27/02/2024

Will Messi finally get to lift the World Cup in his last tournament? (Source:Goal)

The build-up to the world’s largest football extravaganza is almost over (although not the controversy), as 32 nations head to Qatar in search of the ultimate prize – the FIFA World Cup.

The biggest football leagues on the planet – La Liga, Serie A, and the Premier League amongst them – have all ground to a halt for the next four weeks, as attention switches to the tiny Gulf State where the the next winners of football’s most coveted trophy will be crowned.

Although every team will have a belief that ‘it could be their year’, history tells us otherwise. Only eight nations have managed to win a tournament that has been held every four years since 1930 (the Second World War providing the only interruption), and one of those (Italy) hasn’t even made this year’s finals.

The World Cup has long been dominated by the two continental powerhouses of world football – Europe and South America – with no nation from outside these two continents ever claiming victory.

And despite the great Pele’s protestations – he famously predicted that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000 – there are no signs that this domination is set to be broken.

If that’s the case, who are the teams in the running to lift the trophy in the Lusail Stadium on Sunday 18 December?

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Brazil

No World Cup would be complete without the Brazilians, who have competed in every finals tournament since 1950 and claimed a record five titles. With a squad that includes PSG’s Neymar and Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior, they are sure to create chances galore.

Add to that the defensive lynchpins of Thiago Silva (Chelsea), Casemiro (Man United), and Liverpool goalkeeper Allison, and it’s not difficult to see why the Selecao are top of FIFA’s current world rankings.

Assuming they top a comparatively easy group that includes Serbia, Switzerland, and Cameroon, the Brazilians should comfortably progress to the Quarter Finals, where a tricky tie with either Germany or Spain awaits.

Beyond that, a potential Semi-Final meeting with arch-rivals Argentina could be the game of the tournament. If they managed to make it through to the final, few would argue against them winning it all for a record sixth time.

France

The current holders are currently fourth in the FIFA rankings and were undefeated in qualifying – no mean feat in Europe’s fiercely competitive competition.

Their squad is still largely intact from their victorious 2018 campaign, with star striker Kylian Mbpappe arguably even more dangerous than he was four years ago, where he terrorised defences with his pace.

This time around he will have current Ballon D’or winner Karim Benzema (who didn’t play four years ago due to disciplinary issues) to partner him, making goals almost guaranteed for Les Bleus.

Should they win a manageable group including Denmark, Tunisia, and our own Socceroos, the French are scheduled to meet England in the Quarter Finals. With Mpbappe’s pace likely to terrify the Three Lions’ pedestrian defence, a place in the Semi-Finals seems certain, where they could encounter Germany, Spain, or even Belgium.

The loss of Pogba and Kante to injury has hampered their World Cup plans, but they still have the strength in depth to compete with anyone, especially up front.

Germany

The Germans are perennial overachievers at FIFA’s premier competition, having lifted the trophy on four occasions, and their current FIFA ranking of 11 fails to take into account their tournament know-how.

Although their squad isn’t packed with the international superstars of yesteryear, they can still call on brilliant goalkeepers such as Manual Neuer and Barcelona’s Ter Stegen, as well as a powerful midfield including Kimmich & Goretzka from Bayern Munich and Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan. The ageless Thomas Mueller provides the bullets up front.

Dealt a tough group that includes Spain, Japan, and Costa Rica, it’s no guarantee that Germany will progress as group winners, but that may count in their favour. Finishing second in Group E would mean they avoid South American heavyweights Brazil and Argentina until the final, and it would be just like the Germans to start slowly and get better as the tournament progresses.

Ominously, Die Mannschaft has lost just once since current coach Hansi Flick took over in August 2021.

Argentina

With arguably the world’s greatest player – Lionel Messi – in their midst, the Argentines will be confident they can add to their two previous World Cup titles.

Currently ranked third in the world, Argentina has an impressive squad aside from Messi, with Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martinez and Juventus playmaker Angel de Maria likely to cause mayhem up front and Man United’s defensive rock Lisandro Martinez helping to keep opposing forwards at bay.

With a relatively straightforward group consisting of Poland, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, the Albicelestes should progress to the Quarter Finals without drama, where a potential meeting with the Netherlands could be their first serious challenge.

Get through that and it could be that aforementioned blockbuster Semi Final with Brazil, who they beat in the recent Copa America final in 2021.

One additional motivator for Argentina will be that Qatar is almost certain to be Messi’s last World Cup, and there’s no doubt the little maestro will be desperate to go out on a high.

He’s even inserted a clause in his contract with club side PSG that allows him to focus on preparations for the World Cup over his club commitments at the Parc des Princes. Look out world, Lionel is serious about this one.

The Netherlands

The final team to keep an eye at this World Cup is Louis Van Gaal’s Oranje , the only team on this list yet to have won the coveted trophy, although they have been beaten finalists three times.

Their current squad, which includes Barcelona’s Frenkie De Jong, flying PSV winger Cody Gapkpo and the towering presence of Liverpool centre-back Virgil Van Dyk, is unbeaten in 15 games, a run that includes two victories over other dark horses Belgium.

Blessed with a ridiculously easy first-round group (on paper at least) that includes Ecuador, Senegal, and hosts Qatar, the Dutch should make the Quarter Finals at a canter, where they are likely to come up against Messi’s Argentina.

Although a stiff challenge, their record against the Argentinians is exemplary, having only lost once in nine previous meetings. If they can upset the odds again, who would bet against them going all the way this time?

While some may vouch for the merits of Belgium’s golden generation, a Ronaldo-inspired Portugal, or even Southgate’s England, none of these three teams have the recent form to suggest they will be capable of lifting the trophy in mid-December.

The Spanish are the possible exceptions. However, being drawn into the same group as Germany will complicate their progress, and even if they successfully navigate that, Brazil and Argentina stand in their way on route to the final.

Whoever triumphs in Qatar will undoubtedly have had to overcome adversity – especially with the tournament being hosted in the middle of the domestic season for the first time ever. Let’s just hope that the controversy surrounding Qatar hosting the event subsides, and football is the winner.

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