Mills, thrills, and the Boys from Brazil: the World Cup is heading to South America this winter

The last four FIFA World Cup finals have been won by European nations but Qatar 2022 could be in the bag Neymar and his countrymen.

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I have a friend who went to Disney World when he was younger. One day, in the happiest place on EarthTM, he and his family were chowing down on some dubious hydrogenated meat patty or other when his dad spotted a Premier League footballer.

Eager to get the player’s autograph, but unwilling to compromise his pride, he swiftly sent over his son with the only piece of paper they had to hand at the time. And so, this friend of mine has an official Disney autograph book which, on consecutive pages, reads: “Mickey Mouse. Donald Duck. Danny Mills.”

My earliest memory of Danny Mills is watching him get run ragged by a monstrously talented Brazil side in the quarter-final of the 2002 World Cup. Sat on the hardwood floor of my primary school assembly hall, eyes straining and glued to the small TV perched atop a trolley at the front, I was mesmorised by this vivid explosion of colour and flair and joyful expression. (The Brazilian team, that is. Not Danny Mills.)

All throughout that tournament this swarm of yellow and green swept everything and everyone aside with a flick knife wit and a beaming grin, and I loved it. Still to this day I wear a silly little pin badge of Ronaldo Nazerio with his silly little haircut on the lapel of my favourite denim jacket.

To a buck-toothed ginger kid in a dreary pit village on the outskirts Durham, that Brazil squad - a carnivalesque riot of footballing rhapsody - felt untouchable, insurmountable. And now, a little over two decades later, I fear that the Samba Boys might be about to do it all over again.

As we career towards Qatar, many of the traditional superpowers of the international game are faltering and/or face-planting. World champions France are currently entangled in a bizarre slump that somehow encompasses both a lousy streak of one win in five outings and Paul Pogba’s witch doctor.

European champions Italy aren’t even going to be there thanks to the intervention of those pesky North Macedonians. England are England. Germany can’t even beat England. Spain are pinning an awful lot of hope on a crop of players who hadn’t even been born, or at the very least hadn’t developed object permanence, the last time Brazil lifted the trophy.

Portugal boast a threatening aura, but will have to find a way of stabilising the quaking black hole of Cristiano Ronaldo’s attention vacuum. The Netherlands also continue to impress, but can’t be taken seriously when their kit makes them look like a bunch of escaped funfair goldfish. And apart from that, who is there? Denmark? Probably not. Croatia? Don’t make me laugh.

In fact, the only other team who look to properly have their proverbial together is Argentina. The South Americans haven’t lost a game since 2019 - a run that stretches back some 35 matches. There’s also the uncomfortable and dawning realisation that the gilded script of Lionel Messi’s career is begging, practically aching, for a fitting conclusion.

This could well be his last World Cup. The seven-time Ballon d’Or recipient made his international debut in 2005, and the average lifespan of a goat is only 15-18 years; he’s already on borrowed time. It almost feels fated.

But still, it’s hard to look past the frightening depth of Brazil’s squad, or their potential for euphoric destruction. If it clicks for them, it could be curtains for everyone else. Even if it doesn’t, Europe’s twenty-year stranglehold on the World Cup, from Italy to Spain to Germany to France, is arguably under a grave and imminent threat regardless.

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