On PED’s in sport.

(The following article is one I mostly completed last year but haven’t gotten around to posting until now… if there are any discrepancies in the context, that’ll be why. Still, I wanted to publish it here in case anyone finds interest in reading it. One can only hope.)

In 2016 we saw what was branded as another ‘summer of sport’, with Euro 2016 in June-July followed by the Brazil Olympics throughout August. With Russian athletes almost universally banned (at least until said ban was, to some extent, overturned on appeal) from this year’s Olympic Games due to alleged state-sponsored doping, and with numerous other instances of athletes in sports like tennis and MMA (mixed martial arts) recently caught using banned substances, the issue of performance enhancing drugs has never been more prevalent than it is now.

That’s not because more people are ‘cheating’ now than athletes of the past. On the contrary, I believe with the more stringent testing available today, the amount of athletes trying to manipulate the system has fallen. Yet at the same time competition has never been higher, with multi-million dollar sponsorship available for the best, most successful athletes, and without a doubt, as testing methods improve, so too do the range of drugs available that can slip through the system. It is a constant battle for testing methods to keep up with PED’s on the market.

I figured I would use this space to offer my thoughts on this controversial issue of performance enhancers. That’s what they are; my thoughts and nothing more. I don’t intend it to be a conclusive, in-depth article, but if what I write can help others think more critically about a certain topic, I can’t help but do it.

For me personally, the topic became prevalent again recently when one of my favourite athletes, Brock Lesnar, tested positive for a banned substance while training for, and on the night of, his UFC fight with Mark Hunt on July 9th. But this is not something I write as a ‘fan’ of someone or because I want to defend anyone who breaks the rules. Rather, it’s that I want others, people like you and I, to understand that this issue isn’t as cut and dry as most seem to think. It’s not always – if ever – a black and white divide between ‘cheating’ and being totally ‘clean’. Let’s talk about the reasons why.

Brock Lesnar tested positive for a banned substance after having been granted a 3 month exemption by USADA before his big fight.
Brock Lesnar tested positive for a banned substance after having been granted a 3 month exemption by USADA before his big fight.

As obvious as this may sound, there are many different forms and variations of performance enhancers out there. It’s not too dissimilar from the range of vitamins and supplements available; the line is drawn when the effect of a certain substance is deemed to give an unfair advantage over those who don’t take it. Whereas I think the line should instead be drawn with substances that endanger an athlete’s long-term health.

But that doesn’t mean I’m in favour of unfair advantages; quite the opposite. In simple terms, I think athletes should be given a list of legal substances they can use by their allocated governing bodies. These substances would be tested and approved beforehand, to ensure they aren’t a danger to the health of an athlete. Said substances would be available to use as each athlete sees fit.

Granted, this isn’t too different from what happens currently: athletes are given a list of ‘banned’ substances, and things are added to or removed from this list dependent upon how much of an advantage they give in terms of performance enhancement. But the policy on this is generally zero tolerance on anything that is seen to give said advantage. I think this leaves room for abuse by athletes who have the resources to ‘slip through the gap’ as such with the latest designer drugs – who would not be motivated to take such a risk if there were allocated drugs available to use for each athlete rather than confined strictly to the banned list.

This isn’t me trying to make excuses for those who break the rules. Think of it more as an argument for those who don’t; those who end up at a natural disadvantage just for sticking to their principles, for reasons they’ve had drilled into them – that all PED’s are wrong – and a way of removing the advantage given to those who simply have greater resources at their disposal.

It’s also an argument in favour of the integrity and enjoyment level of sport itself. The larger-than-life athletes of the past and present that people know and love, who’ve inspired millions with their feats, may not have been who they became were it not for performance enhancers. Of course people may feel aghast at even the suggestion their heroes would do such a thing, but how can you be sure they didn’t, aside from wishful thinking and their carefully constructed public perception?

If rules around performance enhancers continue to become more stringent – unnecessarily in many cases – sporting heroes of the future likely won’t be seen in the same light. The general aesthetic value and marketability of sport will inevitably go down. My argument is for the integrity of sport and evenly balanced competition across the board, not against it. We need more openness, better transparency, and most importantly, more easily accessible information on the PED’s we’re talking about, for the benefit not only of the public, but also the athletes who need to be aware of what they’re taking. You may think it obvious that they would naturally know what they put in their bodies and what exactly those things do, but bear in mind most top athletes have specialists taking care of this stuff for them; specialists whose success is tied directly to the sporting success and aesthetic value of their athlete.

