Always in the Shadows

You have to feel for Neymar. The Brazilian superstar just can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to his club. After making the breakthrough at Santos in his native Brazil, Neymar quickly became the player that everyone was talking about. Blessed with a natural ability that has elevated him to become one of the worlds best players, Neymar thrives as the focal point of the team. At Santos, surrounded by teammates of lesser quality Neymar was front and centre. For Brazil it is a similar story. Neymar was basking in the limelight but needed a bigger platform. In stepped Barcelona.

Front and Centre - where Neymar feels most comfortable (Image from Tumblr)

Front and Centre – where Neymar feels most comfortable (Image from Tumblr)

At first, the move to Barcelona made a lot of sense. Neymar, the latest emerging prodigy from South America moving to arguably the world’s biggest club. His name and talents would be elevated into the next stratosphere whilst Barcelona profited both on and off the pitch. At Barcelona he would be one of their brightest assets but not their biggest. That title has been held for over a decade by one Lionel Messi. The Argentine is a god amongst men in the world of football, an icon that regardless of how he is playing steals all of the limelight. Barcelona pitched a story to Neymar about coming in to play alongside Messi, learning from him day-to-day and eventually replacing him as the clubs focal point. It was an attractive proposition, one that almost guaranteed success for Neymar so he snapped it up without hesitation. Over the next four seasons, trophies would flow into Barcelona like water – two La Liga titles, three consecutive Copa del Reys, one Champions League and a Club World Cup should have left Neymar feeling on top of the football world. But despite this, all was not right with the Brazilian, something was clearly missing. The limelight.

 

Neymar and Messi should have been the dream ticket and for a while it was (Image from Tumblr)

Neymar and Messi should have been the dream ticket and for a while it was (Image from Tumblr)

Neymar was improving season over season. His first season started slowly with Neymar finding his rhythm part of the way through the campaign leading to 14 goals in all competitions. By the second, he was firing on all cylinders contributing 39 goals in 51 appearances. By the third season his tally decreased but his influence on how Barcelona attacked and in particular won games was evident. But regardless of what he did, Messi continued to shine brighter.  In Neymar’s second season at Barcelona, Messi racked up an incredible 58 goals in 57 appearances, 43 of which came in the league. The light was starting to blind Neymar who started to doubt the vision painted by Barcelona a few years before. Messi was not slowing down nor looked to be fading. Neymar knew that if he was to become the central figure, he was going to have to leave.

Living in Messi's shadow grew tiresome for Neymar (Image from Twitter)

Living in Messi’s shadow grew tiresome for Neymar (Image from Twitter)

PSG had spent a lot of money on players before Neymar arrived capturing top talents like Angel Di Maria, Julian Draxler and Edison Cavani. But none came close to the impact that Neymar had on his arrival. On signing, PSG went from Ligue 1 title winners to possible Champions League contenders. His €222m transfer obliterated the record set previously by Real Madrid when they bought Gareth Bale. Neymar entered the club like Julius Caesar returning to Rome following the conquest of Gaul. With only Cavani in his way, Neymar brushed aside the Uruguayan to take his position as the focal point of PSG. All was well it seemed until the arrival of a teenage upstart called Kylian Mbappe.

Back in the Limelight - Neymar joined PSG to be the focal point (Image from Tumblr)

Back in the Limelight – Neymar joined PSG to be the focal point (Image from Tumblr)

The 2018 World Cup in Russia was viewed by Brazil as a redemption opportunity; a way to final bury the memory of what happened four years previously back home at the hands of the Germans. Neymar, sidelined for that game took it as his personal mission to win the World Cup for Brazil this time around was a man possessed even if a bit dramatically. As always he was front and centre, controlling what Brazil did and scoring important goals when needed. A wry smile will have crept over his face as Messi and Argentina crashed out early on. Against Belgium in the quarter finals, Neymar’s dream crumbled as an injury time equalizer was agonizingly saved by Courtois. Brazil were out. Neymar was forced to watch as France, led by his newest teammate Mbappe swept to glory. It was a turning point in the career of Mbappe, once a promising talent now considered the real deal.

