CAPE TOWN – The World Cup kicks off with the customary opening ceremony on Thursday afternoon. Ahead of the first match match between hosts Russia and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia shortly thereafter, IOL Sport's soccer writers lay their cards on the table.
Best Player: Phillipe Coutinho
Best African team: Nigeria
Breakthrough performance: Kylian Mbappe
Expectations: Four years on since Germany narrowly beat Argentina 1-0 to win the World Cup title on the home soil of record champions Brazil, the game has evolved ever so quickly. Youth also seems to trump experience as more national team coaches have flooded their squads with relatively fresh blood. But this doesn’t mean they are less mature - Kylian Mbappe, Joshua Kimmich and Gabriel Jesus a few examples. In their own right, the three players are influential members at their respective clubs and have had a big contribution in helping them win titles in Ligue 1, the Bundesliga and Premier League. Not a lot will change at the World Cup, with their national teams among those picked to have the best chance of going all the way. Of course there will be surprise packages, given the number of top-quality players who will be at the tournament. But the usual suspects will be triumphant.
Best Player: Neymar
Best African team: Egypt
Breakthrough performance: Leon Goretzka
Expectations of the tournament: Two things: One - as an ardent, life-long devotee of Brazil’s “Ginga” style of football, I would dearly love to see the South American team animate the World Cup again. The heavy defeat to Germany in the previous tournament still hurts so much. They look ready this time, and are certainly a lot more tactically disciplined and defensively sound.
Two - ever since Russia were awarded the event for 2018, there have been suggestions that racism from the terraces will be a problem. Let’s hope, for the good of football, and the betterment of the world, that this World Cup creates an opportunity for people to come together, irrespective of race, colour, creed or culture, and recognise their common humanity.
Best player: Neymar
Best African team: Tunisia
Breakthrough performance: Paolo Guerrero
Expectations: The 2014 World Cup was torture due to the insane time difference between Brazil and South Africa. I was a zombie by the time the tournament finished because of sleep-deprivation as I had to wake up at ungodly hours to enjoy the football spectacle that was on show. The Brazilians though felt worse than me, especially after the 7-1 thumping Germany handed them in their own backyard. A well-oiled German machine annihilated Brazil, exposing their over-reliance on Neymar. Brazil have transformed into a good team that’s not build on individual brilliance, but rather a collective effort. I foresee them restoring the world order in football by claiming a sixth world title.