Brazil 2014: The wait is almost over
Wednesday, 11th June 2014 at 10:53am
It's been seven years since Fifa announced that Brazil would host the 2014 World Cup and now the wait is almost over.
The build up to the 20th World Cup has been beset by well documented problems: delays in the construction of the stadiums and necessary infrastructure required to host a major event, and more recent socio-economic problems as citizens of Brazil have taken to the streets to protest at how much money has been spent hosting the tournament when it would be better served for hospitals and schools.
The stadiums have just about been completed on time but the protests have been increasing as we near the opening ceremony and first match of the tournament. The whole world now waits with baited breath to see what sort of finals we will get.
The Brazilian government and Fifa need the host nation to perform if these finals are going to be a success.
World Cups are always better when the host nation heads deep into the finals. 2006 benefitted hugely from Germany reaching the semi-finals as did 2002 when South Korea surprised everyone in reaching the last four.
By contrast, South Africa 2010's balloon deflated somewhat when Bafana Bafana fell at the group stage.
It would be a shock for Brazil not to get that far given that they have a strong squad and an experienced manager who has sampled World Cup success before. They also have the home fans who, if they reach the passionate levels seen in last year's Confederations Cup, will be a major asset.
If Brazil get off to a good start, brushing aside Croatia in the opening match, then expect a wave of support to build that could carry them all the way to glory.
In saying that, there's every chance that they will need that support as the Seleo have been handed a difficult route to the final.
If as expected they top their group they will meet one of Spain, the Netherlands, or Chile in the last 16. Should they come through that unscathed then it's likely they'll face one of Colombia, England, Italy or Uruguay.
If that test is overcome then a semi-final with Germany is likely to lie in wait before a potential dream (nightmare) final against Argentina. Brazil have already lost one World Cup on homesoil, two would be unbearable.
With every win, support will grow but given the tinderbox atmosphere that currently exists in Brazil over the cost of staging the World Cup, should the hosts start badly and struggle it could lead to a volatile and incendiary atmosphere as all that money spent will have been for nothing.
The home fans took to booing their own players in the friendly win over Serbia - not a promising sign.
To paraphrase Karl Marx, Brazil, the World Cup and Fifa need the Brazilian national team to be an opiate for the masses.
Should they accomplish what they set out to do, visiting fans in Brazil and the billions of supporters watching around the world will get the World Cup in Brazil they dreamed of: passionate, colourful, fun, exciting and thrilling.
With home advantage, Brazil start the finals as favourites. While this might not be a vintage Brazil side - they don't have the style and panache of the 1970 and 1982 vintages - it does have talent and it also has substance to go along with its style.
The attacking talents of Neymar, Oscar and Willian will be ably supported by the likes of Fernandinho, Ramires, Thiago Silva and Dante, providing them with a platform to dazzle, entertain and most importantly score goals.
As mentioned earlier, the presence of World Cup winning manager Luis Felipe Scolari is also key. He knows what it takes to win the finals and has taken the squad on leaps and bounds since taking over from Mano Menezes.
This was evident in last year's Confederations Cup triumph where the Seleo brushed aside world champions Spain 3-0 in the final.
There are question marks over the striking options in the squad with Hulk, Fred and ex Manchester City striker Jo the only options to support Neymar. The Brazilian superstar also comes into the tournament with the weight of the world on his slender shoulders.
The fate of Brazil in the finals rests largely at the talented feet of the Barcelona forward. If he thrives on the greatest stage of all, so will Brazil; if he struggles with the weight of expectation - and it would be understandable seeing as he will be carrying the hopes of more than 200 million people - the Seleo could struggle.
Title rivals Argentina have been handed a comfortable group and a relatively straightforward route to the final and this could be the best chance they have to win a third World Cup.
Alejandro Sabella has the strongest attack of any manager at the finals at his disposal. Aside from the brilliant Lionel Messi, Sabella can call upon Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuain and Rodrigo Palacio. Those attacking talents are supported by high class players such as Fernando Gago, Javier Mascherano and Angel di Maria.
Sabella has built his team around Messi and after a disappointing season with Barcelona by his high standards he will be eager to make his mark on the finals. There has been a suggestion that Messi has been saving himself for Brazil 2014 and whether that's true or not at 26 this could be his best chance to star on the biggest stage of them all.
Argentina are perceived to have weaknesses at the back but a closer look at the players selected by Sabella would suggest it isn't as big an issue as some have made it out to be.
In the likes of Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay and the much maligned but vastly improved Martin Demichelis they have more than competent defenders and, although it was a surprise that Willy Caballero wasn't in the squad, Sergio Romero is far from the worst keeper at the finals.
