Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi…out. You may well bleed green and gold – no, don’t show me, I believe you – but I’ve got some bad news for you. The Socceroos are a young squad in transition, and they have a very harsh draw to negotiate. Barring a miracle, they will be rolled over by Spain (the defending champions), Holland (runners-up), and Chile (ranked 15th in the world), and will depart Brazil in straight sets.
It’s the World Cup, though: you can storm off back to the league or the footy in a huff, but you’d be missing out on a whole lot of action, and a whole lot of fun. A better choice would be to pour your frustration into an adopted team, to feel their dizzying highs, their maddening lows – all at one degree’s remove. But which team is the team for you? Allow us to offer a few handy hints…
The smart-arse’s choice
I know you. You’re the sort of person that uses a wish to wish for three more wishes. You’re going to cheer on the teams that qualify out of Australia’s group, because you figure that if Australia loses to the eventual champions, then that means that they’re theoretically as good as any other team that lost to the champions, and in some weird way that directs some of the glory and the stardust back to Socceroos, and by extension, you.
Well, luckily for you, Spain are a very, very good side, not as far ahead of the field as they were in 2010, but most certainly among the favourites, and with unrivalled strength in depth, particularly in terms of diminutive playmakers. Unlike last time, they even have an in-form striker in Diego Costa, the newly-naturalised Brazilian, who is hotly tipped to be heading to Chelsea in a £30 million deal.
Do say: “They look more dangerous with Costa giving the midfield a point of reference.”
Don’t say: “Who let the under-12s on the pitch?”
The bandwagon jumper’s choice
Who’s the best player in the world? Lionel Messi. Ok, who does he play for? Argentina. Great, this is going to be easy…
Expect a lot of this in the coming weeks. Messi is a phenomenon, with blinding pace, Velcro boots and a laser-guided left foot. If he’s on song, he has the ability to tear teams apart (remember, it’s Lee-nl, not Ly-nal). If teams pay him a little too much attention, then messrs Aguero, Di Maria and Lavezzi will wreak havoc. They will be very hard to stop. And you’ll be right there, facepaint and all.
Having said that, the Argentinian squad is a little unbalanced, light on for defensively minded midfielders – and defensively minded defenders, for that matter. The sort of glory-hunting downhill skiers that take up the Albiceleste cause in anticipation of cut-price majesty mightn’t be enjoying the anticipated cakewalk.
Do say: “Mascherano mightn’t be flashy, but it’s his positioning that lets Argentina play.”
Don’t say: “So, which one is Tevez?”
The aesthete’s choice
Once a byword for joyless efficiency, Germany are a side reborn under the dapper Joachim Low. They are still well-drilled and technically sound – as with the strongest German sides, the core is made up of Bayern Munich players such as Manuel Neuer, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Phillip Lahm and Thomas Muller – but they also have the richest, most varied array of attacking talent in the world right now. With the silk of Mesut Ozil and the guile of Mario Gotze, they play a brand of football that’s as easy on the eye as it is potent.
Do say: “If anything, they’ve had too much possession – they look so much more dangerous on the counter.”
Don’t say: “Who let that beatnik into the technical area?”
The bluffer’s choice
If you only know one thing about football, it’s probably that it’s played with a ball. If you know two things, though, you’d know that it’s played with a ball and that Brazil are the spiritual custodians of the game. This means that barracking for Brazil is basically like barracking for football itself. It also means that with the appropriate facepaint and some basic Portuguese phrases, you can attend the best parties, dance like an idiot, and generally have the most fun that is possible for a person to have – unless Brazil loses, of course, in which case you will mourn.
The good news, though, is that as always, Brazil have an extremely tidy team. Their strength lies in the un-Brazilian areas of central defence and defensive midfield, but up forward they have Neymar, a one-man, one-name embodiment of Brazil’s proud attacking tradition, all sublime skills, ambitious dribbles and terrible hair – a player worth risking one’s presidency for.
