World Cup 2018 – Group by Group Predictions

The wait is over; it’s finally here. After months of anticipation, the 2018 World Cup kicks off today. Hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia in the first match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in front of a massive crowd which will likely also feature Russian President Vladimir Putin. Robbie Williams will be on hand to “entertain” the crowd (and Mr Putin) in what will be one of the most eagerly anticipated yet controversial World Cups to date. Concerns about Russian hooliganism and the continue threat of terrorist activity plight the tournament before it begins. Questions are being asked about how Russia will cope as a host and what kind of World Cup this will be. On field questions are yet still to be answered too.  Can Germany lift back to back World Cups or will Brazil get their revenge for what happened four years ago. Can Iceland upset the odds again like they did at Euro 2016 and reach the quarter finals. Will Ronaldo add to his growing collection of trophies or will Lionel Messi finally put the ghost of Maradona to bed by lifting his own golden trophy? We try to answer all of these questions and more now.

Group A:

Russia enter this group with a heavy heart knowing that little is going in their favour. History suggests that Russia won’t get out of the group as has been the fate of several other host nations. Added into that an aging squad and a lack of creativity, Russia will likely struggle. However the thought of spending their years wasting away in a Siberian prison which is where Putin will likely send them all if they embarrass him, may be enough to spark some sort of Russian resurgence. Golovin will be crucial if they are to progress. What does work in their favour is the presence of Saudi Arabia in their group who have more chance of collectively being elected US president in 2020 than escaping the group. Uruguay should dominate with ease especially if Suarez and Cavani have anything to do with it but they will need to be on top form to beat a Salah inspired Egypt. The Egyptians sneaked in the back door in qualifying with a late surge by the Liverpool man to get them to Russia but their over reliance on him should be their downfall.

Qualifiers: Uruguay, Russia

Group B:

Without doubt the easiest group to predict in terms of top 1&2, the question is less about who but in what order. Spain and Portugal will be far too good for Iran and Morocco but don’t expect either to roll over without a fight. Spain, whose manager was sensationally sacked yesterday after agreeing to take charge at Real Madrid without informing the Spanish FA have so much strength throughout that they could afford to leave the Chelsea trio of Alonso, Fabregas and Morata behind. The 2010 World Champions are only taking two recognized strikers which sounds baffling until you look at their midfield. Regardless of who is in charge (Hierro looks to be in at present but that could change), Spain should have enough to get out of the group but maybe not much more given the turmoil. Portugal on the other hand will again turn to Ronaldo for inspiration and this time unlike at Euro 2016, the Real Madrid striker is rested and in peak condition. Not that necessarily they need him to be as was shown at the Euros where they shocked more than a few by triumphing. Morocco could challenge both of the Iberian sides especially if flair players like Younes Belhanda show up but the same can’t be said about Iran who will be literally bootless after Nike stuck the boot in just days before the tournament started by pulling out of its agreement to supply boots to the team following new US sanctions.

Qualifiers: Spain, Portugal

Questions over how Spain are coping following their managers sacking will be answered against Portugal (Image from tumblr)

Group C:

Australia arrive at the World Cup with 38-year-old Tim Cahill still very much part of their plans. But there is a freshness about this Aussie squad that arguably hasn’t been seen for a while. Celtics Tom Rogic is in fine form coming into the tournament and will be looked towards to provide forward momentum. However a lack of potent goal threat (Cahill aside) may be the difference between Australia progressing and exiting stage right. Peru on the other hand will be delighted just to be there. Issues surrounding captain Guerrero have been cleaned up with the 34-year-old cleared to play despite being found guilty of doping. It’s a huge relief for the country as without him, Peru offers very little. Three good performances with a chance of an upset in one of them is the best they can hope for. Denmark and France should be competing for the two qualifying spots and it may come down to that match to decide it. Denmark are youthful and pacey with Sisto and Dolberg two to watch. France led by Deschamps for now (Zidane hovers in the shadows) go into the World Cup with one of the most complete squads; such is their wealth that several key players have been left out (Lacazette, Martial and Coman). Much will be expected of Mbappe and Griezmann whilst Pogba will be hoping to leave his Manchester United troubles behind and play a starring role for his country. The issue with France is not about qualifying for the group or likely a round of 16 tie against Croatia but later in the quarters and semis where they will look to the bench for tactical influence and inspiration. Unfortunately Deschamps will be sitting there so the lack of a plan B could be their undoing. Zidane will ready if that happens.

Qualifiers: France, Denmark

Group D:

Much like Group C, this group will be decided by two teams although perhaps not as cut and dry as the other. Croatia have improved vastly in recent years and look more like a collective team rather than individuals running around aimlessly. Modric and Mandzukic will be key but look out for Kramaric to also shine. Defensively solid, Croatia might not score a lot but don’t let many in too so should progress. Argentina on the other hand are clearly coming in with the same mindset as the Real Madrid “Galaticio” era – it doesn’t matter how many we concede as long as we score one more. With a front line of Messi, Aguero, Higuian, and Dybala it’s not hard to understand why many are tipping Argentina to go one further than in 2014 and finally deliver the World Cup that Messi so desperately wants. The biggest disappointment of this front line is who was excluded including Mauro Icardi and the highly impressive Lautaro Martinez but it may be a tournament too soon for the youngster who is destined to shine at future World Cups.