These drugs have many different properties. They all affect your body differently. That effect often depends not only on the drug itself but on the type of athlete taking them and the sport in which they compete. Regulating bodies are still behind the game on this, but they know enough now to be able to offer some more flexibility that would perhaps help discourage those who abuse the system as it is.

Erythropoietin (EPO) is often seen as one of the more egregious examples of a PED by those who understand what it does. Many people will have first heard of it when Lance Armstrong was finally popped (after a long and generally convincing insistence of denial) by USADA back in 2012 for his use of it following a drawn-out saga lasting almost since Armstrong’s first Tour de France win in 1999. This was the highest profile case of our time, or at least at the time in 2012 (as there have been several other high profile doping cases since); as a result it has helped teach people some of the differences in PED’s and what they do. It also illuminated the unique position there is – and still remains – between the use of drugs in sport, and the drug tests used to catch these substances. For years people suspected Armstrong of some kind of cheating, yet he feigned innocence for as long as the authorities were unable to prove it, and those who supported him were always able to lean back on that until the curtain fell.

For the duration of the peak years of his career, Lance Armstrong duped the public, denying PED use despite accusations from those who knew what they were looking for.
For the duration of the peak years of his career, Lance Armstrong duped the public, denying PED use amidst accusations from those who knew the signs.

Now this indirectly leads us on to another brief point I want to make, and this may be the most pertinent one: PED’s are not magic pills. Sounds obvious enough, but it’s something the uninitiated seem to struggle with. Taking them does not suddenly give an athlete a free route into a final or mean they don’t need to put in hundreds of hours at the gym. Taking a few steroids doesn’t suddenly give a bodybuilder his toned physique or the ability to lift monumental weights.

The clue is in the name: they enhance what’s already there. If an athlete does not have the talent to begin with, or doesn’t want to bust their ass in training every day, then whatever PED’s they try taking, quite frankly, won’t have any more effect on their overall performance than a cheeseburger would. I’ve heard people say that athletes take performance enhancers because they’re sitting on their ass all day and can’t be bothered working out in the gym; please go and do some much-needed research if you think that way.

They don’t make you a superstar, they can’t give you talent; but they can help an athlete with talent become a superstar.

You may have a different opinion on all of this, and your opinion may be justified. As I always say, that’s fair enough. We should be having more conversations about this topic in general, whatever side of the fence you may fall on. As I’ve said, I’m not in favour of any athlete breaking the rules – if they do so without justification or reasoning, they should rightly be punished – I just think maybe those rules should be examined and questioned a little more. In most other areas that would be seen as healthy, but it seems in this area people get touchy about it.


The GAWA’s performance in France.

Norn Iron Euro 2016 pic 2.

If you’ve been paying any attention to football-related news this summer, or at least have friends who indirectly keep you updated, you’ll know it’s been a pretty big summer for the football teams of the home nations.

For Wales it’s not over yet, as they look forward to their first ever semi-final in their first tournament since 1958, after beating Belgium on Friday night.

Before that, they narrowly beat Northern Ireland 1-0 in one of the more underrated games in the last 16; a game that was set up thanks to a last minute Robbie Brady winner for the Republic of Ireland against Italy.

The Republic went on to give hosts France a bit of a scare as they also narrowly went down 2-1.

And of course we can’t forget England, who fell to what’s been called possibly their most embarrassing defeat ever against Iceland, who have 10% of their 300,000 population supporting them in attendance at Euro 2016. One thing’s for sure; none of us will be forgetting this tournament in a hurry.

Both sets of Irish fans have been honoured by the mayor of Paris for their unique, passionate contribution to the competition; Northern Irish fans in particular are responsible for popularising what’s been called the theme song of the tournament, “Will Grigg’s on Fire”, ironically about a player who didn’t even get on the pitch in any of the team’s four matches (wouldn’t have been fair on the opposition’s defence I suppose). It was said Northern Ireland were the only team whose fans have fans – though to be fair those Iceland fans are pretty unique too.