He’s something else, but Brazil’s chances will largely be decided by whether their host status emboldens or encumbers them.
Do say: “I, for one, don’t think that defensive anarchy is a pre-requisite for beautiful attacking football.”
Don’t say: “Won’t somebody get the skunk off that poor man’s head?”
The masochist’s choice
If you enjoy inflated expectations, underachievement, and having your hopes dashed in the cruellest of manners, then there’s really only one team for you.
Unlike recent teams, which comprised big names picked largely on reputation, Roy Hodgson’s 2014 side features a raft of young players whose form has earned them a spot on the plane. The instinctive attacking play of Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge dovetailing with Ross Barkley and Adam Lallana will be worth watching, particularly if Hodgson has the guts to leave an out-of-form Wayne Rooney on the bench.
They have a tough group, though, and they’ll have to deal with the most fickle press in the world building them up, only to crush them under the weight of expectation, before turning on them. Also, there’s the penalty shootout thing: you can’t blame that on the media.
Do say: “And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?”/”Roar!”
Don’t say: “If England can just hold on for a penalty shootout, they might sneak through.”
The underdog’s choice
Ever since Cameroon scared England to death in the 1990 quarter finals, pundits have observed the quadrennial ritual of pondering whether (insert World Cup here) will be the tournament in which Africa finally emerges. Well, Africa still hasn’t emerged, and probably never will, on account of being inanimate: it’s a continent – it just sits there, y’know?
However, Senegal and Ghana have proven in recent years that an African team can generally be relied on to do a bit of damage and push deep into the knockout rounds. Ghana have a tough draw and Nigeria aren’t as strong as they have been, so it’s gotta be the Ivory Coast. Whether you can call them underdogs when they boast one of the world’s most destructive midfielders in Yaya Toure is a whole ‘nother question, though…
Do say: “Gervinho is at his best when he plays without fear.”
Don’t say: “Why are they playing Rick James up forward?”
The football hipster’s choice
“Belgium? Yeah, it’s a small country on Europe’s north-eastern coast. It’s like France, but a bit more obscure. You’ve probably never heard of it.”
You know football inside and out, and you’re more than happy to let people know. You prefer the 1986 Belgium side led by Enzo Scifo, but the 2014 vintage are a very strong side, maybe the strongest in Belgium’s history, and with an exceedingly strong spine – Thibaut Cortois, Vincent Kompany, Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku – they’re good enough to reach the semi-finals or better. Don’t let anyone call you a bandwagon-jumper, though: you actually have a great-aunt who has a Flemish gardener, and you feel a real connection to the Red Devils – oh right, that’s their nickname.
Do say: “If Mirallas is going to play as an inverted winger, then Alderweireld needs to provide some width on the overlap.”
Don’t say: “Why are Holland playing in red?”
The trainspotter’s choice
If Belgium is the hipster’s choice, Croatia is the logical option for the true obscurantist – sort of person that gets more excited about a well-set offside trap than a 30-yard screamer. This sort of fan not only loves the more arcane aspects of the game, but they love to share their vast knowledge, whether it’s solicited or not.
Croatia are a solid, mid-level side, but in Ivan Ratikic and Luka Modric they happen to possess two of the most elegant, subtle midfielders in the world game, adept at directing the contest in ways that only you are perceptive enough to notice.
Do say: “They could really do with a water-carrier to release Modric from the double pivot.”
Don’t say: “Why did they leave Matic and Ivanovic out of the squad?”
The only way Algeria will get anywhere near the World Cup is with the aid of Photoshop. Best avoided.
A high credibility choice, but their World Cup will end when your attention starts to waver. A one-man team, but that man is Edin Dzeko, and the Manchester City man finished the season in excellent form. He should be good enough to see them through a weak group.
