A New World Order at World Cup?
So Spain is going to win the World Cup right? Well, surely they will make the final in South Africa? Worst case scenario - Spain gets knocked out in the semis.
We're talking about the number one ranked team in the world here. We're also talking about a team which, in the modern era, has never progressed beyond the quarter-finals. Over the course of 76 years, Spain has precious little to show for its 12 World Cup appearances.
Is Spain for real?
So why are we all jumping on the Spanish bandwagon? Why are they suddenly favourites to lift the trophy when they have never come close before? True, Spain are champions of Europe, but that, in itself, can mean nothing from a global perspective. Greece anyone?
Since FIFA based the seeding for the 2010 World Cup on world ranking alone, it is time to consider who the true frontrunners might be. Spain has enjoyed a virtually unbroken run at top spot for nearly two years. The follow up to Euro 2008 has been mighty impressive despite a change of coach.
Vicente del Bosque has lost only one game in charge since replacing Luis Aragones. The World Cup qualifying campaign was a breeze. A record of 10 wins from 10 games speaks for itself - the only 100 per cent record other than the Netherlands, which played two fewer matches.
The sole blemish occurred in South Africa last summer. The free-flowing football was high jacked for 90 minutes in a shocking Confederations Cup upset at the hands of the U.S. The stats hardly flattered the Americans who, nonetheless, got ahead and stayed ahead of the thoroughbreds.
All the evidence points to a momentary blip. No one saw it coming and no glitch has resurfaced since but the records books show Spain departed with a third place finish in an eight team tournament. A few short weeks before they return to South Africa, how will they hold up in a 32 team competition?
How will the Spaniards respond to the pressure of being among the clear favourites? They must rise to the challenge and build on the triumph of 2008 but, for all their recent success, there remains a nagging doubt over their ability to stay the course - all too evident in previous World Cups.
Spain is not the only nation with something to prove in South Africa. Three of the top four teams in the latest world rankings have never won the World Cup. Brazil is the obvious exception, while the Netherlands and Portugal, despite some near misses, have yet to lift football's most prized trophy.
The Dutch are clearly dangerous - perhaps too dangerous for their own good. Holland has been ranked in FIFA's top three for the last 18 months and was rightly seeded ahead of France. The Dutch have got closer than Spain, but not close enough. Losers' medals in 1974 and 1978 still irk a nation.
Those who recall the 'Total Football' concept of that era still revere names such as Cruyff, Neeskens, Rep and Krol. They could do it all and play in any position without missing a beat. Yet, in more recent times, Holland has gone missing on more than one occasion.
Holland goes up and down with the times
A failure to qualify in 2002 was followed by a frustrating round of 16 exit four years ago. Is this the track record of a team which, according to the world rankings, should be semifinal material in 2010? Remember Euro 2008, when Holland burst out of the gate in the group stages only to blow up against Russia in the quarter-finals?
My broadcast partner Jason de Vos reckons it's all down to temperament, and he should know. A fine Canadian with Dutch heritage, Jason argues if you leave a group of Dutchmen together long enough the disagreements will inevitably follow. The unravelling process is never far behind.
The fastest riser, of late, in FIFA's Top 10 is Portugal. A team, which qualified the hard way, currently occupies fourth place in the rankings, primarily as a result of the home and away playoff successes over Bosnia.
The Portuguese made it to the final four last time round in Germany but the route map looks much tougher to navigate in 2010. The joy of qualification was short-lived when they were dumped in the Group of Death with Brazil and the Ivory Coast.
Getting out of the group, however, is doable and if Cristiano Ronaldo can finally perform for his country as he does for Real Madrid there's no telling how far Portugal can go. Winning Group G would certainly help though, since the runners-up are likely to face Spain in the round of 16.
Three nations, stacked with stars and blessed with wonderful talent, are desperate to deliver something their predecessors failed to achieve. There's a good chance a new name will be engraved on the World Cup trophy come July 11th but only time has the answer.
About the Author
Nigel Reed brings his extensive experience, passion and knowledge of the game of soccer to his role as play-by-play announcer for Major League Soccer ON CBC.
Reed has more than 20 years experience covering soccer, most notably a five-year stint from 1999 to 2004 where he was a host and producer for the English Premier League for BBC. He also covered English Premier League giants Liverpool and Everton for BBC Radio and provided analysis for both BBC TV and the BBC website.
Reed, who will also call matches for CBC's FIFA broadcast package, covered weightlifting, taekwondo, soccer and equestrian for CBC's coverage of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games.