After decades of being in the thick of it, as player, coach, and head of Germany 2006’s organising committee, I am happy at the prospect of following the World Cup from the comfort of my living room. Only in the final week will I be flying to Brazil, just in time for the semis.
I won’t be passing up any of the action in Group D, which has three former champions — Uruguay, Italy and England — along with Costa Rica, who can prove to be spoilers. In 2010, Uruguay played for third place, Italy finished runners-up at Euro 2012, and the English are not to be underestimated, even though their last big success goes pretty far back. They are still training with gloves on, to get used to the climate in Brazil. One might smile at this, but who knows? It just might produce results.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, whose calm, humorous manner goes down well with his players, has risked taking along two rather volatile players — strikers Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano. It worked at Euro 2012, when Balotelli scored twice in the semis to send Germany packing. Sadly, their midfield will miss Riccardo Montolivo, who broke his leg in a warm-up match against Ireland. And Uruguay, despite being a small country, almost always succeeds, something that never fails to amaze me. So to me, Group D has no favourites.
The action in Group B commences with a repeat of the 2010 final on, of all days, Friday the 13th. If either Spain or The Netherlands lose, that team could have the misfortune of being tripped up by Chile. Half a year ago, the Chileans defeated England at Wembley; a few days later, and with a great deal of bad luck, they lost 0-1 to Germany. If midfielder Arturo Vidal, after his knee operation, and striker Alexis Sanchez perform, Chile can take on any team.
I believe that Spain could very well be in a position to defend their title. The players aren’t the youngest, and appear drained after a long season, but at a World Cup, it is experience that counts. And that’s an area where this side cannot be outdone.
Vicente Del Bosque knows who he can rely on. The Spain coach, for example, has a different take on Xavi than Barca boss Gerardo Martino, who often benched the 33-year-old last season. Crucially, Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso is playing again, and he’s someone who can hold a team together.
If Spain were to succeed, it would the first time that a non-South American team would win a World Cup held in the continent. If everything were to go perfectly, I also think Germany might be capable of it as well.
Clash of brothers
Despite some injury worries, Germany, to me, are one of the favourites. Theirs is a group that will see some interesting duels. The Germany-Ghana match will feature brothers on opposite sides — Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng playing for Germany and Schalke 04’s Kevin-Prince Boateng, for Ghana. The Germany-USA match will be a showdown of two friends as head coaches: Germany’s Joachim Loew and his former boss at the German national team and now coach of Team USA, Juergen Klinsmann, who has hired another former German national coach, Berti Vogts, as advisor.
For now, the Germans are paying a lot of attention to Cristiano Ronaldo, possibly more than the Portuguese themselves! In the Champions League final, with Atletico marking him closely, you could see him losing his zeal. The Germans should aim to stop Ronaldo using their technical skills.
For hosts Brazil, the decisive factor will be how their relatively young squad will be able to handle the pressure. At 22, Neymar is still a youngster, his experience at Barcelona notwithstanding. In this regard, including Kaka in the squad would have been a good decision. If Brazil can hold their own against Group A opponents Croatia, Cameroon and Mexico, they can well go on to become world champions.
Argentina are clear favourites to win Group F ahead of Iran, Nigeria and Bosnia-Herzegovina. And if Lionel Messi is fit, they can go a long way. In Group E, France should have a relatively easy time against Ecuador and Honduras. What I’ll be watching closely is how the Swiss fare.
I don’t expect some rank outsider to cause too many upsets. Belgium, however, are dark horses. If ’keeper Thibaut Courtois shows the kind of magic he did for Atletico Madrid, qualifying from Group H, which also has South Korea, Algeria and Russia, shouldn’t be tough.
Already, I have the feeling that I won’t be leaving my sofa much for three weeks.
The writer has won the World Cup for West Germany both as captain and coach