The two-time winners will be many people's favourites to lift the World Cup come July 13 and, judging by the talent in the squad coupled with the fact the finals are in South America and that the have Messi, it's easy to see why.
The European challenge is likely to be spearheaded by defending champions Spain and Germany.
La Roja are looking to continue their incredible run of success and Vicente del Bosque has picked another squad full of talent. The fact that he was able to leave out the likes of Fernando Llorente, Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo speaks volumes.
Del Bosque has three top quality goalkeepers at his disposal, a defence containing Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Cesar Azpilicueta and Jordi Alba and a strike force featuring Diego Costa, Fernando Torres, David Villa, and Pedro.
It is, however, the midfield where they have an embarrassment of riches. The reigning champions have taken Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Koke, David Silva, Juan Mata, Javi Martinez, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas, and Santi Cazorla to Brazil, all of whom would likely start for any of the other 31 teams.
The majority of players were involved in the South Africa 2010 success and are therefore four years older but many of them are still in their prime. The much vaunted tiki taka which their success was built on took a bit of a battering this season but given the conditions that the teams will face in Brazil, dominating possession will be a sensible tactic.
Germany, like Spain, have an abundance of talent in goal, in defence and midfield. Joachim Loew's side features the likes of Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Philipp Lahm, Benedikt Howedes, Mario Goetze, Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Oezil, Julian Draxler, Sami Khedira and Thomas Mueller.
Where they are really lacking is option up front. The squad contains only two forwards in the aging Miroslav Klose and Arsenal's Lukas Podolski. Should either of them succumb to injury then they may find it difficult to score goals.
Germany are also in danger of becoming the nearly boys. They have reached the semi-finals of the past two tournaments, the final in 2008 and the semis on home soil in 2006. Germany have also not won a tournament since 1996 - a long time by their high standards. The pressure on them to perform is starting to mount.
Of course, no European team has ever won a World Cup in South America but that last one to be held there was in 1962. Much has changed in that time from the way teams travel to tournaments, diet, conditioning, sport science and much more, so the impact of playing in South America should be lessened to an extent.
Outside the fancied four, fans should expect good performances from Chile, Colombia, France and Belgium - all considered dark horses for the finals.
The two South American sides are blessed with attacking talents and both have tactically sound and inovativemanagers, whereas as Belgium and France have squads brimming with high quality players.
The loss of Radamel Falcao is a blow for Jose Pekerman but they do have more than adequate back up in the likes of Carlos Bacca and a brilliant playmaker in James Rodriguez. Both Chile and Colombia recorded impressive victories away from home against England and Belgium en route to the finals
Despite the poor nature of the opposition, France destroyed Jamaica 8-0 in their recent World Cup warm up game and looked brilliant doing so. Didier Deschamps has put together a talented squad that has depth and seems harmonious; the absence of Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri should benefit team cohesion.
Fans of the Premier League will have seen many of Belgium's key players at close quarters this season. They too have strength from back to front with a true world beater in the shape of Eden Hazard. The loss to injury of Christian Benteke is a bitter pill to swallow but they have the talent to go far.
Of the African nations, Nigeria and the Cote D'Ivoire appear to be the best equipped to make an impact on the tournament.
This is the last chance for the Cote D'Ivoire's 'Golden Generation' to perform on football's grandest stage and while some of their stars might be past their best - Didier Drogba and Kolo Toure for example - they have an easier group than they did in 2006 and 2010.
If the Yaya Toure that shone in the Premier League this season arrives in Brazil then he could lead them out of the group stage and into the tournament's business end, especially if Wilfred Bony brings the goals he scored in the second half of the season to the finals.
For once, Nigeria arrive at a World Cup with a seemingly settled and harmonious squad. Coach and former international Steve Keshi has gradually put together a talented group of players that is blessed with pace and trickery, and who have goals in them.
The Super Eagles won the recent Africa Cup of Nations and that success was built on finally having a top goalkeeping talent in the form of Vincent Enyeama. The Lille stopper has enjoyed another good season between the sticks in France and is a proud leader of this squad of players.
Argentina aside, Iran and Bosnia are beatable in Group F and Nigeria should be targeting the round of 16 at the least.
The four Asian nations - especially Australia - face a tough challenge but Japan should make an impression in Brazil.
Always technically proficient, Japan now pose a genuine attacking threat. The twin midfield threats of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda have someone in Shinji Okazaki who can convert their guile and craft into goals.
Okazaki enjoyed a good season with Mainz in Germany and if he can maintain his form, Japan should challenge the Cote D'Ivoire for the runners up spot in Group C.
It is a shame that so many top class players will miss the 2014 finals through injury but those that remain should still be able to put on a show worthy of a World Cup in Brazil. If they do, especially Neymar and co, then we should be in for quite the tournament.