The World Cup provides so many storylines and from the opening game, when host Brazil -- with so much expectation on its shoulders -- faces Croatia, there will be hundreds of talking points for fans across the globe. For me though, one question looms above all: is the current era of Spanish domination about to end or will it be extended with another triumph for Vicente del Bosque’s team?
The defending champion, which won European Championships on either side of that triumph in South Africa, has taken the game to a new level with their astonishingly effective possession football allied with a golden generation of unique talents.
So many have tried to emulate Spain’s tiki-taka tactics, but Del Bosque has the distinct advantage of being able to call on the quality of players such as Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, who are masters of the passing and movement game. Spain also has a rock-solid defense that knows how to distribute the ball from the back – a point so essential to their whole approach. If there has been a weak link in the Spanish style it has been the lack of truly top quality options in attack – but the possible addition of Diego Costa indicates that Del Bosque’s squad in Brazil certainly won’t lack for firepower.
So, can anyone stop Spain?
While some coaches have spent the past few years trying to imitate tiki-taka, others have put their minds on trying to overcome it. As we saw last year at club level with Bayern Munich’s remarkable 7-0 aggregate win over Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals, the combination of precise possession football with aggressive pressing and pacey attacks can deliver devastating results. Tactics don’t always easily translate from club football to the national team arena, but anyone who has seen Germany at its best under Joachim Low can note similarities in play. If there is a method that seems best suited to overcoming patient possession and artful passing it is that same commitment to maintaining the ball combined with intense pressing, plus speed and directness going forward.
That is not to say that Germany is the only nation that could stop Spain, of course. Brazil has a talented squad of world class performers playing on home soil with the crowd behind them. Its rivals Argentina have a wonderful collection of players, who -- if they can gel as a team during the tournament -- will be real contenders. The young Belgian team is extremely talented and is not to be underestimated. France, Italy and England will all expect to improve on their disappointing displays in South Africa and which coach would want to face Colombia, Uruguay, the Netherlands or Portugal in the knock-out stages?
And the World Cup always produces a surprise or two. Could this be a tournament where we see a team from Africa, Asia or our own CONCACAF region make a run deep into the latter stages of the competition? It was, of course, a very tough draw for our four teams, but knowing the character of the coaches that lead the United States, Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica, the players will be heading on to the field fired up and determined to show that paper-form counts for little in the heat of competition.
There is some exciting young American talent coming through, but much will be expected of the experienced men - Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley. All can be proud of their careers and are capable of providing us with a pleasant surprise in Brazil.
Mexico had many ups and downs throughout qualification, which has reduced the expectations somewhat. El Tri, though, has an abundance of exciting, attacking talent with the likes of Gio Dos Santos, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez and the 2013 CONCACAF Player of the Year, Oribe Peralta. I will be fascinated, though, to watch Rafa Marquez at the back – a player who was written off by his critics not so long ago but who once again is likely to be the heart of Mexico’s defense.
So many storylines, so much drama awaits. I can’t wait for it all to start.
FIFA Vice President