For our wee country, Norn Iron, to go out in the last 16 would have been expected going into the tournament; indeed we were delighted to even get there. The main disappointment I felt following the game against Wales wasn’t that we had went out, or that we hadn’t done as well as we could’ve hoped for; it was that the journey had now come to an end. The dream was over. But what a dream it had been while it lasted.

We went into the first game of our qualifying campaign, against Hungary almost two years ago (I’ve linked to it a few times before but hell, why not), having not won an away match since 2010. I remember that game like it was yesterday; Hungary going 1-0 up and thinking “here we go again”, then two goals from McGinn and Lafferty that came from nowhere in the last 10 minutes. Our form leading up to that match hadn’t been good; there was nothing to suggest what would come. Before we knew it we had won our first three qualifying games, two of them away from home, and the dream had begun.

Then, seeing us beat Ukraine on the big stage was unforgettable; the culmination of everything leading up to that point. We had proved we could win in France, with all eyes on us, rather than just make up the numbers and say we were “happy to be here” (I’m naturally a competitive guy so that would never have worked for me, haha). We had desire. We came to win. It was the most emotional football game I’ve ever watched, and the greatest result I’ve ever experienced. Unfortunately the only people I could share it with at the time were England fans who, through no fault of their own, were utterly incapable of comprehending what it meant to all of us back home.

The rest is now history. But every Northern Ireland fan will dare to dream once again when the World Cup qualifying campaign begins in September. I can say I’ve seen my country play – and win – at the European Championships; now I want to see them do the only thing that could possibly top it. I want to see them at a World Cup; and at this point confidence is high that we can make it to Russia in 2018. Should we somehow manage that, trust me: you’ve only seen the start of what our passionate fans can bring to the table. We’ll celebrate again like it’s our first, and our last.

Until next time, Norn Iron. You’ve done me proud.


The rocky road through Euro 2016 qualifying.

Home nations pic 1.

We’re now over half way through qualifying for Euro 2016, which will take place in France next summer, and the four home nations – five if we’re to count the Republic of Ireland – find themselves all still in with a chance of heading there for the tournament. As such a situation is almost unheard of, certainly the first (and though I dread the thought, possibly the only) time in my life it has occurred, I thought I’d take a few moments here to reflect on this past weekend’s performances and assess each sides chances with four qualification games remaining.

Wales 1-0 Belgium

Wales showed impressive team spirit and undeniable quality to make the team ranked second (yes, second!) in the world look rather average, with Gareth Bale scoring the winner in the 25th minute. In truth they never really looked in trouble after that; though Belgium have some classy individual players, whether or not they’re able to function effectively as a team is somewhat in question (no doubt if they did, they’d be able to more easily justify their ranking). As it stands, Wales look the best team in the group.

Will they qualify? Yes. Their excellent win on Friday night puts them in as strong a position as they could have hoped for at this stage (14 points, three clear at the top with four games to play) – and with their main rivals in the group still to take points off each other, I can certainly see Wales securing a top 2 spot from here. Added to that, their recent resurgence could see them as top seeds in the draw for the next qualifying campaign (for the 2018 World Cup in Russia), which will provide Welsh supporters with great confidence that they can build on this success and look towards the next World Cup with genuine hope.

Republic of Ireland 1-1 Scotland

It was said beforehand that neither of these teams wanted a draw, but based on how the match transpired, Scotland won’t be too disappointed to get out of Dublin with one. They were terrible in the first half against ‘that team on the other side of the border’, but somehow got to the half time interval only 1-0 down to Jon Walters’ 38th minute goal. Ireland weren’t brilliant themselves, yet they may feel this was a missed opportunity – especially as they let their lead slip so soon in the second half with a John O’Shea own goal. Probably a fair overall result.

Will either of them qualify? Maybe one, but not both. While the game was built up as ‘must win’ for both sides, in reality a draw means both are still well placed to fight for third place in the group – though I think it means they can pretty much rule out top 2 (the Scots may still harbour hope), with Germany and Poland looking strong. The Irish shouldn’t feel too disheartened quite yet; they’re still in with a chance, but with a slightly tougher run-in to come, they probably won’t feel like it. I’m certain one of these two will definitely be in the playoffs, barring a mild collapse by one of the aforementioned top 2, and they’ll stand a fairly decent chance of coming through that game to make it to France next year. Unfortunately I can’t see both of them making it, whatever happens…

Northern Ireland 0-0 Romania

A match my home nation could have won, but from which the most important aspect is that they didn’t slip up when the pressure was on. Both sides had chances – Romania gave the home fans more than one ‘heart in mouth’ moment on the counter attack, while Kyle Lafferty had a priceless opportunity five yards out which he hit straight at the keeper. Ultimately I’m disappointed we had to settle for a draw here, because I felt we edged it against the team currently ranked 12th (above England) in the world. Still, I’ll take a clean sheet.

