There are now just 200 days until the World Cup gets underway in Sao Paulo on June 12, 2014.
Two hundred days for managers to keep their blood pressure—which will surely be trying to rise, day by agonising day—in check.
Two hundred days for players to keep their fitness and elevate their form.
And 200 days for fans to get ever more excited.
When hosts Brazil raise the curtain on the tournament on that second Thursday in June—guaranteeing a buoyant atmosphere to the tournament from the very start—the weeks, months and years of hype and prognostications will finally become something tangible, something real.
For players and coaches that means a month (hopefully; it will barely be two weeks for the 16 sides discarded at the group stage) of hard work, high expectations and huge pressure.
For fans, with three (and sometimes four) games a day planned for much of the group stages, it means a veritable feast of football.
But there are still 200 days to go until that happy prospect and a lot remains to be sorted before then.
THE KEY DATES STILL TO COME
|December 6, 2013||World Cup Draw|
|March 14-18, 2014||International friendlies|
|May 13, 2014||Provisional squads must be confirmed|
|May 18, 2014||Final date for all national club competitions|
|May 24, 2014||Champions League final|
|June 2, 2014||Final 23-man squads confirmed|
|June 12, 2014||World Cup begins|
|July 13, 2014||World Cup final|
THE KEY QUESTIONS
Will Brazil be ready?
With just 200 days to go, it is a surprising question still to have to ask—but unfortunately one that remains worryingly pertinent.
Brazil won the rights to host the World Cup, and the Summer Olympics in 2016, on the back of a burgeoning economy and rapid modernisation.
But in the years following those twin bid successes (which came in 2007 and 2009), public perception has oscillated wildly, with the impact of a global recession leading many to question the sense and fiscal responsibility in hosting one such expensive event, never mind two in succession.
Last year’s Confederations Cup, which has recently become something of a year-early test event for World Cup hosts, was marred by public protests over corruption and over-spending involving that competition and the two prestigious tournaments to follow.
Whether such socio-political problems are why organisers have had such trouble getting the infrastructure ready for the tournament is a separate debate. Nevertheless, there remain concerns about how prepared the country truly is.
The Sao Paulo Arena, pencilled in to host the first game of the tournament, is still being finished—with some concerns that it might not now be ready for its June unveiling.
"The arena’s roof should be finished this month and we’ll need to get its protective cover in place," civil engineer Marcio Prado told the Daily Mirror this week. "But then we’ll have the final details [to do].
"I still believe we’ll be finished and ready for the test events in March."
Yet last month the Sao Paolo stadium was the only new arena, of six in total, that officials listed as on course to be ready by the end of 2013—the FIFA-imposed deadline.
"This must be seen as a warning. We cannot keep on the same rhythm, or we will not deliver them on time," Brazil’s sports minister, Aldo Rebelo, said following those announcements.
"It is possible to intensify. We are able to meet the deadlines, but it should be noted that it will require us to speed up the construction."
With 12 arenas being used in total, the other six—many of them used for the Confederations Cup—should in theory be more or less ready to be handed over to FIFA.
Yet they have faced problems, too; renovations at the stadium in Coritiba were recently halted by a judge over concerns for worker safety, while a fire at the structure in Cuiaba proved similarly disruptive.
Then there is the need to improve—or implement from scratch—transport links and infrastructure around these stadiums, all while sporadic protests continue to crop up.
Such tumult is bad enough now—but the nightmare scenario for FIFA and country officials is that they will continue into the tournament itself.
"It's a problem we are trying to solve," FIFA head of special advisory Carlos Cardim told Sky Sports this month.
"It's important to identify the failures [of security, and of engaging with the Brazilian public] and to have this auto-critical view and to correct and to prevent [those failures] is our idea."
With nearly seven years to get everything prepared, it seems preposterous that Brazil could struggle to be ready in time. Yet such concerns face almost every major event these days—London 2012 was subject to similarly bad press, yet turned out to be a near-flawless execution—and it still seems unlikely that any meaningful element of the tournament will not be ready to go come June 12.
What it takes in order to reach that point—in terms of extra money, or extreme conditions for workers—might end up being something organisers and FIFA will not want to see discussed too much, however.
Which teams are favourites?
It will be more sensible, and more reasonable, to make judgements about the chances of each of the 32 participants once the draw is made, when it will finally be possible to map each country’s prospective route to the final in Rio de Janeiro.
"I go there [to the draw] with a mixture of excitement and curiosity. The same is true for the players," Germany head coach Joachim Low said after beating England in a recent friendly, summing up the pervading mood among sides involved.
"It will give the World Cup a completely different outlook when we know where we stand and who we will play."
Nevertheless, it is not hard to pinpoint which teams will be expected to fare well, regardless of who they end up facing in the group stages.
Low’s Germany are one of them; as one of the most attractive sides of the 2010 iteration, they look set to reproduce that sort of offensive vigour, with the added benefit of more of the defensive solidity that has historically characterised the sides the European heavyweight has presented.
Beating England this month, at Wembley, with a team lacking many first-team stalwarts (Philipp Lahm, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Sami Khedira) only underlines the quality available to them.
Then there are the holders, Spain, and the hosts, Brazil. Vicente del Bosque’s Spanish side are hoping to achieve something that has never been done before—a fourth successive victory at a major international tournament.
With a core of the players that have reached the summit before, they certainly have the experience required.
The age of some remains a concern, however; are Andres Iniesta and Xavi able to scale the summit once more, especially after their style was brushed aside so authoritatively by Bayern earlier this year? Or will the emergence of the likes of Isco give La Roja the injection of youth it may need?