Mbappe is slowly becoming the star at PSG much to Neymar's disappointment (Image from Tumblr)

Mbappe is slowly becoming the star at PSG much to Neymar’s disappointment (Image from Tumblr)

Back in Ligue 1, Neymar has been playing brilliantly with eight goals in eight league games to date.  A hat trick in the Champions League goes to show how much Neymar has the bit between his teeth. However its Mbappe that is stealing most of the headlines in France. Following his World Cup heroics, Mbappe has been elevated to saint status with his every touch fawned upon. Whilst his goals to games return has not been as good as Neymars’, a recent four goal haul against Lyon has the media once again eating out of his hand. Neymar is not handling it well and cuts a worried figure realizing that this youngster could eclipse him and eventually steal all of the limelight. He has a tough decision to make – stick it out and battle against Mbappe in a country that favours the Frenchman over him or cut his losses and move yet again. Real Madrid are rumoured to be monitoring the situation closely and hoping to get a SOS sign from Neymar. With the light switching over to Mbappe, Neymar needs to act fast or face further years in the shadows.

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Can Messi Inspire Argentina one more time?

Argentina enter todays crunch match with Nigeria with their World Cup hopes hanging in the balance. A draw in their opening fixture against Iceland and a punishing defeat by Croatia in their second game has left Argentina needing a win and for other results to go their way. It’s hardly the start that Lionel Messi and co expected nor did many others. Argentina were widely considered one of the favourites to lift the trophy but two abysmal performances have left them looking more like shock exits. Every World cup has one, a favourite that exits in the group stage – in 2010 it was France and Italy whilst four years ago in Brazil it was Spain, Italy and England. Argentina qualified with ease winning all three group matches before a run to the final when ended in heartbreak as Mario Gotze poked home the ball deep into extra time.

Gotze wins it for Germany (Image from AFP)

Still hurting – Argentina came so close in Brazil only to fall at the last hurdle (Image from Tumblr)

Qualification from the group is not mathematically impossible but given their recent form, it looks doubtful. A win against a high-flying Nigeria who are fresh off the back of an impressive 2-0 win over Iceland would give them hope although they need a favour from current group leaders Croatia who face the rank outsiders Iceland earlier on. The fact that the Croatia vs Iceland game is scheduled to be played before the Argentina vs Nigeria match is peculiar given that all the other final group matches happen simultaneously but thats for FIFA to explain why. That means that as Argentina kicks off, they will know if their fate has already been sealed or still lies in their own hands. A win for Iceland will put them on four points so only a win for Argentina and a significant goal difference will sneak them through in second place. A draw or defeat to Nigeria will see them on the first plane home.

Defeat to Croatia has left Argentina needing to win against Nigeria to qualify (Image from Tumblr)

Defeat to Croatia has left Argentina needing to win against Nigeria to qualify (Image from Tumblr)

Much is pinned on the shoulders of their superstar Lionel Messi. The Barcelona forward is widely considered the greatest player of his generation but comparisons to former greats like Pele and more notably Argentine icon Diego Maradona are a constant hinderance. Whilst Messi has outgunned his compatriot on club level and has won far more trophies to show for it, a lack of silverware  (or more appropriately golden-ware) for Argentina continues to be the divide. Maradona has won the World Cup with Argentina back in 1986 and as a result is forever held up as a god back home whilst Messi despite his brilliance is viewed somewhat less favourably. Only by winning the World Cup will Messi win them all over. That in itself is a huge ask. Four years ago, Messi inspired Argentina on that run to the final, more than a few times acting as superman as he single handily dragged his team through games. But four years on, Messi looks tired and less enthusiastic about this challenge which is likely his last.

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Maradona wins the World Cup with Argentina in 1986 (Image from Tumblr)

His chances look vastly decreased too given those playing around him. Argentina are littered with talent up front but look less convincing the further back you go. Indeed the three goalkeepers they have in the squad have little international experience with 11 caps between them. Caballero should have been a safe pair of hands yet the Chelsea back up goalie’s howler in the game against Croatia will forever haunt him. Added into this, Argentina have a coach (Jorge Sampaoli) who is at best a one trick pony. That trick is to play a high possession, high pressing game closing down quickly further up the pitch. Whilst that has worked in his previous roles, Argentina lack the players to make this possible. Plan A therefore becomes obsolete. The issue with that is that there is no plan B. Sampaoli has no back up so continues with the same approach despite a lack of end product which makes Argentina’s chances of qualifying even slimmer.

