In this World Cup too, as in many World Cups, Brazil will be among the favourites. Looking at the Brazilian squad, I can see many similarities with the World Cup winning side of 1994 in which I played alongside Dunga who now leads our team as coach. When we became World Champions, coach Carlos Alberto Pereira built the team around two strong defensive backs, Aldair and Marcio Santos. This time Dunga has also built the team around a strong defensive unit: Lucio, from European Champions Inter Milan, Roma’s Juan, and right back Maicon. Then we had a very good goalkeeper and leader in Taffarel and this time we have the same in Julio Cesar.
As a player Dunga was tough and mentally strong, and he has gone for the same attributes in midfielders Felipe Melo, Elano and Gilberto Silva. In attack we have Kaka and Luis Fabiano, whereas in 1994 I teamed up with Romario. At that time, Romario was the greatest striker in the world, scoring five goals for us, and it was only the heat and the legendary Franco Baresi who stopped him in the 1994 Final. All of Brazil is hoping that Kaka and Luis Fabiano can match the attacking success we had in 1994.
At that time, we had not won the World Cup for 24 years – that gave us a tremendous force and spirit. Dunga was our captain then and he scored the winning penalty. Today he is coach of the national team, bringing a winning and hard-working mentality to the squad. He has won over most of the sceptics in Brazil with an European style of play that has won him and Brazil the Copa America and Confederation Cup. Now we are difficult to beat as well as exciting going forward. We are rightly one of the favourites.
England is my second choice to lift the trophy. Fabio Capello has put together a team of players with great experience. In attack Wayne Rooney reminds me a little of Romario, and he will certainly be a force to be reckoned with. Centre-back John Terry has just won the Championship with Chelsea, with his teammates Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard, and these players have a winning mentality. Importantly, Capello has shown that he can find a pattern of play that gets the best out of both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Frank Lampard scored six goals for England last year, showing what a dangerous player he is, while Gerrard also has the ability to score important goals from midfield.
What has impressed me the most about Capello is his discipline, which reminds me so much of Carlos Alberto Perreira. He won’t stand any nonsense, and he lets the players know exactly what is expected of them. This certainty and clarity creates confidence. This is a team that won’t make mistakes under pressure as their players have played in finals of European championships, for league titles and cups, and as a team they flew through their qualifiers with ease. As it is winter in South Africa, England will also be playing in cooler weather which should help them. All in all, I think this World Cup might be the one in which England breaks the losing jinx that has plagued them since their victory at home in 1966.
Of course, there are also our great rivals Argentina, led by the indomitable Diego Armando Maradona. Any team that can field players of the quality of Lionel Messi, Aquero, Milito and Higain, and can leave out Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso of European Champions Inter Milan, has to be among the favourites.
Right now, Lionel Messi is the best player in the world. He’s been unstoppable when playing for Barcelona. However, he has still to reproduce the same form when he plays for Argentina. Diego must find a way to make him the lethal force for the national team that he is for his club. Defensively, Samuel and Demichelis are as tough and as important for Argentina as Lucio and Juan are for Brazil. In midfield Maradona will probably choose 35-year-old la Brucha Veron to lead his team.
Argentina played poorly in the qualifiers, but that’s not unusual—what’s more important is that Diego tends to favour players that he knows and he picks them with his heart more than his head. This could lead to problems for his team as the competition progresses, especially in moments where substitutions are all important. Diego has already come under considerable pressure from the Argentinean media who are just waiting to pounce on him should his team fail to deliver. With the brilliant players he has available to him, anything less than winning the World Cup will be regarded as a failure.
Another potential World Cup winning team are European champions Spain, who have under-performed in the past but now have a genuine chance. They have as much individual talent as Argentina but are better organised as a team. Coach Vicente del Bosque can choose from the best of Real Madrid and Barcelona, and can pair Liverpool’s Fernando Torres with Barcelona’s new recruit, David Villa. Supplying the ammunition will be Iniesta, Xavi and Xabi Alonso, probably the best and most dominant midfield force in the World Cup. In defence they are solid, with Sergio Ramos , Gerard Pique and Joan Capdevila, and with strong leadership by experienced captain Carlos Puyol.
I love this team. There is no doubt in my mind that they will dominate their qualifying Group as we did in USA 1994. Like us, they play quick one-touch football and dominate large periods of possession. I don’t see a weakness in this Spanish side, and if I wasn’t Brazilian, I would probably pick them as the team I would most love to see win what would be their first World Cup. Spain deserves this for its rich history in terms of both players and teams, and for all it has given to the world game.
As defending champions, it would be both wrong and dangerous to rule out Italy. They have a great tradition in the World Cup and I remember when we played them in the Final of 1994 they had the most talented player in the world in Roberto Baggio. Although he was injured and missed the crucial penalty, our coach made sure that somebody was always close to him. Fortunately for Brazil, he did not have a partner like I had in Romario.
This time, Marcello Lippi has called on the same players that won him the World Cup in Germany: Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon, Danele De Rossi, Gianluca Zambrotta. However, despite including some talented newcomers in Giuseppe Rossi and Antonio di Natale, this is an ageing Italian side that I think will show its wear and tear as the tournament goes on. Italy’s iron clad defence has shown some real leaks lately with Captain Fabio Cannavaro and Giorgio Chiellini underperforming for their club side Juventus. I also don’t see Luca Toni or Vincenzo Iaguinta bringing the firepower that can win you a World Cup. I see Italy qualifying from their Group but going out in the knockout stages.
As the World Cup is in Africa this year, I expect to see the continent produce a surprise contender. I look to four-time European Cup winner Samuel Eto’o to show his brilliant form with the Indomitable Lions for a record sixth time. Although they can be very inconsistent, Cameroon could spring a surprise just as Sweden did in the 1994 World Cup.
In the end, I believe as a player who has tasted World Cup glory, that the team with the most talent and a little bit of luck will win the World Cup. Our challenge went through so many games, right through extra-time in the Final, to the last penalty kick. As 100,000 people in the stadium, and countless millions around the world, held their breath, you can’t imagine how it felt as a player to have your destiny decided by one kick. Nobody should have to go through that type of torture. All of us willed Dunga to put his penalty into the net. He never flinched, he showed amazing mental toughness. It is fitting that he is leading Brazil into the World Cup this year, as our coach, and I hope and pray that he brings Brazil our sixth World Cup.