Let’s kick-off Group A
It’s June 10th, 1998, 4 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time or even not so mean time. Thirty minutes from now, a shrill whistle will be heard around the world and holders Brazil will kick-off against Scotland the Brave in the Stade de France. Sixty-eight years after 13 teams contested the first World Cup Finals in Uruguay, the 16th edition will officially be underway. It was the brainchild of Frenchman Jules Rimet back then, and it will be fitting to watch it unfold in France this summer. This time around, 32 teams will be competing for the greatest trophy the world knows.
Through 64 games in the ensuing 33 days, much pain, sweat and suffering will follow mixed with relief, joy and excitement after which will be declared the new champions of the World. Unlike an alcoholic, I’m not going to take it one day at a time or even 90 minutes at a time. Because I’m a soccerholic, I will give you my thinking on each group at a time over the next eight articles. For final predictions, let’s just leave it a little closer to kick-off, if you don’t mind. I will tell you how it’s going to go, but you’ll have to be patient. Let’s get started then, with none other than Group A, and head back to the Stade de France for the opener.
Brazil will be many people’s favourites, not only for this game but to emerge outright winners come July 12th when the world of soccer disappears into hibernation for another four years and can only begin to dream of Japan/Korea 2002. The difficulties for the current champions (ignoring the obvious 31 teams wanting to take the crown away from them) come in the guise of travelling to Europe — the World Cup tends to be “continent friendly” — and carrying the burden of expectations. After all, they are simply expected to win soccer games just by turning up. But most of us should know that it doesn’t always go the way it’s supposed to. Ask anyone in England to predict an FA Cup third-round tie irrespective of the opposition and you will get a belligerent grin before a bold prediction. There is a fine line between appropriate arrogance and inappropriate complacency and it is this line which the Brazilians must tread. They have the players, they have the coach who has been through it all before and then some, they have the mix of talent required, they are world-beaters. But will they beat the world?
Scotland is more unpredictable than most teams. The team needs to control its natural fire and aggression and yet somehow deliver the same qualities in sufficient quantity for results to go their way. It’s always a juggling act of merging the required skills with the right attitude and I will promise no boredom during their games. The desire to do well will be there, the technical abilities will be there, and in addition to their own legions of fans, they will carry many neutrals hopes with them. In particular, the now legendary fans from the Republic of Ireland will be temporary Scots in the absence of an Irish team to cheer for. The team will, however, have to breakthrough the psychological barrier unwillingly left to them by huge disappointments in past World Cups. Like an FA Cup third-round match, it will be a case of expecting the unexpected.
Morocco versus Norway a few hours later will see Group A complete their first games and already the other Groups (not to mention the hundreds of millions watching worldwide) will be analyzing results, adjusting predictions and updating computer analyses in attempts to figure it all out. “Oh boy! Let the games begin.” Now, the way I see it, I’m going to offend some people no matter how hard I might wish to appear impartial. Firstly, in attempts to suck up in advance of criticism, I will say that Norwegian fans rate highly with me. They will be there in numbers and face-painted with the best of them. They will be proudly cheering on their country as they should be. Take my word for it — I love all soccer fans. The difficulty for me here is twofold: I don’t like Norway’s team style and find them a little boring to watch, and, at the same time, I enjoyed watching Morocco in the past and can’t wait for the clash in styles. Does this mean I wish to see Morocco emerge from Group A and Norway to be sent packing? Of course not, well maybe, wind and weather permitting, you know, sort of, conceivably, I don’t know, perhaps. We’ll see.
I have to tell you in advance that I am concurrently excited by everything that is emerging soccerwise from South Africa but more about that in other Group articles. For now, stay onside and play the whistle.