Over 20 tournaments, since its inception in 1930 through to Brazil 2014, only eight countries have ever lifted the World Cup. All hailing from either South America or Western Europe, the “World Game” may be played all across the globe but it’s dominated by two regions.
Almost all the World Cup winners have another thing in common — a large population. Brazil, the most successful footballing nation in the world, has 209 million football-crazed denizens within its borders. Germany, the four-time champions, boasts a population of 82 million. A large population means a bigger pool to draw from, and it’s seemingly a must-have for any footballing powerhouse.
There is, however, one small exception.
Uruguay: A Football Anomaly
The tiny nation of Uruguay is a stubborn exception to the rule. Wedged between footballing giants Argentina and Brazil, the tiny country of 3.4 million managed to force itself into football history. After winning the inaugural World Cup in 1930, they claimed another twenty years later in 1950.
In the years since, Uruguay has taken a backseat to nations like Brazil, Argentina, Italy, and Germany. Still, the story of Uruguay is a glimmer of hope for smaller nations hoping to make an impact at Russia 2018 and beyond.
The Russia 2018 Favorites
The list of favorites for Russia 2018 holds no surprises. According to this site, defending champions Germany (11/2 odds) are favored to win back-to-back World Cups (a feat last managed by Brazil in 1962), with the other favorites — France (6/1), Brazil (7/1), Argentina (10/1), and Spain (10/1) — not far behind.
All five countries have a few things in common. Most notably, they’re all previous World Cup winners. In fact, those nations have won seven of the last eight World Cups. Italy (20/1) and England (25/1), two more previous world champions, are among the top contenders as well.
And then there’s Uruguay (55/1), the only previous World Cup-winner not among the favorites.
The old guard remains strong. Nations with a rich history of World Cup success continue to dominate international competitions, and every country with 10/1 odds or better has a population of at least 45 million.
But there’s still hope for the little guy, and it comes in the form of chocolate and male models.
A David Among The Goliaths
Portugal – home to Ronaldo, the best(-looking) footballer on Earth – and Belgium – home to Godiva, the best-tasting chocolate on Earth – are both nations of around 10 million people. Yet, on paper, they have the talent to compete with the giants of international football. If you’re hoping for a David-versus-Goliath moment in Russia, they have the best chance. with Portugal placed at 30/1 odds and Belgium at 16/1 to win the next World Cup — not exactly favorites, but certainly outside contenders.
Belgium reached the quarterfinals in 2014, finishing first in their group and defeating the US in the Round of 16. With players like Kevin De Bruyne, Yannick Carrasco, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku developing tremendously over the last four years, Russia 2018 could finally be their moment. But they don’t have a great track record at the World Cup; their best finish ever was a fourth-place all the way back in 1986. And this talented core of players suffered another letdown at Euro 2016, getting bounced by the even smaller Wales (3-1) in the quarterfinals.
Portugal have had some impressive results recently – including a monumental triumph at Euro 2016 in France, their first European Championship — but they have a history of underperforming at the World Cup, just like Belgium. They finished third in 1966 and fourth in 2006, but were knocked out in the Group Stage in two of the last four tournaments, including Brazil 2014.
Russia will be the team’s last World Cup with Ronaldo in his prime. If they don’t win the trophy next year, it’s likely to be a long wait. Just like World Cup titles, the history of the Ballon D’Or – FIFA’s player of the year award – is replete with winners from massive nations. Yes, the Marco Van Bastens (Netherlands) have had their time at the top. But, for the most part, the winners-list is riddled with the flags of Brazil, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the USSR.
Without Ronaldo’s peerless talent, Portugal would be a fringe team in qualification. Even massive nations with tens of millions more people and top-flight development programs go decades without breeding a player of Ronaldo’s caliber. For smaller nations, that’s likely what it will take to break the Goliath’s stranglehold on the trophy: lucking into one or two nonpareils who can get incredibly hot and make up for the lack of depth that teams like Brazil, Germany, Spain, France, and Italy are always going to boast. Because, at the end of the day, footballing success seems to be a numbers game.
The 92-year-old Goan Lady and Her Poems to Benfica
Srinwantu Dey for Goalden Times speaks to Carolina Miranda who is 92-years-young and the most unique fan of Benfica.
“Yes, I know about Bela Guttman’s curse, but I don’t believe in curses”, said the 92 year old. She was determined, a little emotional, and rather proud. Although she had seen the world, she was speaking from more than just experience. Meet Carolina Miranda, Benfica’s purest fan alive, who lives in a lonely Lisbon house.
Since their 1962 European Cup triumph, Benfica has never achieved any European glory. However, it’s considered the most supported and successful club in Portugal—winning the domestic league a record 36 times. The Benfiquistas are a group of proud and prestigious supporters. Reportedly 500,000 Benfica fans celebrated their 2014 League win on the streets of Lisbon, as the Portuguese capital turned red. When Benfica meets Sporting Lisbon, their eternal rival—the city comes to a standstill. Lisbon derby is immeasurably absorbing and terrifying because of the enigmatic fans of the rival camps. During a derby day, the war-cry of fans along the path of the Segunda Circular highway—the road that joins Lisbon’s two biggest stadiums—is truly formidable. But far away from all the noise, lights, and music there is an old lady who supports her beloved club from her lonely house, seating alone and writing poems.
Carolina was born in Goa, an ex-Portuguese colony in India, on the 8th of March 1925. Coincidentally, this was the same year Benfica first moved to their own stadium—Estádio das Amoreiras. Carolina’s father was a High Court Judge in Goa and her mother was a Spanish lady whom he met in Lisbon when he had gone to Portugal to study Law. Carolina is the eldest of four siblings—she has two sisters and a brother.
“I did my primary and secondary schools in Goa, and afterwards I went to Bombay to join a College run by British nuns and did my BA (French Honours) there. Then I came back to Goa.A couple of years later, I got married to a Portuguese Army man and we came to Portugal”, she stopped for a while and continued, “We were married for 50 years. We had two children—a boy and a girl. My husband died 16 years ago. I have no grandchildren.”
This little old super fan, however, wasn’t a football admirer initially. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
“How did I first interact with football? I did not interact, I reacted against football!” she chuckled.
“While we were in Goa my husband never spoke about football and as far as I know, there was no football in Goa or in Bombay. Of course, I knew of its existence in European countries, but in India the game was cricket, not football.”explained Carolina.
(Author’s note:This is surprising. Goa is known to be one of the most football loving states of India, alongside West Bengal and Kerala. Though the Goa Football Association was formed in 1959, the history of football in Goa dates back to 1883 when Reverent Fr. William Robert Lyons, an Irish priest, introduced the sport in the curriculum of Christian education. Since then,village football has been a part of Goan culture.)
