The year is 2002. In front of a raucous crowd in Yokohama, Ronaldo Nazário pounced upon a loose deflection from German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, and deposited the ball into the back of the net. Twelve minutes later, Ronaldo received the ball in the vicinity of the box, dribbled to his right, and fired a shot right into the bottom corner to double the lead. No more goals were scored in the game, meaning Brazil won the FIFA World Cup for the record fifth time. Over two decades later, this still remains the last time a non-European nation won the coveted prize.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the balance tilted away from South America, a continent that had been home to some of the most mesmerizing footballers.
It happened gradually, then suddenly. It’s not that they failed to catch up on a tactical front, for some of the most astute tacticians in global football hail from this region of the earth. It’s more of a result of a force of the market, as the money and power are now concentrated in the hands of the abysmally low number of elite European clubs. The creamy layers of footballers, managers, scouts, and analysts – all of them are poached by the European clubs. At the very basic level, this obviously impacts the cohesion and chemistry of the national team.
From 1968 to 2002, the World Cup title alternated between South American and European nations, emblematic of the balance of power between these two continents. At the turn of the century, the balance was skewed, as the next four World Cups would be swept aside by the European giants. When Italy won in 2006, none of the South American teams even qualified for the semi-finals. Four years ago in Russia, it was again an all-European clash in the semi-finals, with France, Germany, England, and Croatia sealing their spots.
Brazil Are Favourites In Qatar
Brazil steamrolled every stumbling block on their way, winning 14 out of 17 matches to become the first South American nation to qualify for this year’s World Cup. Their last defeat came over a year ago in the Copa America final, against Argentina. In their last six matches, Brazil have scored 22 goals and conceded just two. They are just not winning the game, but winning it by a high margin.
They have a host of supremely skilled players for each position, and zeroing down to the final XI will be a puzzling task for the manager Tite. Both on form and on paper, the current squad is a big improvement from the one that competed in the last two editions of the tournament. Neymar, now 30, still remains the poster boy of this team, and his renaissance in the Ligue 1 has come at the perfect time.
Having notched 11 goals and 8 assists in just 16 matches for PSG, Neymar is the most potent striker going around. He will be paired with Vinicius Jr, another wonder-kid who has taken the world by storm with his blistering sprints and sharp finishes. They also have Gabriel Martinelli, Raphinha, Antony, Lucas Paqueta, and Richarlison – all of them firing on all cylinders for their respective teams.
There’s a problem of plenty in the midfield, with numerous in-form player fighting for two spots. Casemiro is a certain starter, but it remains to be seen who breaks in as the second man in the midfield. Fred put up a timely reminder with his recent performances, especially his imperious display against Tottenham, but he will face stiff competition from Bruno Guimaraes and Fabinho.
The only point of concern is their inexperience in playing against European opponents. With the onset of the pandemic, traveling has been restricted, as a result, Brazil hasn’t been able to play much against European opponents. But given the firepower they possess, one would expect them to have readymade solutions for every tactical problem that comes their way. They are pooled alongside Serbia, Switzerland, and Cameroon.
One Last Chance For Lionel Messi’s Argentina
For the majority of his illustrious career, it was Lionel Messi’s job to inspire Argentina to another World Cup title. Then something changed of late, and now it feels the onus has shifted to the rest of his teammates – to give Messi the most fitting farewell that he deserves.
Taking over the job that many big names refused, Lionel Scaloni has overseen a great transformation aftermath of the debacle of 2018. Under his leadership, Argentina broke their luckless run of losing six tournament finals, by beating Brazil in the Copa America final last year. Scaloni has also acquired a cult status in his country, with both fans and players showing blind support for him.
The whole team is carefully curated to get the best out of Messi, who, even in the dusk of his career, remains the most creative outlet in the team. He will be teaming up with the relentless Lautaro Martinez and the young striker Julian Alvarez.
The fitness of Angel di Maria remains a concern, but they will be pleased with the dramatic rise of Enzo Fernandez at Benefica. Fernandez seamlessly adapted to the demands of his new club, and is now among the hottest properties in the transfer market. Leandro Paredes, Giovani Lo Celso, and Rodrigo de Paul add much-needed expertise to the midfield.
Argentina is on an unprecedented 35-match unbeaten streak, a run started after the semi-final defeat to Brazil in the 2019 Copa America. In terms of squad depth, they are a notch below Brazil and France, but their first-choice XI is as good as any team in the tournament.
Lead Image: Argentina/Twitter