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In the 19 World Cups held so far, European teams have won 10 times to South American countries’ nine. This edition will be crucial in the battle for supremacy

Whenever the World Cup has been held on South American soil — Uruguay 1930, Brazil 1950, Chile 1962 and Argentina 1978 — teams from that continent have emerged victorious. The crucial question therefore, as the 20th World Cup gets underway, is whether this supremacy can be maintained? In South Africa 2010, two European teams Spain and Netherlands contested the final, so European teams have finally started winning outside their continent.

There is an added edge this time. In the 19 World Cups held so far, European teams have won 10 and the South American countries have been victorious on nine occasions. So, this World Cup will be very crucial in the battle for supremacy between the two historic rival continents.

In the last two World Cups, the power, pace, strength and organisation of European teams has dented South American supremacy. In the 2006 World Cup, all four semi-finalists were from Europe, the first time this had happened since the 1982 World Cup. Again, four years later in South Africa, three semi-finalists were from Europe and Uruguay was the only representative from South America, but they eventually finished fourth.

Argentina has not progressed to the semi-finals since 1990 and Brazil was eliminated in the quarter-finals, both in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. So much is at stake for South American nations at this World Cup.

There are six South American teams in the fray (five qualified while Brazil are hosts). However, the chances of Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and even Uruguay despite their lethal strikers Suarez and Cavanani being in brilliant form, winning the tournament seems remote. So, the only possible South American contenders for the title are either hosts Brazil or Argentina. Brazil has massive home crowd advantage, familiarity with the conditions while Argentina the best attack in the tournament.

For both Pele and the Brazilian coach Luis Felipe Scolari, the dream final for the 2014 World Cup is Brazil vs Argentina. It would be the first all South American final since the 1950 World Cup, when Uruguay upset Brazil 2-1 in the concluding league match of that tournament, which was like a final or the inaugural World Cup in 1930 when Uruguay beat neighbours Argentina 4-2 in a memorable final in Montevideo.

A Brazil versus Argentina clash is considered a dream final in more ways than one. Both countries are bitter rivals, so there is always a bit of needle when they clash. Also Argentina has the best and most potent attack in the world — Lionel Messi, Sergei Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi. With Angel di Maria on the flanks, Messi playing in a free role like in Barcelona and Aguero a lethal finisher, Argentinean fans and media persons claim that they are the true inheritors of the beautiful game and not Brazil. Several Argentineans feel that Brazil plays a physical game and try to intimidate ball-playing teams like Argentina. This has always irked Brazil and if they meet in the final or before that, both teams will have a point to prove.

Brazil has a compact squad with great team spirit instilled by their tough coach Luis Felipe Scolari. Neymar is their most talented player and Fred a good target man but they lack the attacking flair of Argentina. Brazil relies a lot on Oscar to initiate moves. The 22-year-old Chelsea midfielder has the football intelligence to initiate moves with his measured through passes and accurate crosses. The mobility of Oscar and Neymar gives a lot of fluidity to Brazil’s attack. However Brazil is overall a better and more compact squad. Their defence with Thiago Silva and David Luiz can be formidable. In contrast Argentina’s defence is suspect. Brazil play instinctive football and their clash with Argentina could be a connoisseurs’ delight.

Both Brazil and Argentina are on opposite sides of the draw and could reach the final. But there are many stumbling blocks, mainly because of the lopsided draw. In almost every World Cup there is a group of death, but in the Brazil 2014 World Cup, there are three groups of death. They are Group B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile and Australia), Group D (Uruguay, Costa Rica, England and Italy) and Group G (Germany, Portugal, Ghana and USA.

The biggest upset could come on June 28, at Belo Horizonte, when Brazil, anticipated Group A winners, take on group B runners up, either holders Spain or runners up Holland. The dream final, Brazil vs Spain, will be a second round match and the quality of football on offer could be better than the final itself on July 13.

The other scenario could be Holland vs Brazil. In the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals, Holland eliminated Brazil 2-1, so an upset is possible. A World Cup in Brazil with the hosts and favourites eliminated in the first knock out round would be disastrous. Brazil could prevail but it will be at the expense of either the holders Spain or resurgent Holland, both of whom are potential finalists.

Spain and Netherlands are in the ultra group of death as both will want to emerge first. It will not be easy as the other teams in the group, Chile and Australia, are formidable opponents. Chile coached by the 54-year-old Jorge Sampaoli, are a dynamic, attacking team playing at a high tempo, using pressing tactics. Australia playing in their third successive World Cup are a gritty defensive team and difficult to score against.

Argentina should easily win Group F but they could face a tough fight in the round of 16, in case a resurgent France finishes second in Group E. Also, in case Germany stumbles in Group G and finishes second, they would be in Argentina’s side of the draw and could meet in the quarter-finals, a repeat of the 2010 World Cup. In South Africa four years ago, Germany outclassed Argentina by curbing Messi to win 4-1.

In Group G, Germany and Portugal will be stretched by Ghana and USA but with their attacking flair, should easily progress to the round of 16. Germany despite their meticulous preparations are affected by injuries. They will miss their creative midfielder Marco Reus and there are doubts on the fitness of midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and Captain Philip Lahm. Also unlike German teams of the past, their defence is not rock-solid. They lack man markers of the calibre of Jurgen Kohler or Guido Buchwald (1990 World Cup winning squad) or Bertie Vogts and Paul Breitner (1974 World Cup winner). Their defence at times seems like a concentration-free zone and they concede soft goals. Their opening Group G match with Portugal will be very crucial as they have will have to cope with a rampaging Cristiano Ronaldo.

Both Germany and Portugal will want to top the group and avoid meeting dark horses Belgium, favoured to win Group H in the next round. Belgium could upset one of the favourite teams like Germany or Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.

Weather and fitness could play a crucial role in deciding the outcome of Group D, yet another group of death. England and Italy kick off in Manaus where the climate is tropical and the humidity is very high. The match at the Arena Amazonia, which represents an Amazon straw basket, is crucial for both teams. England may have to change their gameplan due to the weather conditions, as they will be unable to play at a high tempo for 90 minutes.

Also, England plays their last match in this group against the relatively weaker Costa Rica. So, they know that if they avoid defeat against Italy, progress to the round of 16 is likely. Uruguay’s future depends on the fitness of key striker Luis Suarez. So, as the saying goes, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. The 2014 World Cup could be a tournament of upsets and the dream final scenario may not take place.

Dramatic on-field action is expected. However, off field, the 2014 World Cup will also be remembered for the advent of technology. FIFA has approved of the use of goal-line technology, whereby within seconds, the referee will be informed by a signal on his stopwatch if the ball has crossed the line or not.

Also, the referees are using the invisible spray, which ensures that the defending team retreats an accurate 10 yards when facing a free kick. This will give more opportunities for clever free kicks, always a delight to watch. Finally in hot and humid condition like in Manaus, referees can take a decision to have a water break midway through each half to ensure players do not get dehydrated. These are some important decisions, which will hopefully help the quality of football on display at the 2014 World Cup.

(The writer is a well-known football commentator and columnist)


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