“When we came to Portugal, I did not like it that my husband would leave us at home every second Sunday to go to the stadium and watch football.” Carolina bluntly explained.
“I used to get so angry! I could not understand how he could leave the family behind on Sundays to go and run to his football. I was jealous, because I was not used to it. I never saw my father do it and I began to hate football!”
Two years later,Carolina and her family went back to Goa again,and football was forgotten. They stayed there till Independence, and then returned to Portugal.
“Here, of course, football again started getting on my nerves and interfering in my married life.But there was nothing I could do about it. As time passed by, I began to get used to it and when it started being transmitted though television, I also began to watch the matches at home.” Carolina recollected.
“If you cannot fight it, join it. That was what I did and little by little I began to understand the game and become interested in it. And what do you know? Eventually, I actually fell in love with it.”
“If you cannot fight it, join it. That was what I did and little by little I began to understand the game and become interested in it. And what do you know? Eventually, I actually fell in love with it.”
Carolina’s husband was a member of SL Benfica, one of the most glorified clubs of Europe, and subsequently Carolina became an ardent supporter of the same club. In fact, all her family members, including her children, her brother and his children and grandchildren, her nieces and nephews, with the exception of her one sister, were strong supporters of Benfica. It was a family tradition.
“I don’t remember having seen Eusebio playing, but I heard and read a lot about him. He was a real star! As far as I can remember, my interest and real love for Benfica started after Eusébio had retired and just a few years before I became a widow.”
While Carolina never watched Eusebio playing, she has been an ardent fan of João Vieira Pinto, the former Portuguese wonder-forward of the golden generation. In fact, she still regrets the transfer of Pinto to rival club Sporting Lisbon in 2000, the other side of the “Segunda Circular”.
This is a classic example of how the passion for football can drive somebody’s life, even for someone who is remotely attached to the game. Carolina got hooked onto the game even before she had a chance to attend a live game at the Estádio da Luz, Benfica’s prestigious home stadium.
“Much after my husband died, I was invited by my brother to go to the stadium to watch a live match against R.S.C. Anderlecht of Belgium. That was quite an experience! Something overwhelming! I felt so small in the middle of that crowded stadium, all red and when they started singing their Hymn I could not hold my tears of emotion and I cried like a baby! I will never forget that fantastic sight as long as I live. I was thoroughly shaken.This was my first and the only time I went to a Stadium,” Carolina explained emotionally.
Carolina started writing poems just for fun about four or five years ago. Initially, though, the poems were not about football.
She currently lives in a building in an area named Alameda Dom Afonso Henriques. It’s near the heart of Lisbon, where the red line and green line of the Lisbon metro intersect—but she hardly has anyone to talk to.
“When did I start writing my poems? That is another story,” she recounts.
“I live alone in a big house, have nobody to talk to, not even my neighbours who are not permanent residents and every day I see different faces climbing up and down the stairs at the entrance. I practically don’t know anybody who lives in this building and feel very lonely, although I read a lot and watch TV, watch football, and have some friends from social networks.”
“Most of my friends, unfortunately, are dead and some are suffering from Alzheimers. I don’t feel safe going out all by myself, although I use a walking stick. I only go out to go to a restaurant with my children when they are here or when they come to see me once a week.”
Football, however, has been a loyal companion..
“That’s why I decided to write verses on Benfica as a hobby. I write one or two poems a week and this started about three or four years ago. So this is, in short, the story of my poems to Benfica,” smiled Carolina.
Most of my friends, unfortunately, are dead and some are suffering from Alzheimers. I don’t feel safe going out all by myself, although I use a walking stick. I only go out to go to a restaurant with my children when they are here or when they come to see me once a week. That’s why I decided to write verses on Benfica as a hobby
In this busy and speedy world of click-baiting football articles and blind fanboys, we had discovered a pure football fan in a remote street of Lisbon.
When we asked for a few samples of her poems, she was a bit shy at the beginning and reluctant to show us.However, thanks to her niece, we received some specimens and the translated versions are furnished below for our readers.
“As you might have heard the Italians say, ‘Traduttore, traditore’, which means that a translator is traitor, because the translator more often than not mis-translates and changes the thought of the author completely. Besides, I always focus on the funny side of football and make use of many idiomatic expressions and popular sayings—trying to insert some humour in whatever I write. I think all that will be lost in translation,” the 92-year-old chuckled.
“I wish them all the best and would like to see them win the European Championship before I die,” she concluded.
The old lady is still living in hope.
Benfica, are you listening?
BENFICA – BORUSSIA-DORTMUND
O DERBY LISBOETA (Sporting-Benfica)
G is for Gruelling
No Group in World Cup is easy. G has an ensemble cast with no team favorite for the 2nd spot. Goalden Times previews with Ankit Mitra.
Group G’s lineup boasts of one of the most consistent teams in World Cup history, the team of current World Player of the Year, the team with the best World Cup record from their continent, and a team which has regularly caused upsets in the competition. All the teams in the group had cleared the group stage in South Africa 2010 which speaks of their strength.
Die Mannschaft go into this year’s tournament as one of the favourites, though the very dilemma of how to play may be their undoing. They had an almost perfect qualifying record with nine wins from ten games scoring 36 goals in the process, which is the highest number of goals by any side in the European qualifying zone.
Germany, who once boasted of devastating strikers like Gerd Muller, Jurgen Klinsmann, Karl-Heinze Rummenigge and Rudi Voller among others, are right now frantically trying to decide who will lead their charge upfront. An ageing Miroslav Klose, current top goal-scorer for Germany (tied with Gerd Muller), is the only option for Löw considering that other strikers haven’t had the best of seasons lately. Mario Gomez (once considered a confirmed starter after Klose), Max Kruse were called up as probables but were not chosen. It is unfortunate that one of the more successful German strikers currently in the Bundesliga, Stefan Kiessling who would have been a logical inclusion, will not be a part of the team because of his personal issues with Löw. It brings back memories of how Stefan Effenberg was ostracized for non-footballing reasons from the German team in the late 90s and early 2000 and how that hurt them.
The midfield is where Germany’s resources are enviable. From the very experienced Bastian Schweinsteiger to the current young superstar Mario Götze, Germany has some of the best midfielders in the world at their disposal. Marco Reus is unlucky to miss out due to his last minute injury. But even then the likes of Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Andre Schurrle, Toni Kroos, Julian Draxler, Lucas Podolski, Thomas Muller can create another selection headache for Löw which many a manager would love to have. However, Germany have experimented a lot on its way to the World Cup with their midfield formation, once resorting to a striker-less formation with Götze in a false nine role. It can be said that for that reason they haven’t settled on a system and a first choice player list in this area. It may be their undoing as many of the players thrive under a different role at their club whereas they might have to play in a completely different way for the national team.
