The four yearly festival of football that is the World Cup Finals is always a major highlight for all football fans. And in seven short weeks, South Africa will become the focal point for the world’s media – the first time that an African nation has played host to this great event.
All of the powers of world football will be there and many star players will be strutting their stuff. The only possible downside is that Scotland failed to qualify, although that probably just saves us the agony of another failure to get through the first round!
It doesn’t seem like four years has passed since the last World Cup final, which was the ninth I have watched, dating back to West Germany’s victory over Holland in 1974.
The 2006 World Cup in Germany ended in a penalty shoot out, with Italy taking the honours by beating France. But the game will be remembered for the sending off of the great Zinedine Zedane after a head butt that ensured his illustrious career ended in ignominy.
So on Friday 11 June 2010 in Johannesburg, the hosts South Africa will take on Mexico in the first of 64 games to take place over a month. But which of football’s nations will be contesting the final on 11 July?
Spain are the favourites with the bookmakers at present. The European Champions will attempt to build on recent successes and join the elite group of World Cup winners. Spain play superb passing football and would be popular world champions. But the knee injury that will force Fernando Torres to sit out the rest of the season must be a concern. He will go into the finals after only a couple of friendlies to regain his sharpness. Squad depth is an issue, with no obvious replacement to partner Villa up front. But with all of their big names available and the midfield axis of Xabi and Iniesta in place, Spain will be very difficult to beat.
Brazil are always sentimental favourites come Wold Cup time. The nation has such a rich football history and has provided many memorable teams over the years. But is the current crop up to the task? With Fabiano up front and the likes of Kaka and Robinho providing the supply, there should be plenty of attacking threat. And, unusually, this Brazilian side is solid at the back too. They are serious contenders.
Argentina only just qualified for the finals. It’s hard to know how to rate a team built around the brilliant Messi but managed by the flamboyant and erratic Diego Maradona. They have a whole host of attacking options, including Carlos Tevez who is in great form and scoring for fun. But I have a feeling that the underperformance will continue and an early exit will be the result, despite having the world’s best player in their side.
Italy and Germany feature high on the list of favourites as always. Neither are at their strongest at present, but the depth of their squads should see them progress to the latter stages. But both may lack the quality to go all the way to the final. The Italians have an aging squad and will defend stubbornly, although the German’s resilience (and penalty taking skills!) should mean that they go close.
The other European contenders look a little short too. France only qualified courtesy of Thierry Henry’s hand ball against Ireland and are not as strong as they have been in recent tournments, while Portugal will rely heavily on Christiano Ronaldo’s tricks. I can’t see either challenging for the trophy.
Could there be an African winner of Africa’s World Cup? It seems unlikely, with only the Ivory Coast, led by Chelsea’s Droghba, looking capable of making a challenge – and that’s if they can qualify from a first round group containing Brazil and Portugal. The hosts meanwhile will do well to pick up anything at all from their group.
Who are the possible outsiders? With all of the world’s top nations taking part, it is very difficult to imagine a shock winner emerging.
Chile performed well in qualifying but lack the defensive solidity to make a real challenge, especially with Brazil their likely opponents in the knock out stage. The Americans have a useful squad and could make the impact that they have been threatening to for years, although a likely second round clash with Germany might just be a step too far for Team USA. And Denmark may well be the nest of the other European sides. They could give Italy a very tough game in the second round, and may even end the reigning champions’ defence of the trophy.
But all of the other nations competing are basically also rans, many of whom have already met their goal simply by qualifying for the finals.
Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that I have so far failed to mention one of the favourites for the tournament: England.
In many ways the nightmare scenario for Scots would be an English win. After all we are still hearing about 1966 and all that! But our southern neighbours have a core of very capable players and the experiment of a foreign manager in Fabio Capello is working out very well.
They do have defensive weaknesses with Terry and Ferdinand both playing below their best. But in midfield they have so many attacking options and, of course, Rooney up front will be keen to make his mark on the tournament. England should cruise through the opening rounds and reach the last four.
OK, it’s time for my predictions.
England will fall to Brazil in one semi final, with Spain defeating Germany in the other.
And I’m backing Brazil to take their sixth World Cup trophy in an entertaining and closely fought final that will be talked about for years.
Whatever happens, I hope we avoid too many red cards, controversial refereeing decisions and the blatant diving that threatens to ruin football. And that the finals bring good attacking football, a glut of goals and a World Cup to remember for all of the right reasons.
Seven weeks until the opening match … I can’t wait!