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2018 FIFA World Cup is too close to call

In the last of our eight-part special series ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, we look at the favourites and the dark horses

The 1982 Brazilian team, with players like Sócrates (in yellow), didn’t get past the quarter-finals, but left a lasting impact on the game.
The 1982 Brazilian team, with players like Sócrates (in yellow), didn’t get past the quarter-finals, but left a lasting impact on the game.

Sporting success can be measured in terms of statistics and trophies won. But how do you assess influence? As coach, Carlos Bilardo won a World Cup with Argentina (1986) and reached another final four years later. Marcelo “El Loco" Bielsa’s two World Cup appearances resulted in a first-round exit with Argentina (2002) and a round-of-16 loss with Chile (2010). Yet, it’s Bielsa that the current generation of coaches reveres. Pep Guardiola, for example, swears by his methods.

Over the past two months, Lounge has run a series on great World Cup moments, many of which came after 1982. Individual preferences aside, it’s also an indicator of how football itself has changed.

In more ways than one, the World Cup in Spain in 1982, with Naranjito the orange as mascot, was a fork in the road. With 24 teams, it was the first truly global World Cup. It was also probably the last time romance and naïveté could hold their own against pragmatism and the desire to win at all costs.

No team epitomized that more than Brazil, with their visionary coach Telê Santana and philosopher captain Sócrates. It was Sócrates who said years after the loss to Italy (1982), which the Brazilians refer to as the day football died: “Beauty comes first, victory is secondary. What matters is joy." Apart from their predecessors, who wore the legendary yellow shirt in 1958 and 1970, few teams entertained and enthralled like Brazil in 1982. But the 1958 and 1970 vintages were world champions. The 1982 side didn’t even make the semi-finals.

What they did was score 15 goals in five matches at the World Cup, including some of the greatest seen on the world stage. Éder’s two strikes alone, against the Soviet Union and Scotland, are perennial contenders for a greatest hits collection. They executed Santana’s philosophy on the pitch, playing with a freedom and verve seldom seen before or since. Other teams have hogged possession and controlled games, but theirs was a sterile dominance. Brazil were playing samba on a chessboard.

They were beautiful and yet so flawed. In the game against Italy that cost them the semi-final place and a shot at glory, they scored two magical goals. Yet, they defended poorly for Paolo Rossi’s two close-range finishes, and Toninho Cerezo’s careless sideways pass slipped him in for the second of his three goals. After the second equalizer, Brazil, who needed only a draw to progress, could have downed shutters. Instead, they kept pushing for the winner. Others championed the win-at-all-costs culture. For Santana, it seemed to be about winning beautifully, no matter what the cost. And they lost.

But as much as Brazil, it was the interlopers who brought about a sea change in the way we viewed the game. There had been Cinderella stories earlier, like North Korea upsetting Italy and nearly doing the same to Portugal in 1966. But, in 1982, more than one team landed a blow for the have-nots. Algeria beat West Germany and Chile and were denied progress out of their group by the disgraceful collusion between the Germans and Austria. Cameroon drew with Peru, Poland and Italy, and exited only on goals scored. Northern Ireland topped a group that had Spain and Yugoslavia. Even hapless El Salvador, routed 10-1 by Hungary in their opening game, charmed some with their kamikaze attacks that culminated in Luis Ramírez Zapata’s consolation goal.

It mattered, too, that the world at large was changing. By 1986, colour television was a reality even in small-town India. With it, players, instead of being sentences on a page or staccato words on the radio, became larger than life. If so many millions in India, Bangladesh and elsewhere support Argentina when the World Cup comes around, it isn’t because of admiration for Juan Perón or the military junta that made thousands disappear in the 1970s. It’s because of Diego Maradona and the World Cup he dominated in 1986, the first that many of them actually saw. The wonder of those days was duly passed on to a younger generation.

While traditional powerhouses like Brazil and Germany remain the teams to watch out for in Russia, there’s no overlooking the giant strides other continents have made in the three decades since Maradona’s slaloming run left the English defenders green around the gills. Cameroon built on the gains of 1982 with the surge to the quarter-finals in 1990, and Nigeria (1994) and Ghana (2010) were both desperately unlucky not to go further than they did.