Defensively Germany is unpredictable and far from impregnable, as they were once considered. Playing a more fluid style has resulted in the defenders having to play much higher up. It’s not just the defenders who have to be comfortable on the ball, the goalkeeper too must exhibit such qualities. In Manuel Neuer, Germany arguably have the best goalkeeper in the world. However, his maverick ways make him prone to moments of madness which his coach doesn’t appreciate and hence the more pragmatic Roman Weidenfeller is on standby. Captain Philip Lahm will take his place in the usual right fullback position in which he is considered one of the best, but the central defensive pairing is an area of concern for Löw. Mats Hummels has returned after a long layoff due to injury and is yet to find the form that made him one of the hottest prospects a couple of seasons back. Per Mertesaker, in spite of his experience, may lose out to Jerome Boateng due to his obvious lack of speed, which has been exposed time and again by skillful speedy opponents. Boateng has played in the centre back role for a long time for his club – however he is still not as reliable in the role as the injured Holger Badstuber was.
Having come so close and then losing out in the last few editions have made a lot of fans pessimistic about their chances. But, Löw and his boys would love to do justice to their tag and bring home the gold.
The European ‘Seleccao’ go into the World Cup as underdogs with most pundits dismissing them as potential contenders for the crown. Their dire displays during qualifying and the fact they had to come through a play-off doesn’t excite a critic much about their chances. However, it is this very lack of pressure, sometimes mixed with underestimation that may turn out as the trump card for Portugal.
Today Portugal has been equated with Cristiano Ronaldo, and for good measure. The captain is not only the best player Portugal have, but is also the current holder of the World Player of the Year award. His influence on the game is such that at times he has single- handedly changed the morale of the team simply by his presence on the field. Cristiano leads from the front quite literally, and in all honesty he is Portugal’s only reliable option upfront. Strikers Hugo Almeida as well as Helder Postiga really haven’t shone or seemed dangerous in front of goal. Profligacy upfront has cost Portugal a lot in the qualifiers. However, in the World Cup there are no second chances so the lack of other options upfront besides their talismanic captain still is Portugal’s achilles heel.
Portugal’s midfield though less vaunted is actually full of quality. The obvious star is playmaker Joao Moutinho. Long overshadowed and underrated in the shadow of Cristiano, Joao is the actual man who conducts the team’s tempo. If Ronaldo needs to keep scoring, he has to depend on Moutinho for that final ball. Moutinho is ably backed up by the relentless veteran workhorse Raul Meireles, along with the experienced Miguel Veloso and Silvestre Varela. Young gun William Carvalho too injects that burst of excitement and youthful vigour in a very experienced midfield. Nani has had quite a few indifferent seasons. However, if he finds form, his trickery and skill with the ball will come quite handy.
Defensively Portugal have suffered due to absolutely unforgivable lapses of concentration. Pepe and Bruno Alves are a good pairing in the centre but their lack of positional awareness has cost Portugal dearly. But on their day Pepe and Alves are as solid as a rock, not considering they are also extremely good when coming forward during set pieces. Portugal have other options too like Ricardo Costa and Neto but manager Bento has generally favoured the Alves and Pepe pairing. Coentrao on the left full back position is essential for Portugal’s success. His combination with Cristiano in the left wing is Portugal’s most potent attacking option; especially, due to the fact that Portugal tend to play on the counter attack. Hence, the roles of Coentrao and Joao Pereira are vital for the team.
Portugal being vaunted as a one man show and unlikely to win, may come back to haunt their critics as they have the capability and potential to beat every team. However, being plagued by lapses of concentration and also a lot of profligacy on their own part may thwart the dreams of many Navegadore fans.
Klinsmann, who was at the helm of the German side in 2006, is in charge of the US team now and he had his critics questioning his ability after Honduras beat them 2-1 in the first match of the final round of qualifying in the CONCACAF zone. But his side came back strongly and won seven of their ten games scoring 15 goals and finally winning the group four points ahead of the runners-up Costa Rica.
Klinsmann’s US side is very strong in work ethics. Klinsmann has been a tough taskmaster and he has not hesitated to take the tough calls. He shocked the world by leaving out USA’s all time favorite player and leading goal scorer Landon Donovan out of the final squad. But that might just spur the chosen ones – Julian Green (a teenage prospect), MLS veterans Chris Wondolowski and World Cup rookie Brad Davisto put in a bit more to justify the faith bestowed upon them. Klinsmann has been instrumental in building a much deeper player pool, both through persuading dual-nationals (mostly German-Americans) to play for the US national team and giving a chance to the talented players from Major League Soccer in US who didn’t get a look-in in the earlier regime.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard is aging but still efficient. His defenders have experience in Bundesliga and England. Roma’s Michael Bradley will lead the diamond shaped midfield while the upfront will see Clint Dempsey partnering with the Sunderland man Jozy Altidore who had a terrific goal scoring run in the qualifying. In the wings, Julian Green, son of an American father and German mother, who spent part of his youth career at Bayern Munich, may emerge as a hot new prospect after the tournament. After having played for the German under 16, 17 and 19 side, he has opted to play for US at the senior level.
USA had been known for sitting deep, defending with gusto and sneaking in a few points here and there with their counter-attacking. Klinsmann’s current team is more ambitious and likes to keep the ball. But still they cannot boast of the athleticism of a Ghana side, a superstar leading their pack like Portugal or a rich footballing tradition like the Germans. Whether the German World Cup winner’s side can upset the Germans and others in the group is something that we all would wait to see.
Ghana has been the best team of Africa in the last two World Cups. In 2006, the beat Czech Republic and the USA but finally got eliminated by Brazil. 2010 was even more tragic for them. They again beat USA to reach the quarter final and almost became the first African team to make it to the semifinal but a handball on the goal-line by Luis Suarez prevented Dominic Adiyiah from scoring in the last minute and Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting penalty. Uruguay went on to win in penalty shoot-out.
Following their exploits in 2010 World Cup, they were expected to come to Brazil as the best African team ever. But sadly they have regressed following that stupendous campaign. They have faltered in the 2012 and 2013 African Cup of Nations – that too against Zambia and Burkina Faso, teams Ghana are expected to dominate. But they have shown glimpses of their strength in the World Cup qualifying campaign.
Ghana was drawn in one of the most difficult qualifying groups with the 2012 African champions Zambia, Lesotho and Sudan. They did extremely well to win five of their six games and were drawn against seven-time African champions Egypt. Winning 6-1 at home against them, the Black Stars ensured their tickets for Brazil.
