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
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And The Winner Is...
Predicting the outcome of an entire World Cup is folly. There are just too many variables over 64 matches Ė one poor refereeing decision, one offside goal given, one petulant red card and your entire theory can fall apart. Just look at the last World Cup Ė how many people backed France to retain the trophy, only to watch them crash and burn in the first round without scoring a goal? Just how much currency was stacked behind an Argentina team that had swept all before it for the preceding eighteen months, only for them to go the same way as France? Would anyone have been lunatic enough to predict that they would both go home at that stage?
However, at Planet World Cup we are obliged to predict the outcome of the groups, and from that point predict a winner. Thanks Jan! So whilst I prepare a crash mat for the inevitability of falling flat on my face, here is a quick guide to how I arrived at my own prediction.
With apologies to the other twenty-two competing nations, I narrowed my list of conceivable winners down to ten. Yes, yes I know we must remember what Greece did but the World Cup is a different ball game Ė only six different countries have been represented in the final in the last forty years, making for a very exclusive club. So my list of favourites is the six present who have won it before Ė Germany, Italy, Brazil, Argentina, France and England Ė and four other contenders Ė Holland, Portugal, Spain and the Czech Republic.
Letís look at the four who have never won it. Holland have lost only once in twenty one matches under Van Basten, and finished ahead of the Czech Republic in qualifying, yet there is still an air of the unknown about them. Time was when you could rattle off the entire Dutch squad with ease, such was the worldwide fame of the Davids-Kluivert-Bergkamp-de Boers generation, but this year they have a squad with an unusually high number (for them) of home-based players. It really is hard to judge how they will do, but Iím plumping for them to make it through their difficult group but advance no further. A tournament too early I think.
There to knock them out should be Portugal, another team playing a variant of the 4-3-3. Something of a disaster in Japan and Korea, I canít foresee a repeat of that opening half an hour shambles that cost them so dearly against the USA, particularly with Scolari in charge. They really should be going into this tournament as European champions, but despite some high profile retirements the bulk of that squad is still there, Figo is back and Cristiano Ronaldo has further developed into one of the most exciting players in the world. That said I can see goals being a problem, particularly when they face stronger opposition than Angola, Mexico and Iran. I think the quarter-finals is as far as they will go.
Which brings us to Spain. All together now Ďthis could be their yearí. Well Iím afraid it wonít be. A dolly group that even they canít self destruct in will propel them into the knockout stages, and one round further depending on the opposition, until they run into that familiar road block known as the quarter-finals. Looking through their squad I canít see that much to get excited by Ė plenty of good ball playing midfielders but who will get their goals? Raul looks shot to pieces, Torres still looks raw if talented and Villa is unproven at this level. Outside of that you have a posse of attacking midfielders, but I canít see that being enough. Seventeen matches unbeaten they may be but the semi-finals seem beyond this squad.
The Czech Republic however I do think can go places. Probably the best team to watch in Europe, the silver generation have been outstanding in numerous European Championships and now have the chance to do it at the World Cup. Nedved is back, Koller has recovered from injury and this is a vastly experienced team. I donít buy into the hype that they are eighteen months past their sell-by-date Ė performances are the barometer, not birthdays. As Sepp Herberger would say, there are no old and young players, just good and bad ones. If they can win Group E (and I think they will) I can see them making the semi-finals. There is always one team in there outside of the usual suspects (think Turkey, South Korea, Croatia, Sweden, Bulgaria etc) and Iím backing the Czechs to be that team.
Who will be joining them? I canít see France making it that far for one. Every day seems to bring a new story of discontent from inside the camp, they were pedestrian in qualifying and they havenít even picked Ludovic Giuly (seriously, what is that about?). Francophile that I am I would love to see Zidane work his magic one last time but even the great man is reduced to near walking pace and the team around him seem incapable or unwilling to provide the necessary spark for this team. Iíll be surprised if they make the quarters, even for that they will need Henry to replicate his dazzling club form for his country, which he is yet to do on a regular basis.