1529906441-Javier-Mascherano-denies-rift-between-Argentina-players-and-coach-Jorge-Sampaoli

Sampaoli needs a Plan B and quickly (image from Tumblr)

The glimmer of hope is that if Argentina has goals in them – starting Aguero, Dybala and Messi should give them enough firepower to test a suspect Nigerian defence with the introduction of Higuian and Di Maria late as Nigerian legs waiver. The midfield with Mascherano as a holding midfielder will be crucial if they are to stem the amount of opportunities handed to Musa upfront. With exceptional pace and a keen eye for goal, Musa has shown that he is Nigeria’s dangerman so stopping him from getting the ball is the best option rather than trying to stop him in full flight. Rojo and Otamendi must start together in a revised 4-4-2 formation after failures using 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 in their previous two matches.

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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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One on One with: Karina LeBlanc

Few athletes can boast of the sort of international soccer career Karina LeBlanc enjoyed during her 17 years in a Canada shirt, including five World Cups, two Olympics and of course, that London 2012 bronze medal – and fewer still have managed the transition like she has since hanging up her goalkeeper’s gloves three years ago. A FIFA and CONCACAF Ambassador, public speaker, mentor, budding broadcaster and of late, with her own foundation just up and running and a park in her native Maple Ridge, B.C., named in her honour, LeBlanc remains a highly visible, totally inspirational figure in the game. We caught up with her as she prepared to leave for the World Cup in Russia, to take on the likes of Maradona, Ronaldinho and her one-time idol Peter Schmeichel in a FIFA Legends event around this year’s tournament opener.

Backofthenet: What are you doing at the World Cup?

Karina LeBlanc: I’m a FIFA Legend. No kidding. We play a game on the 12th, with or against Maradona, Puyol, all the real legends. I don’t know which team I’m on yet, but it’s a little mini-tournament and we’ll play against each other for fun. And I’ll be just pinching myself. Last time (at the World Cup draw) Maradona was teasing me and I was talking trash back to him – like, who does that? And then Ronaldo, Ronaldinho – the true legends, that’s my reality. We’ll sit in on the FIFA Congress for the 2026 voting, and then we all get to watch the opening game of the World Cup in Russia.

BOTN: You’ve been to five World Cups as a player, but I guess you’ve never done the World Cup like this.

Karina: Never. There’s no pressure on me, first of all. I’m literally going as a fan of the game and I get to be an Ambassador at the same time. I’ll get to be there and watch and take in all of it. I’ve never been to a World Cup game as a spectator, and get to do it with all the heroes I grew up watching and had on my wall. It’s gonna be kind of cool!

Passion is something that Karina has never lacked (Image from Karina LeBlanc's instagram)

Passion is something that Karina has never lacked (Image from Karina LeBlanc’s instagram)

BOTN: It’ll be exactly 20 years next month since you made your international debut for Canada. Can you put into words how long a journey that’s been for you, and also for the women’s side of the game?

Karina: It really makes me feel so grateful for it. There’s moments I remember especially when we were fighting for things. We’d have eight people at a game and we’d be staying at a barracks – you’re fighting to find a place in this world and make a stance in the women’s game not only as a country, but also as a woman. And in the journey you have this picture, you’re actually thinking beyond what you can see, trying to pave the way as a group. In 2015 when I retired I think that was one of the proudest things – you always want to leave the game in a better place than when you came into it, and I think that’s one of the true legacy pieces we talked about in the national team. Now I think what I’m proud of is how it’s continuing to grow, how it’s continuing to take notice and I think the biggest thing now that I’m removed from the game is to see and hear and be able to be part of continuing the change and seeing how the women’s game can truly impact the next generation. I think 20 years now, when I look back, I’m proud of where the game has come to and I’m proud of being a part of helping continue to take the game where it can go. Being named a FIFA Legend – I don’t know about that, but I’m pinching myself, almost feeling that little kid within me again. The innocence of it, the excitement of the World Cup – I haven’t had a chance to do that in so long, because there was always pressure around it. I’ve never even thought of that – 20 years – that’s half my life.