Dybala, Higuian, Messi, Aguero – Argentina certainly aren’t short of firepower up front (image from Tumblr)

Nigeria will pose a threat especially with the pace of Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho upfront. A majority of the squad is based on the UK or Turkey meaning that as a unit they are used to seeing and competing against each other regularly. The issue will be that some key players like the aforementioned pair have struggled for playing time at Leicester this season with Musa eventually engineering a loan move in January back to Moscow in order to protect his selection for the Super Eagles. Making up the group is Iceland, the smallest ever nation to qualify for the World Cup. Two years ago they lit up Euro 2016 with some remarkable performances none more so than against an arrogant England who thought they would breeze past Iceland into the quarter finals. Iceland’s journey in that tournament, which also introduced the world to the thunder-clap cemented their place in the hearts of all football fans and that love affair is likely to extend now to the World Cup where they will be the de facto side to support for all nations who didn’t qualify (USA, Holland, Italy – looking at you). However Iceland find themselves in the so-called group of death and this time they will rightly be treated with respect rather than contentment which should make the challenge of qualifying harder. What goes for them is that Iceland has team spirit in abundance and if they can channel that plus the form they showed in qualifying (where they knocked out Holland and Turkey) they could again have hearts fluttering as they race into the knock out rounds.

Qualifiers: Argentina, Croatia

The Thunder Clap will be out on display at the World Cup regardless of how Iceland perform (Image from Tumblr)

Group E:

With the humiliation of four years ago still fresh in the memory of most Brazilians, their team comes to Russia with a point to make. Winning the World Cup is the only definition of success for Neymar and his teammates and this might be the year that it happens. Manager Tite has created a well balance yet exciting Brazil that usually sets up in a fluid 4-3-3 formation with Neymar, Coutinho and Firmino as the front three. But it’s the midfield that drives the team. Casemiro, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Fred are fairly interchangeable but the setup is not – dropping back to offer cover for the defence when the opposition presses then turning over with slick passing and forward momentum. Brazil you can say have learned their lessons and look better for it. A run to the final should be on the cards unless a team can exploit a weakness (space behind the adventurous left back Marcelo perhaps) and send Brazil home again to rethink. Serbia come into the World Cup as a dark horse with few really knowing which side will show up. On their day, Serbia are a solid outfit who defend well and attack with flair and pace. But more often than not they are found wanting or sometimes not at the races at all. Their midfield is key to any success with Matic often sitting whilst the likes of Milinkovic-Savic and Zivkovic poke holes in opposition defences. Upfront they are a little light with Newcastle’s Mitrovic their main battering ram whilst Luka Jovic provides the flair. Qualifying is not out of the picture; that is if they turn up.

One of the shocks of Brazil 2014 besides the Brazil team were Costa Rica who knocked out Italy in the group stage before eventually falling to Holland on penalties (Tim Krul’s appearance as sub goalie was the killer). Four years on and having qualified again, Costa Rica are older and wiser than before; with the key word there being older. If it weren’t for the inclusion of relative youngsters Ian Smith and Ronald Matarrita, the squads average age would be north of thirty rather than just south of it. Bryan Ruiz captains the side yet again and is likely their key goal threat although Joel Campbell does offers a different option. Qualifying will be tough but wins against Serbia and/or Switzerland and the adventure could be on again. The Swiss are often known for being impartial, never ready to rock the boat. However at the World Cup they may have other plans. Having qualified through the playoffs dispatching Northern Ireland with the thanks of a dodgy penalty call, Switzerland will be hoping that they can show exactly what they have to offer. Stoke midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri may not have had the best season in the Premier League but the little midfielder is still dangerous to play against especially as he comes inside on his left foot. Watch out for Breel Embolo too who is likely to want to stamp his name on the tournament.

Qualifiers: Brazil, Serbia

Group F:

Current World Champions Germany kick off Group F with a match against Mexico on Fathers Day and it’s likely to be one of the most interesting of the tournament as it will be an early indication of how far Germany can go. Germany are on a quest to become the first team to win back to back World Cups since Brazil achieved that feat back in ’58 and then in ’62 (Italy also did it in the 30’s). With a squad riddled with talent it’s hard to look past them but this time the challenge will be much harder. Whilst there is no Miroslav Klose to fire in the goals and Mario Gotze to pop off the bench to snatch the winner, Germany do have a ready replacement in Timo Werner. Although not a carbon copy of either he has traits that suggest that Germany manufactured him in a lab using both players DNA. Quick on the ball, skillful with it at his feet and an eye for goal, Werner will be needed if Germany are to lift the trophy. Which puts a lot of pressure on such young shoulders. That however seems to be a running issue in a team of superstars; the lack of an old wise head who can burden the responsibility of German expectations for the entire team like Lahm did four years ago. Indeed despite having Kroos, Muller, Hummels and Ozil to call upon, Germany lack a Schweinsteiger or Per Mertesacker who can rally the troops when needed. It may instead take a moment of brilliance to get the team excited and that could come from Julian Brandt who’s blistering runs will be sure to have bums everywhere lifting from their seats. Qualification from the group should be a formality but progress to the final could be stopped if Germany falls silent on the pitch.

