It’s that summer again. The summer that comes once every four years with the hottest of fevers. A rather enjoyable one though. The FOOTBALL fever which culminates at the final of the FIFA World Cup. For the month-long tournament it’s fanfare, parties, eccentricity and often a case of heartbreak, too.
While winning the trophy is difficult enough, retaining it is the real challenge. From its inception in 1930, only two countries (Italy and Brazil), have managed to retain the World Cup. Super-power Germany are in pole position to become the first team in 60 years to successfully defend the trophy, but it’s not going to be an easy ride, to say the least. The other 31 teams won’t go to Russia to just fill in the numbers. For the underdogs, and there are only a few, the thrill of causing an upset is motivation enough.
The reigning champions qualified in style, winning all 10 of their games, scoring 43 goals and conceding only 4. Their golden generation is ageing but remains a force and has been enhanced by young blood. Remember, they won the Confederations Cup with their ‘B’ team while others had their full-strength squads.
The only setback for them seems to be the injury of two of coach Joachim Loew’s trusted lieutenants — goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and defender Jerome Boateng. Neuer hasn’t played for six months with a foot injury while Boateng is in an even bleaker situation having injured his knee in the semi-finals of the Champions League against Real Madrid. Both their inclusions will most likely be last-minute, but it is imperative they recover if Germany want to repeat their 2014 feat.
This World Cup will see the absence of some big names. Italy, the winner of the 2006 edition, failed to make it to the finals after a disastrous campaign which ended with the firing of coach Gian Ventura. Ever since Luis Suarez bit Giorgio Chiellini at Brazil 2014 and then coach Antonio Conte’s resignation, their fortunes have tumbled.
Another big miss will be The Netherlands who lost to Spain in the 2010 finals, but more importantly exacted revenge by beating them 5-1 in 2014. Chile, the current Copa America champions, too failed to make it to the competition after finishing sixth in the South American group.
After appearing at every World Cup since 1990, USA failed to make it following a dire 1-2 defeat to a poor Trinidad and Tobago side in their final qualifier when a win or even a draw would have done.
There’s one team that made it through by the skin of their teeth — Argentina. A nervy qualification campaign saw one of world football’s great powers book their place at the last opportunity with victory over Ecuador, but the losing finalists in 2014 will be looking to go one better. It will be a farewell party for many senior players. Sergio Romero, Angel Di María, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Lucas Biglia and Ever Banega, among others, are almost certainly about to play in their final tournament. For Lionel Messi — the captain and main reason they reached Russia — it is also pretty much a case of now or never.