The 2018 FIFA Football World Cup is upon us and this is the first of what I hope will be a series of blog posts written by me on the event.
The club football seasons throughout the world have come to an end. The footballers have left their clubs and spent a short time with their families. Some transfer deals have already been completed, some have been discussed, while some have already collapsed! However, unlike other years, there is no long holiday for the more than 700 players called up for their national teams. They have all traveled to Russia, or are in the process of doing so, to compete in the biggest sporting tournament. The tournament kicks-off at 1800 hours local time on 14th June and I, for one, cannot wait.
The awarding of the tournament to Russia has been shrouded by controversy ever since the announcement. The annexation of Crimea, the invasion of East Ukraine, chemical attacks, et al. are just the start of the list of ethics violations that the country have inflicted in the recent past. FIFA have lived up to their corrupt reputation and conveniently overlooked everything. Compounded to this is the rampant racism prevalent there, with repeated incidents unpunished by the authorities, both national and FIFA! Let us hope the tournament, and its paraphernalia, are better than the country’s reputation.
The most talented team in the tournament. With players like Alexander Lacazette, Anthony Martial, Kingsley Coman, Adrien Rabiot, Dimitri Payet, Laurent Koscielny and Lucas Digne missing out, one can see the depth of talent that the 1998 champions have in their ranks. Coming to the players who did make the World Cup squad, all of Griezman, Mbappe, Dembele, Fekir, Matuidi and Pogba (trust me there are more!) are possible match-winners in themselves. Their defense is solid, with experienced goal-keepers to boot. They made it all the way to the finals of Euro 2016 in their home country before losing to Portugal and will be hoping to go one better. They are the team to beat and in my eyes, favourites to lift the trophy.
Key Players: Antoine Griezman, Kylain Mbappe, Ngolo Kante, Ousmane Dembele, Paul Pogba
It is not often that I like a Brazilian team but this is a rare exception! Packed with skill and flair that the South Americans are known for, the likes of Neymar, Coutinho, Firmino and Jesus are a frightening prospect for the opposition. The midfield is a solid unit with Casemiro, Fernandinho and Paulinho likely to play a major role. Allison is perhaps the most sought-after goalkeeper in the world at the moment and the World Cup will be his perfect audition. There always is a question-mark about Brazil’s defense, as was ruthlessly exposed by Germany in the semi-final of the last edition, but they can outscore any opponent on their day. Don’t bet on them to sit back on a lead. The tournament structure is such that, all things turning out as expected, they will come up against France in the semi-final. It could very well be that whoever wins that clash will win the World Cup.
Key Players: Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino, Paulinho
Spain will be hoping to make the memory of their horrible title defense in 2014 evaporate from memory. Their golden generation seems to be going on and on, in what is a major complement to their country’s development system. Gone are most of the old guard that won them two European Championships and the 2010 World Cup. In their place, a new generation of players mostly in their 20s looking to get their nation back to the top of world football. Spanish clubs have been immense in Europe over the past half-decade, winning 9 out of the 10 major trophies on offer. The fact that most of the players play for those teams show how good a bunch they have. Further incentive is the fact that this could be the swansong for a certain Andreas Iniesta, the darling of the 2010 Cup win, who has already left his boyhood club Barcelona and moved abroad. Like France, another team who have strength in depth in all positions, backed up with the right amount of experience in the spine; the perfect winning combination. Whether the news of their coach leaving to join Real Madrid at the end of the tournament becomes a motivation or a distraction remains to be seen.
EDIT: Within minutes of this article being published, Spain sacked Julen Lopetegui!
EDIT 2: Fernando Hierro has been appointed as the replacement for Lopetegui.
Key Players: Andreas Iniesta, Isco, David Silva, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique
In the Hunt
No matter how much you want to write them off, an important tournament and Germany are like a match made in heaven. Having never failed to reach the semi-final of the World Cup since 1998, the Germans come into this tournament with a big reputation to protect. The team isn’t the best balanced, with a dearth of strikers, something that has plagued them for a few tournaments now, and increased manifold with the retirement of record goal scorer Miroslav Klose. There is however, no dearth of players who can play in advanced midfield and winger positions, and can easily do a job as a striker if required. In fact, the Germans are notorious for playing with a fluid frontline, where you are never quite sure who will turn up in which position. This makes it imperative for the midfield to support both the forward line and the defense, which is where I believe Germany’s hopes lie. The triumvirate of Ozil, Kroos and Khedira (or whoever plays in central midfield) will hold the key to how they perform, given their vast experience at this level. A big question mark is the fitness of their goalkeeping supremo Manuel Neuer, who is just coming back from a major injury and not having played the whole season.
