Don’t let anyone tell you that the Champions League is the pinnacle; the knockout stage of the World Cup is where the finest margins separate success and failure. International football is still the be-all and end-all and the next few weeks will underline that.
This is one of the most wide open World Cups in memory and I can count eight teams – Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain – who touched down in Russia this week harbouring hopes of returning with the trophy.
Spain’s shock decision to sack coach Julen Lopetegui on Wednesday, just two days before their opening match against Portugal, may rock some people’s confidence in their chances of winning a second World Cup in three attempts – but not mine.
Spanish officials were absolutely right to act after Real Madrid hired Lopetegui for next season, without national chiefs knowing. It was a ridiculous and disrespectful move by Real, who should be embarrassed for undermining the World Cup effort.
I think this could actually prove a boost for Spain, however. Morale won’t be affected one bit; instead I see them rallying round stand-in boss Fernando Hierro, a true great who can play a hands-off role like Zinedine Zidane did at Real. It’s a fairytale waiting to be written and I think it can inspire them.
Portugal, meanwhile, upset the odds two years ago to win the European Championship, so they’ll be thinking ‘why not?’. They have the confidence that comes from knowing that what they do is effective and, in Cristiano Ronaldo, a player who will be hugely motivated in what is likely to be his last shot at winning this tournament.
Lionel Messi, Ronaldo’s arch-rival, is in a similar situation with Argentina. While Messi could play in Qatar in 2022, when he will be 35, this is the last World Cup of his peak years. He will be desperate to emulate Diego Maradona and lead his country to the title at last, so I’m expecting fireworks from him.
Belgium qualified for the tournament with the second best record of the European nations and have a full-strength squad packed with talent to pick from. Man for man they look so strong and the core of this group know each other well, having played together at two previous tournaments. It’s hard to see what will bring them down, although something has tended to in that past. I think mentality will determine how far they go.
France are also blessed with an abundance of players to choose from and one of coach Didier Deschamps’ toughest tasks will be picking which XI to field. For all that quality, I do have doubts about their quality in some positions. But on their day, if the chemistry between the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann is right, they can beat anyone so they are serious challengers.
Germany are the holders and boast much of the team that won in Brazil four years ago. Their mentality is the key to their success in tournament football and the sight of a German player staring them down will be enough to intimidate most of their opponents.
The psychological arena is where England need to step up and be brave. We all know that if they get it right they will be in with a puncher’s chance, but their confidence can be brittle and that’s my issue. A World Cup brings enormous pressure; there is simply nothing like it. It’s tension and anxiety. A lot will rest on how they deal with that.
England have goals and pace in the team and that can scare opponents, but Gareth Southgate has to keep faith and not be tempted to throw in a second holding midfielder. If they press and stay on the front foot they can nullify whoever they are playing – that’s the secret for England.
My favourites, however, are Brazil. They are the best team to watch, have unbelievable artillery, backed up by a brilliant goalkeeper in Alisson, and it’s all driven by Neymar.
Their superstar forward missed the end of the season with injury, but that could prove a blessing in disguise as he will be mentally fresh. If he stays fit, then I think Brazil will win a sixth World Cup.