World Cup Preview: Group B (Australia, Chile, Holland, Spain)

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Spain were victorious in South Africa four years ago.

Australia | Key men: Tim Cahill, Mile Jedinak, Lucas Neill

Following a stuttering qualifying campaign, the Socceroos now have to contest Group B with three sides ranked in FIFA’s top 15 nations. The retirement of Mark Schwarzer has opened the door for a new young goalkeeper to emerge as the nation’s number one, with Mathew Ryan getting the nod over Adam Federici and Mitchell Langerak in recent fixtures. This summer is likely to be the last time Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill and Mark Bresciano feature in a World Cup, and despite being placed in one of the most challenging groups, they will be looking to go out on a high. Prediction: 4th

Chile | Key men: Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez, Mauricio Isla

The Chileans’ 2-0 win over England at Wembley will have caught the eye of many fans, however they have been playing expansive, attacking football for a number of years now, with some success. Jorge Sampaoli took charge halfway through qualifying and transformed the side into one of international football’s most exciting teams. Alexis Sanchez has had an impressive season at Barcelona, while Juventus’s Arturo Vidal has proven himself as one of the world’s best midfielders. They will have to remain defensively responsible against the stronger teams in the group however, particularly the wing-backs Mauricio Isla and Jean Beausejour. Prediction: 3rd

Holland | Key men: Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder

The finalists of 2010 may have collapsed at the 2012 European Championship, however they qualified for Brazil 2014 with an almost-perfect record, slipping to a draw in one single match and scoring the most goals, joint with Germany, of any team in Europe. Having only recently become a regular fixture in the Dutch side, Kevin Strootman’s injury will rule him out of the tournament, and Robin van Persie has struggled with fitness and form throughout the season. Furthermore, their defence looks the weakest it has done in a number of years. The Dutch are up against it in a tough group, however they should have the firepower to see off Australia and Chile. Prediction: 2nd

Spain | Key men: Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Ramos

Current world and European champions Spain need no introduction. Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso are central to their tiki-taka style of play, and that is unlikely to change, however Vicente Del Bosque is likely to mix things around up top. The indifferent form of Fernando Torres and David Villa has coincided with Alvaro Negredo’s strong performances for Manchester City, and Diego Costa becoming eligible for Spain. The latter is ahead of Lionel Messi in terms of goals scored in La Liga, and only one behind Cristiano Ronaldo, and offers more of a physical presence up front than Spain have had in recent years. However, as they showed in the Euros, they can win without a striker on the pitch, so we may see a 4-6-0 formation once again. Ramos and Pique form a very strong partnership which will give Jordi Alba at left-back plenty of freedom to join the attack. However, after losing convincingly to Brazil in the final of the Confederations Cup, they face their toughest challenge yet in retaining the trophy and will have to be in their best form yet. Prediction: 1st

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World Cup Preview: Group A (Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico)

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The hopes of millions of Brazilian fans will be resting upon their rising star, Neymar.

Brazil | Key men: Neymar, Oscar, Thiago Silva

The pre-tournament favourites and hosts have reinvented their style of football in recent years, opting for a more high pressure setup with a sturdier midfield, however they do maintain the attacking flair that one would associate with a Brazilian team. The nation’s hopes will be pinned upon Neymar, however the performances of Oscar could be just as influential, as he is expected to put intense pressure on the opposing midfielders in addition to being involved in their attacking play. They overcame Spain in the Confederations Cup final by not allowing their opponents time on the ball, and will continue to do so this summer. Prediction: 1st

Cameroon | Key men: Samuel Eto’o, Alex Song, Nicolas N’Koulou

Despite being briefly banned by FIFA in 2013 as a result of government interference into the nation’s football association, Cameroon take their place in Group A this summer. Defensively they look solid, however they rely too heavily on Samuel Eto’o and Pierre Webo for goals, both of whom are showing signs of slowing down due to age. If their midfield fail to chip in, they will struggle in a tough group. Prediction: 4th