Key Players: Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Marko Reus, Mats Hummels, Manuel Neuer
The Messi team! The messy team! I pat myself on the back for that…
The eternal question, how can a team so deeply ingrained with talent manage to under-perform at every World Cup? More recently, the question that seems to be on everyone’s mind is how long can Lionel Messi keep his cool before he ends up throttling Gonzalo Higuain? People playing Football Manager don’t end up with an attacking line-up as good as the one Argentina have at every major tournament. This with Icardi, the highest scorer of the Italian Serie A, not even in the squad at the World Cup! And yet, their last major tournament win is the Copa America all the way back in 1993. They have won a couple of Olympic Gold medals in the 25 year span since then, but it is to be remembered that the Olympics are mainly an U23 level tournament. One man who does have an Olympic gold, and is the golden boy for the nation and for many others is Messi. Once again, he will be their stalwart, and once again, if they end up becoming the ‘Pass to Messi’ team, they will falter. Featuring superstars such as Aguero, Dybala, Di Maria, Mascherano and the inconsistent Higuain, this is not a team that should be a one-man show. This is a team that should be capable of dominating matches against the best teams in the world. Whether coach Sampaoli is able to buck the trend remains to be seen.
Key Players: Lionel Messi (and hopefully also Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano, Ever Banega)
Over the past decade, in my eyes, Belgium have become what Spain were in the 90s and the early years of this millennium, hugely talented but woefully inconsistent under pressure. Boasting some the best players in the world, the likes of Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku and others have failed to provide the spark needed to get past difficult opposition. This could very well be the last World Cup for quite a few of the golden generation and maybe that will provide the catalyst which sees this team perform better. Kompany’s presence will be a big factor if they are to be successful, and he should have a solid backline around him. There is loads of talent throughout the squad and a semi-final appearance is what they should be aiming for. Getting there will prove difficult, as it would mean overcoming either Brazil or Germany in the Quarter Final, depending on where they finish in their group, and they get past their Round of 16 opponents from a relatively easy Group H. However, those are exactly the matches they need to win to live up to their potential.
Key Players: Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Vincent Kompany
What new do I say about the team that has always had it all, but has never played as a team! England have always been a squad of individuals, looking to better each other rather than playing as a unit and achieving their target. Manager Gareth Southgate looks to have had this in mind when picking the team for this edition of the World Cup. There is more emphasis on performances this past season, and on the squad’s harmony, than in promoting stars into the team. The squad is mostly young, and fresh, and mostly haven’t been part of the toxic environments of previous editions. The one decision I do question is the awarding of the captain’s armband to Harry Kane, who, firstly, has never been the captain of any team before, and secondly, recently, and perhaps more importantly, has been known to put himself ahead of his team. There is no doubt about Kane’s goal-scoring prowess though. The team is a little light in the midfield and can struggle if a couple of starters pick up knocks. The key question facing the manager is whether to start Dier or Henderson as the link man in midfield and this can prove a vital decision at the business end of the tournament. I know who I’d start, but that’s not a decision for me to make and I don’t think that’s what will happen. Another problem position for hem has been the goalkeeper. Jordan Pickford looks to be the one who’ll get the nod for now. It remains to be seen how he performs.
The English press have not wasted any time in unsettling the team, as has been their norm, wrongfully targeting Raheem Sterling for personal expression. And we wonder why their sporting teams fail!
Key Players: Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli, Gary Cahill
The European Champions don’t come into this tournament as one of the favourites but should be looking to get into the Knockout rounds with ease. They’ve been placed in the same group as Spain but should get through as the other teams aren’t the strongest. They are led by Balon D’Or Cristiano Ronaldo, for whom the World Cup is the only major trophy missing from his cabinet. They are a tough team to predict, because on their day they are well capable of beating much stronger teams. They are also prone to the occasional slumps, as was evident in their first group game against Germany in the last World Cup, and eventually failed to get past the group stage! Some of the Portuguese players have been going through a tough time of late with the crisis facing Sporting Lisbon. William Carvalho, Gelson Martins and Bruno Fernandes are now free agents and will look to showcase their skills on the biggest stage. This could very well turn out to be the spark that ignites the team, adding to the fact that this could (but I think will not be) Ronaldo’s last World Cup. Can they repeat their Euro heroics over the next month? It seems unlikely but stranger things have happened.
Key Players: Cristiano Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva, William Carvalho, Rui Patricio
Yes, you read that right! I’m tipping Senegal to do a repeat of their 2002 Cup run and possibly reach the Quarter Finals in this tournament. The team is a solid unit with a lot of talent in the midfield and forward line. Sadio Mane is coming off the best season of his life and with the support of Niang, Sow and Keita Balde, could light up this year’s World Cup. Idrissa Gana Gueye will be another player to watch. Koulibaly, at just 26, is a seasoned campaigner who will provide the required solidity to the defense along with goalkeeper Diallo. They have been placed in a relatively open group, along with Poland, Japan and Colombia, and I won’t be surprised if they top the group. Qualifying from their group would mean a second round match against one of Group G’s qualifiers, which is likely to be either England or Belgium. That fixture is definitely not a given for the more fancied Europeans.
Key Players: Sadio Mane, Mbaye Niang, Keita Balde, Moussa Sow, Idrissa Gana Gueye, Kalidou Koulibaly