The Ayew brothers are yet to ignite the big stage on fire. Wonder kid Isaac Vorsah has failed to progress as expected and finds himself missing from the Brazil boarding flight. Gyan is vying his trade in the middle-east instead of playing in a top European side. Still Gyan will definitely mean business upfront with able support from the midfield from the likes of Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. Kevin-Prince Boateng with his all-round ability will be another threat. Gahana has very skillful wide men and one of them, the Olympique de Marseille winger Andre Ayew, may also emerge as one of the stars of the tournament. But Ghana’s fortunes will depend on the performance of versatile Juventus midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah. Asamoah can slot in effortlessly anywhere in the Ghanaian midfield playing in a 3-5-2 formation – be it a box-to-box central midfield role, anchorman, defensive left winger or the attacking lynchpin. Overall Ghana is a very strong prospect with key strength being industriousness and stamina. Their weakness is their temperament the fact that they lack experience at such a high stakes tournament and that they don’t have a player who can see the team through in dire situations. Also they could have done with a creative player in the central midfield role aka Yaya Toure of Ivory Coast or at least the experience of Nigerian John Obi Mikel. May be the return to form of Boateng may ease the burden on Asamoah and allow him to express himself more freely.
Germany and Portugal are the likely contenders to qualify from the group. However, both Ghana and USA may prove to be giant killers and cause an upset. There will be a number of crunch games in the group. The result of Portugal vs Germany will probably decide the group topper; the two teams met thrice in the last four major tournaments, with Germany keeping a 100 percent winning record. But this may be Cristiano’s last World Cup and he will be expected to be the man with a mission. Germany vs USA will be another interesting match with Klinsmann and Low in the respective dugouts.
Ghana and USA met each other in the last two versions of the tournament in the knock out stage with Ghana winning both the times. This will be the first time when they meet at the group stage. This match will also be a memorable one as it would see the Boateng brothers locking horns with each other.
The Legend of Ruth Malosso
“He was not only a great inspiration but also an important figure in upholding the values, principles and feelings of football, even after finishing his career,” says Chelsea manager, José Mourinho. Srinwantu Dey tries to pay a humble tribute to the immortal ‘O Rei’, a wonderful soul and modest ambassador for both Portuguese football and Benfica. An extended version of this article has been published in ‘Tiro: A football odyssey from Amazon to Alps’ , Rattis Books, UK, June 2016.
In one of football’s most recognizable traditions, live bald eagles swoop around the 65,000 odd crowd before every game at one of Portugal’s “Big Three” as mascots – Vitória and Glória (Victory and Glory). It’s a sad day for football lovers as Portugal and Benfica legend Eusébio leaves for his heavenly abode, leaving millions in grief, following a heart attack earlier today. His legacy can never fade into oblivion as long as ‘Victory’ and ‘Glory’ keep entertaining us – symbols befittingly synonymous to The Black Pearl. Penning a tribute piece on this legend is a Herculean task I believe, as his stature, statistics and accolades are far too astonishing to translate into words. Let us instead look through a few incidents from the early years of his career, which announced to the world in the 60’s – a legend has arrived to rule Europe!
The Myth of Ruth Malosso
Eusébio was born to a poverty-stricken family in Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). Football was more than a game to him and he was often found playing on the streets instead of attending school. As a result, he was the only member of his family who couldn’t finish schooling. He was an amazing talent since his childhood and no wonder he caught the eyes of several talent scouts. The scenario at Mozambique was very different back then – it was a Portuguese colony and there was no professional setup for playing football. The better clubs were actually feeder clubs of famous football clubs of Portugal. Eusébio was picked up by a local club – Sporting Clube de Lourenço Marques which had a tie-up with the very famous Sporting Clube de Portugal, Lisbon.
Being a subsidiary of big clubs of Portugal, often they used to get a chance to play against big guns of Portugal and other top clubs during their African tours. Such a tour of ‘Clube de Futebol Os Belenenses’ (current Portuguese Cup winners, 1960) discovered a young 17-year old boy who scored two goals against them with blistering pace. Former Brazilian international, José Carlos Bauer was the first person to notice his immense ability who was travelling to Mozambique at the same time with his São Paulo based club Ferroviária de Araraquara. Surprised by his skill level, Bauer immediately referred him to São Paulo, but the Brazilian club denied the chance to take risks for an unknown African footballer. There is a myth that after returning to his home town, Bauer went to a hair-cutting salon where he came across his old acquaintance Béla Guttmann. Guttmann, a Jewish-Hungarian, who was a former manager of São Paulo – was managing S.L. Benfica at the time. During a friendly conversation, Bauer mentioned to him about this young talent of Southeast Africa.
Guttmann was known to be a gold digger. He had just sacked 20 senior players after taking charge of Benfica and was looking for fresh faces. He enquired about Eusébio and came to know about his fascinating skills. He also learnt that Eusébio is currently playing for their biggest rival’s feeder club. At the same time, slow movements had started at other side of Lisbon when Eusébio’s childhood friend Hilário da Conceição – who already was an established defender of Sporting Lisbon – had recommended him to his club. Guttmann didn’t take any chances as he knew it was easier for Sporting to capture this raw talent as he was playing for their subsidiary club. This being a highly sensitive issue, the Benfica board decided that they will never use Eusébio’s name in any communication before the deal finalizes, and thus given a code name – Ruth Malosso. Guttmann went straight to Eusébio’s family home and convinced both him and his mother for this move and got him to sign a contract. He was brought to Portugal secretly after that in December 1960, and sent to the outskirts of Lisbon to prevent any kidnapping. After a long running tug-of-war between two rival clubs, it was agreed upon that Eusébio will be playing for Benfica and he was registered in May, 1961.
After seeing Eusébio train for the first time at the Estadio da Luz, Guttmann shouted to his assistant Fernando Caiado, “It is gold. It is gold”. José Aguas, Benfica’s #9 and captain, promptly suggested “If it has to be me then so be it, but somebody has to drop out for him to play.” And the rest was history.
‘Eusébio 3-2 Pelé’
Just after Eusébio started displaying his charisma in Portugal, Benfica were invited to play in the Tornio International de Paris in 1961 and in the final they played against an exceptional Santos side, led by the ‘best in planet’ footballer Pelé. Within an hour, Benfica found themselves trailing by an insulting 5-0 scoreline, where Pelé struck twice. Guttman had to unleash his last weapon, codename Malosso, from the reserve. He was not mistaken. The 18-year old substitute scored a rapid hat-trick within 63rd to 80th minute of the match. He also won a penalty, which his teammate failed to converted. Guttmann’s young team eventually lost the tie 6-3 to a star-studded Santos team, but the young prodigy won everybody’s heart on that day. Next day, prestigious French magazine L’Équipe made a headline neglecting the main scoreline and Santos’ victory which read as ‘Eusébio 3-2 Pelé’. Later, Pelé stated about Eusébio – “He scored beautiful goals. All of the Santos players, including myself, thought Eusébio was a great player even if none of us knew who he was at that time.” After this encounter, they met quite a few times, but this game truly announced that another black pearl has come to rule the world.
