With the end of the football season one's thoughts turn to, er, football, and the forthcoming world cup. A lazy consensus seems to have formed that Brazil will win it, but that they will be pushed close by an England team who may have Wayne Rooney available for the latter stages of the competition. This is, of course, reflected in the betting odds
Well, this may yet come to pass, but I'm going to stick my neck out and make a few predictions:
1. Brazil won't win.
You heard me. 5/2 favourites they may be (at time of writing), but I don't think Brazil will win the tournament this summer. A South American side has won the tournament only once when it has been held in Europe (Brazil in Sweden, 48 years ago), and it was the 1962 Brazil side that was the last to retain the title. Brazil have appeared in the last three finals, and may figure in the next, but they won't win.
Noone disputes that Brazil has the best squad, but here already lies part of the problem: they don't use it. Brazil's great strength is their attacking flair, and yet their strikers will almost certainly be the out-of-form pair of Ronaldo and Adriano. Even when Ronaldo is patently unfit (as he was in the 1998 final), he still plays. Whether or not this is because the Brazilian FA is in hock to their sponsors is hard to say, but something isn't right.
Brazil's flaw remains their ability to ship in goals (17 in 18 qualifying games), and brilliant thought their midfield may be, they are vulnerable.
2. England won't win.
Like the Brazilians, the the England team is full of players with big reputations and big commercial endorsements. It's also a very talented squad, and even if Wayne Rooney does not play (as he seems certain not to
), England still have a nucleus of talent which appears up to the job. At time of writing, they are 7/1 second favourites.
The last England team to cause this much excitement was Terry Venable's "Christmas Tree" team of 1996, which, just like the 2006 model, had a very good "spine", (goalkeeper, centre-half, centre-midfield and centre-forward). But when recently pressed on what made his '96 side so special, Venables did not talk about talent: he spoke of the character in the side. The 1996 side was great, he said, because he was able to field a team which contained 9 or 10 potential captains.
In 2002, England were knocked-out from the tournament after a limp second-half perfomance against Brazil, who only had 10 players. After the game, one member of the side anonymously briefed a journalist that the players weren't motivated after their half-time team talk, and that the coach, the mild-mannered Sven-Goran Eriksson, was to blame ("we needed Winston Churchill, we got Iain Duncan-Smith", was the memorable quote).
Well, perhaps, but it's hard to imagine a Terry Butcher or a Stuart Pearce or an Alan Shearer complain that a team-talk wasn't rousing enough. This, after all, is a squad that threatened to go on strike when Rio Ferdinand was properly disciplined for failing to attend with no mitigating circumstance (and therefore failing) a drugs test.
As for Eriksson: he looks something of a lame duck since the FA have announced his replacement, and he has consistently lacked commitment in trying new ideas (witness Crystal Palace striker Andy Johnson having to make do with a trial on the wing in an apparently pointless friendly against Holland in February 2005). The decision to bring Theo Walcott into the squad only makes sense as a stunt to deflect attention away from the rest of the side, -it is surely ludicrous to suggest that Walcott, a 17 year-old who has yet to play at the highest level in his own country, never mind in Europe or internationally, should be given the responsibility of chasing a game for England in the world cup. If Eriksson is contending that Walcott can and should receive that responsibility, shouldn't he, as coach, at least have watched him once before selecting him?
3. Holland might.
That's right. The odds on Holland winning at time of writing are 18/1. These are long odds for a side that is currently 3rd in FIFA's world rankings
. (This reflects as badly on the rankings system as it does on the betting public, of course. Indeed, second in the rankings, the Czech Republic, are available at even longer odds). So why are the odds so long, compared to those for England or Germany?
This Dutch team consists of many players unknown to an international audience, especially in defence. But while Andy Johnson was labouring out of position for England last year, Marco Van Basten, legendary striker and Dutch coach, was trying out new players with intent to change the elftal
. Consequently, there are a number of young players in the squad who play their football in the Dutch league: as the financially-disadvantaged Dutch clubs do not receive the media coverage of Spanish or English clubs, this team is relatively unfamiliar.
What's more, the Dutch odds are longer because they are in an apparently hard group, Group C (the FIFA rankings people and their seeding people don't talk to eachother it seems). Holland face Argentina, Serbia and the Ivory Coast: there are no obvious weaklings in the group, and a monster in Argentina. In truth, the absence of one side much weaker than the rest makes the outcome of the group more, not less predictable. Holland's game with Argentina will decide first place, and both will go through.
Think of Dutch football, and one thinks of three sides: the great team of the 70s that played in (and lost) two world cup finals, the European Champions of 1988, and the post-Ajax team of 1995-2000 which promised much but generally would go out on penalities in major semi-finals. The flaw in these teams is generally accepted to be the lack of team spirit and discipline, and this is precisely what Van Basten addressed early on by refusing to select players whose reputation would guarantee them a place in the England side (such as Clarence Seedorf).
Greece's unanticipated European Championship win two years ago was less of a surprise to those that noticed the Greeks had the best record in qualification, and one of the meanest defences. The Dutch qualification for this world cup was even more accomplished: they finished top of the hardest group in Europe, 5 points clear of (FIFA's second best team in the world) the Czech Republic. They have yet to lose a competitive game under Van Basten.
There is no dispute that the Dutch have a potent attack: Arjen Robben, Ruud Van Nistelrooij and in-the-shop-window Dirk Kuyt produce a formidable front three. Most interestingly, the attacking midfielder Rafael Van Der Vaart is back to his best. Van Der Vaart was once considered to be the future of Dutch football, but after stagnating at Ajax he left for Hamburg, and has been one of the best players in the Bundesliga this season. It is the Dutch defence which most people question: the full-backs Giovanni van Bronckhorst of Barcelona and Jan Kromkamp of Liverpool would both appear light-weight for a world cup, and the centre-halves Mathijsen and Boulahrouz lack experience, an accusation nooone is levelling at the aged keeper, Van Der Sar. And yet this side only conceeded 3 goals in 12 qualifying matches, and haven't conceeded in a competitive fixture since October 2004, since when they have recorded 9 straight clean sheets.
Lastly, the tournament is in Germany. If the Germans like playing there, then so do the Dutch: 20th century history continutes to provide some rather tasteless motivation
, and they players aren't far from home. Oranje
reached the final when the tournament was last there, in 1974, and Van Basten won the European Championships there in 1988 as a player. They are not the best side at the world cup, according to Van Basten himself, but it doesn't mean they won't win: they certainly have the character.
ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer and I'm not advocating you gamble on the world cup.