How the favourites have changed since South Africa
Four years is a lifetime in football. Some players emerge, others fall. Some teams are built, others collapse. It is that which makes predicting the World Cup such an impossible business. The teams we saw four years ago are a world away from the teams we will watch this time around. So, what's different for the one thing that never changes -- the primary contenders for the crown?
Vicente Del Bosque's team seems to be the exception that proves the rule. We know how they will play; their commitment to tiki-taka remains undimmed, unquestioned. Iker Casillas will be their leader, their inspiration; Gerard Pique will stride out with the ball from the back; Xavi will conduct the orchestra; Andres Iniesta will inject guile and imagination; Pedro will wheel around the pitch like a child hopped up on Red Bull. Spain are Spain. They will inflict deaths by a thousand cuts. They know no other way.
Scratch beneath the surface, though, and there have been myriad changes since they won their first world title in South Africa. For the better: They have a genuine physical presence up front. In 2010, injury deprived Fernando Torres of his edge, leaving David Villa to shoulder the burden of goal scoring; when he struggled, Spain looked a little blunt. Diego Costa's presence gives them a bulldozer to go with the ballet dancers.
And then for the worse: Xavi, Iniesta and the rest of the Barcelona contingent are coming off the back of a desperately disappointing season; everyone is a little older, a little more jaded; the Confederations Cup last year suggested they no longer have the aura they once did. Most worrying, though, is the development -- by Bayern Munich, by Chelsea, by Atletico Madrid, by Real Madrid -- of an antidote to their patient, passing approach. The rest of the football world has struck back against the dominion of tiki-taka. Spain may need to find another way.
With a World Cup on home soil looming, everyone in Brazil knew that things had to change -- and fast -- after the disappointment of 2010. Dunga's side had exited at the quarterfinal stage. They had been dull, flat, uninspiring. Brazil is prepared to forego style if, as in 1994, it leads to victory. To do so and still taste the bitter tang of defeat is beyond the pale.
The response was swift. They co-opted Mano Menezes to try to bring through a generation of exciting young prospects, the likes of Neymar and Oscar, to build a team capable not just of winning on home soil but of winning in the right way. It did not work; or at least it did not work fast enough. Out went Menezes, in came Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Big Phil is no artist; victory comes first, and everything else is secondary. In that sense, the approach will be the same as it was in South Africa: a strong base, built around Thiago Silva, allowing the artists to paint their patterns and weave their magic. The quality of those players has improved -- too many of Dunga's players had long-gone supernova -- and the side looks more balanced, too, with Neymar on the left, Oscar central and Hulk on the right. The question is whether they have a goal scorer to cap it all off: Brazilians would far rather have the Luis Fabiano of 2010 to the Fred of 2014.
Once again, as ever, the Argentines probably have the greatest concentration of individual talent -- particularly going forward -- of any team in the tournament. This time, though, they have not shot themselves in the foot by having Diego Maradona as manager. Alejandro Sabella has devised a system that allows him to get the best out of Lionel Messi while not reducing the talents of Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuaín to an irrelevance. There is a reason many fancy them to inflict another Maracanazo on their hosts and win their third World Cup at the home of their greatest rivals.
There is just one cloud on the horizon, and it comes in the form of Messi. This is an Argentina built not just for the Barcelona player, but to some extent by him. Sabella has consulted him on how Messi feels he is best deployed and even, by some accounts, on those players he would like to see around him. The problem is that Messi does not look much like Messi at the moment.
He has had a stop-start, injury-ravaged season, and in the dying weeks of the campaign, his appearances for Barcelona were marked by a clear unwillingness to run. Whole games passed him by; those that didn't, those where he made the difference, his contributions were emphatic but fleeting. His talent is such that it may be that, freed from the chaos of the Camp Nou, he can rediscover the magic of years past. The worry is that nobody, not even one of the greatest of all time, can switch it on and off at will.
The Italians owe a debt of gratitude to the French. Marcello Lippi's side were the reigning world champions when they arrived in South Africa. Their defence of their trophy was pathetic. They did not win a single game as they were eliminated at the group stage. The quality of the opposition made that a greater disappointment still: Their opponents were Slovakia, New Zealand and Paraguay. Only France's implosion prevented greater international scrutiny, deeper international shame.
Italy's group this time around is considerably tougher -- England and Uruguay lie in wait -- but they look far better equipped to handle it. Cesare Prandelli's team are no longer caught between two generations, with the honourable exception of the ageless Andrea Pirlo, but their greatest weapon is their tactical flexibility. They can change shape at will, and the former Fiorentina manager has expressed his desire to see his team play in a number of ways during the course of any game. They might not be able to beat teams on sheer natural talent, but they intend to out-think them at every turn.
