Let the speculation and build-up commence. On Friday afternoon, after another FIFA circus, the groups for next year’s World Cup in Brazil were drawn. The draw as usual has thrown up some groups which are likely to be meaningless with one or two teams clearly going through; others look rather more interesting.
The other factor, which Tim Vickery has been right to point out, which will impact the sides going through is where and when matches take place. Matches taking place in venues like Fortaleza and Recife (in the tropical north east), particularly games there which kick off in the afternoon, are likely to be very tough for the European sides, no matter the opposition. This has affected my thinking a little, as you will soon see.
The draw came out as follows:
Brazil, Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon
Spain, Chile, Australia and the Netherlands
Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan
Uruguay, England, Costa Rica, Italy
Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Argentina, Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria
Germany, Ghana, Portugal, USA
Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea
Starting at the beginning, the winners of Group A will no doubt be Brazil. They are the hosts and the favourites, with Luis Felipe Scolari already doing an Alf Ramsey and proclaiming his side as champions come next July. Going through to the last 16 with them I’d take a stab at Mexico, given they will be in a climate similar to their own, playing 3 games in the furnace of the Brazilian north-east.
Group B is one of three that is very difficult to call. The Netherlands had a very tricky draw for Euro 2012 and I have the feeling this group will go the same way for the Dutch, with Spain and their current side embarking on their last hurrah likely to top the group. I fancy Chile to come second, largely due to their exciting style and their continental experience.
In Group C, again Colombia should benefit from playing in South America, while having in Falcao, Jackson Martinez and James Rodriguez some genuinely exciting attacking players, if a slightly elderly defence. Something of the football hipster/romantic about me thinks that Japan have a good chance of getting out of the group in second. Again they have a fine collection of attacking talent, Keisuke Honda being the obvious candidate, though again their defence is not the greatest with Southampton reserve Maya Yoshida being among their first choice centre-backs.
Group D is another tricky one to call, with three sides capable of reaching the last eight stuck together with Costa Rica. Of the three, I have a feeling England and Uruguay will progress. Costa Rica are clearly the weak link of the four, and I’m basing my views on Italy largely on their slightly ageing set of stars (Buffon in particular) and their tendency to start tournaments slowly or poorly (see the last World Cup). A lot is being made of England’s game in the heat and humidity of Manaus but Italy will struggle to cope with that too – the Italians will find things equally tricky in the searing heat of Natal against Uruguay.
Group E is probably collectively the weakest of the 8. Despite Switzerland’s bizarre presence as top seeds, I can see France and Ecuador qualifying. Ecuador’s one weakness is up front where they have still to replace the tragically departed Christian Benitez, but I think, again with the familiarity they will have with their surroundings that should be enough to see them finish runners-up to the French. I would love to see the Hondurans going through having become a huge fan of that side during the 2012 Olympics but they are probably there to make up the numbers.
Group F is another which has two qualifiers which jump out. Patently Argentina are destined to go a long way in this competition, particularly if Lionel Messi can find his way back to fitness and form by June. I really fancy Bosnia to finish as runners-up provided they can cope with the pressure of their first appearance on the big stage – players like Dzeko, Begovic and Pjanic and their experience of huge games will be vital. Iran and Nigeria, despite the latter’s Africa Cup of Nations success, will be going home.
Group G is probably the Group of Death with the Most Death In It. One would expect Germany to gain maximum points and make their way through. Portugal, Ghana and the USA will provide both the Germans and one another with a stiff test. Just to be a bit different, I’ll stick my neck out and go for Ghana to build on their successes in South Africa and Germany in qualifying from the group.
Group H will likely see the already overhyped Belgium through to the second round – I’d like to see a little shock in this group and maybe go for South Korea progressing to the last 16, ahead of the stereotypically underperforming Russians.
As for the winners? I’ll let that one slide until the summer. In the meantime, I cannot wait for the World Cup to come round, and frankly am already getting excited at the prospect at a whole month of football to come. People might say that international football is no longer the pinnacle of the game; nonetheless, for me and millions of other people, it continues to excite us all. We’re due a good tournament too.