No Gotze or Klose but they have Werner (Image from Tumblr)

Their opponents on opening day are Mexico who too should be looking at escaping the group. There are a lot of familiar faces in the Mexico squad including the Dos Santos brothers, Javier Hernandez and for a record fifth time Rafael Marquez at the tender age of 39. But it’s some of the not so familiar faces that could excite the masses. Marco Fabian and Hirving Lozano are two such players that given the right tools could have an influence on Mexico’s progression. El Tri have never not managed to get past the round of 16 in their last six attempts so that has to be the goal this time around. If they can do that, then who knows what kind of party they will throw for their returning players. If their ill advised World Cup leaving party was anything to go by (30 prostitutes plus a lot of alcohol are not a good combo), then it could be one hell of a night. Standing in Mexico’s way are potential party poopers Sweden who have resisted the temptation of recalling Zlatan to the squad and are focusing on the task in hand. Unlike Swedish teams of old that had standout goal scorers like Ibrahomivic, Larsson and to a lesser extent Dahlin this current crop looks a little lightweight upfront which could be a problem. The pressure will then be placed on the midfield to create including Emil Forsberg who is coming off a tremendous season with RB Leipzig. Seb Larssen who has just returned to play in Sweden after a career stay in England with various clubs will also be needed if Sweden stands any chance of qualifying. That is of course unless Zlatan just turns up because despite FIFA rules around naming squads, Zlatan plays when Zlatan wants to play.

Rounding out the group is South Korea who are another side that rely too heavily on one player. Spurs Son Heung-min has had his best season ever in England and will be looking to transfer that form into the World Cup. South Korea favour a counter attacking style of play which suits Heung-min perfectly but unlike Spurs who have a solid defence in order to do so, South Korea do not. Added into this, South Koreas manager still flutters between a back four and a back three repeatedly making their chances of progression limited at best.

Qualifiers: Germany, Mexico

Group G:

Arguably next to France and Germany, Belgium have the most complete squad at this years tournament boasting star names in almost every position. Solid at the back with Courtois, Vertoghen, Alderwerield and Kompany, Belgium have a strong foundation in which to build a World Cup winning campaign. Going forward they aren’t sloppy either with Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi feeding off opportunities created by Dries Mertens, De Bruyne, Carrasco and Hazard. All in all Belgium should be considered as dark horses to win. Except for the fact that their manager is Roberto Martinez who doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. The former Wigan and Everton boss has had a mixed spell in charge of Belgium. Like his predecessor, Martinez lacks the tactical ability needed to switch a game when it’s not going well. In a league you can get away with it but in knock out international football, every minute counts. If Belgium are to win it will likely be in spite of Martinez rather than due to him.

To Listen or Ignore – the dilemma for Hazard and his teammates (Image from Tumblr)

England are their toughest group opponents and under Gareth Southgate pose a viable threat to their chances. Southgate’s squad contains a good mix of youth and experience centred along a solid spine with Harry Kane as its focal point. Options are a plenty which is a good thing but can also work against you especially as consistency usually helps to win this tournament. In almost every position with the exception of striker as previously stated, Southgate could go for one of several options – Pickford or Butland, Maguire or Stones, Rose or Young, Alli or Lingard etc. This does place unnecessary pressure on the team regardless of how prepared and relaxed you are. Pressure is not something England cope with well and a majority of it comes from an over excited media who still reflect back to 1966 and England’s only World Cup triumph. In a way, that win has been a curse for the teams that followed with the media elevating expectations repeatedly higher than they should be. The team Southgate has is certainly good enough to win the World Cup but removing the pressure and finding consistency may be too big of a headache for the England boss.

Panama make their World Cup debut after watching the US fail to qualify. Few of the names in the Panama squad will be familiar to the watching fans but what they will see is an extremely passionate team who play for each other like a brotherhood. What Panama lacks in technique they make up for in grit and determination which in itself can be an extremely powerful tool. Traditionally defensive in style, Panama won’t be the most exciting to watch although Gabriel Torres may just have something different to say on that. Three good performances are likely the best they can hope for. Finally Tunisia rounds out the group. They come into the World Cup looking to build upon and improve on their last three appearances where they have failed to get out of the group stages. Unfortunately this side doesn’t look up to the task. Short on pace and lacking a real star, Tunisia will hope like Panama to compete well and hopefully spring an upset. Whabi Kazhri leads the line but it’s midfielder Ellyes Shkiri that could make the difference and in doing so put himself in the shop window. A talented 22 midfielder, Shkiri has a strong passing range and reads the game well but the lack of a supporting cast might mean his efforts are in vain.

Qualifiers: Belgium, England

Group H:

Finally group H sees Poland face Colombia, Japan and Senegal. Possibly the hardest group to call for a variety of reasons with many tipping Colombia and Poland to advance but others naming Senegal in the mix too. Japan is the side that no one really fancies in terms of proceeding and for good reason. Japan’s run up to the World Cup has been dramatic to say the least; sacking head coach Vahid Halilhodzic ten weeks before the tournament started and replacing him with the guy that sacked him, Akira Nishino is hardly the best preparation. Nishino is well liked by the older players in the squad and has a lot of coaching experience however the move has created friction in the Japan ranks which may not have died down before they kick a ball in Russia. Squad wise Japan are not the strongest. Shinji Kagawa and Keishu Honda are remnants of the Japan of old yet still pull the strings in the team. At the back Southampton’s Yoshida organizes best he can around a shaky looking defense. Qualifying would be nice but unlikely.

