Probably my final thoughts before the World Cup
It’s funny that no matter how often football happens, and no matter how illogical a situation or outcome can appear, football decides to conform to narrative.
In 2006, France began the World Cup in terrible form. They drew with Switzerland and South Korea, and only went through by beating a Togo team derailed by a pay dispute. Spain, meanwhile, looked like the best team in the tournament, and even managed to win after putting their second team out in their last group game. And yet when France and Spain met in the second round, even after Spain took the lead, France found a way to win 3-1.
Theoretically, it was a totally illogical result: France’s team was made up of a bunch of ageing has-beens and was managed by a complete idiot; Spain’s team had some of the most exciting young players in the world and was in great form. And yet it made sense – Spain once again continued to conform to their reputation as bottlers in major tournaments (later dispelled, of course), while the arrival of Zinedine Zidane for France completely changed the tone of the team. And they went on to beat favourites Brazil in the next round for good measure – two massive upsets in the space of two rounds. But for Zidane’s temper, they may have won the tournament, an outcome that seemed totally implausible after two matches.
The point I’m making is that football, and World Cups in particular, rely little what should happen from a “logical” perspective. If logic suggests that Team X and Team Y will compete in an ideal final, do not expect this to happen, because something or someone will come from nowhere and spoil it, in the name of individual or team narrative, or just for the sake of being awkward. Bloggers and journalists will throw statistics and tactical analysis at you in the last week or so before the World Cup starts to try to convince you that you can accurately predict what will happen over the next month by thinking a bit harder and reading a bit more, but it’s a fallacy. The World Cup has a life of its own. Momentum, mentality, pressure and terrible refereeing decisions will all play their part in ensuring that what you expect to happen will not happen.
So the media and bloggers are telling you that we’re going to get the dream final – Brazil versus Argentina at the Maracana. You can guarantee this will not happen. Argentina theoretically have the best attack in the world, with Messi, Aguero, Di Maria, Higuain, Lavezzi and various others all capable of scoring plenty. But, aside from the matter of the defence, which remains unconvincing – and, to quote the Americans, defence wins championships – when was the last time such a star-studded attack clicked on this stage? You could argue a case for Brazil in 2002, but that was a team that had a great defensive line-up too, unlike Argentina. This sort of team usually gets found out. The teams that win major international tournaments these days usually have players like Luca Toni and Stephane Guivarc’h up front.
As for Brazil, there’s a collective will for them to win. Everyone wants this Brazil side to erase the memories of the Maracanazo of 1950…but maybe that’s the point. The pressure on host nations is always enormous, but it’s going to weigh particularly heavily on Brazil. Plus this isn’t a remarkable Brazil side. People are predicting them to win based solely on their performances at the Confederations Cup, a tournament no one has ever taken any notice of until this point. France won in 2001 and didn’t make it out of their group a year later. Swap Brazil for Mexico, Japan or Nigeria and no one would be mentioning it, because it would be dismissed as meaningless. Brazil’s performances outside this competition have been patchy at best, some of their first-choice players aren’t entirely convincing, and their main striker is out of form (although judging by the Guivarc’h Clause, that may not necessarily be a bad thing). They also have David Luiz as first choice centre-back, and in a big game in front of 90,000 screaming Brazilians in Rio, he’s not the man I would want to have the ball, £40 million valuation or not.
I still think the two best teams in the tournament at the moment are Spain and Germany. I’ve felt all along that this was again Spain’s tournament to lose. They have the talent and the experience to win it, and are so difficult to beat when they are on top in a game. Plus I don’t want them to win, and usually tournaments are won by teams I don’t want to win (I used up all my luck in 2002 and 2004, I think).
The only way I see Spain not winning this (yes, this is my get-out clause) is if Vicente del Bosque screws up. Which is possible. Del Bosque is a conservative manager who has his favourites and will keep picking them, hence why Fernando Torres is still in this squad despite being consistently terrible for several years, even at the expense of Jesus Navas who was an important option for them in 2010. What may ultimately undo Spain is if Del Bosque keeps picking the same ageing players, particularly in midfield. Xavi and Alonso will eventually be overrun if they remain the first choice midfield pair. They don’t need to be – Busquets, Martinez, Iniesta, Fabregas, Cazorla and Koke are all capable of playing there without the disadvantage of being slow and old. But will he pick any of those? Will he fuck. Xavi’s in there until he retires. It’s as not far off England’s obsession with Gerrard – Xavi might have been a better player at his peak but he’s close to being a liability now.
If Del Bosque keeps picking the same players, this has “France 2002 Repeat” written all over it. It’s a tough group – I’d not rule out the possibility of them failing to progress. But equally, if/when they do progress, in knockout football they are naturally the favourites, because once they get in front, it’s so difficult to get the ball off them. The draw is in their favour too – Mexico or Croatia are likely to await in Round Two, probably followed by Italy (who never beat this bunch of Spanish players).
Having said that, what would be interesting is if England top Group D, which isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. While Italy’s style of football probably plays into Spain’s hands, England’s pacy, direct counter-attacking style would be more of a threat. Added to that, Spain have only beaten England once in a competitive fixture, as long ago as 1950, while the last competitive and non-competitive meetings between the sides were both won by England. Don’t get me wrong, England aren’t as good as Spain, but if there’s one team Spain might face at that point in the tournament that they would rather avoid, it’s England.
