Will We See A New Name On The World Cup This Summer?


By Simon Cromie

Simply put, the World Cup is the biggest stage in sport.

For one month every four years, the eyes of the world lift their gaze from the mundane, the every-day, to fixate upon a competition which captures attention like no other. Those who have little to no interest in football are suddenly seized by the spectacle of this great sporting feast, where impassioned patriotism and the sheer excitement of a festival of football combine to bring a unified passion for this universally loved sport.

With Russia 2018 approaching with the familiar frenzy that only this event can bring, the excitement is tangible once again. World Cup themed promotional packs of every product, from crisps to washing detergent, line the shelves of our supermarkets. Pubs are bedecked in bunting. Supplies of face paint are ransacked for the upcoming festivities. This is the storm before the sporting tempest.

To win the World Cup is the ultimate and defining goal for all footballers, the shimmering dream which hovers tantalisingly upon the horizon for any young player emerging through the ranks for club and country. To emulate the great teams of the past — the Pele-inspired Brazil side of 1970, the smooth and silky French in 1998, or the concussive, possession-based Spanish machine of 2010 — is the fantasy for players and coaches alike.

Perhaps what makes this upcoming edition of the tournament so intriguing is that there appears to be no clear favourite.

Of course the usual suspects, those nations which have been there and done it before, are being touted as the ones to watch. Germany, off the back of their convincing triumph four years ago, are flexing their muscles once again. Spain are reveling in a new wave of talent as the old guard gradually fades away. Brazil are a team ravenous for redemption after their humiliation on home soil last time around. France boast a squad whose strength in depth is unrivalled. All these former champions can stake a claim that this is their World Cup to win, and that is what makes this year’s winner so hard to predict.

Football doesn’t always follow the rules.

This sport has a funny way of taking the logical and likely and turning them on their head. 1998 was the last time a team won the World Cup for the first time, when Zinedine Zidane inspired France to victory in Saint-Denis against highly fancied Brazil. While the aforementioned tournament favourites dominating the odds for those who bet on the world cup, perhaps this year will see a dark horse rise from the back seat and grab the steering wheel and inscribe their name upon the famous trophy for the first time.

One such dark horse could be Belgium, although to refer to Roberto Martinez’ side as an underdog seems naive when you consider the strength of their squad, and the exciting selection of attacking talent on offer. However, Belgium’s under-performance in recent tournaments means they cannot be considered in the same breath as those with the experience of major international success. The question must be asked that if it came to a World Cup semi-final or final, would they be able to handle to pressure of trying to deliver your country’s first World Cup triumph?

The capitulation against Wales at Euro 2016 will no doubt continue to linger in the minds of many in the Belgium squad, and Martinez’ job will be to channel those emotions into a formula to achieve this talented side’s potential. In Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard, they boast two of the most enigmatic and outstanding talents in the Premier League.

Although success has eluded this Belgian side thus far, write them off at your peril.

With another Champions League winners’ medal added to his collection for his club, Cristiano Ronaldo will undoubtedly be aiming to make one last push with Portugal in what could well be his final appearance at a World Cup finals. The success of winning Euro 2016 was a crowning moment in Ronaldo’s career, but to deliver a first world title for his country would see him surely go down as the most successful player of all time.

Portugal have been placed in a tough group with Spain, Morocco and Iran, and it’s worth remembering that they only finished third in their group at Euro 2016, benefitting to the fullest of the now bloated nature of the European Championships.

However, if Portugal can recreate the same dogged, determined performances that led to that remarkable triumph then they are capable of dismantling any of the top sides. And in Ronaldo they possess something that few other teams have, a footballing magician well capable of pulling a rabbit from a hat at any given moment.

A word must of course be spared for the hosts.

While Russia are perhaps one of the weakest teams at this tournament on paper, the power of home support can often see success bloom from the seemingly harshest of soils. Russian football fans are among the most vociferous and create some of the most intimidating atmospheres in the world. You can be sure that when that first match against Saudi Arabia rolls around, the noise inside the Luzhniki Stadium will be cacophonous. Sometimes such inspiration is all a team needs to become so much greater than the sum of their parts.

Of course, with Russia being such outsiders, the advantage of being the host nation is clear. While Brazil crumbled under the pressure of expectation four years ago, their breathless fans eventually proving a millstone around the team’s neck, Russia simply have nothing to fear. While the natives will be expecting a strong showing, their fans will realistically hold little hope of much more than a last sixteen exit. But if the hosts can build up momentum, more favoured opposition may topple under the explosions of noise from the home fans.

This is why football is so adored. All logic suggests Germany, or Spain, or any of those elite sides mentioned earlier will lift the World Cup once again, but in football there is always a chance for the underdog.

Lenin once said that ‘if you will it, it is no dream,’ and this is what all those potential challengers must believe if they are to topple the giants and carve a new name in World Cup folklore when they descend on Russia in a few weeks time.

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