The one place that England boss Roy Hodgson wanted to avoid, and thus the venue — the city of Manaus — chosen by the football gods for the team’s first group match against Italy. To add to its charm, the mayor of Manaus has said that Hodgson is not welcome in the city after his disparaging comments about the suitability of its climate for playing football.
The ball, designed by computer, built by robots, automatically bonded and welded, and the most high-tech and best tested ball in the history of organised sport.
The coolest of the Brazilian cities, climate-wise, where the temperatures could even slip below freezing during the tournament, which should suit Russia if they need a result against Algeria in their final group game. The city’s Arena de Baixada also features the most shambolic renovation of all the Brazilian stadiums. A considerable achievement.
The old belief that to win the World Cup, you have to beat the world’s best is only partially true. Some have it better than others. This year’s lucky spot goes to Argentina, whose passage to the semi-finals sees only France in their way as a serious obstacle. Germany, too, has a fairly straightforward path, if it can overcome two tropical lunchtime starts in the group phase.
Estadio Nacional, Brasilia
In contrast to the Amazonian heat, this 68,000-seater stadium is almost 1,200 metres above sea-level, and could provide some comfort for teams who like playing at altitude. Good news for Ecuador, who drubbed almost everyone at their own Quito mountaintop retreat in qualifying.
Resembling an anteater in need of a course of Botox, Fuleco is the mascot for the 2014 tournament, continuing a sad tradition that dates back to World Cup Willie, who at least won the cup for England in 1966.
It would seem to be England’s best tactic is to go around treading heavily on every goalkeeper they can find in the Premier League, since almost one quarter of the first-choice stoppers going to Brazil ply their trade in England or have links there. On the hit-list could have been Amir Begovic (Stoke & Bosnia), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool & Belgium), Michael Vorm (Swansea & Netherlands), Tim Krul (Newcastle & Netherlands), Hugo Lloris (Spurs & France), Julio Cesar (Brazil & QPR), with reportedly still an outside chance for Mark Schwarzer (Chelsea & Australia).
The current England manager has never coached in Mongolia or Gabon, but few other places have escaped his peripatetic career. His hangdog expression exudes failure, which is why his results are always better than expected. He’s got his work cut out this time, though. England are in the Group of — not Death, perhaps — but the Group of Serious Injury, with an unexceptional team whose one major figure, Wayne Rooney, has never performed well on the big stage, and an army of supporters who always think the team is better than it is.
It should be the epitome of Brazilian beach cool, but is now home to burning tyre barricades and Molotov cocktails thrown by the angry residents of a nearby favela slum, who have been roaming the area frightening the locals out of their tan-through microkinis. The security situation is one of the things that could go seriously wrong with the World Cup.
Multi-millionaire players are the rule, but Eriksson is an exception as a multi-millionaire referee after a canny investment in the media businesses. A FIFA international ref. for 12 years, the 40-year-old Swede is not everyone’s cup of tea — Rangers fans still remember him for denying them a penalty in the 2009 Champions League, while Manchester City coach Manuel Pellegrini had even stronger, even actionable, words to say about him earlier this year.
Footballing styles, like kick and rush, catenaccio or totaalvoetbal, come and go. And so will tiki-taka, the successful style that has been in vogue in Spain, and particularly at Barcelona. Countering it involves watching the tiki-taka team tap the ball around, steal it off them and then race up field en masse, like a better-dressed version of Mel Gibson’s Bravehearts.
Lack of goals
The number of goals scored in World Cups has dropped steadily from 1998 (171 goals), to 2002 (161), 2006 (147) and finally 2010, when just 145 goals were scored with the miserable Jabulani beach ball, many of them accidental. Combined with the late kick-off times, best to pick the right matches to watch. Apart from those with national allegiances, South Korea v Algeria at 2am looms as a poor return on investment.
Among the impressive array of goalkeepers on show, Uruguay’s highly rated stopper has a penchant for saving important penalties, and is affectionately known by the Lazio fans as castorino (“the little beaver”) for his high-action style. And for his habit of gnawing the goalposts when the ball’s up the other end.
Runners-up in 2010, the Dutch, could hardly have thought that their next encounter at the World Cup finals would be against their ultimate conquerors Spain, in the 80 percent humidity and tropical heat of Salvador. Assuming they get through the group as runners-up, they will meet the winners of Group A, which is almost certain to be — Brazil.
Fast rewind to 2008 and the Beijing Games, where many of the players who will turn out for their national teams in Brazil 2014 were cutting their teeth in top-level competition. Argentina won gold, Nigeria silver, with Brazil and Belgium making the semi-finals.
The man with the worst job at the World Cup, perhaps excepting the fellow tasked with stopping punters entering the Maracana without tickets. ‘Big Ange’ is the new coach of Australia in the Group of Annihilation. With Spain and Holland coming up, if anyone can get the Socceroos a point, or even a goal, it’s Big Ange.
Another of the young Portuguese managers, but with an apprenticeship with Sir Alex Ferguson under his belt, Carlos has the difficult task of making something of a patently outclassed Iran squad. They’re gluttons for punishment, this group of managers — compatriot Andres Villas-Boas spent time as coach of the British Virgin Islands. No wonder he got over a season at Tottenham.
There is no better time for the Portuguese captain to make his mark on football history. Four years ago in South Africa, he was Man of the Match in all Portugal’s group games, but was well shackled in their last-16 defeat by Spain. Their opening match will be key — the opponents are Germany. But it’s a lunchtime kick-off in Salvador, with the prospect of 80 percent humidity and temperatures around 26 degrees Celsius, which shouldn’t worry the boy from Madeira.
There has been a steady average of three penalty shootouts in World Cups over the past 20 years, and there is no reason to suppose this time will be any different. Some teams do them well (Germany), others do them badly (Portugal) and still others would do better to give in straight away to avoid embarrassment (England).
Although Twitter was around in 2010, this will be the first World Cup where more than half of the players have live accounts.
A strike force of Luis Suarez and Edson Cavani, a manager of 25 years’ tenure nicknamed El Maestro, playing next door to home and Costa Rica first up. Who stands in their way of a run at least matching their 2010 semi-final achievement? Answer: England, their second group opponent.
Let’s hope not. Unfortunately the Brazilians have a tympanic device called the caxirola, resembling a couple of half coconuts that can be bashed together to annoy everyone. To widespread relief, a stadium ban on these devices is being considered.
The last time the World Cup was staged in Brazil, in 1950, all the matches were played in Rio and Sao Paulo, temperate cities during the Southern Hemisphere winter. This year, the competition is played equally in the tropical north — Manaus, Salvador, Fortaleza, Natal. European teams traditionally fare badly in such conditions, and so Italy must be rueing the fact that their three group games are all in the tropics.
Few players have won more trophies than the 32-year-old Spaniard. Since being discovered by John Toshack at Real Sociedad, Alonso has won two European Championships and one World Cup with Spain, the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup, the FA Cup, La Liga, the Copa del Rey and numerous personal awards.
And Kolo. And Didier. And Solomon Kalou. With global talent like this at Ivory Coast’s disposal, why are the pundits so down on Les Éléphants? In both 2006 and 2010 they were drawn in the Group of Death and failed to progress. Not this time, though.
Japanese football is slowly approaching the big time, and has perhaps its best team ever on show. But a key element is veteran Italian coach Albert Zaccheroni whose innovative and successful 4-2-3-1 layout has been given the name Zac Japan.