Barring odd group stage results, Spain won’t face Germany until the final. These are the two most complete sides in the tournament. The difference is Germany have a mental block on winning tournaments at the moment. The Team You Can Never Count Out has become The Team That You Can Count Out Once We Reach The Important Rounds. Losing to Spain in 2008 and 2010 was perhaps understandable. Losing to Italy in 2012, a fourth defeat in the semis or final in the last four major tournaments, is beyond a coincidence. And there’s no reason to expect they will do anything different this time. Despite having a stronger first XI than Spain, you’d have to side with Spain every time, because Spain win the big matches and Germany don’t. Narrative.
There are a couple of teams who may throw a spanner into the works, though. Everyone seems to have written off France, which is rather curious as they have some of the most exciting young players in Europe at the moment and seem to have a complete package: a team with Lloris in goal; a centre-back pairing of Varane and Koscielny with the experienced Sagna and Evra flanking them; Matuidi, Pogba and Cabaye battling for centre-midfield roles; and Ribery and either Remy, Valbuena or Griezmann supporting Benzema up front. Theoretically great, if that’s what Deschamps goes for, but his favoured centre-back pairing of late has been Koscielny and Sakho, which looks decidedly more wobbly. Either way, there’s no less talent there than most of the other teams people are touting as contenders.
Belgium were virtually everyone’s dark horse a year or so ago, to the point where they were considered to be major contenders. It has cooled a bit of late, partly because people have realised that they have no natural full-backs and thus may be horribly exposed defensively at some point, but also because the hype was clearly going too far. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they went deep into the tournament, but I’d have them down for the classic “Spain 2006 role” – starting well in what is a straight-forward group for them, but then collapsing in the first match against stiff opposition, possibly as soon as the second round.
England are quietly being hyped up via stealth – the old “we’ll do better with low expectations” trick. But actually, despite all of this, they probably have a better team than most people would give them credit for. Questions have been raised over the Jagielka/Cahill partnership, but if you look around, there aren’t many teams with a better pairing. It’s a team that shouldn’t have any problems scoring either, despite the presence of Wayne Rooney, a man who is paid £300,000 a week but has less World Cup goals than Shane Smeltz, Mark Gonzalez and Radhi Jaidi. The only issue is whether the defence can be protected by a midfield without a natural defensive midfielder.
There’s a chance it could go horribly wrong, but the draw has favoured them despite superficially being tough – playing Italy in humid Manaus is ideal and almost certain to be a very low-scoring game, while Uruguay are no longer the force they were, especially with Cavani out of form and Suarez on one leg. Get through the group and they face a team from Group C, likely to be the weakest group in the World Cup now that Falcao is confirmed to be out. Another quarter-final exit on penalties beckons.
I’d also like to make a case for Portugal to do well. Yes, they have been poor in qualifying. But they have been poor in qualifying for years. That hasn’t stopped them from being very difficult to beat. It also hasn’t denied them Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite Group G seeming to be very tough, I suspect they will find a way to get through, probably in second place. That may give them a second round tie against Belgium, which would probably favour the Portuguese due to their experience and knack of getting a result – maybe even on penalties. After that, they would to face the winner of Argentina versus the runner-up of Group E, either France or Switzerland.
This is where I start to think back to narrative. Yes, you’d expect that to be Argentina-Switzerland, and so Argentina-Portugal, followed by Argentina-someone else in the semis. But I can see France starting slowly – a stumble against Honduras or Ecuador may hand a deceptively strong Switzerland side the group. Argentina-France is suddenly a tasty encounter, reminiscent of that Spain-France clash of 2006, and I’d fancy France to shock the world and win it.
France-Portugal in the quarters? No one is considering either of these teams for the semis at the moment. But I’m calling it. Either of these teams could win it but I fancy Portugal to grind one out and again make the semis, maybe even on penalties. Even though it seems entirely illogical, entirely illogical things happen in the World Cup. Portugal would then face whoever comes out of Spain’s part of the draw victorious…oh you can just imagine it, can’t you? England getting to the semis at last after defeating Spain, before being knocked out on penalties by Portugal again. I doubt it’ll happen, because of what it would take to get to that point, but the weight of the narrative is strong. If the tie happens, and it gets anywhere near 90 minutes level, it’ll go to penalties, and the inevitable will happen.
As it happens, though, I’ve predicted England to finish behind Italy in Group D, leaving them to beat the winners of Group C (probably Japan) and then face Brazil in the quarters. Despite my doubts about Brazil, you’d expect them to win that. In theory, that would set up a Brazil-Germany semi-final, a match in which one bottler is guaranteed to not bottle it. So I’ve gone for a Germany win, leaving them to lose to Spain in the final.
But despite my faith in my predictions, I suspect this won’t happen. It’s impossible to predict everything correctly in a major tournament. Who expected both of the 2006 finalists to fail to progress in 2010? Who expected South Korea and Turkey to make the semis in 2002? Who expected New Zealand to be the only team without a defeat last time out and come within an ace of going through? Who expected Croatia to finish third in 1998? Crazy shit happens in the World Cup – it’s the most irrational major event in world sport. Brazil-Germany and Spain-Argentina is the ideal, “logical” semi-final line-up, but it will not happen. Things will get in the way. At least one of those favourites will almost certainly crash out before that stage.
I made these predictions back in December after the draw was done. I largely ignored form and I didn’t have injuries to take into account. But I’m sticking by them. The reasons for me making these predictions haven’t changed. I didn’t want to take “rationality” and “objective” information into account – you can give me one hundred reasons why you think I’ll be wrong, based on meticulous research, but I’m sticking by these predictions. Sometimes we overthink football, and it’s worth taking a step back and just thinking about what will probably happen, rather than analysing shots-to-goal ratios or studying the intricacies of Argentina’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Sometimes things just happen in football which cannot be predictable or explained. And the World Cup as a long history of unpredictable, unexplainable events. That’s the beauty of it.