Over the last ten or fifteen years or so, much has been made of a supposed “New World Order” in football. The catalyst for this was Cameroon’s achievement in making the quarter-finals of Italia ’90 (and then pushing England all the way once there), but it has built up since then, and reached a crescendo four years ago, when football’s “old guard” crashed and burned. South Korea and Turkey made the semi-finals, whilst the USA and Senegal made the quarter-finals. Meanwhile, France, Argentina & Portugal were out in the first round, and Italy and Sweden fell before the Koreans (and some might add, before the referees). To many commentators, Old Europe had been found out. Too many of it’s “stars” left their hearts at home, and the baton was enthusiastically taken up by a generation of Asians and Africas, for whom the World Cup still meant something.
Now we’ve moved onto Germany ’06 and, at the risk of ending up sounding a complete chump in about four weeks time, I think it’s fairly safe to say that the old guard is re-asserting it’s authority. True, the emerging nations have managed a couple of decent results – although Australia’s win over Japan wasn’t the comprehensive win that the final score might suggest (three goals in the last eight minutes, and a definite penalty turned down with the scores at 1-1) and Trinidad’s draw with Sweden was as much due to the Swedes near-pathological aversion to scoring as it was to anything else – but all of the Asian teams and African teams to compete so far have lost, and, although we can reasonably expect them to pick up points, losing their first matches has made qualification an uphill battle for them.
It’s as if the countries that lost out last time around have said to themselves “never again”. Who have been the best teams so far? Argentina & Italy. There is, of course, a long way to go, and there will be major nations that stumble and fall too early (there are, by my reckoning, about eight teams that think they should make the semi-finals – half of them will be disappointed, at the absolute minimum), and I haven’t even mentioned England yet. For all the criticism that they have endured, they tend to raise their game against better opposition (note, for example, the transformation between the defeat to Northern Ireland in September and the win over Argentina in December). I remainly nervously confident that they will progress to the second round, and saw nothing to be enormously anxious about in Ecuador’s laboured victory over a terrible Poland team on the opening day.
It’s worth pointing out that the capitulation of “Old Europe” and Argentina four years ago allowed Brazil not far short of a free run to the final. Their win in Japan/South Korea was possibly the easiest that any team has had in recent memory. I have my doubts over whether they’ll cope as well with the stronger challenge presented to them this time. We haven’t seen the French yet either, but they can scarcely be more wretched than they were four years ago. There will, of course be surprises. I think Australia can overcome the challenge of Croatia to make it into the second round, and I think that Trinidad are capable of getting a result out of England and beating Paraguay. As it stands, though, I think we’re looking at one of Brazil, Italy or Argentina to win it overall.