If you’re more interested in the celebrations than the soccer. The Indomitable Lions are a bit of a smoky. Samuel Eto’o is arguably Cameroon’s greatest ever player, but at 35, he can’t drag his team over the line single-handedly anymore. In Seville’s Stephane Mbia and Barcelona’s Alex Song, among others, they have plenty of talent, but organisation will be the key.
Chile are the closest thing to Port Adelaide: they’re fast, positive and audacious. Alexis Sanchez is their Chad Wingard, Arturo Vidal is their Travis Boak, and I think I’ve probably taken this analogy as far as it can go.
One for the ravers. It’s party up the front, and party down the back for Colombia – they’re the World Cup equivalent of Jeff Spiteri. They’re a talented, anarchic side, and definitely worth watching, even if they don’t stick around for long.
Not much point. I’m sure they’re all nice guys, but Costa Rica are cannon fodder in a very tough group. Blink and you’ll miss them.
A sentimental choice. Ecuador will be without star striker Christian Benitez, who tragically died of a heart attack last year. They will miss his energy, and will be doing very well to wriggle clear of the group stage.
The international football equivalent of Richmond, France are football’s greatest soap opera. They have plenty of talent, but some massive egos as well. Could go far, could bomb out.
Tempting. Ghana have a pedigree of positive football. With the experienced Michael Essien as a midfield anchor and the faintly ludicrous Kevin Prince Boateng roaming further afield, they will seek to control games, and hope that the talented, erratic Asamoah Gyan is in the mood to bang a few home up forward. They have a tough group to negotiate, though, and it doesn’t look good.
Dour and defensive, Greek heritage is about the only reason you’d voluntarily watch these guys. Kostas Mitroglou might ignite up forward, but then again, he probably won’t.
For nostalgics. Runners up in 2010, their key players have rolled past their prime, and no-one’s coming through to replace them. Not the Holland you once loved.
Even their mothers are less than optimistic.
After the trauma of 1997, underestimating Iran is just not something that Australian football fans should ever do. This is why I am confidently predicting that they will almost certainly win the World Cup.
Unless you boast Italian ancestry, Italy are pretty hard to love. They’re big on diving and gesticulating, and they’re big on grinding out results. With Gianluigi Buffon in goals, Giorgio Chiellini in defence and Andrea Pirlo in midfield, they’ll do well, but it won’t be pretty.
Not the most inspired choice. A well-organised team of beige technicians, but with the estimable skill and creativity of Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa and Milan’s Keisuke Honda livening things up. Might be enough to progress in a middling group.
One for the tactically-minded, Mexico will probably be the only team not playing some variant on 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. They go with a five-man defence, which isn’t necessarily as negative as it sounds, due to the way they set up their wing-backs, and…I’ve already lost you, haven’t I?
The very definition of a middleweight. Nigeria are often great entertainers, but their squad has a workmanlike quality to it this time out. Don’t waste finite mental resources on them.
If you follow Israel Folau from code to code, this one’s for you. This is basically the Ronaldo show. The waxy narcissist has never dominated an international tournament, and at 29, he probably won’t get another crack. If he succeeds, it will be spectacular. If he fails, it’ll be compelling in a completely different way.
Will struggle for neutral supporters, given the obvious, but worth a look on footballing grounds. Russia are perennially downplayed by people that have never watched the Russian domestic league. They have no out-and-out stars – unless the much-hyped playmaker Alan Dzagoev finally delivers – but they have a very even spread of talent, and a lot of surnames the end with a ‘v’. Watch this space.
Diligent and technical, but pretty much devoid of any flair. For fans of paint drying.
Multi-lingual? Try this mob. They’re short on big names, but they boast some of the best names – Xherdan Shaqiri, Gokhan Inler, Granit Xhaka – in the tournament. Not a bad side, and should reach the knockout stages, but there are better teams knocking about.
If you like goals, follow Uruguay – they score ‘em, and they concede ‘em. They boast two of the top five strikers in the world in Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, but they also have one of the dodgiest defences in the tournament.
Let’s face it, you’d have to be a bit weird to barrack for the USA.