The World Cup is almost upon us and the excitement is building up. Although most nations preparatory friendlies have been under whelming and do not give much of an indication of their true worth come Tournament day. Except perhaps Brazil that has been picking up win after win. It remains to be seen, how Brazil will fare if and when Neymar reaches full fitness. Such is Brazil’s strength in depth that even Willian and Douglas Costa are not guaranteed many minutes at the World Cup. Defending Champions Germany are naturally once again part of the favorites. The main debate surrounding the Germans has been Löw’s decision to discard Manchester City youngster Leroy Sané, who many believed should have been a shoe-in after the season he has had. But Löw preferred to maintain a balance in the squad in all positions and Sané was sacrificed. Löw has been in his position since 2006 and this is his third World Cup and as a World Cup winner his judgment should be respected. His other riskier decision has been to maintain Manuel Neuer as starting goalkeeper despite the latter missing just about the entire season. This is a decision that could come back to haunt Löw if Neuer makes a single mistake. Marc-Andre ter Stegen could feel hard done by after a solid season with Barcelona, but once again Löw has earned enough credit not to be questioned. For the first time in any one’s memory, England’s expectations have been downgraded. The Press are realistic on England’s chances with a relatively young and inexperienced squad. Gareth Southgate is building a team for the future and many of his choices reflect that. For the first time England’s entering a World Cup without an out and out starter for the goalkeeping position. The days when giants like Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence had to fight it out for the number one jersey are long gone. Jordan Pickford, with only a handful of caps, appears set to become the starter, as Southgate is looking ahead to the future and has opted not to call up Joe Hart. The inexperience of the side is further reflected in Southgate’s decision to hand the captaincy to Harry Kane, a player with only a few years of International Football under his belt and certainly not a leader in the mold of Bryan Robson, Alan Shearer, etc. A reasonably good showing will be touted as a success.
Many regard France as one of the favorites, but they have many off-field problems of their own. Paul Pogba has become the favorite target of the French fans and was recently booed in their recent friendly vs. Italy. Others such as Antoine Griezmann, Nabil Fekir and Thomas Lemar are constantly in the news for their on-again/off-again transfers to different clubs. All this after the whole drama surrounding Adrien Rabiot’s exclusion from the Finals squad. France Manager Didier Deschamps is an old campaigner and knows the ins and outs of the game. However, following the failure to win the 2016 Euros on home soil, neither Griezmann nor Pogba have reached the next level. Perhaps Kylian Mbappé (who has been handed the symbolic number 10 jersey) will be the stand out of the group.
The two greatest players of this Generation, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo seem to be in similar positions. Though slightly aged, they both can be game changers on their day. Both are surrounded by teammates who are not the same caliber of them and both are expected to carry their respective teams. As things stand, neither one looks likely to be a World Cup winner with their respective squad. For the first time, in over a decade the Ballon d’Or might be up for grabs. Many tipped the Egyptian Mohamed Salah as a candidate before his injury in the Champions League Final threatened even his World Cup participation. Fortunately, he made the trip, but even at full fitness his Nation’s chances are limited let alone in his current state. If Brazil win and Neymar shines, perhaps the Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo stranglehold will end. Spain appears as a contender and many have tipped them as likely winners. But this is not the Spain of 2010, which was its best in History. They should have a better showing than they did in 2014, but with no Xavi and an ageing Iniesta, the days of Tiki-Taka seem long gone. The less said about the Russian hosts the better. They have been dreadful for anyone who has watched them in the last few years. There is not a player who stands out and a Manager that does not exactly inspire confidence. It is a sad testament given the history of the former Soviet Union squads in the history of the World Cup. They have never appeared as weak as they are in recent memory. Even a first round elimination is a distinct possibility, which would be the worst performance for a host (like South Africa in 2010). Spare a thought for two noteworthy omissions form this year’s World Cup. For the first time in many of our lifetimes Italy is missing from the main event. Many have said a World Cup isn’t a World Cup without Italy and certainly their absence will be clearly felt as the Tournament unfolds. Most of us have grown watching the Azzuri in the World Cups and they have been a staple and seemingly a permanent fixture of our Football life. One can only hope that Roberto Mancini can build a new young team from the ashes. The other missing fan favorite is Holland. It has not exactly been a surprise as they have been struggling and fading since the last World Cup and they had already failed to make the 2016 Euros. Just like Mancini, one can hope Ronald Koeman can rescue the Dutch from their current doldrums and hopefully we can once again see both Nations in the next World Cup.
Reported by Shahan Petrosian.