Halilhodzic departs as Nishino watches on (Image from Tumblr)

Colombia on the other hand should progress and could go as far as the quarters or semis given the right draw. James Rodriguez is their creator and chief architect so expect everything to go through him whilst the return of Radamel Falcao to form has been a welcome boost. At the back Mina and Sanchez are youthful additions but sometimes lack the discipline needed to perform well at international level. Goals however have been an issue of late despite Falcao’s return. The introduction of Miguel Borja might be enough to solve this but it’s unlikely. Beating Poland and finishing top would set up a clash with England in a game very difficult to call. Senegal could alter that plan. Led by former midfield enforcer Aliou Cisse, Senegal have a strong squad with Napoli’s Kalibou Koulibaly at the heart of the defence and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane leading the line. Often criticized for being too conservative in his approach, Cisse focuses on soaking up the pressure with slow painful passing movements and then releasing Mane to run at defences at pace; a strategy that has proven to work in the past. That however was against African opponents so may not work against the likes of Poland or Colombia who press with vigour.

Poland make up the group and are as always ever reliant on their striker Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern hitman is the principle reason why they are at the World Cup but to be fair he had a lot of support in the process. Piotr Zielinski has proven to be an exciting prospect who can create opportunities for Lewandowski up front. Milik and Grosicki too have stepped up with goals and assists. However the concern for Poland is not going forward but it’s at the back. Defensively Poland have been poor, so much so that the manager has switched tactics more times in the last two years than he has had hot dinners. Finally he looks to be sticking with three at the back with Glik, Pazdan and one other occupying those spots. Poland expect qualification from the group but little else which is more realistic than most nations are being.

Qualifiers: Colombia, Poland

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Jamaica Stuns US To Seal Gold Cup Final Spot

It wasn’t meant to end this way. Inspired by the heroic performance of the women’s team at the Women’s World Cup, the US men’s national team were supposed to bring home a trophy of their own – the Gold Cup. The defending champions had it all in their favour – home field advantage, a better squad than most of the others in the tournament and good form after a series of impressive friendly victories over Germany and Holland in the run up. Despite a less than convincing start in the group stage, the US finally found its second gear in the quarter finals hitting lowly Cuba for six. Klinsmann’s men looked ready and were already preparing for their six consecutive appearance in the final when they came up against Jamaica in yesterday’s semi final. But the Reggie Boyz clearly hadn’t read the script that the US had written. Instead of rolling over, they took the game to their opponents and in the end walked away with a much deserved victory leaving the US players shell-shocked. Jamaica now proceed to Sunday’s final against Mexico whilst the US are left wondering what just happened.

Down and Out - The US players leave the pitch shell shocked (Image from Getty)

Down and Out – The US players leave the pitch shell shocked (Image from Getty)

Goals from Giles Barnes and Darren Mattocks were enough to seal the shock win and knock the holders out. Toronto midfielder Michael Bradley did manage to pull one back for the US but it counted for nothing as they crashed out of the Gold Cup. Despite having a majority of the possession and more than enough chances to win the game, the US simply couldn’t find a way past Ryan Thompson in the Jamaica goal. The 30-year-old, who plays for Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the USL (the US third division) was in stunning form making save after save as the US bombarded the Jamaica goal. Indeed the only real mistake that Thompson made during the entire game was the failure to hold onto Johannsson’s long range shot which bobbled from his arms straight into the path of Bradley. By the time the newly elected US captain struck, the US were already trailing by 2-0. Despite having limited shots on goal, Jamaica made each one that they did have count with Mattock’s first on the score sheet. The Vancouver Whitecaps frontman rose well inside the box to connect onto a throw in from Kemar Lawrence and loop his header over Brad Guzman and in off of the far post. US national boss Jurgen Klinsmann will be disappointed with his centre back John Brooks  who was out jumped by Mattocks despite having a sizable height difference (6’3 versus 6’0). Still shaken from that goal, it wasn’t long before the US had conceded again. This time the goal came from an exquisite free kick by former Derby prodigy Giles Barnes from the edge of the box. Barnes curled the ball round the outside of the wall and into the near post with Guzman failing to get across in time to stop it.

Giles Barnes curls his free kick round the wall to give Jamaica a 2-0 lead  (Image from PA)

Giles Barnes curls his free kick round the wall to give Jamaica a 2-0 lead
(Image from PA)

Bradley’s goal just after the restart gave the US the lift it needed and rallied the crowd behind the home team with Jamaica now looking rather nervous. But Winfred Schafer’s side would not give in and held on for the remaining 42 minutes to book their first ever appearance in a Gold Cup final. Remarkably its only their 2nd win over the US in 23 attempts but one that they will saviour for a long time to come. Their focus will now turn to Sunday’s match against Mexico, a side who are beatable based on their performances so far in the tournament. They finished second in group C behind Trinidad after an enthralling match between the two in the final game. Mexico surged into an early lead but seven goals in the last forty minutes of the game saw the game finish as a 4-4 draw and left Trinidad on top of the group with Mexico behind them. The knock out rounds were less than convincing too  for Mexico as they struggled to find their rhythm. They needed extra time in both their quarter-final against Costa Rica and their semi final against Panama  to win the games and book their final spot.

Mexico sealed their place with a controversial win over Panama  (Image from Getty)

Mexico sealed their place with a controversial win over Panama
(Image from Getty)

This could hand Jamaica a much-needed boost with Mexico potentially facing up to fatigue after two gruelling matches in four days. But El Tri will be the strong favourites to lift their tenth title, and will take comfort in the fact that they are not facing the US as predicted. Jamaica however will once again relish the underdog carding and will be out to show that the US result was not a fluke as they look to lift their first ever Gold Cup.

