Spain: The threat within
Catalonia. Euskadi. Spain Just how would Spains autonomous regions there are 17 of them represent themselves politically through football if the rest had to be called Spanish The problem has not, until now, reared its head among the players as all of Spain plays for the national team known as La Furia Roja or the red fury.
But what if
Some of Spains most decorated footballers belong to two regions who have been pushing for national status while playing in the Spanish league, much like Welsh clubs do in the EPL while still representing Wales nationally. Xavi, Iniesta, Pique, Valdes, Fabregas, Busquets and a host of others are eligible to play for the Catalan national team while Martinez, Azpilicueta and Xabi Alonso, among others, are eligible to play for the Basque national team.
In all, these teams would not find it difficult to form a national team while leaving the current holders seriously weakened. Even so, Spain face no threat as FIFA has no plans to take up the matter as of now. Even the players see it from the same viewpoint.
As Xavi told the press: People ask us, Who would you play for if there was a Catalan international team I always say: The option doesnt exist now, so I cant make that choice. I like playing in these friendlies, but the reality is if I want to play in Euros and World Cups I have to do so with Spain.
Should the nationality debate stir up and FIFA accept their claims, the biggest threat for Spain will not come from others but from within. Either Catalonia or Euskadi, if they line up full strength, as they do each Christmas in a one-off annual match, will severely test Spains weakened squad if not defeat them comprehensively.
An exhausted bunch
The second and more insidious threat due to its currency at this World Cup is the mental and physical state of its players. Some are teetering on the edge of exhaustion while others are reeling from the effects of a season in which they did not win anything despite being within touching distance.
Champions must overcome the odds, you say Here are what these players are up against.
Atletico Madrid, the champions of Spain, and Real Madrid, the champions of Europe, have played 61 matches each. Their season ended on May 24 after an exhausting 120 minutes of their Champions League final.
Atleticos statistics are staggering. They have played 61 matches shared between 25 players. Taking only La Liga and the Champions League into account, of four Atletico players in the squad, David Villa has the least appearances with 43 and Koke the most with 49.
Real Madrids players are coming off a victorious final and an overwhelming sense of achievement. One wonders how the players who are coming off such a high will motivate themselves for the big cup. Though Real have played an equal number of matches as Atletico, their large squad coped better.
Del Bosque will be losing some sleep and, hopefully, less hair the state of the fulcrum of his midfield, formed by Barcelonas Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. Fresh off their first trophy-less season in six years, the players, who fill three of the five midfield positions, were mentally devastated. I feel so bad, I just feel disappointment and disillusionment, Iniesta said. The season has ended and so have a lot of things.
Iniesta was devastated as close friend Victor Valdes, who was a given in the squad, suffered a season-ending injury in March while Barcelonas previous coach Tito Vilanova died of cancer. Add to the mix a season of underachievement and that is a potent brew for a serial-winner to digest.
After a season of contrasts among the players, primarily gleaned from the top three clubs in Spain, del Bosque, a great motivator, has quite a job on his hands.
Holland: Total working-class heroes
Total Football, it was said during Germany 74, was but the common Dutchmans reflection of its avant-garde society. As Hollands music and literature scene thrived with refreshingly new thoughts, ideas and innovations in the early 1970s, the very definition of art floated freely in the countrys marijuana-soaked air inspiring its footballers such as Johan Cruyff to pioneer a most silken game.
The Holland of 2014 does not play Total Football. Far from it. The runners-up from the previous edition in South Africa are known to play a far more normal brand of football, thanks to its working-class players. Meet Nigel de Jong, a crucial component in the Dutch starting eleven, who is known as much for his entrepreneurship as for his presence as a holding midfielder.
Some people say footballers are thick and not bright enough to be entrepreneurs, de Jong once said. But when I see that a company has potential, I move the borders and go all the way for it. Sure he can. When not kicking the ball about at the San Siro for AC Milan, de Jong spends his time far more constructively that most of his mates. His car dealership company is not just a hit in Europe, but has currently expanded to the Middle-East as well, where oil barons and business tycoons are said to be among his clientele.
A life beyond football, claims de Jong, came from the difficulties he endured during his childhood. Born to a single mother living on the benefits of the state, de Jong decided to make a career outside of sports. Just as Hollands striker Dirk Kuyt did, who ensured that he learned his fathers trade of being a fisherman by joining him daily on his trawler in the North Sea.
I am not your typical Dutch player like Cruyff, Gullit, Van Basten or Rijkaard, Kuyt is quoted as saying. I always knew that. So I told my father to teach me everything (about fishing), I told him I wanted to be just like him. In fact, Kuyts wife Gertrude, is a bird of the same feather. Far from being your typical footballer wife, she is a round-the-clock nurse at a local hospital, who only took a break to deliver the couples first child.
Chile: Sampaoli is here, move over Bielsa
While Group D, with seven world cups among three of its teams (Italy, Uruguay and England) is the Group of Certain Death this time around, theres also a Group of Near Death, Group B, which features the last editions winner and runners-up, Spain and Holland, besides Chile and Australia.
While Australia are no push overs, its Chiles performance that is likely to make it a three-way battle with La Furia Roja and Oranje. Since 2013, Chile have an impressive record of 10 wins, 3 draws and 3 losses. In this period they have hammered, among others, three of the Group of Deaths teams Uruguay (2-0), England (2-0) and Costa Rica (6-0) drawn against Brazil (2-2) and Spain (2-2), while two of their losses have come against, again, Brazil (2-1) and Germany (1-0). Footballs Elo rating, a more reliable indicator than FIFAs rankings, puts them among the top-10 teams in the world, ahead of Italy and France.
But more than their results, it is the manner in which they have been achieved that makes Chile the team to watch out for. With the likes of Juventuss Arturo Vidal and Mauricio Isla, and Alexis Sanchez (Barcelona) and Eduardo Varagas (Valencia) in their ranks, the South American side have played relentlessly attacking football a philosophy passed down to current coach Jorge Sampaoli by his mentor and predecessor from the last Cup, Marcelo Bielsa.To give a glimpse of what his rivals will be dealing with, the Argentine Sampaoli, during his early days, was once sent off by the referee in a lower division match. He went out of the stadium, climbed a tree overlooking the field and proceeded to bark instructions at his players from the branches.
Australia: Longest odds, the youngest squad
TV pundit Alan Hansen famously, and incorrectly, remarked of Sir Alex Fergusons Class of 92 that you win nothing with kids. Ange Postecoglous Socceroos squad will be hoping that Hansen can be disproved once more. Outside teams like Australia generally rely on experienced players to compensate for their lack of, well, experience, at the big stage.
Step forward all-time high scorer for the Socceroos, 34-year old Tim Cahill.
The former Everton player was one of the stars of the golden years squad from the 2006 edition (speaking relatively, of course; that year saw Australia register its best ever performance at the Cup, when they got past the group stage and were promptly knocked out by eventual champions Italy), which had an average age of 30-plus. Now, coach Postecoglou has gone the other way, selecting one of the youngest squads of the tournament, with an average age of 23. He also brings to Brazil the least experienced squad, with an average of 17 caps per player.In fact, nobody but Cahill (32 career strikes) has scored more than four goals for the national side.
If indeed Postecoglou can pull off the miracle, he will reward the interpid punter with a huge pay out.
At 62, Australia are the lowest ranked side in the tournament, and correspondingly, have the longest odds to win the tournament 1000:1. But for them to even match their best World Cup show, they have to do it at the expense of one or both of last editions finalists.
Hormazd, Aditya Iyer, Daksh Panwar, Raakesh Natraj contributed to the story.