It is Brazil, however, who will be carrying the weight of expectation on their shoulders.
Hosting a World Cup is often perceived to be a distinct advantage—France and England both won their only crown in front of their own fans—yet the Selecao, who have won the competition a record five times, only have bad memories of hosting the tournament—losing the "final" (the competition had a different structure then) to Uruguay in 1950 that sent the nation into a collective state of shock.
Luis Felipe Scolari’s side will enter the tournament with both expectations of success and fears of a heart-breaking failure, a difficult combination to carry on one’s shoulders.
What is more, the experienced international manager seems still to be unsure of his best team—although with such an embarrassment of riches in almost all positions, perhaps that is to be expected.
Beyond that, Argentina—because of both Lionel Messi and their familiarity with the climate—and Uruguay (ditto, along with their strong attacking options and successful showing at the last tournament) will be expected to fare well, with many touting Colombia and Belgium as dark horses for the tournament.
With the former having comfortably won the friendly meeting between the two earlier this month, however, maybe it is they who are currently ahead in the pecking order.
Beyond them, Netherlands and Italy will once again expect to show well, as might the emerging Bosnia & Herzegovina and Portugal—who will be hoping Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick to lift them over Sweden in their play-off is just a taste of further individual heroics to come.
Not all participants enter the tournament with high expectations or high morale, though. Some sides—France, Croatia, Australia, to pinpoint three—appear to have much to resolve in the next 200 days if they are to give the best account of themselves.
And then, as always, there is England—currently seemingly on course finally to participate in a tournament without outlandish expectations on them, although whether that will translate into more effective performances remains very much to be seen.
Who will be the players to watch?
The World Cup is often talked about in the build-up (and in the aftermath, at least as the years start to pass) in terms of individuals, yet it is not always the ones you expect who make the crucial impact on the tournament.
Who would have predicted, for example, that it would be left-back Fabio Grosso who helped power Italy to victory in 2006? Or that Andres Iniesta—a man with fewer goals at club level than John Terry—would score the only goal of the final in 2010?
Nevertheless, it will doubtless be impossible to avoid the faces of Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo as the tournament gets underway.
Neymar, the hope of a nation, will be expected to be the focal point of Brazil's attack on the tournament—with nothing less than the replication of the feats of Pele (who won the 1958 World Cup in Sweden as a 17-year-old) demanded of him.
That is a huge weight for a 21-year-old to carry, but the Barcelona forward has seemed predisposed to absorbing pressure from a young age.
"The goal is to win the World Cup," he noted recently. “We know that there is a tremendous amount of pressure, it’s almost an obligation, but we know it will be difficult and we’re working hard to accomplish our dream."
Messi, Neymar’s club teammate, will be similarly under the microscope—both in Argentina, where he has sometimes struggled to garner the affection of the public, and abroad, where it has been said that he has yet to deliver at a World Cup.
That was the pervading media angle at the 2010 tournament in South Africa where, a Diego Maradona-esque photograph of him surrounded by opposition defenders apart, his brilliance was only fleeting.
The chaotic nature of coach Maradona’s tactics and organisation undermined Argentina’s bid for glory, however, and probably affected Messi’s play.
With a more "conventional" boss in Alejandro Sabella in place this time around, and players at the peak of their powers around him in the likes of Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, there may be greater hope for the Albiceleste—although concerns, as ever, continue around the defence.
"Certainly, to win the World Cup is a dream for me, my team-mates and all of Argentina," Messi told reporters recently, after winning another Golden Shoe for being European footballer’s top goalscorer.
"We are doing well—we need to improve a couple of things, but there are still seven months until the tournament starts. Hopefully we can win there, but a lot of nations can do it."
Then there is Messi’s great rival, Ronaldo. The talisman for his country, no more so than after four goals over two legs to see Sweden off in an enthralling play-off, the Portuguese looks set to enter 2014 in possession of the Ballon d’Or and an ever-growing sense of his own importance to his country.
It could be a heady mix, especially with the 2014 Ballon d’Or likely to be decided in some part by displays in Brazil.
As the man himself told Portuguese TV after seeing off Sweden: "I know Portugal needed me in these matches and I showed that I am here."
Can Ronaldo, almost single-handedly, lift his country to the final four of the tournament? Or will others rise to the challenge of providing him with a worthy supporting cast, as Joao Moutinho did in the second match against Sweden this month? That, more so than Ronaldo’s individual form, might be key to Portugal's chances.
The true excitement, however, might come from seeing which players from outside football’s absolute elite emerge to help define the tournament.
Radamel Falcao, Eden Hazard, Paul Pogba or even more fledgling talents such as Croatia’s Mateo Kovacic may all cement their reputations on a global stage. Then there is international newcomer Diego Costa, sure to be the centre of attention every time he plays for Spain—having spurned Brazil, the country of his birth and for whom he won two caps, to represent his adopted nation.
The Atletico Madrid player is guaranteed publicity for his circumstances, but many more virtual unknowns will also have the chance to catch the eye—even if it’s just for crying, as Jong Tae-Se famously did before his World Cup debut four years ago.
A LOT STILL TO HAPPEN
Before all that, however, there are 200 days still to be enjoyed (or endured, if you really cannot wait).
In that time there will be injuries, there will be disputes, there will be surprise selections and shock omissions.
There will be scandals and controversies, player dramas and exasperated coaches.
And then, finally, there will be football.
And we can’t wait.
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