The reigning champions, Spain, have won their last three major tournaments, and therefore have utterly renounced the hard-earnt 'flamboyant underachievers' tag that made them neutrals' favourites a few years ago. It will be hard to win back. The novelty of their brilliantly effective possession-based football has worn off, for some at least, largely due to opposing teams not so much shutting up shop as dismantling the entire retail sector.
The opening match is a rematch of the 2010 final, when the Dutch put on what is regarded by many seasoned experts as perhaps the greatest display of mixed martial arts in World Cup history.
In the vanguard was now-retired midfield hardman, Mark van Bommel, the memory of whom should be enough to turn the neutral decisively against the once-lovable Dutch. They entranced the world in the 1970s, when Johan Cruyff and the Total Footballers conclusively disproved the age-old theory that, "if you dress like a carrot, you play like a carrot". Bergkamp scored one of the greatest World Cup goals in 1998. But any lingering neutral goodwill is destroyed by thinking about the 2010 final, about Nigel de Jong's attempt to give Xabi Alonso unrequested open-heart surgery with his studs, and above all, by Van Bommel. Unconvinced? Read this entry from van Bommel's recently-published diary, about life after retirement:
September 16, 2013
This morning, I woke up. As always, I put my football boots on, and stamped on my alarm clock. Then I went to the bathroom, kicked the basin, and raked my studs down the side of the bathtub. I brushed my teeth with my new electronic van Bommeliser 2000x toothbrush, which I have had specially made. It has a little replica football boot on the end, and when you switch it on, the boot repeatedly kicks your teeth and gums until they are clean. It helps me prepare for the day ahead.
As I came down the stairs, I scythed down my two-year-old daughter with an unexpected two-footed lunge, then ran away into the kitchen before the missus could tell me off. I elbowed the coffee machine right on its cappuccino frother, then poured some cornflakes into a bowl. I put the bowl on the floor, then clattered it from behind, studs raised of course, shattering the bowl and sending the cornflakes flying all over the place. 'Yum,' I said to myself. 'The perfect breakfast.'
"Darling," I shouted to my wife, "I'll just take the dog for a walk." "I wouldn't do that," she replied angrily. "He's snapped two Achilles tendons, ruptured his tail, and done his knee ligaments after you walked him yesterday." "Come on," I hit back. "I was going for the ball." Rover hobbled towards me, attempting to wag his tail. "Screw you," I muttered at him, surreptitiously treading with my full weight on his bandaged rear left paw. "I'm Mark van Bommel."
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group A
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group B
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group C
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group D
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group E
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group F
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group G
Andy Zaltzman’s guide to Group H
Chile are likely to be brilliant, flamboyant and thrilling. They are also likely to be knocked out in the group stages. The fact that Marcelo Bielsa's unrestrainedly attacking side have been drawn against the two 2010 finalists, while traditional grind-meisters and titans of footballing tedium Switzerland play in the pallid-looking Group E, is conclusive proof of the non-existence of God.
Or, you could argue, conclusive proof that God hates football (which in itself is possibly linked to the advent of José Mourinho).
Their style of play will inevitably have the sage pundits accusing them of "tactical naivety" whenever they let in a goal, concede a corner, or do not score for more than 10 minutes.
May garner some sympathy support. Australia have no chance. In fact, last week, manager Ange Posticoglu announced that the Socceroos are pulling out of the tournament. "We always hear sports people saying: 'If we didn't think we could win it, we wouldn't be here.' Well, we're in a group with the Netherlands, Spain, and Chile. If by some miracle we sneak through that Group Of Death – which, let's face it, is about as likely as Joan of Arc getting through her 'Group Of Death' when she was drawn against Medieval Justice, Fire and Physics in the 1431 European Championships – then we'll probably have to play Brazil. So we do not think we can win it. In fact, I know we can't win it. Cheerio." National legends Madge Bishop and Shane Warne persuaded Posticoglu to retract the withdrawal, but the Aussies are still unlikely to have to cancel their reservations for the first boat home.
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