Croatia | Key men: Luka Modric, Darijo Srna, Ivan Rakitic

Now managed by their former captain Niko Kovac, Croatia boast a number of creative midfielders such as Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, Atletico’s Ivan Rakitic and Niko Kranjcar of Dinamo Kyiv, however their prolific forward Mario Mandzukic will miss the first game of the tournament through suspension. Whether it is Nikica Jelavic, Ivica Olic or Eduardo that takes his place, they will need to hit the ground running, as they face Brazil in the tournament’s opening game. Prediction: 2nd

Mexico | Key men: Javier Hernandez, Andres Guardado, Francisco Javier Rodriguez

After winning gold at the 2012 London Olympics, things didn’t quite go to plan for Mexico, nearly allowing minnows Panama to qualify ahead of them. Their biggest problems lie in front of goal, scoring only 7 times in their 10 game qualification group. To make matters worse, former Arsenal striker Carlos Vela is in the form of his life at Real Sociedad, but following a disagreement with the country’s FA and harsh criticism from the media, he has rejected his call up. Javier Hernandez has had a frustrating season, however his country will be relying on his goals to progress from Group A. Prediction: 3rd

Crimean clubs could face terrace trouble

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Most of Tavriya Simferopol’s ultras are Ukrainian Nationalists.

Following Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, the managers of Ukrainian Premier League clubs Tavriya Simferopol and FC Sevastopol have both announced that they are likely to participate in the Russian Premier League next season.

The Ukrainian league is ranked by UEFA as the seventh strongest in Europe, ahead of Russia’s top tier which places eighth. The two sides shouldn’t be too out of their depth, however they will face a round trip of over 9,000 kilometres when facing Tom Tomsk away from home, and many more long journeys throughout the season.

Another issue that the clubs will face is meeting Russia’s regulations on foreign players. Not only are there more foreigners at Tavriya and FC Sevastopol this season than would be allowed in the Russian Premier League, but their Ukrainian players will also count as foreign, as the majority will not be receiving Russian passports.

These restrictions on foreign players will become even more strict in the coming years, in an attempt to improve the standard of Russian players prior to their hosting of the 2018 World Cup.

As a result, only seven of each club’s current players would be allowed on the pitch at any one time.

The long distance away trips and overhaul in playing staff will undoubtedly frustrate hardcore fans, although at the moment they will have more pressing issues to worry about; this is because the “ultra” fan bases of both clubs are comprised almost entirely of Ukrainian Nationalists.

Some of these fans have fled Crimea already, but those that remain will surely make their feelings known, despite the Russian government’s best attempts to silence them.

Several of Tavriya’s most influential ultras are already wanted by the police for acts of hooliganism, however it is more likely to be the pro-Russian fans of their own club that will be on the receiving end of such behaviour, as opposed to the fellow nationalist supporters of other clubs as would usually be the case.

World Cup under cyber threat

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The 2014 World Cup is a target for notorious hacking organisation Anonymous.

Hackers allegedly associated with the “Anonymous” group have threatened to disrupt the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, in protest against the $14 billion in government funds being spent on hosting the tournament.

They have made headlines in the past following attacks on US government websites, banks and Sony’s PlayStation Network, emerging as one of the world’s most feared groups of cyber criminals. They claim that they will be targeting official websites of the tournaments’ sponsors.

It is likely that distributed denial of service attacks, known as DDoS, will be used against the websites of the sponsors. DDoS involves flooding a website with an enormous amount of traffic, forcing it to crash.

Some hackers have already taken action, disrupting the online ticket sales for the tournament.

The upcoming World Cup has divided opinions amongst Brazilians. Many are excited at the prospect of once again hosting the world’s biggest celebration of their favourite sport. Many on the other hand, including one of the nation’s footballing heroes Romario, believe the money would be better spent in other areas.

There were widespread protests involving over a million residents last June, and it is expected that many will attempt to voice their opinions once again during the tournament.

The country itself are aware of the issue, and General Jose Carlos dos Santos of the Brazilian army’s cyber command claims that “Brazil is prepared to respond to the most likely cyber threats.”