Will they qualify? Maybe. Though I’m biased of course, I can’t quite bring myself to honestly believe yet that Northern Ireland will manage a top 2 finish in their group. They do at least still have it in their own hands, sitting in second place and two precious points clear of Hungary. If they do have a blip, they will have the consolation prize of a third place playoff… but although one could argue the drama would make it all worthwhile if they made it to France through that method, having to settle for it would feel like a defeat after the start they had.

Are the Northern Ireland class of 2014/15 set to make history in 2016?
Are the Northern Ireland class of 2014/15 set to make history in 2016?

Regardless, their next two matches, away to the Faroe Islands and home to third placed Hungary (that’s now become an even bigger game than Romania) within the space of four days in early September, will define their destiny. They are perfectly capable of winning both matches, though we should also know, all to well, they may lose both and ruin all their hard work up to this point. I do still believe Northern Ireland will make it to France next year… but I can’t shake the feeling they may give us a few scares along the way. Would be typical.

Slovenia 2-3 England

Who’d have thought England’s match would provide arguably the most excitement of the weekend? When Slovenia took the lead in the 37th minute and remained ahead going into the second half, you would have been forgiven for thinking England had finally relented to their easy group and taken their foot off the gas. But in the last 30 minutes they turned it up, with two goals from Jack Wilshere (the second, world class) giving them the lead before Slovenia equalised in the 84th minute and Rooney struck the winner two minutes later to give his country a win that in the long term may look reasonably routine.

Will they qualify? Yes. England really can afford to cruise now, having won six out of six in the group and not all of them straightforward (though to be fair, Switzerland have proven the only true test). They have a nine point cushion on third placed Slovenia, and I can’t see the latter winning three out of their last four matches, so one could say they’re already there. But as we know, England will still be closely scrutinised over their last four matches and the media won’t let them rest on their laurels. Their defensive display in this match in particular raises some fair concerns over their potential to achieve greater things in France next year.

He has his detractors, but Wayne Rooney still pops up to score when needed.
He has his detractors, but Wayne Rooney still pops up to score when needed.

So those are my thoughts. Wales and England are just about there after this weekend; for Scottish and Irish fans, we still have our defining moments to come. In truth, I would love all of them to make it to next year’s tournament – even that other Irish team, and even that ‘big’ team who feel they’re entitled to be there.

Most importantly, though, I wish beyond all else for my wee country to qualify for a major tournament for the first time in 30 years and therefore, what would be the first in my lifetime. The real nerves, the real memories are yet to come. Hopefully by this time next year, we’ll be getting ready to form them.

My Top 25 Films

1. Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr Strangelove pic 1.

Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb…”

Mention Peter Sellers as the star of your favourite film and you’d pretty much give the game away. In 1964 the iconic British comedy actor teamed up with Stanley Kubrick for a second time (following 1962’s Lolita) to play three central characters – including a hapless president and the mad doctor of the film’s title – in a movie that encapsulates the word ‘timeless’.

Honestly, I can watch Dr Strangelove now and see lessons in it which some world leaders are still slowly learning today. Nor is it only pertinent in a political sense, though. Recently there have been notable attacks on artistic freedom of expression – if one views this film in light of those events, they might just find something rather ironic; a film that, in its time, was more outrageous (and hilarious) than any light-hearted North Korean joke.

Kubrick’s satire subtly attacked the US government in a patriotic war-time environment. When certain prominent military generals were using propaganda to convince the average American citizen that the Soviets were to blame for everything, Kubrick was busy making fun of the whole thing. Dr Strangelove itself was labelled ‘Soviet propaganda’ at the time; a way of discrediting its claims regarding the American government, though in the years following it would emerge that the film was worryingly accurate, not least in its assertion that an Army general could theoretically launch a nuclear strike without the President’s authority.