Taking on the Galácticos
A crowd of over 60,000 gathered in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium hoping to witness a clash of the titans at 1962 European Cup final between Real Madrid and Benfica. This was a game where Real was trying to re-establish their dominance on European kingdom, and reigning champions Benfica were establishing themselves as an unstoppable force in the Europian mainland. Eusébio was there too. But he was more mesmerized to play against his childhood hero – Alfredo Di Stéfano. The classic final started and soon Di Stéfano took over control of the midfield playing from the deep, while razor-sharp Ferenc Puskás kept threatening the Benfica defence continuously. Within 25 minutes, the Hungarian wizard put Madrid upfront with a two-goal lead. Though Benfica equalized the score, but again before half time, Puskás completed his hat-trick and gave Madrid back the lead. In the second half, Guttmann was able to shut down Madrid’s mastermind Di Stéfano’s elegance and that is when the ‘Black Panther’ took over control of the stage. Once Mário Coluna made it 3-3, Eusébio scored two goals within 5 minutes, and eventually, Benfica was the winner with a thumping 5-3 scoreline. But Eusébio didn’t forget his dream, he collected the shirt of the Argentine genius and kept it hidden underneath his shorts so that nobody can steal it from him – it was pretty precious to him. The scene was symbolic, as it depicted the passing of legacy from one legend to another. Eusébio definitely didn’t disappoint Di Stéfano!
In his decorated career, he kept scoring goals and making history for Benfica and Portugal. Numbers do the talking for him. One may browse the digital media to find countless lists of his achievements. For me he was a legend true to his own style – a perfect striker with blistering speed, silky skills and enormous power! Guttmann aptly described his shots like watching Sputnik launch into space!
His arrival in Europe was definitely not the first among Africans. Even before him, Maghrebi star player Larbi Ben Barek or Sebastião Lucas de Fonseca of Maputo – who was known as the eighth wonder of theworld among Portuguese – already pioneered that Africans also can contribute to European football. But Eusébio was definitely the first imported African who ruled the European football demography for more than a decade. The floodgate was opened by him, leading to European powerhouses starting thorough scouting in their colonized provinces. He couldn’t play for his own country Mozambique. Mozambique football association wasn’t established until 1976, after they earned their sovereignty the preceding year. From early 60’s, Portugal regime was involved in turmoil, insurgencies and other political pressure. Rather his inclusion and glorious performance for the Portuguese national team helped the regime to highlight the unity of the metropole and the colonies, leading to racial harmony. His nickname given as ‘O Rei’ (The King) had massive significance in a regime of fascist dictators.
Being a thorough gentleman and great ambassador of the game, Eusébio won the hearts of all his compatriots and opponents. During the ‘Game of Tears’ where Portugal lost to England 2-1 at Wembley and were knocked out of the 1966 World Cup, Eusébio was found to break down in tears and comforted to the dressing room by both team-mates and opponents. Truly, the greatest victory ever for Benfica over Sporting Lisbon has been nothing but winning Eusébio from them.
Rest in peace, Panther.
Portugal – Bright Future Ahead
Goalden Times had classified Portugal as one of the dark horses of Euro 2012. Their performance in the tournament vindicates that. Debojyoti Chakraborty reports
Pitted against two star-studded sides in the group stages, not many in Portugal were that much optimistic of a good campaign at the Euro 2012. A few decent players and quite a few completely unknown to the vast majority of football fans worldwide; looking up to ‘The One’ aka Cristiano Ronaldo for inspiration – it was not a script that looked rosy before the tournament started. Moreover, Portugal had not fared well at the 2010 World Cup. More than their results, what disappointed fans the most was their pathetic football which lacked any sort of ambition and imagination under Carlos Queiroz.
The current manager Paulo Bento was not having a happy time either. Defender duo of Ricardo Carvalho and Jose Bosingwa refused to play for the Seleccao under him during the build-up of the tournament. Over-reliance on CR7 for goals was heavily criticised. But Bento had a vision and he stuck to it. He did not hesitate to start with Rui Patricio ahead of established shot stopper Eduardo and Patricio paid back his manager’s faith by having a brilliant tournament.
Things started pretty badly for Portugal. Not many eyebrows were raised to see Germany beating them 1-0 on matchday 1. But Denmark’s victory over the Dutch made life very difficult for the Seleccao in the Group of Death. In the second match, Portugal made life difficult for themselves against the Danes and had to rely on a last gasp winner from Silvestre Varela to clinch a 3-2 thriller. In the final group match against Netherlands, Portugal needed to at least match Denmark’s result against Germany to progress through. Things looked gloomy for them as Rafael van der Vaart put Netherlands ahead in a must-win-and-hope-for-other-results match for the Oranje. This is when Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been heavily criticized and mimicked for his performance so far in the tournament, came on to his own. His scintillating performance, cupped with a brace, put Portugal through to the knockout stages of Euro 2012.
The best footballer in the continent put up another brilliant display to seal a berth for the semis as his goal was the difference between Portugal and Czech Republic in the quarter-final match. They were unfortunate to bow out against Spain in the penalty shoot-out in the semi-final, but nevertheless they have left a lasting impression. Ronaldo may ponder over his whole life what might have been had he not held himself back for the last penalty kick (which was not required!). But he certainly had a very good tournament to be proud of, both as an individual and as the captain of a young and ambitious team.
The results were encouraging and Portugal impressed one and all. Ronaldo took the responsibility and besides his goals and hitting the framework numerous times, charmed football lovers with his play. Joao Moutinho emerged as the star performer for them and looks set to improve as time passes by. Among youngsters, Patricio and defender Fabio Coentrao stood out and they should be nurtured with care for future development.
The core of this team is expected to remain the same for the next few years. Captain charismatic Cristiano Ronaldo does not look like slowing down – why should he, he is only 27 after all – and he will be motivated to win a silverware for his country after winning all-there-is-to-be-won at the club level. Pepe at the back and the midfield trio of Moutinho, Miguel Veloso and Raul Meireles will also be around in full throttle for some more years to come. Few players may come in and go out as part of natural footballing cycle but the team seems to be on the right track.
