In July 2006, Ronaldinho was the consensus best player in the world, Spain were perennial losers, Lionel Messi could not crack Argentina’s starting XI and Chelsea were preparing to dominate, with superstar signings Michael Ballack and Andiry Shevchenko. Four years is a long time. Speculation at this stage is preliminary, but it’s still fun. With all the requisite caveats, here are the five favorites to win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Spain: Spain’s “Golden Generation” ranges from 23 to 26 years old. So, this same group will be poised for a run at Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup before their flames extinguish. For 2014, however, they will need to replace two icons, Carles Puyol (36) and Xavi Hernandez (34). Fabregas is the logical successor for Xavi, but finding another Puyol will be more difficult. Spain has a great team, but they need to avoid the Italian trap and continue evolving by bringing in fresh talent. The World Cup win should be the tipping point for Spanish soccer, not the apex.
Germany: Germany won recent championships at U-17, U-19 and U-21 level. It payed off in 2010 when those players poured into the senior national team. The veterans, Lahm (30), Schweinsteiger (29) and Podolski (29), will be there in 2014. Muller, Kroos, Marin, Ozil and Boateng all will be under 25. The only starters who will miss the Brazil campaign will be Klose and Arne Friedrich. Neither loss is critical. Spain’s decisive advantage against Germany was experience and fluency. Much of the German team was brought together shortly before the tournament. That should not be an issue in 2014.
Brazil: Brazil will have home-field advantage. Having missed the past two semifinals, that might be more of a pressure for them than a benefit. The Samba Kings must be completely overhauled during the next four years, and, hopefully, with a little more samba. They will lose their defensive core, Lucio, Juan and Gilberto Silva. Maicon, Michel Bastos, Dani Alves, Elano, Kaka, Julio Baptista, Luis Fabiano and Robinho will all be in their thirties. Brazil made the final of the U-20 World Cup in 2009, but not one of those players made Dunga’s squad for South Africa. They need a coach who can handle the pressure (Scolari?), they need to rebuild and they need to hope Neymar and Pato develop into the next Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.
Argentina: Argentina will lose a number of players. Most of them you wouldn’t mind losing. Di Maria, Pastore, Higuain, Aguero and the best player in the world, Leo Messi, will be under 27 in 2014. Tevez and Mascherano should both be available at 30. They will have Spain-based players, such as Gago, Banega and Perotti who can fill out a more stable midfield. The trouble will be rebuilding their back four from scratch. Nicolas Otamendi is the only defender from this Argentina team who will be under 32 in 2014. With a passable defense and a reputable coach, Argentina have enough talent to make 2014 Messi’s tournament.
France: It sounds crazy, but bear with me. Domenech is out, as are all of the labor leaders. Laurent Blanc, one of the game’s brightest young managers, is in. Franck Ribery, who will be 31, is the only veteran who should be in the 2014 mix. Though lamentable, “the incident” will give Blanc the “blanc” slate he needs. Hugo Lloris, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, will only be 27. They can build a team around Lassana Diarra and Yoan Gourcuff, whom Blanc coached at Bordeaux. They can round out the team with players such as Gael Clichy, Sagna, Diaby, Nasri, Benema, Ben Arfa, and Loic Remy. Talent won’t be an issue, if they can focus and organize it.
[Spain photo via Icon, Brazil photo via Getty]