(Image from Karina's instagram)

Karina in her new role as a FIFA Ambassador (Image from Karina’s instagram)

BOTN: Do you remember that first time you put on the shirt?

Karina: It was in Ottawa, I believe, against China. I was really young and I was trying to process what it all meant. I was proud because at a young age I’d already been through some stuff – I’d been cut, I’d been told I wasn’t good enough. So when you finally get there you’re proud, but you’re also standing next to women who have paved the way for you to get there. It’s the honour of that, and the respect of that, and just the opportunity. Who gets to play for your country? That’s one thing that never left me every time I put on the jersey – how privileged I was to put that flag on my heart. That’s what I love about the World Cup. It’s not about the numbers and the TV – you’re putting that flag on your heart and representing your country. I never ever took it for granted.

BOTN: You did it for 17 years.

Karina: It didn’t feel that long. For every failure, it didn’t feel that way, because I learned so much about myself. One of the most beautiful lessons in life that sport teaches you is that failure is okay, but then you get the successes – as a goalkeeper you think of those big saves, those big moments, all the work comes down to that adrenaline rush of that moment when you’re stretching out and tipping the ball and it’s bending around the post and you know that all your work came into that matter of inches. Yes, I did it for 17 years but you know what? I think because the way my life is right now, I haven’t missed it. I miss my teammates, that part of the game, but the actual hard training and that kind of sacrifice, 17-plus years of doing it, I definitely was ready to walk away.

BOTN: A lot of players have trouble after their playing days end. Why do you think you’ve been able to handle that so well?

Karina: I think one of the biggest things was I wanted to align everything with my purpose here on this Earth. That’s why I always say that being a UNICEF Ambassador is one of the proudest moments of my life, because I remember one of my first trips before I retired and it was a defining moment, because life is about feeling that you’re doing something. When you’re doing that in service to others you feel it more than ever. I remember being in Honduras and seeing those kids in the first ever jersey I wore as a kid in Maple Ridge B.C. and so many things hit me that this was the next step for me. I think I aligned my life to feeling that fulfillment in helping others, and it helps me understand that all my difficulties as an athlete – you’re like why? and people go through this in life too – when you can align that your life is not actually about you, it’s about other people and your voice can actually help inspire people, I think that helped me in my transition. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t always peachy, it wasn’t always perfect. I had my days where I felt alone and you miss those two hours of sitting around at dinner talking about nothing with your teammates in a foreign country, you miss that taking your body to the extreme. But I think what I’ve been able to fill that hole with is the ability to impact other people to be a better version of themselves.

(Image from Karina's instagram)

Karina as UNICEF ambassador (Image from Karina’s instagram)

BOTN: That’s the challenging part right?

The challenge for me is that I’ve been able to do it in multiple areas, not just one, and it’s ever growing and continuing, and I think for me that’s the beauty of it. That helps my transition. Even my speaking now, it’s taken off and got into the corporate world, which if you asked me two years ago … I speak to a lot of huge corporate gigs and it’s because people are saying, come talk a little bit about your sport life, but come talk too about this idea of living and working purposefully – not for the bottom dollar, but where we each as individuals can step into this idea of living for a purpose on this Earth and being who we were meant to me. That makes me feel so alive. And then doing the stuff with the CBC, the RBC Training Ground where we travel across Canada to find Canada’s next Olympic hopeful – even that is fulfilling because it’s these kids being given the opportunity by RBC to pursue their dreams … everything that I’m doing, I guess it all aligns to me using everything I’ve been through on this Earth where every day I wake up and I’m actually living my purpose. It’s such a cliché, but it’s a beautiful challenge and in the last four months I’ve probably had 50 appearance and they’ve all been different. And that’s beautiful. Every day I feel alive, and it’s not the same – In the smallest ways, it’s actually making people people be a better version of themselves, and when I retired I thought there’d be no chance I could impact people this way. You’re in this team environment, but when you remove yourself you have to figure out who you are as an individual and in exploring that and stay true to myself I’ve been able to create so many different opportunities.

