Draw added to building intrigue

BRAZIL- The draw is over, the six months of waiting, plotting and praying begins.

Inside the room where the World Cup draw was held on Brazil's Atlantic coast, the almost exclusively male audience was obsessed with two things - the so-called Group of Death and the heat of the jungle up in Manaus.

Outside it, apparently, the lady of the draw ceremony, actress and model Fernanda Lima was drawing 10 people per second on the global Twittersphere. I'm guessing it was not for the sport at hand.

But almost as revealing as her gold dress was a gesture from England Football Association chairman Greg Dyke. The moment England were drawn to play Italy - in Manaus on June 14 - he used a finger across his throat.

Presumably, his mafia sign represented his expectation for England rather than a boast aimed at the Italians.

But it was a sure sign that he felt Group D - Uruguay, England, Italy and Costa Rica - constitutes the infamous Group of Death.

It may not be the only one.

When the USA were paired with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, and again with games up in the north where the heat and humidity are extreme, US coach Jurgen Klinsmann called it: "The worst of the worst."

And then there are the defending world champions Spain. They kick off the 2014 World Cup where they left off the last one, against the Dutch who gave Andres Iniesta and company something of a kicking in the 2010 final in Johannesburg.

"I told friends we would get Holland," Spain's lugubrious manager Vicente del Bosque lamented. "And getting Chile as well makes it a rather complicated group."

Del Bosque, though, has been around the circuit long enough to know that negativity spreads like a forest fire. "It's good for the mentality," he quickly added. "When you play a lesser team, there is a problem with concentration."

In other words, it's tough starting out against the Dutch. But the Spanish got one of those "lesser" teams to start with in 2010, and promptly lost their opener against Switzerland.

There is, however, no such thing as an easy ride in a country that is the size of a continent.

The climate also differs depending on whether the draw put your favourite team in the steamy, equatorial rainforest belt around Manaus, or the 10 deg C cooler, and significantly less humid, southern venues from Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro down to Porto Alegre.

We will all be geography students and weathermen by the time this Cup is run.

But, before anyone makes any more enemies, as England manager Roy Hodgson did with the mayor of Manaus ahead of the draw, it might be time to think back to 1970 and 1986.

Why? Because each of those World Cups took place in Mexico. And there, despite the heat and the altitude, and the difficulty in getting around, the games were among the most magnificent ever seen at the tournament.

The winners were Brazil, with Pele, Tostao and Gerson in 1970 and Argentina, led by that phenomenal rascal Diego Maradona, in 1986.

Mexico's people, marvellously spirited, made those Cups what they were - especially the second one while their country was still recovering from a devastating earthquake eight months before.

Through the enthusiasm of the country, and the talents of special players, we forgot to moan about the conditions.

A similar approach might go down well next year. Brazilians will protest about the cost of it all and the funds diverted away from schools, hospitals and living standards.

But, unless the home team fall (and they run into a difficult first knock-out round when Brazil are likely to come up against Spain or Holland), the party will swing in the stadiums.

So, back to the gesture of futility from England's chairman.

Dyke's pessimism is assuaged somewhat by Hodgson acknowledging that at least it is only one match in the rainforest - and a match against fellow Europeans as well. Italy played in the north last year when they and Spain fought to exhaustion before Spain then went down to Rio and got hammered by Brazil.

Experience counts for plenty in terms of knowing how to cope, how to make sure the players are liberally watered to avoid dehydration.

Technique, too, will mean a lot because players who can make the ball do the work will run less.

"Our opponents have world-class players," conceded Hodgson when he stopped complaining about the conditions and the five-hour flight from England's base camp in Rio up to the north.

He talked about Mario Balotelli and Andrea Pirlo, the Italians.

He also fears Luis Suarez (who last week scored four goals in the Premier League game against Norwich) and Edinson Cavani whose goals for Napoli last season earned him a king's ransom from Paris Saint-Germain.

"We respect them," said Hodgson, "but I like to think there are two or three players in our team who are at the same level, and that Italy and Uruguay are starting to think about Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge in that way."

He knows, and every coach knows, that six months is a long and challenging time in sport.

Perish the pessimism, but who can say which footballers will arrive in June fit and fresh and ready for a month that will sap their energy and will test to the limit their desire and their skills?

"We will need 23 athletes in these temperatures," commented the calm and wily Italian coach, Cesare Prandelli.

Before the draw, he had called upon Fifa to allow physios and trainers to hand water bottles to the players. Fifa is talking of allowing three one-minute time-outs for short recovery periods.

But not only will some games kick off at one o'clock local time - including Spain v Holland, Belgium v Algeria, Nigeria v Argentina - the television companies also want even more.

There was discussion after the draw ceremony on Friday of ITV, which has the rights to the England v Italy game, trying to have that match moved to an earlier kick-off.

Fifa had sensibly set it for 9pm - which is 2am in Britain - in Manaus, the coolest hour possible.

The television schedulers think of ratings. Fifa must think of welfare.

Greg Dyke can probably see both sides. His life before he took up the FA chair was as a television executive, indeed a former director general of the BBC.


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