In a tragic twist of fate, though one on which a certain amount of irony is not lost, the film’s first test screening was scheduled for November 22, 1963 – the day of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. Subsequently, general release was delayed until January 1964, and thankfully Dr Strangelove survived to see a unique legacy formed. Hindsight has been kind to it, as seems the case with many artistic controversies.

Film reviews

January Roundup.

Some months in the year are just purple patches for good movies. With the two big awards ceremonies coming up (BAFTAs tomorrow night and the Oscars two weeks following), January and February tend to be those months in the UK, where we typically get big releases such as Selma and Big Hero 6 long after their Autumn releases in the US. In addition, there are occasionally smaller releases during this period that get overlooked, and it’s nice to focus on them too.

I could write individual pieces for all the important cinema releases and other movies I’ve seen over January. I think on this occasion, with so many that I’d like to give my attention to, that option would be counter-productive and time-consuming. So I’ve decided to sum each of them up in one post instead. The following are films I saw in January but haven’t yet written about.

Boyhood – Finally, I got around to seeing Richard Linklater’s unique coming-of-age drama after missing its original release back in July 2014. Shot over 12 years as the director followed the physical development of his core cast in real time, it would be easy to think of Boyhood as a film that earned plaudits more for the sheer effort that went into it than its own merit as a standalone piece. However, this one-dimensional way of looking at it is ultimately unfair to an experience that only really works – and works magnificently – precisely because of its elongated production.

Boyhood pic 1.

The two (process and finished product) organically go together to create a skilfully crafted whole. As the viewer you feel as if you’re growing up with the characters over time; as you get to the end you do indeed wonder where all the years have gone. When Patricia Arquette exclaims about her kids growing up so fast, you’re right there with her emotionally because you’ve been right there all the way through. The film’s greatest strength is the perspective it gives, not only on its own characters, but also on growing up and even on life in general. Breathtaking and insightful, I wonder whether there has ever been a more truly ‘human’ film than 2014’s Boyhood. 10 / 10

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Few films in recent memory are as critically and creatively astute as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s stylish dark comedy.

Birdman pic 1.

Starring Michael Keaton in a role that half recalls his previous one as Batman, Birdman shows us both sides of the critic/ creative divide, and confidently attempts to pass itself off as a classic satire of modern Hollywood in the process. The obvious homage in its title says as much, and it does a pretty entertaining job of convincing you it belongs in such company. Perhaps not quite the technical achievement that some will try to say it is (the ‘one-take’ trick is not as difficult to pull off as it once was), this is still an essential film, one of 2014’s best, and thoroughly deserving of its place among the big hitters in this year’s awards categories. 10 / 10

The Theory of Everything – The well-publicized adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoir about her marriage to theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Eddie Redmayne is, of course, the film’s shining star, though there is more here to catch your attention than just his and co-star Felicity Jones’ fine performances. Ironically the film is lacking in actual theory; its sights are clearly set on a more accessible piece encompassing… well, everything, from debilitating illness to the difficulties associated with married life. I initially found it hard to get over the sheer sentiment of it all, but if you can manage that, there is a top quality film here waiting to be discovered. I really liked it – which is more than I was expecting beforehand, frankly. 9 / 10

Stations of the Cross – German film that provided a nice change of pace against the backdrop of big budget awards season. It’s hard hitting and ‘to the point’; following the life of a normal teenage girl being driven to depression by a domineering, strict and unreasonable Catholic mother who is representative of the wider church they are part of.

Stations of the Cross pic 1.

At the same time it is surprisingly unbiased in its message, leaving open the possibility in the end that God is very real. Acts as a stark warning to those who wrongly think there can be no harm in misguided religion; on the contrary, when you remove the human element from relationships and use religion to fill that gap, it doesn’t lead to anywhere good. Not a comfortable watch, but a crucial one. 9 / 10

Leviathan – A visually majestic Russian film with much to say about the hierarchy of its native country, to the extent that it’s somewhat surprising it hasn’t been embroiled in controversy. The fact it was put forward as Russian selection for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars (an award it’s likely to win) and has had a successful run internationally is heartening for an industry that has recently felt its right to freedom of expression threatened. Was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and ultimately won Best Screenplay at the festival. While this may put some off who would label it a “critic’s film” with the unfair connotations associated with that, there are indisputable dramatic and emotional moments in Leviathan to be appreciated by any viewer. 10 / 10

Enemy – A curious movie that I first watched last May at the BFI in London, Enemy had a (very) limited UK release this January. If you were fortunate enough to see it, your reaction was probably one similar to most: what the hell did I just watch? Not in a bad way; rather in a “I don’t know if this is a masterpiece or just confused” kind of way. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role as a History professor and low-rate actor.