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Adidas Beats Nike In This Years Brand World Cup

Adidas and Nike are fierce rivals (Image from Getty)

When David Beckham was 15 years old, he was viewed as a talented kid with a bright future in football. After being spotted by an Adidas rep, they signed him up to a 2 year deal then fundamentally forgot about him. Two years later when Beckham started to break into the Manchester United first team and into the headlines, Adidas biggest rivals Nike started to chase Beckham, keen to sign him. Adidas, desperate not to lose their new star persuaded the young United midfielder to meet with them with a view to discussing a new contract. Beckham agreed and arrived in a brand new BMW, bought that week after an improved deal by Manchester United. At the meeting, the Adidas team were quick to offer him an improved 2 year deal to prevent Nike from stealing him, but Beckham was hesitant based on his past experience with the company. Sensing his reluctance, one sharp eyed Adidas representative spotted Beckham’s new car and engaged him in conversation about it. He quickly realised that Beckham couldn’t afford the insurance on his new car and was disappointedly going to have to sell the car based on this. Looking at this kid the rep saw his potential and offered to pay his insurance as well. This act showed Beckham more about Adidas than he had seen in the past two years and he agreed to sign a new improved five year contract. This contract sealed his loyalty to the brand for life and when Beckham went on to become a superstar over the next decade; he repaid Adidas back by being their main brand icon.

Adidas branded Germany Beat the Nike branded USA in the group stage  (Image from PA)

Adidas branded Germany Beat the Nike branded USA in the group stage
(Image from PA)

Brand association is key to Adidas and no more so than at the World Cup. Despite being an official FIFA sponsor, Adidas still faces a daily battle with its key rival, Nike who are keen to capitalize on the world’s most watched tournament. Adidas have spent around £50m on advertising around the tournament but it’s the branding seen on players shirts, boots and the official tournament ball that benefits them the most. Stars like Lionel Messi, James Rodriguez and Arjen Robben have lit up the tournament dressed in Adidas branded kits which in turn helps sales as kids across the globe rush out to buy the strips of their heroes. Nike has had a somewhat disappointing Word Cup with England and Portugal crashing out early but rallied behind home nation Brazil and the USA for addition shirt sales. It’s a competitive battle but Adidas are slightly edging during this World Cup with more sponsors remaining in the tournament than their rivals. Out of the last eight teams in the tournament, Adidas had kit sponsorships with four teams (Argentina, Colombia, Belgium and Germany) whilst Nike only had three (Brazil, France and Holland). This year’s surprise team Costa Rica’s shirts are made by Italian sports brand Lotto. With Brazil’s shock 7-1 defeat by Germany and Argentina’s penalty shoot out win over Holland, it will be an all Adidas final for the first time since 1990 (ironically between Germany and Argentina as well), much to Nike’s disappointment.

The Adidas Story is told in Sneaker Wars by Barbara Smit  (Image from Amazon)

The Adidas Story is told in Sneaker Wars by Barbara Smit
(Image from Amazon)

As far as organizations go, there are few bigger than Adidas and Nike. Between them they control the sports apparel and footwear market and have a majority of the world sport stars signed up on their books. Competition between the two is fierce and a variety of tactics have been employed by both companies over the years to gain the upper hand. The story of Adidas is a fascinating one and is brilliantly captured in the book Sneaker Wars by Barbara Smit. It tells the tale of two brothers, Adi and Rudi Dassler who started a shoe business in rural Germany shortly after World War 1 with almost instant success. Troubles soon surfaced as the pair disagreed on how the company should be run, which created a divide that would eventually lead them to follow separate paths. Those paths created history with the brothers establishing rival companies, Adidas and Puma. The astonishing story is of their long running feud and how the sports market evolved over the next sixty years, with branding association becoming more prevalent with the creation of global sports stars. The introduction of Nike in 1971 added an extra competition to the market and over time Nike grew to become the biggest rival to Adidas Empire. After basketball success in the 80s and 90’s, Nike turned its focus to Adidas core business, Football. Ever since that moment, the pair have been embroiled in a battle for dominance. Sunday’s all Adidas final will hand the German company this battle but their war with Nike to see who controls the sports market continues.

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Van Gaal Masterstroke Sends Holland Into The Semi’s

Late switch sends Krul on (Image from Getty)

It was a bold move, one that could have easily backfired but in the end proved inspirational. Holland manager Louis Van Gaal’s decision to replace goalkeeper Jesper Cillessen with Tim Krul a minute before their Quarter final penalty shoot-out against Costa Rica seemed strange at the time but proved to be decisive as Krul stepped up to save two of the Costa Rican penalties, sending Holland into the semi-finals. The Newcastle stopper has only made 6 appearances for his country before this so when he was seen warming up deep into extra time, many were left confused. But Van Gaal knew exactly what he was doing and threw Krul on to become the hero. He knew that this was a bold move that would throw his opposite numbers well placed plans into disarray and it worked. Jorge Luis Pinto had no time to react, he simply had to rip up his pre match analysis of Jesper Cillessen and move on. It rattled Costa Rica to the core and in the end was the key reason why Holland progressed and Costa Rica didn’t.

