In the world of sport, there is no event bigger than the Fifa World Cup. This international festival of football occurs every four years and in 2010, South Africa proudly took on the mantle of hosting the biggest event in sport. In that competition four years ago, Spain won the crown, and underlined just how far the sport had evolved.
The first World Cup took place in 1930 and has occurred like clockwork ever since (save for 1942 and 1946 on account of the Second World War). Even in the last twenty years, the sport has taken on a more competitive edge.
Teams big or small have a chance at victory. Thanks to advancements in orthopaedic surgery and all-round conditioning, the individual players and teams competing at Brazil in June will be at their mental and physical peak.
But what of the recently-announced squads? What has struck us about the teams? Read on to find out our thoughts.
Biggest player omission
French coach Didier Deschamps has picked a strong squad for the World Cup in Brazil but has controversially omitted one of the country’s best players from the final 23. Samir Nasri will not be travelling to Brazil, and the hugely talented midfielder does not even make the standby list.
Deschamps is not convinced that Nasri is a team player or even good enough to automatically start in his team. And were Nasri to travel to Brazil only to be left on the bench, Deschamps believes Nasri would sow discord in the dressing room.
This, despite Nasri’s stunning form for Manchester City. The gifted playmaker helped his club lift the 2013/2014 Premier League trophy but will have to watch the World Cup from the comfort of his living room.
Most underwhelming squad
Roy Hodgson announced his World Cup squad well ahead of time. He needn’t have waited as long as he did, because the 23 players essentially picked themselves. From the choice of goalkeepers, midfielders and attackers, there were few surprises.
Fabio Capello once bemoaned that England lacked a winning mentality. Indeed, in the assembled 23, none of the players have tasted international success. Traditionally, English teams wilt on the biggest stage. But England’s best hope of winning the Cup might well come from its youngest players who have the talent and fearlessness of youth.
In the likes of Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw, there is genuine ability on show while the wise heads of Gerrard and Lampard will anchor the action in midfield. Rooney and Sturridge will take up the goal-scoring burden and be expected to perform further up the pitch.
As a whole, however, this squad doesn’t look strong enough to make it past the quarter-final stage.
Most surprising player inclusion
Franco Di Santo
Long before Argentinian coach Alejandro Sabella announced his provisional 30-man squad, the media had caught wind of the news that Carlos Tevez, a 64-cap veteran of the national side, would be left off the team sheet. This premonition came true. But what was a surprise was the name of the player who replaced him: Franco Di Santo.
Di Santo is a willing runner, but possesses none of Tevez’s predatory abilities in front of goal. The striker scored 13 goals at Wigan Athletic in 92 games before moving to Werder Bremen, where he has struggled with 4 goals in 23 domestic matches. Contrast this with Tevez, who boasted a strike rate of a goal more than every other game at Manchester City and has netted 19 in 31 for Juventus.
Argentinian fans have labelled the inclusion of Di Santo “baffling”. It’s hard to disagree, especially when you consider that Tevez and his considerable ability has been laid to waste.
Dark horse of the Cup
In the space of a few short years, Belgium has nurtured an incredible array of footballing talent. This small European country isn’t tipped for World Cup glory, but they have an outside chance of lifting the cup.
Thibaut Courtois is first-choice between the sticks and has been in inspired form for Atletico Madrid, helping his side to the La Liga title earlier this year. In front of him, he’ll have the imposing duo of Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen, two of the finest centre backs in the world.
In the midfield, Belgium has the services of the highly-rated Axel Witsel, while Eden Hazard will use his electrifying pace to tear up the wing. At the apex of the attack, Romelu Lukaku will look to use his pace and power to score vital goals for his side.
The squad would have been even stronger had Christian Benteke, Lukaku’s strike partner, not suffered a season-ending injury in Aston Villa colours. But even in light of this, Belgium’s squad looks an impressive (if underrated) contender for the crown.
Spain and Brazil are favourites for the title but Spain has the best all-round squad. With the addition of Brazilian-born Diego Costa as a striker to their ranks, Spain now has world-class players in every position on the field. They have a proven keeper in Casillas (and good backup in the form of Reina and De Gea), a star-studded back four of Ramos, Pique, Alba and Azpilicueta (with Daniel Carvajal in reserve), while in midfield, there’s a true embarrassment of riches.
Del Bosque will likely opt for Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets as holding midfielders, while further up the field, Silva, Xavi and Fabregas will provide creative impetus. And that’s not to mention the likes of Thiago, Cazorla, Mata and Pedro, who may well have to fight it out for the remaining seats on the plane to Brazil.
Squads don’t come stronger than this.