The top contenders

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Fever Pitch

Brazil, Spain, Germany and Argentina are the top contenders for the 2014 World Cup. Sopan Joshi on the factors that could make or break them

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Me? I want to see a repeat of the 1990 World Cup final. Germany vs Argentina. Why? Well, they are two of the four best teams in the world, the other two being Spain (winners in 2010) and Brazil (winners in 1994 and 2002, apart from the Garrincha-Pele inspired victories of 1958, ’62 and ’70). There is one other reason: Germany and Argentina are also the world’s greatest contrast in how football is governed by their administrators — a polarity in the culture of sport.

How German football got its groove back is now a fable. The nadir was the 2000 European Championships, which France won by a golden goal in a tight final against Italy. Germany, though, scored only once and did not go beyond the group stage. That is the kind of result expected from England — in Germany, it led to a horror. The Deutscher Fussball Bund (DFB), Germany’s football association, pressed the panic button and went for an overhaul, not the least because Germany was to host the 2006 World Cup.

Day of redemption The Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro will host the final on 13 July, Photo: AFP
Day of redemption The Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro will host the final on 13 July. Photo: AFP

It made massive investments in building local football facilities and in training youth coaches. They fast-tracked talented young boys, and the result was obvious in the last edition of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Germany had the youngest team — average age 23 — and also the most attractive. It made short work of England in the round of 16 (4-1) and of Argentina in the quarterfinals (4-0), only to lose 0-1 to eventual winners Spain in the semifinals.

Unlike the big-ticket English Premier League with owners from the US, Russia and the Gulf — not to mention a glut of foreign players who cost millions — DFB does not allow corporates and foreign investors to own football clubs. So, the likes of Roman Abramovich (or our very own Vijay Mallya) do not control their clubs.

The only exceptions being Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, the first created by the automobile company Volkswagen and the second by the chemicals giant Bayer. Even these two companies run the football clubs as trustees of their respective regions. The other Bundesliga clubs are owned and run by local members and supporters. Which is why six of the top 10 European clubs in terms of average attendance are from the Bundesliga; the remaining four being commercial giants: Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Local Quality, Sparkle
Germany has managed to keep its football rooted in its society, reflecting a plural and multiracial pool of talented players. Even if the explosive Marco ‘Rolls’ Reus is injured and will miss this World Cup, you are guaranteed attractive football in names like Mario Gotze, Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos. Which team has a comparable array?

Argentina does. With Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel di Maria, there is no dearth of creative, attacking ability. Defence is where Argentina is vulnerable, as was too obvious in South Africa the last time around. For reasons best known to nobody, the then manager Diego Maradona decided to leave out from the squad Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso, two defensive midfielders with enormous experience and character — he was relying too much on magic up front.

It is all too easy to forget that Argentina’s two World Cup triumphs (in 1978 and ’86) came with Daniel Passarella standing in central defence. Most people remember Mario Kempes and Maradona scoring goals, but Argentina couldn’t have won those two editions without the solidity of Passarella at the back. The current squad has nobody with his command and authority — or that of Zanetti and Cambiasso, both of whom have retired this May.

Football’s Pakistan
Argentina’s football administration is an example of how not to run a popular sport. Argentine football administrators make India’s BCCI and Pakistan’s PCB look like professionally run sports associations. It is common knowledge that football in Argentina is under the control of criminal gangs with a taste for violence — especially over the past decade or so. From getting a cut out of the transfer of big players to controlling seat allocation in stadia, the mafia owns Argentine football. Any resistance is met with swift violence and murder. The club supporter associations are run by the musclemen of the crime syndicates.

Unlike in Brazil, where several players compete in the domestic league (or at least were playing there until their success in the Confederations Cup last year brought lucrative European contracts), any player with a semblance of talent has no option but to leave Argentina. When these disseminated stars do assemble for the national squad, they do not have the cohesion and solidity of Brazil or Spain or Germany. In the absence of capable leaders like Passarella or Zanetti, they tend to fall apart on the big stage.

Yet there is no dearth of talent in Argentina or its national squad. And they have Messi, the best player in the world (Cristiano Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or in the year that Messi was injured for extended periods). Messi has the charisma that may bind and lift this team, provided the manager finds tactical solutions to keeping things tight in defence.

That will be no problem, however, for Brazil. In their captain Thiago Silva, they have perhaps international football’s best centre-back. While attention is fixed on the attacking ability of Neymar-Oscar- Fred-Hulk, it has three immensely capable central midfielders sitting in front of the defence: Paulinho, Luiz Gustavo and Ramires. They are the kind of players who will provide cover for the full-backs to join the stars in attack, providing width and overlapping runs. In Dani Alves and Marcelo, Brazil have perhaps the world’s best attacking full-backs on both right and left flanks.

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4-2-4 of the Golden Era
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has stuck with the shape and tactics he used in the Confederations Cup. If that holds, you can expect this Brazil squad to play the traditional (and ludicrously attacking) 4-2-4 shape. On paper, this team is set up in four banks into the 4-2-3-1 that is now the most popular system in international football, with midfielders divided into attacking and holding roles. Given the kind of high-intensity pressing Brazil showed last year, however, effectively the team’s shape is a circle of eight players around the hub of two central midfielders. Given that even the second centre-back David Luiz is known for counter-attacks, Hollywood balls, and a speciality for free kicks, it is safe to say Brazil has the most penetrative squad of all.

Spain, in contrast, have the best balance — and the best midfield in terms of control, creation, possession and tackling. For control, they have Javi Martinez, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso. For creativity, they have Andres Iniesta, Juan Mata, David Silva and Koke. And they have the world’s most influential midfielder to tie things together in Xavi Hernandez, who was selected again at the age of 34, despite Spain having the world’s largest pool of high-class midfielders. Xavi’s only comparison is Andrea Pirlo of Italy, who was the man of the match in the 2006 final that is better (or worse) remembered for Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt and red card. If Xavi controlled and guided Spain to victory in ’10, Pirlo was the architect of Italy’s ’06 triumph. Pirlo, also 34, was preferred over several younger and faster players for the maturity, vision and calm that he provides.

Which tells you something important: the team that will win this World Cup will also depend on really good central midfielders, not the greatly hyped forwards. In fact, both Spain and Germany are unlikely to use a traditional forward. Get ready to see Cesc Fabregas and Gotze, respectively, in the false nine role — the forward (classically with the No. 9 shirt) who drops deep to find space between the rival defence and midfield, a space earlier occupied by the creative midfielder wearing the No. 10 shirt. Brazil’s lone striker Fred, too, takes part in the collective pressing and drops deep into the midfield to combine and create. Messi is, of course, the most famous false nine.

Outside the top four, much is expected of the Netherlands — and Belgium, which will field its best ever team that is drawing expressions like the Golden Generation of Belgian football. Croatia could pull a surprise or two; in Luka Modric, they have the greatest challenger to the Xavi-Pirlo club.

The other teams to watch out for: Italy, France and Japan. Each year, there is expectation of glory from the talented African teams; each year, they tend to disintegrate in the final stages. There is a reason why only eight teams have ever won the World Cup — only five have won it more than once. It takes class. Apart from the fact that it will have the home advantage, Brazil is the classiest. And this is not nostalgia for the samba magic or the pressure of popular culture speaking. It is hard football.

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