Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Fading giants, rising stars

    In previous columns I have eluded to a big four who have dominated World Cup history. Whilst Argentina and Italy still look certain to be involved in the money stages of the tournament, the decline of two of the four has really opened up the tournament for the fringe contenders.

    It appears that Brazil will now qualify automatically, despite some shocking performances in qualifying that lead to a will they/won't they couple of months this year, thus avoiding a trickier-than-it-looks two legged qualifier against Australia. The sighs of relief from FIFA marketing executives can be heard the world over, as a World Cup without the famous gold shirts of the four time champions would be a much harder sell.

    They may be there, but the current shambolic state of their game, both internally and at international level, makes it unlikely that they will threaten next year. Even if the humiliation of not qualifying seems to have been avoided, their ultimate humiliation could come in the finals themselves. Beyond Rivaldo they have little inspiration, and when there once was a time that the Brazil team could trip off the tongue of any fan in the world, their current fetish for handing out caps like confetti and hiring and firing coaches on a regular basis means no-one has a clue what Brazil's best eleven is. Add to this the corruption that is poisoning their national league, and you have to conclude that Brazil have no-one but themselves to blame for the current chaos that engulfes them. They still believe that Ronaldo, back from a two-year absence, can be their saviour, but that is probably double the pressure under which he buckled in France in 1998.

    Still, at least they are there as people say. Germany, the other nation that has fallen from a great height, are now facing a play-off to reach the finals, a situation alien to anyone who has seen them play international football over the last fifty years. Euro 2000 gave us a glimpse as to how far their ageing squad has fallen, a point brutally hammered home in their 5-1 defeat to England. After endless generations of super-talented players, some of the greatest of all time, they now have a generation that contains none. There are no defenders fit to tie the bootlaces of Beckenbauer or Sammer, no midfielders in the same league as Netzer, no strikers remotely like Muller or Voller, the incumbent coach.

    I hope as an Englishman this does not come across as a swipe at our old rivals, but I would like to see the Ukraine beat them in the play-offs, the reason being that I think Andriy Shevchenko deserves to play at a World Cup. Firstly he is a fantastic player, and I would rather see his skills on show over the entire average German team that collapsed like a flimsy house of cards in Munich. Secondly, with nine of the Ukraine's thirteen qualifying goals, he has practically taken it upon himself to get his country to the finals. He is the closest thing to a one-man team since Maradona raised Argentina to victory in 1986. It would also put on the greatest stage of all much of the Dinamo Kiev team that were so exceptional in the 1998-99 Champions League, especially Shevchenko's partnership with Sergei Rebrov, one of the best combinations in recent years. The superstitious among you should note that Kiev's progress in that tournament was ended in a two-legged semi-final by a certain Bayern Munich....

    So Brazil will make it. Germany may get there. Neither, in my opinion, will come close to lifting the trophy. Unless they meet along the way the path is clear for a France - Argentina final, where either Argentina will fulfill the potential of the most talented squad in the world or France will set in stone their reputation as the greatest international team of all time. Other contenders will come in to fill the void left by Germany and Brazil - Spain cannot go on under-acheiving forever, England are rising but not quickly enough and Portugal have their best team since 1966. No doubt the other colossus Italy will use their dull but effective style to grind their way to a heart-breaking loss on penalties in the latter stages. Notable by their absence will be Holland, who have taken on the "brilliant squad, terrible attitude" mantle of many of their predecessors.

    Who knows, maybe an outsider will shock us all and make it to the end of the tournament. If they get the run of the ball in Kiev and Munich next month, maybe "Shevi" will have the chance to put the Ukraine on the map, like Milla did for Cameroon in 1990 and Stoichkov for Bulgaria in 1994. That would really give the Ukraine, a region with such a terrible history, something to celebrate.



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