Last few words of encouragement from Van Gaal  (Image from EPA)

Last few words of encouragement from Van Gaal
(Image from EPA)

Holland to be fair deserved the victory overall having created more chances but were unable to break down a well organised Costa Rica side. Led by Bryan Ruiz, Costa Rica have been the surprise outfit of the tournament and were looking to become the first Concacaf nation to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup since the US in 1930. From kick-off, their strategy was clear – contain the Dutch, limit their chances and if possible hit them on the break. If they could hold them until full time, the objective switched to time wasting to get them to the dreaded penalty shout out and a lottery chance of progression. They played admirably throughout the first half, much like they had done against Greece in the round before, and attacked more in the second half with the hopes of snatching a goal. But the Dutch are a different proposition that the misfiring Greeks and with Robben and Van Perise on the pitch, Costa Rica could ill afford to be slack at tracking back. Joel Campbell ran his heart out before being replaced with twenty minutes of normal time left by Marcos Ureña who assumed the same role for the remainder of the match.

Krul saves from Umana to send Holland through  (Image from AFP)

Krul saves from Umana to send Holland through
(Image from AFP)

One upfront with Bryan Ruiz sitting between striker and midfield, it was hardly attacking football at its best. But they stuck to their plan and pushed Holland into extra time and then into penalties, thanks in part to some astute defending and further heroics from goalkeeper, Keylor Navas who surely must be a candidate for player of the tournament. In this game however there could be only one hero and that honour lay with Krul. It was obvious from the moment Krul confidently stepped onto the pitch that this move was rehearsed and that nothing had been left to chance. Krul knew the players he would face in the shoot-out, their favoured direction and more importantly how to rattle them. He smack talked the Costa Rican players one by one as they came up to take their kicks, trying desperately to put them off their game and boy did it work. The first penalty Ceslo Borges just dipped under Krul’s outstretched left hand as it eased its way into the bottom right corner. But after that Krul was in control. He saved the next one from Bryan Ruiz and more importantly Costa Rica’s five kick from Michael Umaña which put Holland into the semi-finals to play Argentina.

Krul saves from Umana to send Holland through  (Image from AFP)

Krul saves from Umana to send Holland through
(Image from AFP)

Krul’s teammates did their bit with Holland ruthless with their penalties, accurately thundering everyone into the corner of the net, far away from Navas diving hand. From their first kick to the last, Holland were determined not to repeat history and become the first Dutch team to ever win a penalty shoot-out in the World Cup. But the biggest role of the day fell to Krul to save at least one of Costa Rica’s spot kicks. He did better than that and now goes down in Dutch folklore as the man who single handily put Holland into the semi-finals of World Cup 2014. Spare a thought for Jesper Cillessen who played well in the match before being tactically substituted but even that will not take away from Krul’s two moments of history and Van Gaal’s moment of genius.

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Shock and Awe In Group Stage But What Moment Stood Out The Most?

Hero to Villan - Suarez bites again (Image from Getty)This has certainly been one of he most exciting and interesting World Cups in recent memory. Controversal moments, Jaw dropping goals and the ocassional shock result have left many praying that the tournament somehow gets extended by another two weeks! The group stage along threw up a host of surprises, none more so than Costa Rica’s surprise romp of group D. The tiny central America republic was expected to be the whipping boys of the group heading in the tournament, especially given that they were placed with three former World Champions – Uruguay, Italy and England. But being the underdogs suited Costa Rica who shocked the world with a 3-1 victory over Uruguay in their first group match. They followed up quickly with a 1-0 victory over Italy and concluded the group with a 0-0 draw with England. With seven points Costa Rica won the group and set up a knock out round tie against Greece.

Bryan Ruiz celebrates scoring against Italy  (Image from Getty)

Bryan Ruiz celebrates scoring against Italy
(Image from Getty)

Speaking of shocks, few could have foreseen Luis Suarez being banned for biting again but yet he was. This time his bite on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini earned him a four month worldwide football ban, effectively ruling him out for the rest of the World Cup and the first three months of the new season. Stupidity once again from a talented player. Another player to fall from grace was Iker Casillas whose performances for Spain during this World Cup aided Spain’s early departure. Losing 5-1 in their opening game against Holland was bad but a further slip by Casillas against Chile led to another three points slipping through his grasp. Questions will be raised over his future and whether at 33, he will decide to retire from international football or come back to prove he still has the skills that made him a previous World Cup winner.

These are only three moments that made the group stages interesting but which one shocked you the most? Tell us now in the monthly poll below:

 

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From Hero To Villian As Suarez Bites Again

Hero to Villan - Suarez bites again (Image from Getty)

You would have thought that Luis Suarez had learned his lesson after being caught last year biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic’s arm, earning him a ten game ban but it would appear not. In yesterday’s nail biting winner takes all final group match between Italy and Uruguay, Suarez appeared to lean into Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini and bite him on the shoulder. The Juventus player reacted like many others would with disgust and anger, instantly pulling down his jersey to show the referee (and the watching world) the newly created bite marks. It’s yet another outrageous act from one of the world’s best players and with FIFA now set to act; it’s hard to see how Suarez can recover from this. The player has until 5pm Brasilia time to submit his position and any other documented evidence to FIFA ahead of a decision being made. Suarez insists that he simply bumped into the shoulder of Chiellini and the whole thing should not be made into a big deal. The pictures however tell a different story with Suarez appearing to lean into the shoulder of the Italian centre back in a quick motion before the pair fell to the ground.

