World Cup Predictions
- Argentina should go far – but are unlikely to win
- Spain must be reckoned with – but are in decline
- Brazil are favourites – but flawed
Somebody once said that no World Cup is ever as good as the World Cup when you are 10 years old. I turned 10 on the opening day of Espana’82. Argentina began their defence of the title against Belgium in Barcelona propelled by a 21-year-old sensation called Diego Maradona. They lost 1-0 and I was lost to football’s grip forever.
That tournament has yet to be bettered in the intervening years. True, it had its flaws – notably in the bizarre second round group stage format – but it also had moments that every subsequent tournament has failed to match. Italy v. Brazil at Sarria and West Germany v. France in Seville are matches that have yet to be equalled for sheer quality and drama.
Maradona went to Spain as one of the world’s three greatest players. Indeed, he was probably the one with most to prove. As it was, he was still very much number three (at the very best) by the end of the competition, failing badly in comparison to Zico and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. This time around, only two players dispute the right to be called the best in the world – and they are on a collision course if the form guide is accurate.
Lionel Messi’s Argentina are set to meet Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the last eight if Argentina win Group F and Portugal come second to Germany in Group G. To set up the confrontation, Argentina would then need to see off the runners-up of Group E, probably Switzerland or Ecuador (France as the worst case scenario), while Portugal would need to beat the winners of Group H, which looks certain to be Russia or Belgium. Put simply, if the groups go to form, then Messi and Ronaldo are set fair for a dramatic head-to-head in Brasilia.
Argentina have been tipped by many observers as potential winners, but I have my doubts. To my mind, they are one of only four countries that can win the World Cup – the others being Brazil, Spain, and Germany – but are a contender only in the sense that their draw is more favourable than anyone else’s. In truth, it’s hard to see how they won’t make the quarter-final at the very least, given a group that includes Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Nigeria.
Portugal – beaten by eventual winners Spain in the 2010 World Cup and at Euro 2012 – have it tougher. Getting out of Group G is an ordeal in itself – and Belgium would be particularly difficult opponents in the last 16.
Germany, the main threat to Portugal in the first phase, would be expected to play France in the quarter-final if they win the group. On form, they’d be fancied to make the last four, but there is a laid back insouciance about this talented German generation that contrasts unfavourably with the never-say-die teams of the past. For that reason alone, the suspicion is their wait for a major title will go on.
Spain, the champions, are less fancied these days. Some say the hunger isn’t what it was, others point to the decline of Barcelona as the world’s greatest club side. The law of averages suggests that they’ve peaked, but they’ve still got to be beaten before you can discount them from the reckoning. Nobody will fancy facing them in, say, a semi-final. The draw isn’t too unfavourable either if they can win Group B. Doing so probably means they avoid Brazil in the second round, with Mexico or Croatia more amenable opponents. As things stand, it will be they who face Messi’s Argentina or Ronaldo’s Portugal in the last four – and would you really back against them winning against either of those?
And so to the hosts. Brazil have a difficult route to the final. While Group A is handy enough, there are perils aplenty in the second round with the Spanish or the Dutch fearsome potential opponents. However, the draw looks less onerous if Chile emerge instead from Group B. A traditional inferiority complex is likely to reassert itself in this case, just as it did in 1998 and 2010 when the Chileans were hammered after promising group campaigns. Win that and Brazil are likely to face Italy or Uruguay next. Either game would be complicated. However, neither side is really likely to contend for the title, so, as quarter-finals go, there are more difficult tasks. Should the Brazilians progress, then a confrontation with Germany is the likely prize. All bets are off at that point.
Pushed to pick an eventual champion, I’d opt for Brazil – but without any great conviction. Argentina have Messi and a comfortable draw, but have they a defence? Germany have the talent, but what about their attitude and will the climate prove too much? Spain have the record, but have they the hunger and are they in physical decline? All things considered, Brazil have home advantage, a history of success, and enough talent and solidity to suggest that, when push comes to shove, they are the least flawed of the few teams that can actually win the tournament.