Fifa World Cup preview: No clear-cut favourites amid uninspiring build-up

Which of these three stars - (from left) Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar - will win the World Cup? (PHOTOS: Getty Images/Reuters)
Which of these three stars - (from left) Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar - will win the World Cup? (PHOTOS: Getty Images/Reuters)

SINGAPORE — And so the players are dragging their weary legs into the hot desert climate of Qatar, their minds willing to fight for football's ultimate honour but their bodies straining to be in tip-top condition to win seven matches in a space of 28 days.

Can their physiques hold up to this one-of-a-kind Fifa World Cup Finals - the first time this football extravaganza is being held in the winter months - and then continue to battle for domestic club honours shortly after?

Can us as fans switch our allegiances swiftly from club to nation rivalries, and absorb a barrage of 64 games in the middle of the traditional European season? Or would we succumb to football fatigue, just like the players?

Such is the odd mood heading into this World Cup. Rather than being swept up by the festive mood that usually surrounds the host nation ahead of the opening match, everyone is feeling lacklustre and uninspired ahead of the thoroughly-underwhelming opener between Qatar and Ecuador on Sunday (20 November).

It could be because of the swirl of negative news about the host nation's poor human rights record. It could be because the massively-reorganised football calendar in order to fit in this tournament in this two months has made us all disoriented.

But it could also simply be that there are no teams at the World Cup that have captured the fans' imagination yet.

The traditional giants, while not exactly floundering, have not been steamrolling past recent opponents. The dark horses have not been turning heads with eye-catching results. And the minnows are, well, acting like minnows - all business-like in their declarations that they can get out of the group stage, but without any of the exuberance that endears them to neutral fans.

No dominant team among the contenders

Let's start with the perennial contender among them, Brazil.

Yes, they do have a wealth of attacking talents able to weave intricate passing patterns around any defence. Neymar, Vinicius Junior and Raphinha are a potent trio able to carve out chances for their teammates as well as on their own. Add Richarlison and Lucas Paqueta to the mix, and many fancy them as tournament favourites.

But there is reason why the "Seleção" have not won the World Cup for the past 20 years. Rivals are increasingly able to let them pass themselves to death, before hitting them on the counter-attack. And in the later rounds of World Cup, that is enough to land the knockout punch to recent Brazil teams.

Supporters will point to the fact that this Brazil team boast world-class goalkeeper Alisson Becker and defender Thiago Silva. While this is a big plus for this team, it remains to be seen if their attackers can defend from the frontline and not leave all the dirty work to these two stalwarts.

Let's move on to Europe, and the three previous World Cup winners, France (2018), Germany (2014) and Spain (2010).

Reigning champions France had looked to be well-equipped for a good title defence, until injuries robbed them of their central-midfield duo N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, who were instrumental in their triumph in Russia four years ago.

While there are enough young talents to cover their absences, they are largely unproven in the international stage. And so coach Didier Deschamps will be looking to forwards Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann and especially Kylian Mbappe to lead the line. Will they thrive without the sturdy base which Kante and Pogba provided so wondrously in Russia?

Germany were arguably the last team to sweep the world off their feet at the World Cup, when they won the 2014 edition with such rip-roaring brilliance, including that unforgettable 7-1 mauling of hosts Brazil in the semi-finals.

Yet, it has been downhill since then, with the new generation of players unable to replicate the verve and drive of that winning team. A shocking group-stage exit in 2018 was a sign that their rebuilding process is hardly smooth-sailing.

"Die Mannschaft" still have outstanding individual talents, such as Manuel Neuer, Josh Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Thomas Muller. Whether they can be shaped into a cohesive unit in time for Qatar remains to be seen.

Arguably, Spain stand a good chance to repeating their 2010 triumph, with their rebuilt squad seemingly ready to unleash another round of "tiki-taka" football on the world.

It is a lot to ask of youngsters such as Pedri, Gavi and Dani Olmo, but coach Luis Enrique selects players who understand and fit into his system, and such cohesiveness and familiarity could serve Spain well in Qatar.

The England World Cup squad pose for a photograph at St George's Park.
The England World Cup squad pose for a photograph at St George's Park. (PHOTO: The FA / Marks & Spencers via Getty Images)

Teams with fatal flaws are fun to support

Then of course, we have the supporting cast - the bunch of likeable teams who will draw the fans in, but will probably leave them heartbroken with their fatal flaws.

Take your pick: England, the Netherlands, Croatia, Belgium, Portugal and Uruguay. All have strong teams and star players, but just cannot seem to find the perfect blend among their talents to form a well-oiled machine to go for the World Cup.

England are too conservative. Belgium and the Netherlands can't defend. Croatia (Luka Modric), Portugal (Cristiano Ronaldo) and Uruguay (Luis Suarez) are too reliant on a single star player. Still, the fun part is seeing how far these teams can run with their strengths, before it all comes crashing down.

It is the other way around for fans who want to support the minnows at the World Cup. Can any of them hide their weaknesses long enough to make a stirring run deep into the knockout stages?

Of the numerous teams that are just happy to have made it to the World Cup Finals - mostly from Asia, Africa and North America - Senegal was looking the most likely to make the breakthrough, until Sadio Mane got hurt in his final domestic league game before the World Cup. Could he recover in time to be back at his best? Don't hold your breath.

And so the scene is set for an intriguing World Cup on the pitches of Qatar, with a wide-open field without any obvious favourites.

But everyone must have his favourite team to win the World Cup, right? What about mine?

I will go for a team who went through their World Cup qualifiers unbeaten, who won their continent's biggest title just last year, and who finally have a harmonious squad after decades of haphazard coaching and unsavoury in-fighting.

And who still have Lionel Messi. Yes, Argentina seem best-equipped at the right moment to give the ageing star the perfect send-off for his illustrious career.

Imagine a tearful Messi finally holding aloft the trophy he wants to win most, the man who gave the fans so many wondrous memories of his extraordinary talents finally on top of the world - and then he announces his retirement right there and then.

It would at least make this World Cup memorable for all the right reasons.

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