Pint-sized football wizard Lionel Messi has had a relatively disappointing season for Barcelona, scoring a pitiful 41 goals in 44 games. Given that he had troubled the onion bag 233 times in 218 games over the previous four campaigns, it is easy to see how his dismal sub-goal-per-game efforts this term have been unfavourably compared with Andy Carroll's performances at West Ham, and the career of Francis Jeffers (who is, rumours suggest, soon to be appearing as himself in the forthcoming Hollywood blockbuster Michael Ricketts – Goalslayer, a controversial biopic of the former Bolton Wanderers striker). >
A good World Cup is the one gap on Messi's CV. He was a little-used youngster in 2006, when Argentina lost on penalties in their quarter-final against Germany, thanks in part to one of the great managerial chokes – José Pékerman let his sporadically brilliant team drift towards a shoot-out against Germany, those notoriously faultless 12-yard specialists, having withdrawn Riquelme and Crespo, and having left Messi, Aimar and Saviola warming an increasingly bemused and flair-laden bench.
Messi played well in 2010 without scoring, and was therefore widely considered to have played badly. Such is football. With a favourable draw, an impressive squad supporting him, and without Diego Maradona being behaviourally barmy and tactically unhinged in the dugout, the stage is set for one of the greatest footballers of all time to retake the lead in his personal World Cup goalscoring head-to-head against Brighton's Matthew Upson, which currently stands tantalisingly poised at 1-1.
BOSNIA and HERZEGOVINA
A first finals appearance for the latest Balkan nation to grace global football's showpiece. If they, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia all got together under one regional flag, they could have one hell of a team. Why has no one suggested that before?
Bosnia and Herzegovina scored 30 goals in 10 qualifiers in a low-octane group, with Edin Dzeko and Bundesliga star Vedad Ibisevic to the fore. Bearing in mind that fellow qualifiers Greece hammered in just 12 in the same group, it is clear that (a) Bosnia and Herzegovina could be quite handy, and (b) Greece should have done the decent thing and refused to participate in these finals, for the greater good of the game. See above.
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
The lowest-ranked of the participating nations in the Press Freedom Index, the Iranian government – seldom the easiest regime to warm to as a neutral – has been preparing for its fourth World Cup by executing anything that moves.
Many eyes will be focused on the alleged 'Iranian Messi', the 19-year-old Sardar Azmoun, who may struggle to live up to such an onerous sobriquet. Fewer eyes will be on the self-styled 'Iranian Phil Babb', 32-year-old Jalal Hosseini, who should have no such problem. Iran are 1,500-1 to win the tournament, but are worth a small slice of neutral backing just to hear an Israeli radio commentary on Iran thrashing the USA 6-0 in the final on 13 July. An admittedly unlikely scenario.
Another African footballing nation with fading memories of an almost-glorious World Cup past. The thrilling team of 1994 was minutes away from beating eventual finalists Italy in the second round, before the ethereal genius of Roberto Baggio squelched all over their party. Since a 4-1 capitulation to Denmark at the same stage in 1998, Nigeria have failed to win a finals match.
Neutrals may hope that The Super Eagles unclip their wings after all these years, before they are re-nicknamed The Adequate Pigeons, for no other reason than that footballing success would likely irritate the balaclavas off the Islamist terror groups who have become such a remorselessly and tragically tedious feature of the Nigerian newscape. A Nigerian World Cup run could possibly annoy them even more than international politicians brandishing a firmly-worded hashtag in their vague direction.
This is assuming that Boko Haram, the gobby, stupid and violent minority-interest pressure group, are of similar mind to their Malian counterparts Ansar Dine, who have stated that they want to ban football. This was yet another example of terrorists' ongoing failure to get to grips with modern public relations. Besides, not only is football universally popular, but it also has arcane, outdated rules, and an opinionated fan base; it has traditionally been anachronistically homophobic, and is a long-standing bastion of gender inequality. You would expect the likes of Ansar Dine to be signing up for satellite subscriptions, not calling for the beautiful game to be banned.