Thirty-two teams, 64 games, 31 days, but one prize — the World Cup! Now, it is here.
The tournament gets under way in Sao Paulo today with hosts Brazil facing Croatia, while Nigeria get their campaign up and running against Iran on Monday. TheCable’s team of analysts, dubbed The Three Wise Men — comprising a journalist, Bless Ekene (Editor, i-Soccer magazine), a soccer aficionado, Sunday Omeike (lecturer at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Ogun State), and a fan, Babatunde Odunuga, (doctoral student in UK) bare their minds on their World Cup experiences and expectations. This is just the beginning of an adventure that will not come to an end until Sunday July 13, 2014.
Being a keen football fan, what’s your favourite World Cup moment and why? SO: USA ’94 was my first conscious World Cup, and ever since, I have been hoodwinked by the biggest soccer fiesta on earth. I have, however, watched DVDs of previous tournaments, including highlights and defining moments of the previous World Cups and there are a thousand and one moments to cherish: positive or negative.
The Zidane head-butt at Germany ’06, Ronaldo de Lima’s alleged ‘poisoning’ at France ’98, Ahn Jong-Hwan’s famous golden-goal winner against Italy and Rivaldo’s comical fall against Turkey (both at Korea/Japan ’02), Baggio’s penalty miss at the USA ’94 final, Suarez killing the African dream in South Africa four years ago, our Super Eagles’ 3-0 dismantling of Bulgaria that signalled our arrival on the world stage in 1994 and our humiliation of Spain at France ’98. However, the biggest of them all and my favourite World Cup moment has to be Diego Armando Maradona’s dismantling of England at Mexico ’86 with his “Hand of God” goal and the magical solo goal that earned Argentina a 2-1 win in a game that meant so much to the Argentines due to the political situation with Britain over the Falkland Island. Seeing him celebrate immediately the ball went in and with the English players surrounding the referee showed how badly he wanted to put the Queen’s boys to the sword. And the subsequent solo goal which started and ended with his left leg? Brilliant! Messi tried to but only got close as he used the right leg once. Maradona took the ball from just after the halfway line and charged fiercely at the shaken English who all fell to his genius. Absolutely brilliant, it’s a goal to be analyzed forever.
BE: I have two favourite World Cup moments. The first should be Sunday Oliseh’s screamer against Spain at France ’98. Having won the Nations Cup in ’94 and nearly missing out on the quarter-finals in USA, morale was high going into the Mundial in 1998. If you remember, the Super Eagles hadn’t appeared in any major tournament prior to France, no thanks to Abacha. We had some of the triumphant Dream Team led by Kanu Nwankwo complimenting the remaining guys from ’98. We all had high hopes, but against Spain who had one of the best squads and probably the best keeper in Andoni Zubizarreta, it wasn’t going to be an easy task. So when the match was locked on 2-2, I was really scared. But Oliseh, oh God bless him, stepped up to the plate and cemented his place in Nigeria’s football folklore with a magnificent goal. The second, I’ll have to say, was 2010 in South Africa. And that has to be Asamaoh Gyan missing a penalty at the death and Ghana losing to Uruguay. I didn’t want them to hold the bragging rights in Africa.
BO: My favourite World Cup moment was the 1986 edition in Mexico, as a young boy watching the talismanic, entertaining and immensely gifted Argentine, Diego Maradona, displaying his dribbling skills, the infamous “hand of God” goal, the skillful Michel Platini of France, and a host of other big names in the round leather game.
From Alberto Suppici (Uruguay’s coach in 1930) to Vicente del Bosque (Spain’s coach in 2010), how important is the coach’s tactics to success at the World Cup? BO: The tactics of coaches are crucial to the success of any team at the World Cup, and this fact can be corroborated with the recent exploits of the current champion Spain. The style of play introduced by Vicente del Bosque at the last World Cup in South Africa in 2010 has transformed the Spanish team from a team that couldn’t qualify from a group that had Nigeria, Paraguay and Bulgaria at the France 98 World Cup into a formidable team that have become the toast of many football fans around the world and are still one of the favourites to win this year’s edition.
