Hubert Lawrence | There can only be one
Alia Atkinson is one of the brightest stars in the FINA World Cup, the Grand Prix of swimming. Next month, Conan Osbourne will lead Jamaica in its debut at the Rugby Sevens World Cup. In cricket, a sport dear to West Indians, there is a limited overs World Cup. The international table tennis season always ends with the Men's and Women's World Cups. This year, the IAAF is reintroducing its own World Cup to bridge the gap between World Championships.
Yet, even though many sports have World Cups, there is no confusion. The real World Cup starts today in Russia and uniquely, there's no need to append the name of the sport or the abbreviation for the organisation that will run the June 14 to July 15 summit meeting of the globe's best teams in its biggest sport. Everyone knows. That's how universal the beautiful game is.
A perennial question remains: who will win? Five-time winners Brazil fit the bill more now that Neymar is heading back to full speed. With coach Tite perhaps using the Paris Saint Germain star part-time to unlock stubborn defences in tight games, Brazil are the favourites to erase bad memories of a home World Cup that went sour four years ago.
If Neymar, scorer of 55 goals for his country, isn't enough, Germany could make history again. In 2014, the Germans became the first Europeans to win a World Cup in the Americas. If they win again, Germany will be the first to stage a successful title defence since Brazil did so in 1962.
Evolved since the retirement of stars like 2014 captain Philip Lahm, Germany took the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup with a new-look team that looks as powerful as the one that made history in Brazil. Experience comes in the persons of 2014 stalwarts Mats Hummels, elegant Real Madrid passer Toni Kroos, Mezut Ozil and hit man Thomas Muller.'
Brazil edged the Germans in a tense Olympic final in 2016 in Rio, made safe when Neymar finished a tense penalty shoot out with a winner that gave his country its first Olympic gold in football. The rematch should occur in Russia.
Most pundits rank France and Belgium highly and it's understandable. France oozes with potential World Cup stars from Hugo Loris in goal to Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann in midfield. The Belgians have Kevin de Bruyne in the form of his life and a great team from defence led by goalie Thibaut Courtois and Vincent Kompany to an attack centred around powerful Romelu Lukaku.
Yet, France lost at home at Portugal in Paris in the 2016 European Championships final, with winning captain Cristiano Ronaldo off for most of the time because of injury. Despite conventional wisdom, that makes the Portuguese a potential semi-final team.
The other semi-finalists could be Argentina. Marvellous Lionel Messi, who will turn 31 during the World Cup, Angel Di Maria, 30, Sergio Aguero, 30, Gonzalo Higuain, 30, and Javier Mascherano, 34, may not pass this way again. Like the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, they know it is now are never. Led by bearded German Dirk Nowitzki, the veteran Mavericks outplayed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the rest of the Miami Heat to win the NBA title. If the Argentines play with Dallas-like urgency and precision, they could be better than predicted.
Things can change in a long tournament. Injuries, like the one that hit Mo Salah in the European Champions League final, can change a team's fortunes. Fortunately for Brazil, the injury to Neymar came early enough for him to recover a reasonable level of match fitness in time. With him sharp, Brazil will kick-off in pole position. There shouldn't be any confusion about that.
- Hubert Lawrence correctly picked Germany to win the 2014 final.