BOTN: How has your perspective on the team you used to be a part of changed – they have a new coach (Kenneth Heiner-Moller), a new group of players, John Herdman has gone on to the men’s side of things. How do you see that now from a distance?

Karina: I think it was interesting. Everything came out quicker than John wanted to or even the players. It kind of came up in the way it wasn’t intended to. I remember speaking to John – he’s a builder, and if you ask him he probably had the practice schedule for June 10, 2020. He said there came a time when the team is so ready, and Kenneth is so perfect for them – it’s a changing of the guards but it’s like when you lose your best boss you’re bummed about it, but you’re also getting another incredible boss. I think the program’s in great hands. He knows the group and he’s also led himself so he knows how to lead, and it’s the perfect time to transition because there are a lot of younger faces on the team that they can take this change. I think it’s a positive because I think that what John’s going to be able to do on the men’s side is also different from what most of the coaches were able to do there. He is that planner. People have said he can’t motivate the men like he did the women, but I think after the first camp the response of the men was exactly that – they were like, this man is legit, he understands that you understand who you’re leading first before you decide how to lead. That’s the mark of a great leader. I think both the women’s and the men’s team will be better off from all of this.

BOTN: You’ve always spoke of the huge influence John Herdman had on you.

Karina: Huge. Me even becoming a UNICEF Ambassador came from the words of John. We were in Brazil and he said ‘I’m going to take my coaching hat off … if you think your purpose on this Earth is to kick a soccer ball for Canada then I’ve failed you.’ He brought out things about myself I wasn’t even aware of – you don’t see yourself with the eyes of others. He said I was destined to do so much and that conversation rocked me. I was like, ‘this is my purpose, I’ve been on this team 14 years and I give everything. If anyone’s been in one job for 14 years, it’s like, this is what I do.’ And had he not had that conversation with me I probably wouldn’t have taken a step back to ask myself why am I here on this Earth? If it’s not as a soccer player, then why? That openness led me to being open to different things and that’s when the UNICEF opportunity walked in – it was a changing moment in my life, to be around people asking how to be of service to others. That completely shifted my mind. Even to this day with John it’s like that. He sent me a text the other day because he wasn’t able to be at the opening of the field and he basically said this is only the beginning. That’s the voice of John Herdman in my ear, it keeps still pushing me, keeps challenging me. He’s always said his legacy is not winning that bronze medal – or in his case, back-to-back medals – but it’s what we go on to do. He really does live that.

John Herdman's words to Karina in Brazil (Image from Karina's Facebook page)

John Herdman’s words to Karina in Brazil (Image from Karina’s Facebook page)

BOTN: Let’s go back to that Karina LeBlanc Field. What’s going through your head when you see that?

Karina: If you watch the video, I bawled like a baby. It was like ugly crying. You never dream of a moment like that. You dream of winning a medal, and the irony of it was that in that park I’d be there with my brother and dreaming of the crowd going wild and you can hear your name and you make the big save, all those things. Then you fast forward all these years later and the park is actually named Karina LeBlanc Field, and it’s now the field of dreams for this next generation. That’s what I said in my speech – I want you to dream big crazy dreams every time you cross into this park, make it a moment where you don’t listen to people who tell you you can’t do anything, or cut you down. You believe in yourself, and you have fun. That’s one of the biggest thing about sports, that it can change to a business or a job. But that thank-you speech was almost like my wedding day, in that you feel like the most special woman and the luckiest woman – but for sports. I never knew that it’d have that kind of impact on me. That’s what triggered me with this foundation. I want every young girl, especially in my community, to know there’s somebody backing them. I was that young girl who had a couple people backing me other than my family, and was able to do some pretty cool things. I cried like a baby.

(interview edited and condensed for purposes of length)

BOTNBlog supports Karina and her foundation, The Karina LeBlanc Foundation which focuses its resources on adolescent girls from all socio-economic backgrounds to achieve their dreams and to produce future leaders.

Interview with Chris Young (@HighParkCy)

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