Chiellini shows off the bite mark  (Image from Getty)

Chiellini shows off the bite mark
(Image from Getty)

Fortunately for Suarez the Mexican referee, Marco Rodriguez did not see the clash so took no action but now FIFA is ready to step in after reviewing the footage. Given that spitting on an opponent leads to a six game ban by FIFA, biting an opponent is likely to lead to a heavier ban from the governing body, effectively ruling Suarez out of the rest of the World Cup. And since Suarez has previous bans for biting at domestic club level (firstly in Holland with Ajax where he received a seven game ban for biting PSV’s Ottman Bakkal and then in England where he got a ten game ban for biting Ivanovic), FIFA will look to make an example of Suarez and throw the book at him. Both previous incidents fell under the jurisdiction of the local governing bodies with FIFA unwilling to intervene but with this incident happening during a FIFA organized tournament, the ramifications could be more severe. Suarez could face up to a maximum of a 2 year worldwide ban from football, based on FIFA’s disciplinary code or as little as a three match ban as handed down to former France midfielder Zinedine Zidane for a head butt on Marco Materazzi during the 2006 final.

Zidane received a three game ban from FIFA for his head butt  (Image from AFP)

Zidane received a three game ban from FIFA for his head butt
(Image from AFP)

Regardless of what ban is handed down, Suarez’s World Cup is over and with it goes Uruguay’s chances of winning the tournament. Without their talisman, they look less likely to score as shown in their opening group game against Costa Rica where they struggled to break down a team ranked as group outsiders. When Suarez returned to the side to face England, it was he who popped up twice to score, helping Uruguay to a famous 2-1 win. Even against Italy, before the biting incident, Suarez looked like Uruguay’s only goal scoring threat so a ban now would set the whole team back. His teammates on the field knew exactly what he had just done and tried desperately to defuse the situation and cover it up. Gaston Ramirez tried to stop Chiellini from showing the referee the bite marks by pulling the Italian’s jersey back into place. But by that point it was too late with the world’s media having already captured the moment and replaying it over and over.

Suarez received a lengthy ban for biting Ivanovic  (Image from PA)

Suarez received a lengthy ban for biting Ivanovic
(Image from PA)

Suarez’s actions could also wreck his chances of a dream move to Spain with either Barcelona or Real Madrid. Neither club is likely to risk paying in excess of €60million for a player with a reputation for violent conduct on the pitch who could also now be banned for a long period of time. They both gave him the benefit of the doubt last season that perhaps he was reformed after serving his ban for biting Ivanovic. But this latest incident will resurface those initial doubts and could scupper any proposed move for the troubled Uruguayan hitman. It’s been a rollercoaster World Cup for Suarez who watched from the bench in agony as Uruguay crashed to a surprise 3-1 defeat by Costa Rica in their opening game before making his hero’s comeback against England and snatching the two goals needed to secure three points. The win yesterday put Uruguay into the knockout stages to face Colombia, a moment that should have been exhilarating for Suarez but instead he is staring down the barrel into the abyss that is now his career. Given the reoccurrence of his actions, Suarez needs to seek help and FIFA may just give him the time to do that when they finally come back with his punishment for yet another stupid act.

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Is It Time To Resuscitate The World Cup?

Should FIFA revamp the World Cup? (Image from Getty)The pressure is building on Brazil to be ready by June with some stadiums only partially completed whilst infrastructure still leaves a lot to be desired. However the tournament itself is under more scrutiny than ever before as it attempts to live up to its hefty billing. The World Cup is and always has been football’s global showcase but it’s a title that is slowly losing its grip of. With the luxurious Champions League pulling in a growing number of admirers especially in its latter rounds due to exciting football and a soon to be revamped European Championship that will encourage better fan participation with more teams than ever before, the World Cup is starting to show her age. The old girl has been around for a considerable amount of time but has lacked the panache in recent years that it once had.

Audience's tune in to watch the Champions League in their millions  (Image from David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Audience’s tune in to watch the Champions League in their millions
(Image from David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Not since France 1998 have crowds been held on the edge of their seats from day one all the way up until the last kick of the ball in the final.  Not to say that viewers are turning away from the World Cup as globally the audience continues to grow but there has been a shift in recent years towards a lack of care or enthusiasm for what was unfolding. Watching smaller nations like North Korea face Brazil in a one sided match was less entertaining and instead more painful.  China’s approach to the 2002 World Cup was pure survival, preferring to enjoy the spectacle rather than compete; resulting in three losses and no goals (they boasted a total of two shots on target during the entire tournament). Not that these teams did not deserve to be there as they fought hard to qualify from their respective groups but the sizable gap in performance and skill is so evident that you wonder why they wanted to get there in the first place. Yes reaching the World Cup is magical but so is competing in it. Give it your best shot as it may be your only one should be the battle cry but more often than not teams appear with a whimper than a roar.