One man looking certain to remain with the team is Paulo Bento. Amidst all the controversies before the start of the campaign, he has shown that he knows how to handle pressure. He has stuck to his principles – not selecting disinterested players – and decisions – starting with second choice goalkeeper – and has taken full responsibility for the outcome. He has galvanized the team well and has brought back an attacking flair to the team’s play. This is a commendable impact considering he only took over in the qualifying stages when things did not look all that bright.
He, though, has plenty of work to do. His work list ought to start with finding a decent central striker. Ronaldo seems more effective if given a free roaming role. He can start wide but would naturally drift in, drop back and can create havoc in the opponent camp more often than not. For that to happen, Portugal badly needs a world class target man up front but the options are not that great. One only hopes some youngsters would develop in the next couple of years to bolster the Samba party. Portugal team seems comfortable playing a traditional 4-3-3 formation. But as the modern trends unfold, this strategy may lose out to the midfield battle against a strong team playing 4-2-3-1 (as seen against the Germans). But Bento cannot try out this new look, at least for now, as he does not have a Number 10 to dictate the game (a la Rui Costa).
In back-to-back major tournaments, Spain has proved to be the nemesis for Portugal. But the similarity ends here. If World Cup 2010 was a horror show, Euro 2012 has been the complete opposite. Fans back home and across the globe should not be disheartened with the showings from a young team. They started and ended their campaign with defeats – not too bad considering they were playing against the two top ranked teams in the tournament – but they sandwiched some praiseworthy performances in between. It was good till it lasted; Portugal will certainly hope to make it better next time.
Silvestre Varela’s 87th minute goal secured three crucial points for Portugal in their second group league game against Denmark. Portugal, who had lost their opening game against Germany, needed to win this in order to proceed to the next round. On the other hand, Denmark will be in real trouble after this loss. They were high on confidence after defeating the Dutch in their opening game, but a loss here leaves them to test their luck against Germany in the last game of the group stage.
Things were not particularly in favor of Denmark, who lost Niki Zimling within the first 16 minutes of the game due to a calf injury. Pepe opened the score for Portugal when he converted from a corner in the 24th minute. It was surprising why the Real Madrid defender was kept totally unmarked at the near post by the Danish defense. Portugal doubled their lead 12 minutes later when Nani’s square pass reached Postiga, who impeccably placed the ball in the net. The Real Zaragoza forward, who failed to make an impact in the first game against Germany, made sure his presence is felt in the field. Michael Krohn-Dehli, the goal scorer in Denmark’s solitary goal win over the Dutch, assisted Niklas Bendtner to score the first goal for the Danes within 5 minutes. The game went to half time with a score of 2-1.
Within 5 minutes of the second half, Nani’s pass reached Ronaldo, who could have easily scored, but preferred not to. The Portuguese captain, considered one of the best footballers in the world, was pathetic to say the least today. At about 78 minutes, Ronaldo received a ball from Nani when the only object separating him from the goal was the Danish keeper Anderson. Quite surprisingly, Ronaldo hit outside and probably registered his name for the miss of the tournament. Minutes later, this act was punished as Niklas Bendtner scored again to equalize for Denmark. This was Bendtner’s sixth goal from his five internationals against Portugal. If Portugal would have drawn the game from there, Ronaldo had no one else to blame. However, an excellent shot from substitute Silvestre Varela in the 87th minute helped Portugal win this crucial game.
Portugal will have to devise their strategy wisely in order to progress through the group stage. Their last match is with the Dutch, who having lost both games, are virtually at the edge of being eliminated from the group. The Dutch will definitely try to win their game, while a draw probably would be good enough for Portugal (expecting Denmark’s loss against Germany). Pepe was in great form today and he should be equally instrumental in the game against Netherlands. If Nani and Postiga also play with the same flamboyance, Portugal doesn’t need to worry. Today was perhaps a bad day for Cristiano Ronaldo, who can surely get back his lost confidence in the next game.
Things do not look great for Denmark. Their next game is against Germany, who are, perhaps, the best team in this group, having won both their games. Denmark has to depend on the Dutch in order to defeat the Portuguese and then can try to draw their game with Germany. It will be impractical to expect Denmark defeating the Germans, but certainly a draw can earn them a vital point towards progression to the quarterfinals. However, if Portugal wins against the Dutch, Denmark doesn’t seem to have any chance. The Danes need to strengthen their defense, which looked miserable today except Daniel Agger. Thomas Sorensen, the regular goalkeeper for Denmark, is expected to be back for the last game.
Denmark: Stephan Andersen Simon Poulsen, Daniel Agger, Simon Kjaer, Lars Jacobsen, Niki Zimling (Jakob Poulsen 16’), William Kvist, Michael Krohn-Delhi (Lasse Schone 90’), Christian Eriksen, Dennis Rommedahl (Toblas Mikkelsen 60’), Nicklas Bendtner
“The equaliser was unjust but we didn’t bow our heads; we showed character and got the winner we deserved” – Paulo Bento, Portugal coach
“We struggled to find our rhythm but we really improved in the second half and in the last ten minutes we came into our own.” – Morten Olsen, Denmark coach
Nine or Ten ?
Group B: Denmark vs. Portugal
Wednesday June 13, 2012
7 pm Local Time,
Arena Lviv, Lviv, Ukraine
Two adjacent FIFA ranking teams, Denmark (ranked 9) and Portugal (ranked 10) will be clashing against each other today at Lviv, Ukraine. Both teams will be playing their second game in the “Group of Death”. Denmark will be starting high on confidence, since they are already at the top of the group after defeating the mighty Netherlands in their last game. On the other hand, Portugal, having lost their first game against Germany by a late Mario Gomez goal, will have to win this game at any cost to ensure a finite probability of progression to the quarterfinals. The last time these two teams met was during the Euro qualifying Group H games, when Denmark defeated Portugal by a margin of 2-1 at Copenhagen. The last four encounters between these two teams resulted in two wins for Denmark and one for Portugal – thus, Denmark are clearly not starting as underdogs.
Denmark will be playing almost the same team that emerged winners against the 2010 World Cup Finalists. The only change might be Michael Silberbauer, who successfully marked Cristiano Ronaldo in the match at Copenhagen. At the front, the Danes will be looking towards Krohn-Dehli, the goal scorer from the Dutch game as well as Niklas Bendtner for converting chances. They will take every opportunity to build a solid counter-attack and score. Portugal, on the other hand, will be relying on Cristiano Ronaldo heavily for registering their first win at the European Championship. Nani, who had scored 3 international goals against Denmark will also be a key factor for the Portugese. Hugo Almeida has recovered and will probably replace Helder Postiga, after the latter failed to make even a single impact against Germany.
Denmark is in peak form after winning the last two international encounters against Australia and Netherlands.
