Ordinarily there shouldn’t be anything extraordinary about a round leather object. After all there are so many objects of varying shapes and sizes all around us that hold little or no attraction. But when this round object is a ball being kicked around by 22 men on a well groomed grassy synthetic pitch it commands instant attention. Football, whenever and wherever it is played, has always managed to grab the attention of all categories of people. And when the stage changes and it becomes a contest among the best 32 football playing countries of the world who want to have the distinction of being called the world champion, the excitement gets to fever pitch. And with the infusion of the vivacious samba rhythm on and off the field of play it will be an enchanting and electrifying experience. That will be the setting from June 12, 2014 when the attention of the world especially the many fans of the round leather game shifts to Brazil, the host of the 20th edition of the World Cup. From that day the World will go football Crazy until Sunday July 13 when a new Champion of the World most popular sport would emerge.
This is going to be a world cup with a difference. For one, it will be the championship that is coming after the traditional winners failed to put their acts together in South Africa, the host of the last edition in 2010 and they allowed Spain to have the distinction of winning the 19th edition of the World’s most coveted trophy. Before then Brazil, Italy, Germany and Argentina had dominated successive world cup competitions. The Super powers of football or the Big Four, as they are called, have won 14 championships among them. Spain stopped this run and showed class and tenacity in the land of Nelson Mandela. The Spaniards overwhelmed perpetual underperformer, Netherlands in a pulsating final. The Super Powers are expected to reassert themselves in Brazil.
For obvious reasons the pundits would put their money on Brazil. Not because they are hosting the Mundial for the first time. Brazil has shown over and over again that football is in a way made in the Samba Nation. They follow the game with unequalled passion and their players play the game with refreshing verve and rare artistry. Brazil gave the legendary Pele to the world. And his romance with the world’s most popular game remains an epic tale .So everybody expects them to deliver on home turf. The Brazilians will also want to take an unassailable lead and become the first country to win the mundial for a sixth time as the Italians are close on their heels with four wins. To drive home their determination the official slogan for the Brazilian team is, ‘Brace Yourself, the Sixth is coming’. If they don’t deliver then the other Super Powers may well rise to the occasion.
That is not to say that this world cup will only be a Brazilian show or the championship of the Big Four. France, Mexico, Netherlands, Belgium and United States and England are also going to test might and give the front runners a run for their money. Outsiders like Australia, Croatia Greece, Japan, Mexico, Russia and South Korea, are also countries to watch out for. And for some pundits the Spaniards are still lurking in the corner to defend their title and overwhelm all comers once again. Many still believe that Spain has the best National team currently and they are well and able to go all the way in Brazil. Indeed when it comes to fantastic team work and cohesive play on the field, Spain towers above all others.
And time was when Africa was treated as a mere footnote. Now it is clear to all that you ignore the African challenge at your own peril. Cameroun was the first country to win respect for Africa with a Quarterfinal placement when Roger Milla was Africa’s most deadly marksman. Nigeria was to follow suit after its scintillating performance during its maiden outing in United States in 1994. The Super Eagles overwhelmed Bulgaria and Greece to book a Second Round Ticket. But for a last minute lack of concentration the Super Eagles would have defeated the eventual finalist Italy in the second round held at the Foxboro Stadium, Boston Massachusetts. In 1998, the Super Eagles humiliated Spain with the legendary Goalkeeper Zubbezurreta in Goal being sent to retirement after their 3-2 defeat by Nigerians. Ghana was to up the ante in South Africa in 2010 when it nearly qualified for the Semifinal but for a stroke of ill luck against Uruguay and the famous hand of Luiz Suarez which stopped a goal bound shot in the quarter final. So in Brazil the African representatives Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroun, Ivory Coast and Algeria will not be treated as underdogs.
Of course football is a team event but then as with the past editions some players will still grab the headline with scintillating performances. All eyes will be on the Brazilian named Nemar. He is fast, deadly in front of goals and shows mastery of the game whenever the stakes are high. He leads the Brazilian challenge. Other players expected to light up Brazil 2014 include the mercurial Lionel Messi of Argentina, and the controversial Balotelli who will star for Italy. Fernando Torres, Andre Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas of Spain, Luiz Suarez of Uruguay, Raheem Sterling and Wayne Rooney of England and Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podoski of Germany should also give fans a lot to be excited about.
But one man that many believe will hit the headline is Chsitiano Ronaldo who will be starring for Portugal. Ronaldo is a bundle of talent. Fast, sleek and business like, he is the nightmare of goalkeepers with his rocket like shots, mesmerizing dribbling runs and tailor made passes. This should be the World cup of Ronaldo, the current best footballer in the world.
Africa has its own fair share of stars that should be able to hold their own in Brazil. Cameroun old war horse Samuel Etoo, the Ivorian trio of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Yaya Toure, Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan, Jordan Ayew and Mike Essien and Nabil Chilas of Algeria, the Nigerian quartet of John Mikel Obi, Victor Moses, Peter Odewingwe and Goal keeper Vincent Inyamah should let the world know why pundits believe that the future of the round leather game is in Africa.
It is a little bit difficult to make a prediction about how far Nigeria will go in Brazil. For one there will be no hiding place for the Stephen Keshi led Squad as they are going into the game as African champions . Again the exploits of Nigeria in the past will see their first round opponents Argentina, Bosnia and Iran going all out to overawe the Eagles. But one thing we all expect is that they will put up a respected performance and get a second round ticket. If Keshi is able to hold the team together and the usual in fighting and politics do not feature prior to and during the main event they can go all the way. And this is well captured in the Eagles official slogan, ’Only Together We Can Win’. One thing is certain the Eagles can only be said to have done well in Brazil 2014 if they make at least the Quarter Finals.
While the fate of the Eagles and the other 31 countries is still a matter of conjectures and permutations, what is not in doubt is that the World Cup this time around will take on a different hue especially since the setting for the showdown is Brazil, land of samba, country of origin of the legendary Pelé and the nation where football is more than a passion but almost a religion. It will be a carnival of many colours with the fans adding their own fair share to make the World Cup the most exciting sports fiesta in the World. The fans and followers of what is unarguably the world most popular and most exciting game are in for the thrill of a lifetime.
Blow the whistle, kick the ball, let the game of football, made in Brazil and infused with the samba rhythm, begin.
Adebanjo, former Sports Editor of TELL Magazine, now based in Akure, wrote this special review exclusively for PREMIUM TIMES