I really donít fancy the chances of the host nation much either. I know you arenít supposed to write Germany off (yawn) and host nations often do well, but it didnít work for Italy in 1990 did it? And that squad was infinitely more talented than the present German one. Scrolling down their 23 it doesnít look like they have the players and this is the key. I know they got to the final in 2002 with a similarly nondescript bunch, but that time the draw fell apart for them and three consecutive 1-0 wins against Paraguay, USA and South Korea put them in the final. This time a big game in the knockouts is unavoidable, probably at the quarter-final stage, which is where I think their dream will collapse.
Before I finish this next paragraph let me assure you I have a fine recipe for humble pie stuck to my fridge door in readiness for the inevitable. Every man and his dog, and his dogsí bridge partner, seems to be tipping Brazil to win the World Cup. I donít think they will, in fact I donít think theyíll reach the final. I refuse to be blinded by Nike adverts with clever keepy-uppy skills in them Ė yes theyíre good, potentially very good on their day, but better Brazil sides from this have fallen short before in Europe as in 1982 and 1998. They may wow us all and I hope they do in the group stages but facing the runner-up of Group E in the second round could be a very tough game indeed Ė the Czechs maybe? Italy? Every knockout round could put them up against a co-favourite Ė France, England, Argentina, whoever. I am more than prepared to eat my words should it prove otherwise but I can see them going out earlier than everyone expects.
I know why everyone is going with them Ė bookieís favourites, Cup holders and a team drawn entirely from the very best club teams in Europe. On closer inspection they do have flaws though. Ronaldo is laughably overweight (more chins than goals in that New Zealand warm-up), Adriano hasnít been as spectacular for Inter this year and the 4-2-2-2 they play is very narrow and through the middle, requiring eye of a needle passes from Kaka and Ronaldinho. A well organised team with a good defence has a great chance against them, particularly their back four and extremely erratic goalkeeper. And there has to be a shock somewhere in the tournament Ė and Brazil failing to reach the final will surely meet that requirement.
So if not Brazil then who? Well for anyone who thinks Iíve taken the patriotic route on this I donít think it will be England, even if it was heartening to see Wayne Rooney kick a ball around the other day. England certainly have the components, but injuries to their two main forwards will I think, ultimately, prove their undoing. Michael Owen may recover his sharpness but the key man without any doubt is Rooney and although it appears he may recover in time to play it is too much to expect him to deliver immediately. There is enough in the bank, particularly with such a strong midfield, to take them to the semi-finals I think but no further.
Their participation, according to my calculations, will be ended by Italy. They are a team that has strength in every department, particularly if Totti can recover well enough to lead the attack in midfield. With this in mind I envisaged the traditional slow start followed by a monumental clash with Brazil in round two. If any team other than Argentina has little or no fear of the yellow shirts then it is Italy. The momentum from a victory over their World Cup rivals would, I believe, propel them to the final.
In their way would be Argentina, and they are my tip to win the tournament. People may play down their chances and their opening group is not easy but I think Pekermanís young and hungry team have the ability to go all the way. They were the best team in South America in the qualifiers (although once qualified took their foot off the gas to allow Brazil to slip into first place), and combine some of the most talented youngsters on the planet in Messi, Maschareno and Tevez along with seasoned campaigners like Sorin, Crespo, and Ayala. Riquelme has had a great season for Villareal, Heinze has recovered from injury to shore up the defence and there are several other top class professionals in the squad like Aimar, Cambiasso, Coloccini and a rejuvenated Saviola.
The main reason for me though is Messi Ė he is back and if he has fully recovered from injury I think he could electrify the tournament like no-one has done since you-know-who. I have watched him on several occasions this season for Barcelona and he already looks like one of the best players in the world.
So after ending the hopes of the hosts in the quarter-finals Iíll tip Argentina to edge Italy in the final on July 9th. Umpteen things could go wrong in the meantime to make that impossible, and if on July 10th Iím writing a review of a Togo versus Saudi Arabia final I will hold my hands up. Argentina are justifiably one of the favourites and if they do it Iíll be back here to say I told you so. If they donítÖwell, predictions are pretty worthless arenít they?
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