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Inside France's World Cup ceremony

 By Ian Darke

World Cup front-runners Brazil, Germany, Spain all have flaws

History and logic dictate that the winner of a European World Cup will be a European team. Only Brazil in 1958, when Pele was just a 17-year-old slip of a lad, bucked that trend in Sweden.

Another point: The past three champions have been from Europe, so can we narrow it down to Germany, Spain and France? Possibly, but that might be a dangerous bet.

Brazil's blend is impressive under Tite, and with Neymar fit again, the five-time champions will surely go deep in the tournament. But the decision not to name a permanent captain, while innovative, speaks of a lack of leadership. There is clearly no obvious candidate. Might that come back to bite them in a tight knockout game?

Here are a few reasons some of the other fancied teams might falter.

Germany seem to have industrial levels of confidence that they can repeat their 2014 triumph. While a very talented squad justifies such optimism, it would be easy for this team to get a little complacent. Do they have a bonafide scorer in the mould of Gerd Muller, Jurgen Klinsmann or Miroslav Klose? Maybe it's Timo Werner. But let's see.

Then there's Spain, who looked to be preparing with minimum fuss until Real Madrid nabbed manager Julen Lopetegui, who was promptly sacked by the country's federation. His replacement, Fernando Hierro, has been around the team for many years and has a hugely impressive array of talent, including a few veterans of the golden years who brought one World Cup and two European Championships.

Diego Costa will have to be far better than he was in Brazil if all that possession is to be turned into goals. Leaving out Alvaro Morata in favour of Rodrigo and Iago Aspas might be a luxury Spain can ill-afford. They flattered to deceive at the previous Euros, and I wonder if they might do again.

Germany have looked formidable since winning the 2014 World Cup but beyond Thomas Muller, they might struggle up front.
Germany have looked formidable since winning the 2014 World Cup, but beyond Thomas Muller, they might struggle up front.

France have speed and goals wherever you look but can be curiously hit-and-miss. It's almost as if Didier Deschamps has too many options and has to prove he can make this team gel at the highest level. The 0-0 draws with Belarus and Luxembourg in an otherwise impressive qualifying campaign make you wonder about mentality. There's also a slight worry about the form of keeper Hugo Lloris, who had a few critics at Spurs last season.

Argentina have Lionel Messi, but can he do it on his own? The defence looks like it could a major concern in a tough group. Javier Mascherano's inspiration was vital in the run to the 2014 final, but he's just past his best. All in all, Argentina are hard to fancy.

If the top teams slip up, keep an eye on Uruguay. They've been drawn into a soft group A and have added young midfield talent to Atletico Madrid's miserly defensive pair of Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez. They also still have Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up front. Second to Brazil in qualifying, they look like dangerous outsiders.

What about England? There's no doubt that their fans would settle for some decent football and a run to the quarterfinals. Gareth Southgate looks like a man with a plan -- they will play out from a three-man defence -- and the vibe from the camp is that this team will try to be bold and adventurous.

One vital difference from previous Three Lions squads is that this group are starry-eyed, not bored and fearful, about wearing that white shirt. Many of them -- captain Harry Kane is an obvious example -- were not pampered kids driving Bentleys when they were 17 years old. Instead, they were sent out to get their hands dirty on several loans and take nothing for granted now that they're established stars.

Whether they are good enough is another question, but it is just a hunch that this grounded, largely ego-free group might restore a little English pride.

Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.


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