Last 5 games: WLLWW
Portugal is having a nightmare time with just one win over the last 5 games. Consecutive losses to Turkey and Germany will surely decline their spirits. Moreover, as in the previous 3 games, Portugal hasn’t scored in their last game.
Last 5 games: DWDDLL
Denmark (4-2-3-1):Stephan Andersen Michael Silberbauer, Daniel Agger, Simon Kjaer, Lars Jacobsen, Niki Zimling, William Kvist, Michael Krohn-Delhi, Christian Eriksen, Dennis Rommedahl, Nicklas Bendtner
Manager: Morten Olsen
Portugal (4-3-3): Rui Patricio; Fabio Coentrao, Bruno Alves, Pepe, Joao Pereira; Miguel Veloso, Joao Moutinho, Raul Meireles; Cristiano Ronaldo, Hugo Almeida, Nani
Manager: Paulo Bento
“We have closed down Cristiano Ronaldo before and we firmly believe we can do it again” – Simon Kjaer
“Losing is a word we can’t even let enter our minds” — Miguel Veloso
A Sneak Peek: Stars of UEFA Euro 2012 Group B
We continue our build-up to the Euro 2012 with the rising stars of Group B. Kinshuk Biswas profiles them
In this feature we bring you some of the players who have the potential to become stars in Poland and Ukraine. We begun with Group A and now move on to Group B.
Name: Christian Eriksen
Age: 20 (14.02.1992)
Club: Denmark 2008 – Present
Position: Attacking Midfielder
National Caps (Goals): 21 (2)
Current Market Value: € 13,000,000
Christian Eriksen is one of the most exciting young talents in Europe. Though deployed in the attacking midfield position in his club as well as for his national team, he is being hailed as the complete midfielder by the pundits. He has great vision to pick up a fellow player, good passing and dribbling skills to open up defences as well as a thunderbolt of his own. He has made a meteoric progress so far in his short career and has already notched up the coveted Danish Football Player of the Year award in 2011. Under coach Morten Olsen he has been a regular in the first XI and quite an influential player at that with his recent performances. This year in the Eredivisie he has made an astonishing 18 assists over and above netting seven. The little playmaker has drawn attention from European giants but he remains committed to Ajax for his professional development so far. So far, that is.
Name: Mario Götze
Age: 19 (03.06.1992)
Club: Borussia Dortmund 2009 – Present
Position: Attacking Midfielder / Winger
National Caps (Goals): 12 (2)
Current market Value: € 30,000,000
Mario Götze, a promising German midfielder, is a product of the Dortmund youth system. Competent in either flank, as well as through the middle, Götze has done well through various age groups and made his senior international debut at a tender age of 18. That came on the back of his impressive 2010-11 club season when he was an integral part of the Bundesliga winning team. He is pacy, full of trickery and is helped by the fact that he is naturally two-footed. His growing influence in the international stages – he started the 2011-12 campaign by scoring back-to-back goals for the national name – will see him as one of the (if not the) youngest player in Euro 2012. He is yet to cement his place in the starting XI and is likely to be used as an impact player given the riches of wealth in the midfield for the Die Mannschaft.
Name: Kevin Strootman
Age: 22 (13.02.1990)
Club: PSV Eindhoven 2011 – Present
Position: Central Midfielder
National Caps (Goals): 10 (1)
Current market Value: € 8,000,000
Kevin Strootman was plying his trade in the second tier of Dutch league two years back. The tall, deep-lying playmaker has made a rapid progress since and is now a well established international player. In the qualification stages he has made five appearances with 2 assists and a fine goal against Finland. Overall a technically sound player, he can lock horns with his more illustrious counterparts. For the Orange he is the fulcrum of the midfield just as he is for his club Eindhoven. Besides anchoring the midfield and winning balls in a 50:50 duel due to his strong physical presence, Strootman has great vision, is an astute passer of the ball and often dictates the tempo of the match. He is also a dead ball specialist on virtue of a deadly left foot. An all round player, Strootman is more of a box-to-box midfielder who will like to announce himself in the Euro 2012 in a grand fashion.
Name: Fábio Coentrão
Age: 24 (11.03.1988)
Club: Real Madrid 2011 – Present
Position: Wing-back/ Midfielder
National Caps (Goals): 19 (1)
Current market Value: € 24,000,000
Fábio Coentrão is a natural left flank player who has established himself in the Portugal first XI for quite some time now. Still only 24, he is a relative greenhorn for a defender, and Euro 2012 will be a great platform for him to continue his fine showing at the World Cup 2010. He is a natural dribbler, likes to be involved in a short passing game and is very good with the ball in his feet. His stop-start career at Benfica finally blossomed at Real Madrid. He is given more of a defending role and has shone brilliantly there. Coentrão is also quite multi-dimensional as he can be slotted in the midfield – either in the left side or as a defensive shield – and it would give Portugal the added flexibility to change their shape and tactics during a game. Challenge for him will be to use his trademark maundering runs down the left flank to his advantage without being exposed defensively.
Daring Dark Horses at Euro 2012
While all the superpowers of Europe prepare for the mega stage, there are some smaller nations which have the power to cause a huge upset. Debojyoti Chakraborty looks at the possible contenders who can shock the pundits at the UEFA Euro 2012
Speaking of Dark Horses, we try to analyse the teams which may not be entering the tournament as favourites but can propel their way through to the knock-out stages and beyond. These teams have a realistic chance of progressing as they are, in a way, helped by the draw at the Group stages. All they need is a bit of determination, good strategy…and some luck! So let us look at our own set of Underdogs.
Russia has a very good record at the Euros since winning it (then Soviet Union) in the inaugural edition of 1960. After going through a re-building phase since the inception of the country in the early ‘90s, Russia did well last time when they reached the semis and lost out to eventual winners Spain. This time also, the men under Dick Advocaat look set for a strong run in to the tournament.
Russia topped their Group during qualifying stages with ease. Though their opponents are relative minnows in Europe, Russia did put up a good show – especially in defence which let in only four goals, second only to Italy – and gained some valuable places in the UEFA rankings. That helped them get into the easiest Group in the finals. Russia have some good players who put their best foot forward while playing for their country. Hence, though Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko have struggled to break into the first team for their club teams in England, it will be no surprise if they turn the heat on in Euro 2012.
Advocaat is a shrewd tactician but there are quite a few challenges for him this time round. He is often criticised for favouring players from Zenit St. Petersburg, the club he coached previously. It will be interesting to see how he inducts the young and talented players like playmaker Alan Dzagoev and striker Pavel Pogrebnyak to the mix. Also, considering this could be the swansong for some key players such as defender Sergei Ignashevich, midfielders Konstantin Zyryanov and Igor Semshov, and possibly the dynamic duo of Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko, Advocaat would surely like to motivate them for a final hurrah.
