World Cup fever

So, the election’s over, Blackpool FC are back in their rightful place in the Premiership… there must be something else going on this year, right?

Of course, a little under 48 hours from now it all kicks off in South Africa – and that’s not a reference to the street gangs who’ve dominated so much of the pre-tournament scaremongering.

Having run the predictor about 20 times now, I’ve not come up with a final that doesn’t involve the masterful Spanish facing the magical Brazilians. Sure, they’ll face tough games on the road to Soccer City – but nothing that’s beyond them. In fact, short of a stroke of luck, it’s hard to see them being stopped.

But luck, along with injuries, bad referees and rushes of blood to the head, can all play a part in a World Cup – which is what makes it great.

There’s even a scenario where the two favourites meet far earlier – in the second round. And all it takes is for one of them to fail to win their group. Brazil play home favourites the Ivory Coast and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. Spain have, on paper, the easiest group bar England’s – but messing up in the World Cup is as Spanish as paella and Picasso, and complacency or panic can set in all too easily.

So who could come up on the rails to challenge?

Well, let’s think about history for a moment. No European side has ever won the World Cup beyond the boundaries of its own continent. No African side has ever reached the semi-finals (that may change, if a fair wind favours Ghana – one of those predictions suggested a handy path to the last four could yet open up for them) and the best of the Asians, South Korea, might not benefit quite like they did on home soil in 2002. That leaves the North Americans – the USA? Mexico? Don’t think so – and the best of the South. Could Argentina do it?

They’ve certainly got the talent. They’ve got the best player in the world right now. But can Leo Messi do what his coach, Diego Maradona, did in 1986 and overcome a powerful disadvantage to lead his team to glory? In Maradona’s case it was the mediocrity of his workmanlike team-mates (how many of them can you name? Think there was one called Brown). The irony is that Messi’s handicap is Maradona – an inexperienced coach who almost managed to blow qualifying, never mind the finals. Argentina’s performance will be one of the most intriguing aspects of the whole competition. And their path could see them take on Brazil. And England. Yes, what about England?

Well, there’s a sense of realism sweeping across the nation. We’ve got no divine right to win, nor the best players – although we’ve had worse. The group stage isn’t being seen as quite the cakewalk it once looked like. And the second round could see a clash with Australia, Ghan, Serbia or, heaven forbid, even them.
But, despite all that, the quarter-final looks achievable. There France or Argentina and, most likely, defeat will await. But there is a scenario – in fact, more than one scenario – that could see us waking up, three weeks from now, looking forward to a semi-final And then the nation truly will go truly mental.

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