Richard Sutcliffe: Forget Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar, France can be World Cup winners

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo keeps his eyes on the ball during the Confederations Cup. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo keeps his eyes on the ball during the Confederations Cup. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
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EVEN NOW, with 165 days to go until the opening game, millions of sticker albums will already be printed along with umpteen wallcharts.

Travel itineraries, complicated by the sheer size of Russia, will also be well advanced as the countdown continues to one of the more intriguing World Cups.

Who will emulate Germany as World Cup winners in Russia in 2018?

Who will emulate Germany as World Cup winners in Russia in 2018?

Russia, named as the host nation at the same time as Qatar was controversially handed the 2022 finals, represents the breaking of new ground by FIFA.

It is a long overdue shift East, the Soviet Union team that competed on the world stage until a little over a quarter of a century ago boasting a proud record in international competition.

Semi-finalists in 1966, the men from behind the Iron Curtain also won the European Championships six years before that impressive run in England.

The Soviets finished as runners-up in the 1964, 1972 and 1988 Euros, while Olympic gold also came their way in 1956 and 1988.

Accusations of the bidding process being compromised may still fly around but, to someone who has found Russia a fascinating place to visit over the years, FIFA’s choice is a sound one.

Richard Sutcliffe

An excellent pedigree by any standards, and one that surely meant Russia deserved the nod ahead of joint bids from Spain/Portugal and Holland/Belgium, plus a flawed attempt by England to once again bring football home.

Accusations of the bidding process being compromised may still fly around but, to someone who has found Russia a fascinating place to visit over the years, FIFA’s choice is a sound one.

Sure, the country has problems. Racism and hooliganism continue to stain football in a manner not seen here since the Eighties. Some areas of the major cities are also best avoided, though the same could have been said about the last two World Cups in Brazil and South Africa.

It is to be hoped that, as with those two most recent finals and the European Championships in Ukraine that carried similar scare stories for visitors during the build-up, the authorities clamp down hard on those intent on causing problems.

Manchester United's Paul Pogba will be a dangerous proposition with France this summer.

Manchester United's Paul Pogba will be a dangerous proposition with France this summer.

If that proves to be the case then the 2018 World Cup can be one that goes down in history for all the right reasons. Certainly, those heading to Russia’s far-flung host cities will be treated to a culture like few others on the planet.

Every city is different, as England fans will find out in the group stage as they head from the sprawl of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and its iconic 279 ft statue of Mother Russia to the picturesque riverside setting of Nizhny Novgorod. Kaliningrad, flattened in the Second World War, is the Three Lions’ final destination for the Belgium clash and supporters will find only Soviet brutalist blocks similar in design to the concrete monstrosity that used to house The Yorkshire Post in Leeds until a few years ago.

Tourist sights, of course, are secondary for the world’s football fans to what happens on the pitch and this year’s tournament has enough talent on show to suggest a true classic potentially lays ahead.

Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will be there for what perhaps will, due to their respective ages, be a last chance to emulate previous greats such as Pele and Maradona by truly shining at a World Cup. Neither will want to miss that opportunity.

Of the two, Messi looks to have the best chance of going all the way. Argentina did labour through qualification but the talent at manager Jorge Sampaoli’s disposal means the South Americans have to be taken seriously.

Likewise Brazil, whose humiliation in the 2014 semi-finals will surely burn deep in the souls of every single player sporting those famous colours next summer. Neymar missed that 7-1 thrashing by Germany but the world’s most expensive player will be as determined as anyone to atone for what was the darkest of dark days for Brazilian football.

Throw in the more recent emergence of Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho in the Premier League, and Brazil could take some stopping.

Others expected to challenge include Ronaldo’s Portugal and Spain, paired together in Group B but probably lacking the quality to go all the way this time. Holders Germany, too, have a tough group with Mexico, Sweden and South Korea all having had their moments down the years on the biggest footballing stage of all.

The host nation will kick off the tournament on June 14 against Saudi Arabia. Such an easy start could almost have been hand-picked but Russia, a poor side right now, could still struggle to escape Group A with Uruguay and Egypt, thanks to the goals of Mohamed Salah, more likely to progress.

As for elsewhere, Belgium could be a dark horse for the last four if their ‘golden generation’ fires in a way that simply didn’t happen in Euro 2016. The best England can surely hope for, meanwhile, is a place in the quarter-finals, Brazil or Germany then standing in the way of Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions.

As for all those of us who love nothing more than spending a month every four years filling in a World Cup wallchart, look no further than France for the column marked ‘winners’. Paul Pogba, N’Gole Kante, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe would surely walk into any team in the world.

Providing they avoid imploding due to internal strife – and with Holland staying at home, France seem the most likely – then expect Moscow to be reverberating to the sounds of Les Marseillais come July 15.