Russia is playing all its matches in Poland. Ukraine would have suited them more considering the large Russian contingent there. They start their campaign against Czech Republic and will look to set the tone for the tournament. Against Poland, the hosts, their second Group match will be the toughest one. Advocaat might have an eye on this match from the start of the campaign. By the time they take on Greece on the last match day, the Russians could find themselves in a position where they can dictate terms and choose their quarter-final opponents. And that could be it. With an opponent from the Group of Death their campaign looks all but over. But the Russians won’t let it go so easy and they can look for inspiration in the Greek side of 2004. They should also benefit from the fact that half of the side plays for the Russian champion Zenit St. Petersburg.
Another Zenit player to feature in the Euro 2012 will be Portuguese defender Bruno Alves. His own country Portugal featured in the first ever Euro in 1960 but had to wait for a long 24 years for their next appearance where they reached the semis. They have done reasonably well since then with their best performance coming in the home turf as they reached the Final of Euro 2004 only to lose to Greece.
In the lead-up to Euro 2012, Portugal was stuttering with only one point from the first 2 matches of the qualifying competition, when Paulo Bento took over from Carlos Queiroz. Portugal scratched their way to the finals through a play-off against Bosnia and Herzegovina. They face an even uphill task being drawn in the Group of Death. But we have often seen teams which scratch their way into the tournament often go all the way beyond everyone’s expectations. And they have it all – ambition, determination and belief – as put in by their talismanic captain Cristiano Ronaldo. At 27, the best player of the tournament is in the form of his life and he enters the competition as the highest scorer for Portugal in the qualifying campaign with seven goals to his credit. Champions League semi-final berth to go with his personal glory of scoring for fun in La Liga; 2012 has been a memorable year for CR7 and he would like to cap it up with the Euro glory. He has some creative players hugging the touchlines in the forms of João Moutinho and Nani. If they can influence the game and take a lead, the Real Madrid pairing of Pepe and Fábio Coentrão can organise the back four, keep a proper shape and defend well.
The Selecção das Quinas start their campaign against Germany and even a stalemate would suit them. The second match against Denmark would be their big match as they not only would like to win it, but win it big to have a good goal difference. They will take a close look at the other match in the Group on the same match day as Germany and Netherlands lock horns. A bit of luck, results going their way and Portugal will feel they have a solid chance of progressing to the knock-out stages when they take on the Dutch side in their last Group match. Some records are yet to be set after the Battle of Nuremberg in World Cup 2006 which saw only 18 men finish the match and a total of 16 yellow cards. If Portugal can progress to the knock-out stages, they will face a much easier opponent in the form of Russia, Poland or Czech Republic. This is a definite winnable game and once you are into the semi-finals, anything can happen.
Just like Portugal, Croatia also came through the pain and anxiety of play-offs and started the tournament as one of the well drilled teams. Croatia, as a part of Yugoslavia, had an impressive record at the Euro championships where they reached the Final of the tournaments twice in the first three editions. They have failed to emulate their form ever since and this time too they are entering the tournament as rank outsiders.
Croatia was widely tipped to top their Group in the qualifying campaigns where they were drawn against the likes of Greece, Israel, Latvia, Georgia and Malta. But they were beaten comprehensively by the Greek side at home and a shock defeat by Georgia led them to the qualification play-off. In that match though they regained their composure and thrashed a well drilled Turkey side to advance to the finals of Euro 2012. Under the supervision of coach Slaven Bilic, the Croats are well organized, tactically sound and they are expected to run their socks off for the whole 90 minutes. Amongst a group of strong and determined individuals, they have a lynchpin in Luca Modric, a rising star in Milan Badelj and a target man in Ivica Olic.
It is their impressing run of form which sees them in the eighth place in UEFA rankings, one above their Group opponent Italy. They have been drawn in a difficult Group but one has to remember in major tournaments none can be termed as a pushover team. Croatia start their campaign against Ireland and they have to win this game for a realistic chance of progressing. They will also keep a keen eye on another match on the same match day involving Spain and Italy. Spain is almost certain to progress but Croatia can target Italy for a possible berth in the quarter-finals. The draw also favours them as the Croats will next be against the Azzuri in what could decide the quarter-final berth. Once into the knock-outs, they are most likely to face England or France. Neither of them are quite threatening in their current forms. So, the big match is against the Italians on June 14 which could well seal Croatia’s fate.
The last team in this feature is Sweden, who defeated Croatia 3-1 in a friendly in February. Sweden boss Erik Hamren will be very pleased with his efforts so far steering Sweden into the finals of a major tournament in his very first assignment. He will take heart from the fact that Sweden have progressed through the Group stages from a very similar setup in 1992 – the Group featured England, France and Denmark – which was their first appearance in the Euro stage, that too as a host.
Sweden qualified for the finals behind Netherlands as the Group runner-up. But they put up a strong display at home in Stockholm to beat the formidable Dutch side. Hamren favours a defensive 4-2-3-1 formation and even if heavily criticized at home for this, he has delivered some good results in the run-up to the competition. Like any Scandinavian side, Sweden is well organized, tactically sound and their physical aspect of the game is a major strength. Their game will definitely revolve around the charismatic front man Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With some more potent weapon at disposal, Hamren might have considered adopting an attacking brand of football with the mantra: “Attack is the best form of defence”. But does not look like so!
Sweden are lucky to get their campaign rolling against Ukraine. This is one match where they would like to win handsomely. Following that is a match against England. The 3 Lions have been struggling for form and consistency; without much time for the newly appointed manager to stamp his authority and influential Wayne Rooney up front this is Sweden’s best chance to get one up against the disjointed English side. Even the last encounter against France is not a daunting one – the French are going through a transition phase and are nowhere close to their dominating best of the late ‘90s. So their recipe for success would be to thrash Ukraine and get at least 2 points from the remaining two matches. If Sweden can make it through to the quarter-finals, they could face the reigning European and World Champions Spain and that will be curtains for them. So there is added motivation for the Swedes to top the Group and a few games going their way can make their dream come true. If that happens, Swedes would be up against the struggling Azzuri or another underdog in the form of Croatia. This is quite a decent opportunity for them to feature in the last four and then, as they say, anything can happen.
So we are done with our own dark horses. Some of them face a trickier tie compared to others. While a dominant opponent from Group B – Germany, Netherlands or Portugal – might just be Russia’s hope for a last four berth, Portugal can spring in a surprise from the Group of Death and there is no reason why they cannot go all the way. Sweden seem to have the brightest chance of shining through as they are fitted against misfiring European giants whereas the Croats have to dig deep to salvage any pride out of this year’s competition.