The World Cup kicks off tomorrow. Not before time. I always find the build-up the most tiresome part. I’m not particularly interested in what suits the boys are wearing, where they’ll be staying or which silly celebratory will be pretending to like football for a month in order to make some money off a vaguely football-themed and doubtless unfunny show.
I don’t pay much attention to the papers either. I might be a bit of a sport snob, but I don’t like the communal nature of it all. My neighbour was asking me yesterday whether I thought Crouch should partner Rooney, but she looked blankly at me when I extolled the virtues of Emile Heskey as a physical presence and a provider. Those of us who follow football week in, week out will enjoy the tactical discussions and the chance to which sides other than England, but the nuances of an international tournament won’t interest the casual observer. At least the media seem to have got the message this year: there’s not been a lot of triumphalism surrounding England’s chances and nor should their be. Perhaps a quarter-final exit (as per usual) wouldn’t be all that bad for a side ranked eighth in the world.
Capello’s undoubtedly a step up from any of the recent England managers and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He won’t be influenced by the press or the pressure, but they’ll be limits to what even he can achieve with this squad. He’s without a goalkeeper with Champions’ League experience and the smart money from the England-attached correspondents is that Robert Green, who kept goal for a struggle side last season, is the front runner for the number one jersey. England’s defensive frailties don’t end there: Glen Johnson might be good going forward but he’s still vulnerable in and around his own box, while Rio Ferdinand’s injury leaves Capello woefully short of options at centre back.
Midfield is probably the squad’s strongest area but we’re still stuck on how to solve the Gerrard/Lampard conundrum. Dropping one of them would be the radical option but I doubt Capello will go down that road. I’d like to see plenty of James Milner, who’s got lots to offer and seems to have no fear, in this World Cup but that will require Fabio to be bold. Giving Gerrard the license to venture forward and dictate the play as he does at his best for Liverpool might unlock a few more defences and offer Rooney a bit more support.
The interesting developments will probably take place well away from England’s exertions. Will South Africa become the first World Cup hosts not to make the second stage? Can the laughably inept Raymond Domenech oversee a French miracle? More than half of L’Equipe‘s readers reckon they won’t get out of what looks a pretty straightforward group. Just what will Argentina do? Can either Ghana or Ivory Coast mount a significant challenge? And are Spain ready to challenge on the world stage?
So many questions. There are so many quality players on show but it’s usually a few unexpected gems who shine. Who expected Andrei Arshavin to come to the fore during Euro 2008? I’m looking forward to seeing whether Angel Di Maria can influence this tournament as strongly as many shrewd South American observers believe. The atmosphere will be something else as well. As Samuel Eto’o suggested the other day, this World Cup is a chance for football to put racism to bed. It should be one hell of a party.