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With club football over for another season, we’d normally be awaiting a dreary summer of media clamour about transfers and pre-season friendlies. Luckily, however, this year is a World Cup year, saving us from boredom by filling beer gardens around the world with patriotic spirit.
This 2018 World Cup has been much maligned in the wake of FIFA’s financial scandals over the last few years but more pressing is the culture of racism and hooliganism within the Russian ‘ultra’ football fans. We saw at EURO 2016 the troubles that English fans caused to French police, it is expected that this violence is to worsen this summer. Moreover, the players are also expected suffer from this: Englishmen Danny Rose and Rhian Brewster have suffered racism whilst playing in Russia in the past, and France’s Ousmane Dembele and Paul Pogba were just some of those subject to chanting as long ago as March. This is unsurprising when even clubs such as Spartak Moscow unashamedly and publicly make racist comments on their Twitter account: when training on a sunny day the caption of a photo asked ‘how chocolate would melt in the sun’. Unsurprisingly, this has lead a large number of nations to engage sports psychologists in an attempt to lessen the impact of such abuse for players this summer.
Away from the politics of the sport, this World Cup holds plenty of footballing intrigue – from the names in the squads, to the qualifying nations, and of course the eventual winners: and these questions will only be answered by the final on July 15th.
There are numerous squads coming into this summer’s tournament that possess such wealth of talent as they are leaving squads possibly capable of qualifying for the tournament in their own right; established Premier League stars Alvaro Morata, Marcos Alonso and Hector Bellerin all missed out on selection for a strong Spain squad, whilst two of Serie A’s best players in Radja Nainggolan and Mauro Icardi are missing for Belgium and Argentina respectively. Perhaps the greatest depth of talent lies in the French squad – or rather outside it, with £150 million-worth of talent on the standby list in the form of Lacazette, Martial, Coman and Rabiot alone. The major controversy in the England squad was around the decision to leave Jack Wilshere and Joe Hart out of the squad completely: instead opting to bring in the, largely, untested Trent Alexander-Arnold, Nick Pope and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
The major theme of this England squad is inexperience, with this being the senior tournament debut for over a quarter of the team. It is hoped that this will remedy the ‘fear’ that the nation seems to suffer with going into major tournaments, and blamed for the early exits and poor performances since the turn of the century – despite this being purported ‘The Golden Generation’ by the media. The preparation for this World Cup seems different in two ways: this is the first major tournament that England will have play without any of the Golden Generation of the early 2000s – as Wayne Rooney is no longer involved – which is the major reason for the lack of experience. This lack of any real established international means that England have largely gone under the radar as contenders for this year’s trophy; and the media have reacted accordingly, giving England no real chance for the first time in a long while. This could be a blessing for this young team, as it means they’re not put under the same pressure and scrutiny as has been prevalent in recent years.
Four-time winners Italy and the 2010 finalists/2014 semi-finalists the Netherlands are the most notable absentees from Russia 2018, which makes the inclusion of lower profile footballing nations such as Panama, Saudi Arabia, Peru and of course Egypt – lead by the talismanic figure of Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah – all the more impressive. At the centre of these unexpected qualifications, much like Wales at the previous EUROs, is a brilliant team ethic rather than reliance on mercurial talents as we see regularly from teams such as Brazil or Spain. The recent success of this sort of spirited, although often defensive, play for club-sides such as Leicester, Burnley and even Atletico Madrid could set a precedent of possibility for these teams that they can go out onto the field and match the best in the world for their desire and effort. Moreover, the recent showings from international minnows Costa Rica at the 2014 World Cup and Iceland at EURO 2016 should be enough to show the stronger teams that no game is won on paper.
One interesting battle to keep track of will be the race for the Golden Boot at this year’s championships. Of course Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will be the favourites with the bookmakers but this sort of tournament gives opportunities to the other top strikers in the world to show their worth when they are not surrounded by their club team-mates. Poland and Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski is a perfect example of this – he may just be a regular fish in the Bundesliga champions’ pond but with his national side he is killer whale, hauling Polish football forwards by his bootlaces. He is the major reason why I think Poland could be real dark horses this summer. Another surprise package could be Croatia: it’s very difficult to look past a midfield combination that runs La Liga in Modric and Rakitic – whilst they are surrounded by brilliant players in Perisic, Kovavic and Lovren.
But realistically, the championship will fall down to the traditional major players: it is hard to look beyond Brazil, Spain, Germany or France to win the title. Of course people will talk about fringe nations like Portugal, Belgium, England and Argentina but these lack the depth and balance across the field to dominate in a tournament of this sort. The real difference that these powerhouses possess is the vast array of game-changers at their disposal across the field: Brazil’s attack is well profiled but the defensive axis of Fernandinho and Thiago Silva enable them to play with the freedom they do; the same can be said of Busquets and Ramos, Kroos and Boateng and Kante and Varane for the others. All have goalkeepers bang in form in the shape of Ederson, De Gea, Manuel Neuer and Hugo Lloris that can keep a failing team in a match, giving the attackers the chance to win the game. Considering how evenly balanced these teams are, it is a tough call to decide a winner – but I sure can’t wait to find out.