MADRID: A rejuvenated Brazil looking to heal the wounds of home soil humiliation four years ago will lead the South American charge for the World Cup in 2018, but a slew of European powerhouses stand in the way of redemption in Russia.
Germany thrashed Brazil 7-1 en route to becoming world champions four years ago and will also be comfortable with their surroundings, having added the Confederations Cup to their honours list in Russia earlier this year.
That latest feat was achieved despite leaving a host of their World Cup winners at home to rest ahead of the challenge to become the first side to retain the trophy since Brazil in 1962.
“We have an eye on the entire course of the tournament until the final, as our main goal is winning the World Cup title again,” admitted former Germany striker Oliver Bierhoff, who is in charge of his country’s logistical preparations for the tournament.
There won’t just be national pride and prestige at stake for the German players, as each member of the squad has been promised a 350,000 euros ($411,267) bonus should they bring the trophy home for a fifth time.
That would equal Brazil’s record, but the belief shaken out of Brazil by their mauling by Germany has been restored by a remarkable transition and return to form under coach Tite.
The bounce-back began with a miniature slice of revenge when they beat Germany on penalties to win their first ever Olympic football gold at the Rio Games with a young team led by Neymar.
Tite then took control of a floundering World Cup qualifying campaign and is still yet to lose a competitive international match, with a stunning record of 10 wins and two draws from his 12 matches in charge.
“The respect towards the team now is different to what it was three or four years ago after the World Cup. People see us differently,” Neymar told FIFA.com.
Not only has Tite got Brazil winning again, but he’s also brought back the famous free-flowing ‘Joga Bonito’ attacking style that characterised the famous yellow shirt and had been lost under the likes of Dunga and Luiz Felipe Scolari at recent World Cups.
“The Brazil that everyone respects and admires is back; a team that enjoys good football,” added Neymar.
“The mood of our fans and our country has changed. Everyone’s confident and happy looking ahead to the World Cup. You can’t put a price on that.”
Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica are first up for Neymar’s new entertainers in Group E.
Spain’s clash against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal should provide an explosive start on the second day of the tournament, provided that the 2010 winners are allowed to keep their place in Russia.
FIFA have threatened that Spain could be sensationally thrown out of the tournament due to government interference in elections for the presidency of the Spanish federation after Angel Maria Villar was forced to step down for corruption.
“I don’t believe the offices will take from Spain what we have won on the pitch,” insisted Spain captain Sergio Ramos.
The winners of the past two European championships are heavy favourites to make it through with Morocco and Iran making up the numbers in Group B.
Argentina have on paper the toughest task after being paired with Euro 2016 surprise package Iceland, a Croatia side containing Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and African giants Nigeria in Group D.
Lionel Messi had to ride to his country’s rescue just to get Argentina to Russia with a hat-trick in their final qualifier away at Ecuador.
“The national team is going to change now that the Ecuador game is behind us,” five-time World Player of the Year Messi told FIFA.com.
“It’s going to get rid of all the tension and fear it felt because of that match and because of the risk of not achieving our objective.”
Coach Jorge Sampaoli has had just four competitive games in charge of the Albiceleste but believes football owes a debt to Messi in the form of a World Cup.
“He said it to me too,” admitted Messi. “I hope football does end up paying me!”
A supremely talented French side containing Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe should have little problem in navigating a group containing Peru, Denmark and Australia.
Meanwhile, Belgium’s golden generation will face the country where many of their star names now make their living after being paired with England alongside Tunisia and debutants Panama in Group H.
Hosts Russia are the lowest-ranked team in the competition, but their hopes of progressing to the last 16 were raised by a kind draw with Saudi Arabia, Uruguay and Egpyt.
It is against the Saudis that hosts Russia will kick off the tournament at the Luzhniki Stadium on June 14, with 12 grounds in 11 cities hosting 64 games before the final back at the Luzhniki on July 15.