If it were possible to make a winning formula, a surefire way to guarantee FIFA World Cup™ success, football’s greatest trophy would not be the most coveted in the game. Every tournament has its stories and heroes and, invariably, opens up new paths to glory. Often, the men who make the difference are those who have not previously tasted success on football’s greatest stage. In fact, four out of the last five world champions have lined up without a single FIFA World Cup winner in their ranks, the only exception being the victorious Brazil squad in South Korea/Japan 2002 who benefited from the experience of Cafu and Ronaldo who had tasted victory in the USA eight years previously.
And yet, every coach in South Africa would place immeasurable value on having that experience in their squads. Only three will enjoy that privilege this time around - Brazil, France and Italy - and in all three camps, they feel sure that past success will readily translate into success in the near future.
In the opinion of Brazil’s understated 33-year old midfielder, Gilberto Silva, having been there before is key. "Of course I think that the fact that I was part of that winning team in 2002 is important. A lot of the young players ask me about my experience," he admitted in a recent interview with FIFA.com. "In 2002, we looked up to players like Cafu, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos and I was just delighted to get a place in the team and play all the way through the tournament. That was very important. But on the other hand, you can get caught up in the emotion of a victory and forget the mistakes you made, so you actually end up learning less. The fact that I’ve experienced both, when we were knocked out in 2006 as well, can be very valuable," added the Brazilian, who now plies his trade in Greece with Panathinaikos. Alongside Kleberson, he will take his place in South Africa with two other members of the 2002 squad, Kaka and current Canarinho captain, Lucio, both of whom were also part of the 2006 squad in Germany which started the tournament as many people’s firm favourites to win their sixth FIFA World Cup™ and ended up going out to France in the quarter-finals.
Just like yesterday
Amongst the 32 qualifiers, perhaps none is more qualified than Italy to speak with authority on how it feels to lift football’s greatest prize. 2010 will see the return of no fewer than nine survivors of the dramatic, occasionally difficult, and ultimately victorious campaign of 2006: Daniele de Rossi, Alberto Gilardino, Vicenzo Iaquinta, Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon, Gennaro Gattuso, Gianluca Zambrotta, Mauro Camoranesi, and captain Fabio Cannavaro, who was also FIFA World Player of the Year four years ago. There will be a familiar face on the Italian bench, too; coach Marcello Lippi, another veteran of the 2006 campaign, will once again carry his country’s hopes of glory. That said, the Azzurri supremo’s reliance on seasoned campaigners has not gone down well with everyone. For his part, Lippi himself is quick to point out that the current Italy squad is actually a blend of young guns and battle-hardened veterans.
"If you look at it, you can see that I’ve changed more than half of the squad that won in Berlin. We’ve got a lot of young players with a fair bit of experience," said the coach, who readily admits that the presence of some wise old heads in the squad will enable the Italians to keep their morale up, even if things do not go their way in the early stages of the tournament. "As always, I will try to put together a team with a specific gameplan, and I’m sure that it will be ready at the right time. Perhaps not in the first game or even the second, but it won’t take long. If we’re lucky enough to go through, we could do something really significant," added Lippi, who will take heart from his own extensive tournament experience.
In or out?
France won their only FIFA World Cup™ on home soil twelve years ago, but even still, coach Raymond Domenech has the luxury of including a FIFA World Cup™ winner in their ranks. Thierry Henry may no longer be a regular starter, and he may have passed the captaincy to Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, but the Barcelona attacker is sure to play a significant part in his country’s campaign in South Africa in 2010.
"It would be a mistake to think that Thierry Henry is 'only' a substitute," pointed out his fellow forward Djibril Cisse, underlining the respect that exists in Les Bleus’ squad for their former skipper. "Maybe he isn’t having the best of times at the moment, and so he isn’t going to start, but he is always someone who gives us something extra," added the Panathinaikos striker. His views were echoed by midfielder Jeremy Toulalan. "There are two types of leader; those who make things happen on the field, and the leaders in the dressing room. For us at the moment, they are Pat (Evra), William (Gallas), Franck Ribery and also Thierry."
In other words, the crucial thing will be the teams’ performances on the pitch. But having one of those fourteen players in your squad, someone with that winning mentality, someone who has already taken those seven steps to glory, can make a huge difference too.