On a visit to Germany not so long after the 2010 World Cup, I got the opportunity to get up close and personal with Paul The Octopus, arguably the most famous eight-legged creature to ever live.
A memorable trek that started somewhere relatively nondescript in the Alps and through Munich and Frankfurt had its endpoint as Cologne, from which city my journalist colleagues and I made two even more memorable sojourns - one to Bielefeld to catch the Women’s U-20 World Cup final between Germany and Nigeria, and the other to the small town of Oberhausen.
Paul The Octopus had turned his Oberhausen ‘home’ into a tourist attraction at the time, a good many making their way to the Sea Life Centre there for their rendezvous with the intelligent invertebrate which had just correctly called all seven of Germany’s World Cup matches in South Africa, including the semifinal loss to Spain and the 3rd place playoff win over Uruguay.
I hadn’t quite acquainted myself with twitter at the time, and had never heard of whatsapp, or I would have been sharing my polaroids with the famous cephalopod with mates and followers around the world.
But more than just having pictures with Paul, I would not in the least bit have minded partaking of his oracular powers at a time like this, and looked good well beyond the camera.
Paul is long gone anyway (he has not lived to see another World Cup), and yet readers of this column expect me to make my own mortal calls.
It is admittedly not up to the levels of an octopus since departed, but my predictions success rate hasn’t been too shabby either!
I will only make my call on the eventual winner in next weekend’s edition with the Samba drums already in rhythm, but to get warmed up today I envision the general trends the tournament in Brazil is certain to take.
It will not be quite the case of Chelsea at Anfield this just-ended Premiership season, but this World Cup will not be about open-ended, free-for-all football either.
Most of the teams in the tournament are going to deploy several men behind the ball, with up to three different lines of defence starting closer to the centre line than their goal, either by default or design.
Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany, Holland, France and even Portugal are going to be lured into taking the initiative and labouring to create in-roads, with several of their opponents setting up to counter-attack every chance they get.
The defending champions are already used to the routine as they endured it in South Africa, most glaringly from their opening loss to Switzerland through to their narrow escape against Paraguay in the quarters.
The most frustrated by the set-up I project to be predominant will be Brazil, under more scrutiny and pressure than the rest, and it will all start from the very first whistle against Croatia, who will plant men behind the ball, hound their hosts in possession, and close them down in numbers.
Thankfully for Felipe Scolari’s men, Croatia are pretty decent on the ball themselves and will inevitably find themselves on the front foot when they get hold of it; but it will only get worse for the Selecao in subsequent matches.
A cursory look down the rosters of the top contenders reveals that those nations which are the trend-setters have not taken too many out-and-out strikers to Brazil; a review of their qualifiers, friendlies and recent tournament displays will reveal that they don’t intend to use more than one such striker at a time, if they choose to field any at all! The emphasis will therefore be on midfield dominance and control of possession, with the short pass the most frequent feature of this World Cup.
Aside from the deliberate choice to go with the short pass for many, the others will have to adopt the same approach because of the heat. The long ball will be too much of an energy-sapping chore in those temperatures, as indeed will be the direct approach and hard running some might have fancied.
Even the English will find themselves going more circuitous than they are culturally accustomed to, and the West Africans will have to move the ball around a little slower than would otherwise be ideal.
Individualism is what has lit up World Cups in the past and is the cause of most of the nostalgia from romantics like yours truly, but it will be at a bare minimum in Brazil with the concept of the unit emphasised by coaches, and the physical demands of the games in that sweltering heat dictating that players will need the help of their teammates more than ever.
US ’94 was the last of the World Cups with several individualists, as Romario, Roberto Baggio, Hristo Stoichkov and Thomas Brolin stood out, Diego Maradona having been dismissed early.
After that, individualists have been few and far between; Ronaldo Da Lima in 1998 and 2002; Rivaldo in 2002; Zinedine Zidane on the scoresheet in ’98 and on the ball eight years later; Diego Forlan with the spectacular strikes at the last edition.
The two biggest soloists on the ball in Brazil will be Lionel Messi and Neymar, while Cristiano Ronaldo if fit would try and conquer the scoreboard.
But those three and the others looking to make their mark (and there are many) will find the going tough; and as Spain and Germany have endeavoured to establish – the former with greater success than the latter – the nations which manage to mold their many gifted technicians into one cohesive unit with no stand-outs will prevail.
@markssali on twitter