The World Cup begins in Russia on Thursday and I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say I hope it turns into a festival of sheer joy. A goaltastic four weeks of drama and intrigue, played out in a country Winston Churchill once described as ‘A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. What we want is sunshine, goals and a carnival atmosphere. What we can certainly do without is MMA-trained local hooligans who are juiced to death and hellbent on choking out (and then unceremoniously tomb-stoning) Barry the Mechanic from Basingstoke.
But who’s going to win it? History dictates it’s going to be one of the usual suspects and that it’s really not worth looking beyond the obvious for a winner. Indeed there has been only one double figure odds winner (Italy at 10/1 in 2006) in the last 30 years. The bookies normally have the outright market boxed right off, but there are question marks around all of the half a dozen or so teams who could go all the way.
Take Argentina for example. A forward line that’s truly outrageous will be fancied to do some damage. Their strength in depth is underlined by the fact they have left out Serie A top scorer Mauro Icardi. But it’s a question of balance, or lack of it, with Argentina. This team scored just 19 times in 18 qualifiers and only booked their flight to Russia on the final matchday, courtesy of a magical Lionel Messi hat-trick. Their reliance on Messi has reached a truly ridiculous level.
Germany are lacking a bonafide superstar in their ranks and have not looked great in the lead-up, losing 2-1 to Austria recently. They are obviously past masters of reaching the business end of major tournaments and cannot be discounted, but current 5/1 quotes do not get the pulses racing, especially when you factor in its over 50 years since the trophy was retained by any nation.
Brazil are favourites and it’s easy to see why. Their front three of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho are just f**king special and they breezed through their CONMEBOL qualifying section. However they bombed spectacularly at home four years ago against Germany and you have to go back to 1958 for the last time they won a World Cup on European soil. There are also fitness concerns over Neymar and England fans know all about the perils of taking a superstar to a World Cup who is not fully fit.
Belgium have an outrageously strong squad, an explosive mix of experience, skill and motivation. I see them winning Group G but I’m not sure Bobby Martinez is a good enough coach to take them all the way.
Indeed my two main fancies for over a year now have been France and Spain. France have the squad depth, power and pace in abundance and a p**s easy group which gives them a chance to gain impetus. My two main worries about Les Bleus centre around their defensive frailty and their coach. Can Didier Deschamps lead them to glory exactly 20 years after he did so as skipper? My hunch is he won’t as he’s a very conservative coach who won’t let this team off the leash. He’s also picked just three full-backs while Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane could be an accident waiting to happen as a centre-half pairing. Antoine Griezmann will again fire the bullets up top and he looks a lock at 7/4 to be top French scorer, but this magnificent French squad looks in danger of being strangled by Deschamps’ conservatism.
That leaves Spain. La Roja have demons to exorcise after their last two major finals but new boss Julen Lopetegui had got them purring again and they are unbeaten in 20 games, although it remains to be seen what effect his departure has. Spain are solid at the back and have goals in them. Spain’s final 23 has a great balance of youth an experience and they look the most complete team. It also doesn’t hurt having the best goalkeeper in the world between the sticks. They’ve not lost since exiting Euro 2016 and even a group containing Portugal, Morocco and Iran doesn’t put me off. They are seeded to miss both Brazil and France and so look lush at current 7/1 quotes.
You can also get 28/1 with bet365 about a Spanish win against Brazil in the final. That’s not a bad little bet with their respective groups.
And what of England? This blessed plot. This earth. This realm. This England. How many years of hurt are we on now? I’ve lost f**king count but I’m not sure anyone reading this can come up with a convincing argument about the Three Lions winning the World Cup. Indeed it’s difficult to make an argument for us topping Group G if Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne are both at it in the final game.
Like most people I’m not unhappy about how Gareth Southgate has gone about things and we’ve shown glimpses that if Southgate decides to let them express themselves then England might surprise a few. However we look short of genuinely world-class players and big-match experience. No player in the squad had won a World Cup match before and that’s a bit scary. With a bit of luck we can get to the quarter-finals where a probable meeting with Germany would await.
And sadly the journey will probably end there. It will hurt, but not as much if, like me, you’ve lumped quarter-finals at 11/5 as England’s ‘Stage of Elimination’. Trust me, it’s coming home…
Betting: Spain to win the World Cup at 7/1 (Betstars)
Betting: Spain – Brazil Outright Forecast at 28/1 (bet365)
England stage of elimination – Quarter-finals at 11/5 (bet365/888 Sport)