they are not the best team and their respective World Cup pedigrees should take them into the quarter finals relatively easily.
Argentina and Brazil on the other hand both go into the tournament quietly confident of their chances. Argentina are in the unique position of having the world's best player on their team and one of the world's best ever coaching the team. But that is not a recipe for success, with a wayward Maradona coaching the team, he may prove to be more of a distraction than an asset. Maradona aside, Argentina bring a bag full of attacking options with them to the tournament but with all eyes on Messi and probably more than two men marking him per game, it could help create a void that Higuain, Tevez or even Aguero could exploit to great effect.
Brazil on the other hand go into the tournament with a terrifically pragmatic coach in Dunga and while the team lacks any headlining stars to match Messi, they have a well organised team with a highly under rated yet clinical finisher in Fabiano who could prove to be the star of the tournament. Interestingly Brazil also bring possibly the best defense with them to the World Cup with Maicon, Lucio and Ceasar in goal. With a stellar defense and an underrated attack they have the drive to go all the way and should at least precede to the semi finals.
Spain along with Brazil are the bookmakers favourites to lift the cup and that too for good reason. They boast a team of outstandingly talented players at the peak of their powers, currently the only problem is their over reliance on Torres, but with more than enough strength in depth that should not be too much of a worry. While this would be blasphemy in Madrid, actually the only real chink in their armour is Casillas.
His goal keeping is no longer what it used to be and guaranteeing him a starting position has made him sloppy. Reina and Valdez are probably better than him and much like Cannavaro for Italy he will play because he is the proverbial heartbeat of the team, even though both of them don't deserve to be in the starting elevens. Spain have long been labelled football's bridesmaids but after winning their first major trophy two years ago at the European championships, a win at the World Cup would be the perfect honeymoon.
This year probably will not be the year of the dark horses mainly because two come from the same group as Brazil and well the other just can't seem to get it together in the World Cup.
Holland suffered soul crushing defeats in the final of the '74 and '78 World Cup and have never been able to lift themselves to those heights again. This year they romped to the finals winning all their qualifying games, yet still no one really tips them to do much at the World Cup. With possibly the second best midfield in the world (after Spain) they should be a force to be reckoned with, but one feels they may choke yet again. Only time will tell.
The other two dark horses are Portugal and Ivory Coast. Unfortunately they have been drawn together along with Brazil and North Korea in what is obviously the group of death, with only two teams advancing to the second round.
With Ivory Coast's charismatic captain and star striker breaking his elbow ahead of the tournament the odds have shifted in Portugal's favour. But for them to make best use of their underdog status they will have to learn to play with Ronaldo rather than around him. If that does materialise then they could push the big names hard and jostle for a place in latter half of the tournament.
Around the world while many fans will root for the dark horses to upstage their illustrious rivals nothing of that sort will happen in Bangladesh. For a deeply patriotic nation every four years the country acquires a case of soccer madness which forces thousands of enthusiastic Brazil and Argentina fans to fight till the death for their seemingly adopted nations. Truth be told it is as interesting as it is pathetic, in no other country in the world do be people break out into fist fights over footballing nations that are not their own. But then again this is Bangladesh, expect the unexpected.
Bangladesh seems to be suffering from a severe case of football fever, a month of the World Cup should help cure and keep it away for at least another four years. The only definitive diagnosis will come after the final whistle, see you then.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010