The past month has witnessed some titanic tussles lined up, from the draws for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers and UEFA EURO 2008 finals, which set up several enthralling fixtures, to the pitting of Messrs Messi, Ronaldo and Kaka against each other for the FIFA World Player of the Year award. Over the past week, we've asked you, the FIFA.com users, to tell us who you envisage emerging triumphant from contests, and we start our weekly round-up with a look at which of the top seeds in UEFA's South Africa 2010 preliminaries you expect to see come a cropper.
Shaky seeds: Greece, Croatia and Portugal in trouble?
Several of Europe's big guns were handed testing FIFA World Cup assignments, with the likes of France, Germany and the Netherlands under threat from nations such as Romania, Russia and Scotland respectively. In the end, however, much of this particular debate centred on Groups 1, 2 and 6, with Portugal, Greece and Croatia's positions as top seeds considered the most precarious.
No team, certainly, polarised opinion quite so dramatically as the Greeks. Many, including carlosdcosta of the US, opted to kick off the debate by backing the widely-held belief that the UEFA EURO 2004 winners had been handed the easiest of all the European sections, with Israel, Switzerland, Moldova, Latvia and Luxembourg for company. However, this provoked some passionate, if good-natured, personal exchanges, with Italian user WorldCup99 replying: "I have to strongly disagree with carlosdcosta about Greece's group. Israel have been looking quite good. And Switzerland is one of the most underrated national teams in the world." A response was not long in coming from carlosdcosta, who offered this wager: "I bet if you ask any fan of any of the other big teams at the top of their groups, they would love to swap with Greece."
Plenty more agreed with the view that Greece, though perhaps not the strongest of the top seeds, had been dealt a favourable hand in Durban, and chose instead to focus on Group 6 - and the rematch between England and their EURO 2008 conquerors, Croatia. Slaven Bilic's side had been rewarded for their EURO heroics with a place among the top seeds and yet, for many, the chances of them inflicting a double dose of preliminary agony on the English appear slim. "I think Croatia will miss out because England are being very underestimated right now," wrote Canadian brooksy13. "Ukraine should also not be underestimated as they made it to the last World Cup and have a very good squad."
Others feared for Portugal, who landed in arguably the toughest group, alongside Sweden and Denmark among others. "I think you have to think that Portugal could finish third behind Sweden and Denmark because so much rests on Cristiano Ronaldo," was the view of US user codym8181. "If he gets injured, Portugal will be in some real danger." Brazil's Lucasjeha, meanwhile, took the historical approach to predicting disaster for the team who reached the semi-finals at Germany 2006 . "Portugal will be out of the 2010 WC," he wrote. "I like statistics and here it goes, take a look at these teams: France 1986 3rd, England 1990 4th, Sweden 1994 3rd, Netherlands 1998 4th, Turkey 2002 3rd, all these teams didn't qualified for the very next WC. If that happens again, it's Portugal time to be out."
FIFA World Player: Too early for Messi
The debate on who should be named FIFA World Player of the Year 2007 proved to be our most popular of the week, with well over 500 comments devoted to extolling the various virtues of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Ultimately, it boiled down to a straight fight between the former pair, although Barcelona's brilliant young Argentinian wasn't without his supporters. Nigerian user chunglee, for example, wrote: "I've closely watched the three players for three years now, and as a coach, if I was to vote 100 times, I would cast 100 votes for Lionel Messi." Nevertheless, the general consensus among those posting was that, while Messi is undoubtedly a phenomenal talent and a worthy heir to the great Diego Maradona, his time for winning this particular award is likely to come in future years. Chinese user johneshry summed up this school of thought: "There's absolutely no doubt that these three stars are the best in the world. However it is actually more of a choice between Christiano Ronaldo and Kaka, Messi will have to wait another year or two to get there."