Over 300 attempted attacks were prevented during last year’s Confederations Cup, and a “much higher” number will be stopped this summer.

Serie A’s serious slump

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Sampdoria’s away following at the Stadio Olimpico surrounded by stewards.

When the above photograph was doing the rounds on Twitter the other day, football fans were chuckling about the excessive security presence surrounding the Sampdoria fans during their match against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico. However, it is the worryingly small number of away supporters that will be of much greater concern to those involved in Italian football, and those who watch it. Away followings of this nature are typical of most Serie A clubs, a league which has suffered an incredible decline in recent years.

2006 was a turbulent year for Italian football. Much like they did in the 1982 World Cup, the Azzurri triumphed in the midst of a damaging match-fixing scandal in their own domestic league. The Calciopoli scandal involved some of the country’s largest clubs such as AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio, and most notably saw the reigning champions Juventus relegated as punishment for their wrongdoings.

The relegation of Juventus was damaging for Italian football in a number of ways. Firstly, world class players such as Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Gianluca Zambrotta and Emerson all left Juventus for other clubs outside of Italy, while Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic moved on to Internazionale, increasing the gulf in quality between Inter and the chasing pack.

AC Milan would soon sell key players such as future World Player of the Year Kaká, and 2004 Ballon d’Or winner Andriy Shevchenko, while stalwarts like Paolo Maldini and Pippo Inzaghi moved beyond their prime. Inter emerged as the strongest side in the nation by some distance, winning four consecutive Scudettos immediately after the Calciopoli scandal.

Inter’s dominance began to wane in 2010 following Jose Mourinho’s departure. Teams outside of the established top three were challenging seriously for Champions League group spots, namely Napoli, Udinese, Lazio and Roma. Inter, Milan and Juve’s performances in European competition were uninspiring in this period, and in turn the Serie A dropped to fourth in UEFA’s rankings, overtaken by the German Bundesliga. This meant that there would only be two Champions League group stage qualification spaces. If the league’s decline wasn’t already plain to see, it was unmissable at this point.

This worrying slide in quality is only one of a number of issues currently facing Italian football. As the initial photo highlighted, attendances are at an all-time low; the league’s average attendance for last season was around the 24,000 mark, about two-thirds of the Premier League’s. For a competition once considered the world’s greatest domestic league, it is a far cry from the crowds of the 1990s.

The depletion of quality is not the most significant cause of this dip in attendance figures; the real problem is the match-day experience. The terrifying hooliganism deters families, while Premier League and Bundesliga fixtures are usually a safe and popular family day out. The racism and general abuse hurled between supporters is certainly not something that a parent would want their child exposed to, let alone the threat of physical harm posed by groups of “ultras”.

Furthermore, the views in the stadiums themselves can be terrible. Most of the Italian top flight teams had their stadiums refurbished for Italia ’90, however they almost all remain in Olympic style, with running tracks increasing the fans’ distance from the pitch. The San Siro is a notable exception, and the recently built Juventus Stadium is an immeasurable improvement upon the Turin club’s old home, the Stadio Delle Alpi, famed for having some of the worst views in world football. Stadiums will need rebuilding before they are filled weekly.

Italian football may well rebound from its current state, and emerging talents such as Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy are certainly inspiring the nation’s youth. Perhaps the emergence of a generation of non-violent yet still passionate football fans will resuscitate the nation’s flatlining domestic league; that and some new stadiums of course. If the Serie A looks to the recovery of English football from the dark days of the ’70s and ’80s for some inspiration, there is no reason why it can’t, possibly with a little help from foreign investment, reach its former glory.

Indian football’s extreme makeover

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India’s national side have little success, but the sport is very popular there.

The USA and China have done it, and rather unsurprisingly, India are set to follow suit. A brand new domestic football league inspired by the success of the Indian Premier League cricket competition is set to commence in late 2014, and will feature a number of ex-international players, including Dwight Yorke, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Louis Saha and Hernan Crespo. Kenny Dalglish, Peter Schmeichel and Marcel Desailly will manage three of the eight sides, and plenty more big names are set to be announced in the future.

