They’ve made a habit of making history these last few years but Spain’s prospects of winning a fourth consecutive major title looked just a little more remote after last night’s World Cup draw. The defending champions were handed one of the tougher initial assignments and the prospect of playing the hosts in their first knockout game if they do not top their group.
Their chances of coming through it all are not, of course, nearly so remote as the venue for England’s opening game which will be staged in Manaus, the very city – far from Rio de Janeiro and deep in the Amazon rainforest – that Roy Hodgson had said prior to the draw he was hoping to avoid.
The city’s mayor had replied that the locals were hoping for other teams too, but both men’s luck ran out and Hodgson was obliged to look on the bright side after receiving the news that his side must face Italy there in their opening game.
“The good thing,” he said, “is that we know each other and the other thing in our favour is that the game we have got in the north, where the conditions are going to be tough climatically, is against another European team so we are both going to be in the same boat.
“It’ll be a chance to see the north of Brazil,” he added implausibly. “I’ve never been to the Amazon and it will be an interesting experience.”
It will be a deeply unpleasant one should England lose to the Italians, as they have, if you count the penalty shoot-out defeat in Kiev last summer, on the last three occasions the two sides have met at a major championship.
Defeat would leave Hodgson and his players under immense pressure as they head into their second game against Uruguay – the Copa America champions and World Cup semi-finalists in South Africa four years ago.
At least the getting to and from that game and the one that follows, against Costa Rica, will be straightforward as both are close to the team’s Rio base, but Hodgson would probably have preferred to avoid Belo Horizonte, the city where England lost to the United States in 1950, given the coverage the return visit will surely generate.
Tough draw for Spain
The Spanish may have good reason to avoid any reminiscing about that World Cup too. Brazil beat them 6-1 at the Maracana and after June's 3-0 Confederations Cup defeat, Vicente Del Bosque, whose side face tough opening games against the Netherlands and Chile, made no secret last night of his desire to avoid an early rematch next summer.
“I imagine that Brazil will finish first [in group A where Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon will provide the opposition] and so we have to give everything to make sure we win our group too,” said the Spaniard.
“Holland will demand that we start at our highest level [while] Chile have expert players and are very physical. We know they will be a very difficult team to face.
“Australia are a little less well known, but they have qualified from the Asian groups and I imagine they also have good players. It is not just about our opponents, though. It is also about us and the way we mentally approach this competition.”
That much can be said about all of the teams but some clearly fared better than others last night, with Brazil perhaps the biggest winners among the title contenders, followed by Argentina who will open their campaign with a game against Bosnia-Herzegovina prior to facing Iran then Nigeria.
“Argentina are favourites,” acknowledged Bosnian midfielder Miralem Pjanic. “I think we’ll compete with Nigeria for second place. We hope to do it.”
Germany face a tricky lgroup, meanwhile, with games against Portugal, Ghana and the United States to be negotiated if they are to make it safely to the second round.
Threat of Ronaldo
All three games are winnable but none is likely to be remotely easy, with the Portuguese, in particular, possessing the threat of Ronaldo and the meeting with the USA complicated by Juergen Klinsmann's involvement as coach.
“So, we will be meeting old friends,” said Joachim Loew. “It’s already something special to have the USA in our group. Juergen and I have had a very good and close relationship for a long time.
“We have always exchanged ideas on a regular basis, but that will certainly change before the World Cup match,” added Loew.
Arguably it was the French who enjoyed the best fortune of all with Didier Deschamps’s side, having avoided the switch to Pot 2 they had seemed destined for – in the end Italy landed that and so ended up facing Uruguay and England – ending up in a group with top seeds Switzerland as well as Honduras and Ecuador.
“It could have been more complicated, let’s be honest,” remarked Deschamps of whom progression will now undoubtedly be expected back at home.
That may bring its own pressure, but, with an attractive line-up of venues and even the order of the games appearing to be favourable, a repeat of the humiliation endured in South Africa should be avoided.
Their more fancied neighbours, Belgium, also fared well with Algeria, Russia and South Korea to be overcome if the team’s first task is to be completed.
Coach Marc Wilmots seemed pleased enough, which was understandable, but he might have been better to avoid the observation that “there are no world-class players within our opponents”.
Rather like telling a host city’s people that you’d rather not be meeting them anytime soon, that sort of thing has a habit, he should know, of coming back to bite you.