After South Korea made the semi-finals on home soil in 2002, Japan’s clinical dismissal of Denmark in 2010 illustrated just how far Asian football had come. With Egypt keeping its collective fingers crossed for Mohamed Salah’s fitness, the Middle East too is poised for its big moment.

All this makes the competition harder to predict than ever. Qualification from Europe is so tough that Italy and the Netherlands, with nine World Cup finals between them, won’t be there. Chile, the current champions of South America, are also missing, as are Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Ghana from Africa. The US, ever-present since 1990, also didn’t make it as Panama—mostly known for the canal, hats, Manuel Noriega and the controversial papers—snatched third place in the Concacaf (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) region with an 88th-minute goal from Román Torres against Costa Rica.

So, what can we expect from the 32 teams that line up in Russia? The hosts, despite a favourable draw, could struggle. A decade ago, they reached the last four at Euro 2008 with some exhilarating football. Andrey Arshavin pulled most of the strings, earning himself a move to Arsenal in the process. They’re a far more prosaic side now.

The same can’t be said of the holders, Germany. Once typecast as solid but boring, the Germans now have so many creative options, it’s frightening. Toni Kroos in central midfield is a Rolls-Royce of a footballer, and expect Timo Werner, the 22-year-old who will surely leave RB Leipzig this summer, to bang in the goals as Germany look to become the first team to retain the title since Brazil in 1962.

France, after two underwhelming campaigns, will also be challengers. Paul Pogba, liberated from José Mourinho’s handbrake football, should be a key player in a line-up brimming with power and imagination. Spain, after that embarrassing title defence four years ago, are also on the mend, with Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio right at the top of the list of most exciting young players to watch.

England could thrive after being written off as no-hopers. Raheem Sterling may be getting negative press for the gun tattoo on his calf, but his pace and trickery will be crucial to their prospects of doing better than they have done in the last two World Cups. In the same first-round group are Belgium, the tournament’s dark horses. A constellation of stars despite the exclusion of the combative Radja Nainggolan, but does Roberto Martínez have the nous to get the best out of them? Not since the Scifo-Ceulemans-Vercauteren generation made the semi-finals in 1986 has the country been able to call on such a gifted crop of players.

Senegal, with the pace and power of Sadio Mané, look Africa’s best bet after Egypt, but you can’t really see either emulating Ghana’s displays from 2010. After Brazil, it could be Uruguay rather than Argentina that showcase the best of South America. Nahitan Nández, Matías Vecino and Rodrigo Bentancur give the midfield a guile it hasn’t always had in seasons past, and the defence and attack remain as formidable as ever.

Argentina have a wealth of attacking options alongside the peerless Lionel Messi, though few coaches have managed to figure out who can best dovetail with him. The defence looks vulnerable to the fast counter, and the lack of stardust in midfield makes you pine for the days of Fernando Redondo, omitted from the 1998 squad because he wouldn’t cut his hair.

What of Brazil, four years on from the 7-1 humiliation against Germany at the Mineirão? Under Tite, Brazil have the best of both worlds. In defence and at the base of midfield, they’re as robust as the sides that won the tournament in 1994 and 2002. But this team also boasts of thrilling attacking talent. Neymar may be the poster boy, but the support cast has players with every attribute required to transform a close game. After all the old jokes about dodgy keepers, Brazil’s Allison is one of the best in the business, coveted by some of Europe’s biggest club sides.

If you’re looking for a fairy tale with a twist, there’s always Iceland. Conquerors of England at Euro 2016, the World Cup debutants aren’t the prettiest to watch, but they make up for it with a Viking work ethic. Unlike 1982, the internet allows us to savour the joys of Icelandic commentary.

“This is done! This is done! We are going to Paris! Did you see that! Did you see that! Never wake me from this amazing dream," screamed Guðmundur Benediktsson after that landmark win two years ago. “Boo as you like England! Iceland is going to Stade de France on Sunday. France Iceland! You can go home. You can go out of Europe. You can go wherever the hell you want. England 1 Iceland 2 is the closing score here in Nice. And the fairy tale continues."

We’ll soon see how many are written in Russia, home to Baba Yaga and the Firebird.

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