BE: The coach’s tactics is very important but not necessarily the most important. No matter how good a coach is, if his team can’t translate that on the pitch they will make a mess of it. I think having a generation of good players makes the coach’s job much easier. Take for example the Holland team of ’78 that had Cryuff and co, even though they didn’t win it, they lost to a great German team comprising Frank Beckanbauer, Rummingge etc. Or you can look nearer to the French team of ’98 and the Spanish team of 2010. They all had great teams.
SO: To me, winning the World Cup is not all about the coaches’ tactics alone. If it was about it, the likes of Fabio Capello and Ottmar Hitzfield would still not be looking for their first triumphs, while Carlos Alberto Perreira and Marcelo Lippi would not have been disgraced in their attempts to win a second tournament. I think that tactics make up just 50 per cent of the task ahead. From leaving your country to kicking the ball, everything must be right: player selection, luck with injuries and in difficult fixtures, freshness of the players, mentality, support, determination, belief and attitude. You also need a few united stars in the team. The players must also be willing to die for the honour of their nation and backed by the right tactics, it’ll all come together to form the ingredients which can make even the unfancied sides to carry that famous gold trophy. Greece perfected their defensive approach to win Euro 2004, while the element of surprise almost worked for Croatia at France ’98. Spain, however, epitomised all these factors to win the World Cup in South Africa, combining individual brilliance with team effort and with the tiki-taka tactical nous and belief.
Does talent always win the day at the World Cup or can you stop the best player from leading his team to glory? BE: We’ve had a few one-offs when a very talented player led his team to glory, such as Diego Maradona in Mexico ’86. But that’s just a one-off. A great player can be stopped just like Ferenc Puskas, Alfred di Stefano, then throw in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who are yet to deliver for their respective countries at the World Cup.
SO: Talent doesn’t guarantee you the World Cup but it certainly does help. While your star man will definitely be targeted in every game, it is this realisation that he is the leader that spurs the greatest players on to weave their magic at the World Cup. Maradona did in 1986 but the German team’s tireless and brutal ‘machines’ stopped him in 1990. Romario and Bebeto teamed up to overshadow Baggio in 1994, Zidane made 1998 all about him. The credence to the fact that talent does not guarantee the Cup is epitomised by the Dutch national team: the golden generation of the ‘70s and ‘80s (with their total football expo) led by legendary Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Denis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert et al. The Netherlands are desperately unlucky to have never won the World Cup despite reaching two consecutive finals in ’74 and ’78, while they also pushed Spain all the way in 2010. So, it could be said that although the talent has to be there, it certainly does not dictate where the World Cup would go; it can only give us an indication of where.
BO: Talent does play a part only when it is combined with team effort. Football has evolved a great deal from what we use to have in 1986 to a more tactical team play where it is now becoming increasingly difficult for a player to single-handedly win the tournament for his team — cases are that of Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and a host of other highly-rated and talented footballers who failed to make the difference in their team’s efforts at the last Mundial in South Africa 2010.
Which player are you looking forward to watch in Brazil?
SO: It has to be Portugal’s all-time highest goalscorer and the present Ballon d’Or holder, Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid. He has forged ahead of Messi this year and he ‘single-handedly’ qualified the Selecao for the Brazil fiesta, scoring all four goals in his country’s 4-3 aggregate win over Sweden, leaving Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his wake. No talent encapsulates hard work more than this former Sporting Lisbon apprentice who not only gallops down from the wings, dribbling his way through the middle and his sense of positioning makes him a threat inside the six yard box. Coupled with his heading ability and ferocious free kicks, it is hoped that he makes this tournament his own, just like the likes of Maradona and Zidane have managed to do previously.