They have also benefitted from the emergence of the likes of Marco Verratti -- who can dictate games almost as well as Pirlo when he's at his best -- and no longer are they hamstrung by a group of ageing, big-name players who are considered automatic selections. This Italy are very different from that Italy. That should be a good thing.
It was in South Africa that Germany's new generation announced themselves to the world. It is in Brazil that they are now expected to confirm their status as the coming force in Europe.
That said, there has been a considerable overhaul between the two tournaments -- there are only 11 players with Joachim Loew's side who were present in the run to the semifinals four years ago -- but while the personnel are different, the approach is much the same. They have only two players older than 30 -- the reserve goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller and the evergreen Miroslav Klose -- and their style should reflect that. This is a Germany built in the image of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, technically proficient, hard-pressing, swashbuckling and adventurous.
What has changed, though, is the pressure. In 2008 and 2010, nothing was expected of the Germans. In 2012, when Italy eliminated them at the semifinal stage, there were the first expressions of disappointment, the first murmurings of dissatisfaction. Loew's side travel to Brazil aware that if they do not deliver, they run the risk of being written off as pretty failures, as style, not substance.
England have changed beyond all recognition in the past four years. The manager, of course, is different -- Fabio Capello exchanged for Roy Hodgson. The playing staff, too, have been radically overhauled, with the former Fulham manager selecting a squad heavy on youth, the likes of Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw unburdened by the failures of the past.
The effect is a powerful one. For the first time in living memory, England arrive in Brazil with expectations that roughly match their ability. Getting out of the group would be considered an achievement in itself; reaching the quarterfinals -- for a long time seen as the bare minimum -- would represent a genuine triumph.
The only issue that still lingers is whether the transformation can be completed by the adoption of a more expansive, adventurous style. England's campaign in South Africa was encapsulated by the sight of Mesut Ozil accelerating past Gareth Barry in Bloemfontein, a potent nation leaving a staid one to eat its dust. Hodgson's team has that sort of dynamism, that sort of freedom, but the question is whether they will be able -- or be allowed -- to express it, or whether England will revert to cautious, uninspiring type.
The scars of Knysna still burn in the French memory. South Africa 2010 represents the low point of the country's footballing history, the humiliation of Raymond Domenech's players going on strike after the exclusion of Nicolas Anelka an embarrassment that still haunts the national team.
Polls show that an overwhelming majority of fans have not yet forgiven and forgotten. So determined is Didier Deschamps, Domenech's eventual replacement, not to permit a repeat that he based his squad selection as much on temperament as on talent. Samir Nasri, despite a wonderful season for Manchester City, was the most-high-profile victim of the policy. Deschamps, as diplomatically as he could, explained his omission by suggesting that he is not the sort of character who can prioritise the need of the team over his own individual aspirations.
Despite that, Deschamps' side looks considerably stronger than that available to Domenech. The 2010 side was one caught between generations -- William Gallas, Thierry Henry, Djibril Cisse and Florent Malouda were all present but fading -- while this edition looks much brighter, much younger. Lucas Digne, Raphael Varane and, in particular, Paul Pogba all offer youth and verve; where the French were ponderous, they now seem dynamic. This is a French side that has the talent to lay the ghosts of Knysna to rest.
The only word to describe Louis van Gaal's squad is "odd." No other nation has such a curious mix of old and young, proven and hopeful. The big stars are still there, the cadre of world-class players who carried Bert van Marwijk's side to the final four years ago, but in the back line, particularly, only the most ardent follower of the Eredivisie would be able to offer a detailed analysis of the likes of Daryl Janmaat, Bruno Martins Indi and Joel Veltman.
The contrast with the side Van Marwijk took to South Africa is stark. That team was built on a dogged, grizzled defence -- the likes of Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Khalid Boulahrouz and Joris Mathijsen had been 'round the block a few times -- and much will depend on whether Van Gaal's clutch of young players deliver on their promise.
What is certain is that this should be a more recognisably Dutch side. Netherlands, of course, reveled in its run to the final four years past, but the fact that they did it by abandoning their commitment to the aesthetic meant that it is not a team that is remembered especially fondly for their style. Van Gaal can call on Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, but also the pace and panache of Jordy Clasie, Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum. The question is whether they can achieve as much playing like Netherlands as they did playing like, well, a dystopian vision of Germany.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.