FIFA World Cup: Expect top teams to start slowly in the Qatar heat
Acclimatisation will be a huge factor and the favourites will look to get through the group stages without being tripped up. For me Serbia are the dark horses, says former Croatia stalwart and current India coach Igor Stimac.
Many of the strongest teams in the world are from Europe and the best players in the world play in Europe but this World Cup--played in very different conditions and at a very different time of the year (Nov-Dec) is going to be a very difficult challenge. One would reckon they would need more than the five days that were available to acclimatise before the tournament.
Expect the football to be slower than usual because of this. The focus of the stronger, more technical teams will not be on high-intensity football initially. Rather, they would want the ball to do the running for them and keep as much possession as possible. For this, they will require patience, especially in the early rounds where you don't want to slip up against weaker competition. By the time the knockout rounds arrive, the teams will find a better rhythm, be acclimatised better and things will ease out. But the first few matches will be crucial, yet tricky.
I can speak from experience. When Croatia played against Japan in the 1998 World Cup, we found ourselves in trouble. It was the second game of the tournament for us, 35 Degrees Celsius, so dry, so hot. Even though we started the match better, Japan came at us very strongly. They had acclimatised to the heat better. But we were lucky to have Davor Suker and his goal in the 77th minute proved to be the difference. Had we slipped up then, we would have had to play Argentina in a do-or-die match. This is the kind of situation most teams will want to avoid.
The World Cup comes along once in four years so the teams are excited. The changing rooms have a positive energy as you don't quite know if you will be there the next time around. So, you want to make it count. You look forward to getting out of the suffering of the group stages because that is where the tournament truly begins.
The pressure is on
For some teams though, the pressure is on from way before the tournament; it begins when the previous tournament ends. Brazil is one of those countries and this time too they are such a talented outfit. If you want to understand the pressure we are talking about, think about what the Indian cricket team goes through and take it up several notches. It is absolutely crazy, a matter of life and death for many.
Football brings great passion and emotion to the table. To many around the world it is the second most important thing in their lives (I would like to say most important but you have to keep the family happy too!).
When faced with such odds, a bit of luck is always necessary. Look at the best teams, look at the world champions and you'll see the helping hand of luck. They make that luck themselves and this time it looks like the defending champions France will need to do that too. They are looking flat and have just one win in their last five games. They look very weak and empty, but everything can change with a win. Suddenly the world can seem like a different place.
Favourites and dark horses
There are 5-6 teams that have been playing very well but one team stands out for me. In their last five games, Argentina have five wins, five clean sheets and have scored 19 goals. Brazil with five wins in their last five games are also looking very good, but while they have scored 18, they have conceded two.
Croatia are looking solid as well, winning their last five games. Among them are wins against France and Denmark. But they aren't scoring many. Holland and Spain are carrying the right kind of momentum into the tournament while England look a little shaky.
Germany haven't had the greatest of build-ups but they are Germany. They are like machines. When I watched them play, I never felt passion but they go out and know how to win matches.
Finally, a word on Serbia, who are the dark horses in my book. They don't participate each time but the players in this group made up the team that won the U-20 World Cup in 2015. Their form is impressive and at the moment that is all we have to go by.
For now, current form is the most important metric to judge how a team might be feeling but once the tournament begins, there are so many variables added to the mix. That, though, is a bridge that must be crossed when you get to it. As things stand, you can only put your best foot forward and hope it does the trick. The World Cup is here and you better be ready!
-- Igor Stimac is coach of the Indian men's football team. He was a member of the Croatia team that finished third in the 1998 World Cup