Ringside view by Tushar Bhaduri: Time to play ball | The Financial Express

Ringside view by Tushar Bhaduri: Time to play ball

The last four FIFA World Cups have been won by European sides, with France winning the last title

Ringside view by Tushar Bhaduri: Time to play ball
Germany's Nico Schlotterbeck training in Qatar for the FIFA World Cup, 2022 (Reuters image)

By Tushar Bhaduri

After all the talk about political, social, and humanitarian issues, and how the host nation falls short on those parameters, the FIFA World Cup will finally kick off today with the focus now shifting to events on the field.

For most of the football lovers throughout the globe, who follow the quadrennial showpiece from far away, once the action gets underway, it would hardly matter where the tournament is being played, as the big names of the world game will vie for their attention.

They will discuss among themselves which team will eventually walk away with the trophy, who will score the most goals, who will catch the eye with his sublime skills, and which young player will announce his arrival on the big stage.

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The last four World Cups have been won by European sides, with a South American team reaching the summit clash only once during this period. But Brazil and Argentina look favourites in the eyes of most analysts and bookmakers this time. Most major betting sites believe the Selecao have a great chance of landing their sixth world title, ending a 20-year drought, while another empirical analysis has Lionel Messi finally landing the coveted prize in his last World Cup.

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That is not to discount the European challengers, but the only previous time the tournament was held in Asia – in the Far East – Brazil came up trumps. That the World Cup is being held in the northern winter, with the European leagues being paused for the purpose, will add another dimension to proceedings.

But the likes of France, Germany, England, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal can never be discounted due to the talent at their disposal and the experience of their players in big matches. France has had to suffer several misfortunes on the injury front of late, but if any team can rise above those setbacks, it’s the defending champions. Such is their bench strength that they have quality replacements for the players ruled out with the country providing a large number of French-born players to other teams as well.Paul Pogba is not there, but Kylian Mbappe is arguably the biggest star in the game right now and with Didier Deschamps, who guided Le Bleus to the summit four years ago in Russia, still in charge, it would not be wise to write France off.

England hasn’t had the best run-in coming into the tournament, not having tasted a win for some time, but have some recent big-tournament track record. They reached the semi-finals in 2018 and missed the Euros crown last year by a slender margin to Italy – who inexplicably, will miss their second straight World Cup.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been making news for all the wrong reasons lately, about his trials and tribulations at Manchester United. He is also not the player he was in his pomp, as his recent form would attest. He overshadows all other players in the national squad, which has quality players such as Bruno Fernandes. The World Cup provides a chance for the ageing star to prove he is still a force.

Since making it to the semi-finals in Brazil eight years ago, the Dutch have missed one World Cup and a European Championship, but with a talented squad at the disposal of veteran head coach Louis van Gaal, who was in charge in 2014 as well, the Netherlands can go far if everything falls in place.

Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ needs some silverware to justify the tag. The likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne have been starring on the club stage for several years now, but have consistently flattered to deceive at the international stage, going out in the semi-finals four years ago after eliminating none other than Brazil.

Germany and Spain find themselves in the same group, and their clash will arguably be the most anticipated encounter of the initial stage. With strong structures, these two footballing nations have ensured that they will always be in with a chance at the latter stages of a tournament.

The others

And what about the rest of the world?

Every World Cup brings with it the hope that an African team will take the big step. However, Senegal will miss their talisman Sadio Mane while the others – including Tunisia, Cameroon, Ghana, and Morocco – will look to make their presence felt by registering the odd upset. Making it through to the knockout rounds will be considered a good result for most of these sides.

The 2026 edition will be jointly held in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and all three teams are in Qatar to show that they will be worthy opponents four years from now rather than making the numbers as hosts.

As far as Asia is concerned, it may be too much to ask for the hosts to make a deep run in the tournament. Australia, too, are not as strong as they once were. It leaves the burden of Asian hopes on the traditional powerhouses – South Korea, Japan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The two teams from West Asia may capitalise on local familiarity to make their presence felt, but the Round of 16 seems the height of their aspirations.

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First published on: 20-11-2022 at 05:30 IST