All hands on Deck - North Korea defend in numbers against Brazil  (Image from FIFA)

All hands on Deck – North Korea defend in numbers against Brazil
(Image from FIFA)

The World Cup should be as it’s billed – the planets best 32 teams competing for the right to be called World Champions. If Iran and North Korea are in that 32 then great as they deserve to be there but not in the way that they are right now. Personally I blame FIFA’s spot allocation system that dictates how many teams each region can send to World Cup. Being fair is one thing but if the main event suffers then surely questions need to be asked over it validity?  How can a region with an average FIFA ranking of 101 be given 4.5 spots whilst another with an average of 90 is allocated only 3.5? Both regions have a similar number of teams but it would appear that FIFA favours one over the other for reasons unknown. Perhaps it’s the fact that the region with the higher number of spots also helps to contribute to a larger share of money going into FIFA’s coffers than the second mentioned region.  Either way what has happened is that the World Cup has become a competition for a handful of teams to win rather than all 32. Heading into Brazil, fans will be placing their bets on who will lift the coveted golden trophy at the end but few bets will be placed on the likes of Costa Rica, Algeria, Honduras or Iran. Do they have a shot? Of course they do but it’s a very long one that will require more than just good fortune along the way for them to win the tournament. In fact qualifying to the knockout stages may be a challenge for most of them given the gap in quality between them and the other nations in their group.

Long Shot - Iran will need a miracle to win the World Cup  (Image from PA)

Long Shot – Iran will need a miracle to win the World Cup
(Image from PA)

FIFA has taken a gamble by focusing on growing the World Cup brand, focusing on the pre show rather than the main event which may come back to haunt them. A radical overhaul may be required to keep interest in the World Cup high and keep the competition itself competitive. Realignment of the qualification process including a mixing of the groups by FIFA rankings or through knock out stages may be necessary to protect the World Cup’s long term health. There is still life in the old girl yet but without something to keep her interesting; she may just start to fade away from the public eye. That really is the last thing that FIFA wants.

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Brazil Or Bust: The Challenges Facing Teams At The World Cup

Sepp Blatter and Fernanda Lima at the Draw (Image from Getty)Friday’s World Cup draw was anything but easy to understand. The complicated system employed by FIFA to stack rank then draw the 32 teams left many wondering what had just happened. The look on England manager Roy Hodgson’s face said it all. But now that the draw is over, each team has full clarity of the task in hand and who they will be facing next summer. For some the draw was kind whilst others will be wondering whether to go at all. Speculation over who will win the tournament has gone into overdrive with Brazil, Argentina and Spain set as early favourites based on their FIFA rankings and the groups drawn but there are other factors at play that need to be considered.

All eyes on Brazil  (Image from PA)

All eyes on Brazil
(Image from PA)

Just looking at how the groups are laid out is not enough to try and work out who will be victorious in Brazil. There are other mitigating circumstances that will come into play and will affect the overall outcome. First and foremost the location of each game and the travelling required by some nations will have an effect on the condition of the players and how tired they will be. With only a few days between games, logistics will play a huge part in the preparations. Mexico look to have profited with a draw that sees their travel restricted top only a couple of hours each time. All of their matches will be played in the northern cities of Natal, Fortaleza and Recife. In the same group, home nation Brazil will spend a majority of time travelling as they attempt to appease the fans across the country. Whilst accustom to the climate and conditions, the heavy travel schedule over a short space of time make take its toll. Portuguese chances of progressing from the group stage took a hit when the draw was made. Not only did they land in a tough group with Germany, USA and Ghana, the way the fixtures are lined up could also factor into their potential success. A tough opener in Salvador against Germany is followed six days later with a tiring match against the US in tropical Manaus before a lengthy journey to Brasilia to face Ghana four days after that. Like many teams, the strength in depth of the squad will show as rotation will be key to survive the group stage. Squads like Croatia, Iran, Greece and Japan will all struggle as their key starting eleven falter and managers are forced to replace them with lesser quality players.

Travel will play a major role in who wins the World Cup  (Image from Google)

Travel will play a major role in who wins the World Cup
(Image from Google)

The weather and climate will also play a major role. In places like Manaus, centered in the middle of the Amazon, teams will experience high temperatures and lung busting humidity. During July, heavy rain is not uncommon but the summer months fall during the countries “dry spell” so the rain is usually limited to mid afternoon showers. Still this will likely alter the playing surface, forcing teams into tactical changes and potentially player selection. It’s a world away from the cooler temperatures of the south in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro where the weather is more controlled and will suit the European teams more. Don’t be surprised to see dark horses Belgium storm through the group stages after being given a kind draw. With an easy group (Russia, Algeria and South Korea) and all their matches to be played in the south (Rio, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte), Belgium should be refreshed and firing on all cylinders come the knock out stages. France too should profit from having two of their three matches located in the south of the country. Travel will play a role but with a difficult game against the Swiss sandwiched nicely between ties against Honduras and Ecuador, France should progress with ease. England and Italy are both facing a difficult World Cup and will need to start strongly in their opening match against each other in Manaus on Saturday 14th June.  After the match, Italy travel east to Recife where they face Costa Rica then conclude the group with a likely winner takes all match against Uruguay in Natal. England however fly south to Sao Paulo to take on a Luis Suarez inspired Uruguay then north to play Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte. Hodgson will know that the match in Belo will be pointless if his team cannot pick up any points in the first two matches of the group. A tough challenge given the opposition, weather conditions and travel.

Belgium should benefit from an easy draw and little travel  (Image from Getty)

Belgium should benefit from an easy draw and little travel
(Image from Getty)

We are now just over six months away from the kick off of the 2014 World Cup. All 32 teams now know who they will be facing and what other challenges lie in wait for them when they reach Brazil. The toughest challenge for them all will be not necessarily the games themselves but everything around them. With transport infrastructure still an issue, hotels not complete and adverse weather conditions across the country, the winners of Brazil 2014 will have to overcome a variety of obstacles if they are to lift the famous golden trophy.

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