BE: I’m looking forward to seeing C.Ronaldo. He’s the best player in the world at the moment, and he just recently led Real Madrid to a 10th UCL crown, scoring a record 17 goals. I think this will be his last chance at trying to break into the level of Pele and Maradona. Although Lionel Messi will also take centre stage for Argentina, I believe that the presence of his arch-nemesis will only spur him on to be better than the best, no matter the tournament. I would also love for Belgium’s Romelo Lukaku to enjoy a wonderful tournament. He is a prodigious talent yearning for the biggest stage and the World Cup could be where he finally announces himself as the real deal — a successor to Didier Drogba’s fabled throne at Chelsea.
BO: I am looking forward to Cristiano Ronaldo’s performance at this world cup. He has been outstanding all through the season for Real Madrid and I do hope he can replicate such good form for his country too at this World Cup.
Looking at the teams going into this summer’s finals, how do you see Nigeria faring?
SO: Going into major tournaments, soccer-crazy Nigerian fans would claim the Super Eagles to win it but we turn out disastrous performances. However, the style of Coach Stephen Keshi has brought caution unto fans’ lips and there is the surprise factor. Our friendlies have been depressing to say the least, but looking at how he executed last year’s AFCON tourney, the Eagles could ruffle feathers in Brazil. I’ve heard some people say the World Cup is a different ball game and I totally agree. However, a bigger stage should bring the best out the coaching crew and I think a respectable tournament outing awaits us.
BO: Nigeria’s chances at this World Cup as far as I am concerned, judging by the current form of the players and also assessing them by the recent friendly matches played, I have little hope about their chances of going beyond the second round. But if I want to sound like a true patriot, I will say that they may get to the semi-final and hopefully break the jinx as the first African team to get to the semi-final of the World Cup.
BE: I’m not all excited about Nigeria’s prospects at the World Cup. Firstly, our preparation was nothing short of poor. They ran off to London where they had only one day of light training before playing Scotland. At times, I ask if Craven Cottage is now our home ground. Almost all the friendlies we’ve played in recent years have been at that ground. The home-based players should have started their camp in Abuja for the foreign-based players to join them there, so that Nigerians could see them and cheer them up. Now, we are heading to Brazil with a haphazard preparation that resulted in failure to win a single warm-up match. That notwithstanding, I think our bane in Brazil will be complacency. We are the African champions but if we don’t keep that aside and play like the underdogs against Bosnia, then we will have some problems. Also, everybody seems to have written off Iran. But they have one of the best coaches going to the World Cup in Carlos Queiroz. They are an unknown team and that might be their weapon. All the same, as a Nigerian I’m still hopeful and I have a feeling this might be our time, going by our favourable draw.
Who will win the World Cup and why?
SO: I’d rather leave this question hanging in the balance than make a proclamation like a prophet. However, looking at the calibre of teams, their coaches and the numerous talents out there, I am backing the likes of Brazil, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Argentina and dark-horse, Belgium — if they can avoid one another early on — to be there or thereabouts at the end of the tournament. Germany have made at least the semi-finals of the last two tournaments, Brazil are hosts and they have the coach Scolari and talisman, Neymar to match the expected home support, and there is Spain — although they have dropped in form since the 2010 triumph, they still show the winning attributes and it wouldn’t hurt if they retained it, though history doesn’t back them to do so. Others are Argentina, due to their dangerous quartet spearheaded by the talismanic Leo Messi; Italy, due to their recent unpredictability in major tournaments; Portugal, due to the influence of Cristiano Ronaldo and shrewdness of coach Paolo Bento and midfield lynchpin, Joao Moutinho; Belgium, because they have a squad of 23 players that could walk into the team sheet of any nation at this tournament, including Spain’s. The ability of these teams to minimise their mistakes, hide their weaknesses and maximally utilize their talented squad will determine which one comes out tops at the end of the day.
BO: For this World Cup, I will pick the defending champion Spain as likely to retain their title.
BE: I think it’ll be one of the usual suspects. But Germany seem the favourite. They were a young side in 2010 but still got to the semis. Now, they have a core of the Bayern Munich players that won everything last year plus the Dortmund guys. I think Germany will most probably win it. But it’s the World Cup, anything can happen.