Fri, Jun 09, 2006 - Page 24 News List

World Cup: Time for Ronaldinho and Co to take a tumble

NOT THIS TIME, SAMBA BOYS Brazil has been crowned world champions five times and twice in the last three competitions. Now it's time for the underdogs to step up

By Jules Quartly  /  STAFF REPORTER

Brazilian midfielder Ronaldinho spins the ball on his finger during a training session on Wednesday at the Zagallo Arena in Konigstein, Germany.

PHOTO: AFP

Brazil has the best players and is the top-ranked team -- but it would be good for the game if it didn't win this World Cup, starting today in Germany.

For a fairytale ending to this year's competition, it's time for the underdogs to step up and savage the yellow shirts of Brazil. Of course, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka and company will be tough to beat and there are only a handful of sides that have the balls to do it.

First up is Germany, which has home advantage and one of the world's top midfielders in Michael Ballack. Arsenal's Jens Lehmann in goal is a wise replacement for the aging Oliver Kahn, who arguably lost the battle against Ronaldo to gift Brazil the World Cup final in Japan in 2002.

But I'm not convinced by the Germans. Their form has been very patchy and coach Juergen Klinsmann has already taken flak for spending time in the US rather than concentrating on the task in hand.

Statistically, the second most successful World Cup team does not seem to be the well-oiled machine it used to be, and though you can never write Germany off, other teams may have a better chance of upsetting the Brazilians.

England did well in South Korea and Japan four years ago, before it wilted once again in the sun in its quarter-final battle against Brazil.

The weather and pitches in Germany should suit England better this time, and with a competent manager for a change in Sven-Goran Eriksson it could be its best chance in 40 years of taking another title, particularly if stars Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen are fit.

Captain David Beckham is another key player and this will likely be his last opportunity to become a national hero (in the mold of Bobby Moore) by lifting the World Cup. Though he was never quick and is slowing with age, his role as a provider cannot be underestimated.

As long as David "Calamity" James does not get to play, the backline looks reasonably sound and England should be hard to score against.

If FIFA rankings are anything to go by, the Czech Republic and Holland are good bets. Again, the weather, pitches and fan support should give these teams a boost.

But even with Pavel Nedved and Jan Koller, the Czechs do not have enough gas in the tank to go all the way as senior players like Vladmir Smicer and Tomas Galasek are presently sidelined with injuries.

Though Holland has never won the World Cup, it has come close twice and is a team with pedigree. Ruud van Nistelrooy, Phillip Cocu (though battling injury) and Edwin van der Saar are all worldbeaters. If it gets a bit of luck -- and you need it to win the World Cup -- it could be Holland's year.

Mexico is ranked fourth by FIFA but the South Americans will find it difficult in Europe. Like Spain, it often promises to do well and then gags when the pressure builds. Both teams' best finishes fell short of the finals and neither side seems better equipped this time round.

The US is ranked joint fifth in the world by FIFA and I was impressed by the team's discipline and grit in 2002. With players like Landon Donovan and the improving Oguchi Onyewu, it deserves to be mentioned among the top sides in the world now. But it does not have the punch -- yet -- for a knockout.

Italy and France, on the other hand, have proved over the years they do have what it takes to be winners. However, the aging Zinedine Zidane will have to be in top form throughout the month if he's going to provide enough ammunition for Thierry Henry to fire his way to another World Cup victory for "Les Bleus."

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