The Indian Super League will focus not only upon attracting stars from abroad, but also on improving the standard of Indian footballers. Each of the eight teams will be allowed 10 foreigners, and four of their remaining players must be from their respective local areas.

Football has become extremely popular in India in recent years, with over 150 million people tuning into the Premier League, however their current domestic competition is largely neglected by fans of the sport.

There is certainly a market for such a project, however it is unlikely to ever rival the IPL in terms of popularity.

The IPL attracts a global audience due to the pool of world class players participating, and a host of ex-players years past their peak, lured out of retirement by an enormous pay check, are unlikely to command such worldwide appeal. Bollywood dancers and fireworks may add to the experience for an Indian audience, however for viewers in other countries it will do little to disguise the fact that the standard of football is relatively poor.

The fundamental issue with the tournament is the timing of it. Being halfway through the domestic season in most European countries means that contracted players would be unable to participate, and only those either unemployed or previously retired could take part. Furthermore, each season lasts only three months, with a mere 14 games being played by each team. Surely no player in their prime would elect to play in such a league, regardless of how much money is offered?

Of course, the Indian Super League will captivate a national audience and inspire millions of children to play football. Attendance figures are predicted to be high, particularly for any club emulating the kit colours of Manchester United. It will be a vast improvement upon the current domestic football setup, and despite the obvious factors which will possibly reduce global interest, its benefits should not be ignored; one of India’s favourite sports will finally be done justice.

Is Kosovo any closer to FIFA acceptance?

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Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj would be eligible for a Kosovan national side.

Following a meeting with FIFA and the Serbian FA, FFK President Vadil Fokrri believes that Kosovo is a step closer to finally being allowed to compete on the international stage.

Since its declaration of independence in 2008, it has only been allowed to field youth sides in international friendlies, and is not permitted to display a national flag or coat of arms.

For those unfamiliar with Kosovo and its recent history, it declared independence from Serbia five years ago, however Serbia does not officially recognise it as an independent state, instead a UN controlled area within its own territory.

A number of other nations share this stance, in particular Russia, because they believe it would set a “dangerous precedent” for other separatist groups desiring independence. Many think it would cause increased unrest in the Caucasus region, Eastern Moldova, Northern Cyprus and parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina where separatist organisations are currently active. However, over 100 UN states, including the UK, the USA, France and Germany, view Kosovo as a totally independent country.

Clearly, this is a complicated issue, and Serbia and Russia do not seem to be changing their stance. However, Fokrri believes Kosovan participation in international tournaments might not be so far away, describing the recent meeting as “positive” and explaining that more meetings are likely to follow.

This coincides with the emergence of perhaps the most talented player of Kosovan descent of all time; Adnan Januzaj, the young Manchester United winger. He is eligible to play for Belgium, his country of birth, along with Croatia, Albania and Turkey due to his ancestry. He could even play for the English national side if he remained at Old Trafford long enough to obtain citizenship.

However, he has already rejected approaches from the Belgian and Albanian football associations, which has led to increased speculation that he may opt to represent Kosovo if FIFA are willing to accept them.

He is not the only talented player of Kosovan descent; Xherdan Shaqiri of Bayern Munich has committed himself to the Swiss national team, however he would have been eligible to play for Kosovo.

Furthermore, Lorik Cana and Valon Behrami, both playing in the Italian top tier, could also have represented Kosovo, as well as Borussia Monchengladbach’s Granit Xhaka, striker Shefki Kuqi who spent a number of years in the Premier League, and Watford’s 2012/13 Player of the Season Almen Abdi. Their national side would certainly be no pushovers.

Despite the FFK’s optimism, and further talks having been scheduled for late November, there does still seem to be a long way to go. At this stage, they are still trying to persuade FIFA to grant them the same level of acceptance that non-independent regions Catalonia and the Basque Country currently have.

It seems therefore that it will be a while before we see Kosovo participating in a World Cup or European Championship.