The World Cup was always my favourite event of any four-year cycle – to the extent I once dedicated this entire blog to it for a month (in 2010). It is a gripping spectacle as the whole world comes together for a feast of its most popular sport.
I cannot deny that I have become less enchanted by it since 2010 given the obvious and outrageous corruption encircling its governing body, FIFA. The decision to award Russia this year’s tournament was curious when it was taken, although not outrageous at the time. However, the decision to award to the next one to Qatar – blatantly contrary even to the rules of submissions and at a cost of hundreds of lives (in construction workers operating with no health and safety to build stadiums whose viable use will be just a few weeks) – is a scandal to which the big national associations should by now have responded by setting up their own tournament in the summer of that year.
We are where we are, unfortunately, and there is little point in not enjoying the sport even if those who run it are blatantly corrupt.
This World Cup is curious also because of the number of establish teams not participating. The biggest is four-time champion Italy, eliminated in a play-off by Sweden. Missing a second major tournament in a row having reached the 2014 semi and the 2010 final are the Dutch. Once in the case of Italy may be misfortune, but twice for the Netherlands looks like carelessness. Those who have illuminated past tournaments but who are also absent this time include Chile, Romania, the United States and Cameroon (as well as, bitterly, Northern Ireland).
The tournament will, enticingly, include the likes of tiny Iceland (whose staggering achievements continue), and at the other end of the scale big African countries Nigeria and Egypt.
Two former winners seeking to restore their pride are Brazil (after the astonishing 7-1 demolition by Germany at home in 2014) and England (having crashed out of the European Championships to Iceland). As a side note, global television audiences for World Cup games in which either of these two participate are notably greater than otherwise. They may well face each other in the quarter-final.
Brazil, with Neymar and motivation, is the obvious team to watch as it seeks redemption. An Olympic title two years ago and a comfortable table-topping qualification programme suggest this is not impossible.
Most would see the main challenger as defending champion and top-ranked Germany, and it is easy to see why. The Germans qualified at a canter, know how to win tournaments, and have all the same strengths which won it on a different continent four years ago.
Previous winner (and treble tournament winners from 2008 to 2012) Spain and European champion Portugal in fact meet tomorrow evening in the game of the group stage, and either (particularly the former, given its strength in depth despite the lack of a manager) is a potential champion this time.
Another question is whether last time’s beaten finallist Argentina could hope to give Messi a World Cup in what is surely his last viable attempt. Recent form suggests not, but then that was the case in 2014 also.
Three European teams of significant interest but rarely talked of are Belgium, Switzerland and Poland, all ranked in the top ten in the world. Belgium has quality across the field; Switzerland functions extremely well as a unit; and arguably Poland has the tournament’s best goalscorer. There is also a parallel universe not far from here where Croatia won Euro 2016. Could this be the year of the semi-outsider?
You can rarely discount the host either, although whether Russia really has the quality to go deep into the tournament is debatable.
In the end, when you combine proven quality across the team with the motivation for real redemption, taking account of the draw my money would be on Euro 2016 runner-up and third favourite (behind Brazil and Germany) France.
We shall soon find out…