As an England fan, it used to be so easy not to support Germany, regardless of whom they were playing against. Aside from any lingering tabloid-fuelled historical resentment towards our Teutonic rivals, their football was easy to hate – scientifically joyless, remorselessly practical, and, above all, irritatingly, maddeningly effective. Good German teams did well in World Cups. Bad German teams seemed to do even better. It was like watching the team England could have been, if only we had taught our youngsters how to do things like kick the ball accurately, run into the right places, or successfully hit a 24ft by 8ft target from a range of just 12 yards.
Recently, however, the German national team has been a beacon of positivity and flair in often stolid tournaments. They have been fluid, inventive and attacking, with Mesut Özil, the antithesis of the 1990s German footballer, at the heart of it. They have also had the decency not to actually win any trophies.
This, to some extent, mitigates the lingering injustice of their final victories over Hungary in 1954 and the Netherlands in 1974, which deprived football of two brilliant champions from smaller countries, and two magnificent stories of sporting achievement.
The English neutral may still also harbour resentment about Frank Lampard's disallowed goal in the second-round match in 2010, when the ball bounced a barely-noticeable six-to-10 yards over the line. The score would then have been 2-2, and England would undoubtedly have cut loose and eviscerated Germany with the unstoppable, high-paced and skilful total football that Capello and his men had so carefully, cleverly and completely kept under wraps during their turgid group stage stodgery.
Like Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo has done enough to prove himself one of the greatest players of any footballing age. Like Messi, he still awaits his defining moment in an international shirt. He is a dazzling footballer-athlete, and a provocative footballer-philosopher. In 2006, he somehow managed to prove that winking a bit annoyingly is, to the English mind at least, a far more heinous crime than kicking someone in their junkleclunks, a logical contortion that had proved beyond even Aristotle. If he escapes the confines of international football's tactical straitjacket, he too could carve his name into World Cup folklore at the third attempt.
Portugal will justifiably garner neutral support due to its phenomenal custard tarts, and a proud history of global exploration that helped spread European 'influence' around the world, thus facilitating the spread of football and the evolution of the 32-team behemoth of a tournament we have come to know and quite love today. Ronaldo's 2014 side could do with channelling the adventurous spirit shown by the likes of six-time European Explorer of the Year, Vasco da Gama, and mid-second-millennium circumnavigation celebrity, Ferdinand Magellan – they failed to score in three of their four matches in 2010, squibbing out damply to Spain in the second round.
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
Ghana were deprived of a semi-final spot in 2010 by Luis Suárez's cheating hand and even more cheating brain (see page 34), and, more pertinently, by Asamoah Gyan's useless last-kick-of-the-match penalty. Thus, Africa still awaits its first semi-finalist, but whether Ghana can match their achievements of four years ago is doubtful – Gyan, still their principal goalscorer, has had to come out of retirement for this tournament. Or at least, he has been playing in the UAE league, which amounts to much the same thing. Neutrals will not begrudge them another crack at the knock-out stages, particularly if they are fans of enormous reservoirs – Ghana's Lake Volta, at 8,500km2, is the world's largest.
The USA needs football success less than any other nation in this tournament. America quite likes football, and, if the US did somehow manage to win, it would probably merit at least a passing mention on CNN's evening bulletin.
If Brazil, for example, has proven itself to have a memory span of at least 64 years when it comes to footballing pain, the USA's equivalent would probably be a two-minute micro-sulk of mild disappointment. Besides, America has been overwhelmed by glory in other sports – the World Series baseball, American Football's Super Bowl, ice hockey's Stanley Cup and whatever the basketball one is called, have all been dominated by US franchises in recent years. America can do without World Cup glory. The world knows it, they know it, and the World Cup draw knew it, plonking them justifiably into the Group Of Death #2.
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