So that left two candidates to battle for your 'vote': AC Milan's elegant Brazilian playmaker, and Manchester United's devastating Portuguese winger. In the end, although Kaka perhaps enjoyed the slightest of advantages, it was simply too close to call, with the choice eventually coming down to individual preference. Another Nigerian, JohnLeye01, stated the case for 25-year-old Kaka being more deserving of the award than his younger rivals: "It has to be Kaka based on his contribution to his team AC Milan winning the UEFA Champion League. Ronaldo isn't too far behind and then Messi who has been in awesome form for Barcelona. I think that over the next two years, either Messi or Ronaldo should win the title but for this year, it has to be Kaka."
Staying in Africa, brazzeel - one of our Zambian users - also penned a tribute to the Seleção's endearingly humble star. "He is a marvel to watch. He is skillful, accurate in passing the ball, and has strength, though he has a deceptive posture which tells you he is not that strong and an innocent face which leaves you bewildered at what he can do. He is also very disciplined off and on the pitch and usually conjures up gems of goals." This same user did, however, laud Ronaldo as "a tormentor of defenders" and "tomorrow's recipient of the award", and there were also plenty who believe the Red Devils star has earned the right to be crowned this year. Much of that support came from his Portuguese homeland, with majs86 writing: "I believe it's Cristiano Ronaldo's time... he is like a hurricane on field!"
You've had your say. Now we merely await the final verdict, which will be provided at the 17th FIFA World Player Gala in Zurich on 17 December 2007, with full coverage right here on FIFA.com.
EURO 2008: No dominant favourite
The question of who will win the UEFA European Championship next summer proved similarly popular, with over 300 comments flooding in following last weekend's draw for the finals. The usual suspects figured prominently, of course, but while France, Italy and Germany all received their share of backing, there was also a recognition that the EURO has crowned some hugely unlikely champions in the past, with Greece and Denmark perhaps the most glaring examples.
Canadian user kbebic, for example, posed the question: "Does nobody think Croatia are a dark horse? After a very successful campaign in qualifying, with Eduardo the leading scorer among the players playing at this upcoming Euro, and twice beating England, I think they deserve some credit here." The Greek supporters were also out in force once again, with one among their number, panatha13, offering a novel justification for claiming the 2004 winners are well placed to retain their trophy. "Otto Rehagel is very lucky," he wrote. "Look at the draw for Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 and you will realise it! Moreover, Greece has some really good players such as Salpigidis, Karagounis (Panathinaikos), Katsouranis, Gekas, Seitaridis, Kyriakos, Torosidis."
While our Greek users looked to lady luck, there a sentimental hope from one Dutch contributor, who is hoping the Oranje mark a special anniversary in the best possible style. "It's a special one because it would be exactly 20 years ago that we won that tournament with Marco van Basten scoring the winning goal," wrote Thomasvds. "Van Basten is now the manager of the team, and even though our team doesn't play the typical Dutch football, they get some nice results (three losses out of 44 matches)."
The Netherlands will, in fact, do well to qualify from what is undoubtedly the most imposing group, one which sees them pitted against Italy, France and Romania, and many of our users voiced the opinion that the winner of that section should go on to take the title. An Australian, SkunkKy, stated the case for world champions Italy flourishing under such pressure: "Italy has always done it the hard way and seem to thrive on hardship. Donadoni has done a superb job at uniting the players and silencing his critics in style. They will fight to the end and have the skill and experience in these big tournaments."
Yet so wide open is the EURO race that as many as seven or eight different sides could be considered to have realistic ambitions of aiming for gold. Summing up the difficulty in picking a favourite was MRTOTO, from Canada: "I have my money on Italy or France, however one of the smaller nations may surprise everyone. Germany also has a great chance to take it. I truly believe that this is any team's tournament. In football anything is possible and every team has a chance and deserves to be there."
A big thank you to all who contributed their comments to these topics, and please understand we can only refer to a handful in these reviews. This week's debates begin with questions on the likely star of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007 and the greatest player in the history of England's Premier League, so why not take a look and have your say once again...