10 June 2014

Africa: Will Africa Reach World Cup's Final Four?

Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/Backpagepix
Rafik Djebbour of Algeria is challenged by Jay Demerit of United States (file photo).

Seven years after being awarded the rights to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Brazil will get the tournament under way on Thursday when they tackle Croatia in a Group A clash in Sao Paulo.

It has been a long road to this point, with much controversy in the country about what it will cost to host football's greatest tournament on their shores.

The Brazilian authorities - and FIFA  - can't wait for the football to begin, when they hope all the negativity surrounding the event will disappear and the focus will be on the pitch only as the party comes to life.

Africa's challenge will come from the same five sides who joined hosts South Africa in the first round four years ago: Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Cameroon, Nigeria and Algeria.

It is difficult to know which African side has the best chance. Ghana has perhaps the most complete squad and is in  the hardest group by far, while Cote d'Ivoire have an array of attacking talent but are less productive in defence.

Cameroon has individual stars but little team cohesion, and Nigeria are skillful but can be a little lightweight. Algeria always look the part on paper but struggle to make it count on the grass.

Each will have an eye on a piece of history though, buoyed by Ghana's showing at the 2010 finals when they were one Luis Suarez handball away from the semi-finals.

In the end they matched the best previous showing by an African side, the quarter-finals, and the question now is whether any can reach the Last 4.

There is no reason why they should not. They will come up against some excellent teams in the tournament but if you are to progress you need a little bit of luck and the rub of the green.

All the African sides are fielding players who ply their trade in the top leagues of Europe, so if one of them can get on a roll, one feels any has the potential to go deep into the tournament.

The gap between Africa and the rest of the footballing world has closed dramatically in the last two decades - now is the time to translate that into results on the pitch.

Brazilian legend Pele said in the late 1970s that an African side would win the World Cup by the year 2000. He was wrong, but it would be fitting were he to witness it in his homeland.

Just about the most generous odds you will find on that happening is Cote d'Ivoire at 125/1, which shows just what a long shot the bookies believe it is.

So if not Africa, where is the tournament winner likely to come from?

Brazil's romp-in victory in the 2013 Confederations Cup on home soil should give their fans plenty of hope that this generation of stars can win back the World Cup.

The Brazilians barely seemed to raise a sweat on their way to the title win, including a commanding 3-0 victory over world champions Spain in the final.

They might not have the huge global icons of the past two decades, but this side arguably plays better as a team, all knitted together by Luiz Felipe Scolari, who was in charge of the side when they last won the World Cup in 2002.

Their's is a well-worn set of statistics, but well worth repeating for their sheer wow factor.

Brazil have not lost a competitive fixture on home soil in almost 40 years. It is a run that includes 57 competitive games at home since a surprise loss to Peru in 1975.

Add to that their immaculate record at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium, where the 2014 World Cup final will be held, and it must strike fear into even their strongest opponents.

Their last competitive loss at what is seen as the home of Brazilian football was in the 1950 World Cup decider when Uruguay stunned the record 200,000 fans watching with a 2-1 success.

Statistics are not everything, but they also don't lie, and this incredible record of Brazil is no fluke.

Their 2013 challenge will be lead by mercurial star Neymar, but will likely be built on a solid defence.

Brazil have conceded just six goals in their last 16 matches home and away, while scoring 47. That includes matches against France, Italy, Uruguay, Spain, Chile and Portugal. No easy games there.

Their biggest hurdle may not be their opponents, but rather stage fright as fear of failure grips them.

It is hard to spot a weakness in the side. They have a solid enough backline, strength through the midfield with enough creativity to open up opposition defence, and some fine goal-scorers up front.

Spain's dominance of world football over the last six or so years has been complete and culminated in a World Cup triumph in 2010, as well as victories in the last two European Championship finals in 2008 and 2012.

It has been a change in fortune for a nation who had picked up the tag of chokers prior to that, often going into finals tournaments as favourites, but finding a way to botch their campaign.

This generation is far more ruthless and shows no real sign of giving up their mantle as the world's best team.

They have lost just one of their last 33 competitive international matches in the past four years, their defeat at the hands of Brazil in the final of the Confederations Cup that was played in Rio de Janeiro.

For many of Spain's stars, the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xaxi, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas, this will likely be their final World Cup, but scarily for the rest of the world there is enough up and coming talent, the likes of Real Madrid's Isco, to suggest that they can continue to dominate.

In Vicente del Bosque they have a veteran coach who both understands the international environment well and knows how to get the best out of each of his star names.

Germany took a young side to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the likes of Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Thomas Mueller virtual unknowns to many outside of the Bundesliga. They proved to be one of the most exciting teams to watch in the tournament, eventually finishing third after a close semi-final loss at the hands of eventual champions Spain.

Fast-forward four years and those young talents have now matured into experienced internationals, while manager Joachim Louw, who has not been in charge of the side since 2006, has managed to retain most of the leading stars from that side in his team.

It means that Germany should be a much more polished outfit come the finals if their qualification campaign is anything to go by.

They won nine of their 10 qualifiers, drawing the other, scoring almost four goals per game in the process, in a pool that included handy opposition in the form of Sweden, the Republic of Ireland and plucky Austria.

Ozil was both chief goal-scorer and provider for the team and will be central to their chances in Brazil.

But there is plenty of attacking talent to admire in the German squad, the depth of which will give them plenty of comfort should injuries or suspensions strike.

New rising stars Julian Draxler and André Schürrle are all exciting talents in a squad that has only three players over the age of 30 - veteran forward Miroslav Klose (36), skipper Phillip Lahm (30) and backup goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller (33).

Argentina made light work of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup through what was a difficult South American league containing plenty of potential pitfalls.

They remain an unpredictable band of footballers though, able to topple anybody on their day, but prone to slip-ups that often prove costly. But as long as they have a fit and firing Lionel Messi on their side, anything is possible and he alone should make them World Cup contenders.

It is exceptionally rare that the World Cup champions come from a continent different to the one that the tournament is played on - Spain bucking the trend in their African triumph last time out. Brazil may not quite feel like home given the rivalry between the two nations, but the conditions will be familiar and there should also be enormous support from the stands.

Throw in other top stars such as Ezequiel Lavezzi, Pablo Zabaleta, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Javier Mascherano, and there is enough firepower in this Argentina side to go all the way.

They also have a calming influence in unheralded manager Alejandro Sabella.

The fact that there are any number of sides who could emerge from the herd as potential Dark Horses at the World Cup should make for a thrilling competition.

Colombia have been excellent over the past two years and were at one time in the top four of the FIFA rankings. The fact that they will be without leading scorer Radamel Falcao through injury is a blow though.

Don't write off the Uruguayans either; they have a potent attack led by "love-him-or-hate-him" Luis Suarez, though their defensive frailties will likely see them fall short.

Belgian football has shot to prominence in the last two seasons and with a young team of supremely talented players such as Romelu Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas, Eden Hazard, Mousa Dembélé, Marouane Fellaini, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen and Simon Mignolet, they are an exceptional unit.

Switzerland served notice of their potential when they beat Brazil 1-0 in a friendly in August, and also cantered through their qualification group for the World Cup.

You can also never write off the established nations - Netherlands, France, Portugal, England and Italy all have squads that should make the title contenders, with the unpredictable Italians potentially the best of that bunch.

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