Belfast Telegraph

Boys from Brazil will be the main men in Russia

By Jackie Fullerton

Every time the World Cup comes around, I think of Brazil. I've had an ongoing love affair with the Samba Boys ever since I was a kid watching the 1958 tournament on a grainy black and white television in Ballymena.

Who could forget how well Northern Ireland did that year, but my abiding memory was seeing the young Pele being introduced to the world.

And we were all stunned by what we saw. This was football, a team game, but with individual brilliance, that type of football that people still yearn for today.

These days athleticism and rigid tactical planning seem to be the most important things, yet the boys from Brazil remain committed to playing what Pele himself coined 'the beautiful game'.

People of my generation fondly remember the 1970 Brazilian team, which is the best I've ever seen.

Pele was still there, mature and at his peak, but there was also Revelino, Tostao, Jairzinho and Gerson, and they were just fantastic players too.

The 1982 team with Zico, Socrates, Eder, Junior, Oscar and Falcao were also wonderful to watch, and they really should have emulated the 1970 side. I met a lot of their fans when I was at the 1982 tournament in Spain, and they're a lot like us.

They mingled with the Green and White Army, exchanged shirts, badges, etc; there was no trouble whatsoever. All they cared about was the football; it was their religion.

I'm not surprised the bookies have made Brazil, who kick-off their campaign against Switzerland tomorrow, favourites for a sixth World Cup victory - and no, I haven't forgotten what happened to them four years ago. The Brazilians themselves would certainly love to forget the 7-1 hammering by Germany in front of their own fans, in their own country.

Their new manager Tite says that result is like a ghost, but they're certainly trying hard to exorcise it.

They were terrific in qualifying, the form and flair returned. It's important that Neymar is fully fit but they still have so much quality; Firmino, Coutinho, Willian, Fernandinho, Costa, Jesus and Casemiro, to name but a few.

Germany are not as aesthetically pleasing as Brazil, but they're a football machine and of course they'll believe they can retain the trophy.

Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels are brilliant defenders, and midfielder Tony Kroos is a Rolls Royce of a player.

Manchester City's Leroy Sane didn't even make the squad yet he'd walk into most other country's first team.

Their manager Joachim Low is obviously top drawer and knows what he's doing.

Sorry, but I don't see England having a chance, although they did well in qualifying, winning eight of their 10 games and conceding only three goals, which makes them, along with Spain, the top two European teams defensively.

Having said that, they only scored 18, compared with the Belgians who bagged 43.

But it's all about what you do in a tournament. Remember, England won all their Euro 2016 qualifiers and then look what happened.

For me, they lack the special quality required for the global stage. Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson are very good Premier League players but they're not top notch in this arena, and going out to Russia with three inexperienced goalkeepers leaves another big question mark.

Raheem Sterling has improved greatly under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, and it's also Harry Kane's chance to shine on that big stage. He's a real class act, but a lot depends on whether or not he gets the service.

Dele Alli has discipline issues, we know, but he's a big talent. Real Madrid and Barcelona will come calling for Kane and Alli if they prove they can do it at this level.

People keep talking about how good Belgium are, and they look good on paper with Courtois, Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen, De Bruyne, Lukaku and Hazard in their line-up; what's not to like?

For me, however, they come across more as a group of dynamic individuals than a team capable of going all the way. The same with France, who were flaky in qualifying.

The bookies rarely get it wrong, and I'll be delighted if they're right about Brazil in a month's time.

Belfast Telegraph

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