With club football now truly done and dusted for the season, everyone’s attention can now switch to the impending World Cup in South Africa.
Inter Milan manager Jose Mourinho may have confirmed his status as the greatest thing since sliced bread but the argument over which is the best international football team in the world is just about to begin.
On the face of it there seem to be two outstanding teams in the world. The two teams, in fact, that head FIFA’s rankings – a rare moment of accuracy for a table that places Portugal in third place ahead of world champions Italy even though Carlos Queiroz’s men had to scrape through to the finals via a playoff.
The nations in question – as if you couldn’t guess – are Brazil and Spain.
Both countries have an embarrassment of riches that are expected to facilitate a long and prosperous run in the tournament. While this may be normal for the South Americans it is not so usual for their Iberian cousins.
Spain have always produced highly talented footballers but they have usually flattered to deceive on the big stage. In 1998, a squad featuring the sublime Raul Gonzalez and the silky Fernando Hierro appeared to be destined for great things. A 3-2 reverse in their first match of the tournament against Nigeria laid the foundations for a miserable campaign that did not even make the second round.
They have also had their fair share of bad luck in major tournaments.
A perfectly good goal against England in the quarter-finals of Euro 96 enabled the competition hosts to eventually win through on penalties – with that very mode of elimination being yet more evidence of Spain’s inherent misfortune especially when losing against specialists in spot-kick failures, England.
In 2002, the heartbreak was even more keenly felt when they once against lost in a shootout, this time against co-hosts South Korea. But it wasn’t the penalties that irked the Spaniards in that match but the atrocious officiating that cost them two certain goals and disrupted their concentration in a game that they should really have won by a comfortable margin.
Euro 2004 saw them lose to 1-0 to hosts and peninsula rivals Portugal which eliminated them in the first round while a 100 percent record in their group during the 2006 World Cup was not enough to avoid a tough second round match against France that saw them exit the competition.
Then everything changed in 2008 when David Villa’s goals and the masterful midfield of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and David Silva took them all the way to the final. A trademark strike from Fernando Torres gave them a 1-0 win over Germany and sent the nation into raptures.
That was Spain’s second European Championship win but they are still searching for their first global triumph. Defeat to USA in last year’s Confederations Cup was surprising but only a blip considering that it brought to an end their world record run of 15 consecutive victories and 35 matches unbeaten.
They have not lost a match since and qualified for this year’s football festival with a perfect record of ten wins. Thus it is no surprise that Spain have been installed as favourites by traditional bookmakers and the sports betting online exchanges.
Brazil had a relatively poor World Cup by their standards in Germany four years ago.
They failed to make it past the quarter-finals for the first time since 1990 and it resulted in Carlos Alberto Parreira getting fired from his post as national team coach. Parreira was replaced by Carlos Dunga – his captain during the successful 1994 campaign in America.
The selection initially seemed uninspired considering Dunga’s pragmatic nature as a player and his lack of managerial experience. As is the way in a football-mad nation, reactions can border on the hysterical and the new man’s focus on defensive shape and team discipline was initially treated with derision from supporters and journalists alike.
The CBF (Brazil Football federation) – to their credit – held firm in the face of public opinion and, instead of ousting Dunga, gave him the time to fully implement his methodology.
His reign has so far seen Brazil lift the Confederations Cup and the Copa America as well as finish top of their World Cup qualifying group. At the same time, perceived frailties in defence have been ironed out and they can now boast arguably the strongest back line in international football with the likes of Lucio, Juan, Maicon and Thiago Silva playing in front of Inter Milan’s Julio Cesar. They also have Dani Alves and Luisao in the squad for good measure.
While their midfield and attack may not look quite as formidable as usual – Manchester United reject Kleberson has been selected in their final 23 – previously uncelebrated players often shine in the yellow shirt (such as Cesar Sampaio in 1998) and they can still call upon the talents of Kaka and Luis Fabiano.
It is also a measure of the quality of the squad – or, at least, of Dunga’s confidence – that he can afford to omit the AC Milan duo of Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato from his final selection, though the former remains on the reserve list in case of injury.
Brazil’s World Cup pedigree alone guarantees that they will be heavily fancied to add to their five titles in South Africa but their recent form also suggests they will prove to be a mighty obstacle for anyone with designs on the trophy.
Hopefuls such as England, Argentina, Holland and Italy will all be hoping for that slice of luck and that their star players remain injury-free.
But they will also be praying that somebody else can remove Spain and Brazil from the tournament and make their path to glory so much easier.