This occasional blog will become less occasional for the duration of the World Cup, barring other commitments and laziness. As I remarked when I posted around the time of the draw, few of us, not even professional football journalists, really know anything about any of the teams of the World Cup. Our knowledge is limited to the dozen of so big footballing nations, those players that have passed through the Champions League or Premiership. Of course, as ever there are places where people are more attentive than most - Latin America is the obvious example - but few Europeans know anything about Honduras, Paraguay or New Zealand, and few English speakers know anything substantial about the likes of Serbia (the former Luton defender Radi Antic's stewardship, notwithstanding), Slovenia or Slovakia. Our judgements of the collective merits of teams is largely based on hazy memories of performances in past tournaments, some of which stretch back a generation but never quite seem that long ago.
So, in short nobody knows anything. Or very little in the detail. That's why I can confidently predict that either Chile or Honduras will be a surprise package. As will Slovenia. And probably Uruguay too. What am I basing this on? Not a huge amount, other than a passing familiarity with a handful of players, a cursory study of recent form, and, most crucially, the fact that they all face favourable enough starts (Slovenia, for one, could already be qualified for the second round by the time they have to face England).
As for teams at the business end of things, unfortunately it's going to be Brazil. It's a long time since I thrilled at the auriverde. I think it was probably the 3-2 win against the Netherlands in the 1994 World Cup, a stellar match, which was one of the few sparks of brilliance demonstrated by that team, led to victory by Dunga. And Dunga is the manager of the well-oiled maquina that looks like it can sweep all and sundry aside as it powers in a business-like manner to victory. Brazilians are bored by it, but they are unlikely to be too put out if Lúcio lifts the World Cup for a sixth time on the 11th of July (in which case, will Brazil get to keep it, like they did the Jules Rimet trophy before it?) O jogo bonito is of more interest to Nike commercial directors these days than the Brazil coaching staff. Brazil are Germany in yellow shirts. A sexier Germany, but still Germany. And those once-every-four-years football fans who flock to bars to support the Brazilians even when the match is academic, my contempt knows no bounds for them (I remember having to walk for miles to find a place showing Croatia v Australia four years ago, as every bar was catering to yellow-clad non-Brazilians). My heart hopes they don't go all the way. My head tells me otherwise.
And what of the others? Spain are the favourites. I want them to win, as I wanted them to win two years ago. But their fabled breakthrough two years ago may not necessarily count for anything this time around. One defeat in 47 matches is a formidable record but that blip - a 2-0 defeat to the US in last year's Confederations Cup - was a significant one. And another such blip will undo the near-perfection of the past four years. That's the way great teams sometimes go. Injuries and fatigue may also affect them. In a just world they would beat Brazil in the final, and most of the world will applaud. But, in the world we know, they might even come up against the Brazilians as early as the second round.
Italy qualified comfortably enough but the guile they showed to win the tournament against all expectations is unlikely to suffice in itself this time around. They will probably stumble at the quarter-final stage, if not sooner. England are beginning to demonstrate a return to the mental febrility that has cost them dearly in past tournaments (only an Engishman seriously thinks penalty shootouts are a 'lottery'). They should qualify for the knock-out rounds after an early scare against the US, but a lack of strength in depth and a dodgy defence will ultimately be their undoing. Semi-finals are within their reach but they'll more likely be gone home by them.
The Netherlands, as ever, are my team. Bert van Marwijk has built well on Marco van Basten's unfulfilled promise. They emerged from a mediocre qualifying group with a 100% record and they've been sizzling in warm-up games. They have Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, two of the most influential players of the past season. Captain Mark van Bommel will provide the steel in midfield, and a returned-from-injury Robin van Persie could be in line for top scorer. If things go well, they will face Brazil at the quarter-finals. If they can conquer the side that edged them in the Titanic struggles of 94 and 98, they could win the thing. But as ever with the Dutch, there will be other things to reckon with.
Germany are likely to reach the quarter-finals at least, despite missing Michael Ballack, while Argentina are the real conundrum. Either they will implode disastrously under the wanton management of Diego Maradona, or he will prove to be the talisman that drives a team of wildly-varying talents to go beyond anyone's expectations. I suspect we will see them in the semi-finals. France will probably go out at the first hurdle, of which, more tomorrow. African teams' best hopes lie in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana, even if only the latter of those were impressive in the Africa Cup of Nations. Nigeria should progress from a manageable group, Ivory Coast, if Drogba is fit, should be able to outmuscle Portugal, while Ghana's lack of firepower up front will see them fail in the Group of Death against Germany, Australia and Serbia. None of them will get beyond the second round.
Of course, I will be pleased to be disproven in all of this. Just as I was when Russia tore my beloved Netherlands apart at Euro 2008. If the football is good, so be it. The last really memorable World Cup was 1994, and even then the fizz went out at the semi-final stage. If we see a tournament to rival Mexico 86 (and yes, I will be prepared to watch another England v Morocco or France v West Germany) I don't care who wins. The French or the English can even go ahead and do it if they want. Enjoy the tournament!