Notwithstanding Messi, Maradona and Cristiano Ronaldo, a good many remains of the opinion that three-times World Cup winner Pele remains the greatest player to grace a football field.
But off the soccer pitch, the dynamic, amiable Pele’s penchant for genius takes a decided dip, as demonstrated by his unfulfilled prediction almost 30 years ago that an African nation would annex the World Cup by 2000, with lamentably little chance of the great Brazilian’s clanger materialising in the tournament that gets underway amid high expectations in Russia on Thursday.
And demonstrating Pele’s well-known frailty as a tipster, current World Cup favourites Brazil are sardonically claiming it as a good omen that their own redoubtable soccer superhero has expressed doubts about his countrymen extending to six the record number of World Cup titles they have won because he claims “they abound with a squad of extremely talented players – but have still to find a settled combination.”
For the record, however, Brazil boasts comfortably the best record of any nation since elegant coach Tito took over the team in 2016, with 17 wins, three draws and only one defeat from 21 games since – and a winning record of over 80 percent.
Not bad for a side without a settled combination – but then as another great former Brazilian star once proclaimed: “Pele is a saint – as long as he keeps his mouth closed.”
Having then established Brazil’s right to be regarded by the bookmakers as the present World Cup favourites, with a squad that has almost an over-abundance of stars who include the mesmerising, back-to-fitness Neymar and Thiago Silva (PSG), Marcelo and Casemiro (Real Madrid), Coutinho and Paulinho (Barcelona), Willian (Chelsea), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Robert Firmino (Liverpool), Miranda (Atletico Madrid) and Douglas Costa (Juventus), there is no certainty in the 32-team tournament that abounds in a myriad of talent.
And logically at this time, six nations, namely Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, France, Spain and Germany, all champions apart from burgeoning Belgium at one time or another, stand out with the pedigree to emerge World Cup winners this time.
Ironically holders Germany look the most vulnerable of the elite group of six, having recently only ended a sequence of five games without a victory. But their fighting qualities are renowned and they cannot be ruled out as legitimate contenders.
Argentina, with arguably the best player in the world in Barcelona’s Messi and a prolific scorer of the calibre of Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero and a maze of talented back-up, are capable on their day of beating anyone in spite of strangely struggling to qualify for the finals from the South American qualifiers.
Spain, 2010 world champions, with impeccable Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea, Andres Iniesta and controversial strongman defender Sergio Ramos heading a uniformly solid squad with no weak links, and France, with Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba as potential match-winners and similarly solid in all departments, are also teams capable of making a strong bid for the most sought-after honour in world soccer.
Belgium, captained by Chelsea’s irrepressible Eden Hazard, and a host of other stars from the English Premiership, are the dark horses in the “elite six”, but with the most talented line-up in the country’s history, are not incapable of upsetting the applecart.
As for the African representation, Egypt, with the Premier League’s “Player of the Year” and top scorer, Mohamed Salah reported to have recovered from injury, and the talented, but enigmatic Nigeria, look the best bets among the continent’s contingent of five teams to make an impact at the World Cup.
South Africans will also closely follow the progress of Senegal, who eliminated the country in the qualifying stage, and their talisman, Liverpool’s Sadio Mane.
But no African nation has yet qualified to the semi-final stage of a World Cup and should any of Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia or Morocco make it that far this time, it would surely precipitate both national and continental celebration in abundance…