Enemy pic 1.

The premise? One day while watching a movie in his apartment, the History professor sees this actor, literally his double, in a small background role and subsequently becomes obsessed with meeting him. Enemy was first released in 2013 and I’ve yet to come across anyone who reckons they’ve figured it out (the story’s based on a novel – The Double – by Jose Saramago, so that probably contains some hints). An intriguing film to say the least; one you must see, even if I don’t feel confident in giving it a proper rating quite yet. But rest assured: I’ll certainly be returning to this one in the near future. ?/ 10

Ex Machina – One of the most intriguing British films of the past few years, Ex Machina touches on some very interesting themes without exploring them fully. If it had gone as far as I would’ve liked (I’ll perhaps return to this another time), I think it could have been one of the all-time greats of its genre. As it is, it’s still a pretty damn good movie. Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson play off each other well as the two male leads, though the true star here is Alicia Vikander, who plays the charming AI, Ava.

Ex Machina.

They make up the core cast in a film that feels appropriately small scale and almost claustrophobic in places. It also boasts a subtle, haunting soundtrack that I liked very much. Overall it’s an intelligent sci-fi thriller; such a combination isn’t too common in an industry that could do with more of this and less loud explosions. 9 / 10

Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film has a large cast and even larger ambition. Shot in grainy 35mm with added effects to give it a vintage 1970s feel, Inherent Vice certainly can’t be accused of lacking ‘character’, but has understandably split audiences and critics with a winding plot that often ends up on the wrong side of disjointed.

Inherent Vice.

Lose concentration for a moment and you may find yourself lost for the remainder of the film (though this can be attributed to the ‘stoner’ culture that it aims to encapsulate – and does so very well). On the other hand it is filled with entertaining performances from the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro and Reese Witherspoon, among others, and is more likely to win you over with its charm than not. Does it sometimes feel like it’s trying too hard to be ‘cool’? Perhaps, but at least it is trying. Sometimes that’s what counts most, and the vintage style provides a fresh change from anything else currently on the market. Highly recommended, if not ultimately satisfying. 8 / 10


The 2014 Fifa World Cup.

With a little under two hours to go until Brazil kick off against Croatia in the first match of this generation’s Brazilian World Cup, I figure it’s a good time to polish off my thoughts on the upcoming tournament. Let’s briefly look at each group and I’ll name the teams I think are going through to the next round. Maybe I’ll even tell you why.

Group A: Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico.

Why? Host nation Brazil shouldn’t have any problems with their group and come through as winners; perhaps not a vintage side, but they strike me as being able to get the job done. Mexico looked a mess in qualifying and I’ve seen nothing since to convince me they’ll be anything like the Mexican sides that are usually so good at getting out of the group. That leaves Croatia and Cameroon. While the Croats have a better team, I just get this feeling with Cameroon that they’ll feed off the passion and atmosphere of being in the opening group with the hosts. They also have one or two older stars that know this is their last chance to make an impact; I fancy the Africans to qualify for the next round, and they may be the only side from that continent to do so.

Group B: Chile, Spain, Netherlands, Australia.

Why? Chile couldn’t have asked for a better opening match to get off to a positive start, against the lowest ranked side at the tournament. A win against Australia will give this Chile team confidence, and with that they can cause the European heavyweights more than a few problems. A lot could rest on the match between the Dutch and Chile when they face each other in their final group game. I’ll back Chile to claim a shock and snatch the group overall, with Spain going through in second to set up a rather mouth-watering second round meeting…

Group C: Colombia, Japan, Greece, Ivory Coast.

Why? Look out for Japan, who have been playing nice football and will take one or two by surprise. They boast an even better side than the one that qualified for the second round in 2010. Colombia shouldn’t have any real problems in the group. Once again, the Ivory Coast come overhyped and I’m personally not expecting much from them. Greece on the other hand may be underrated, but I still wouldn’t be brave enough to say they’ll get out of this one.

Group D: England, Italy, Uruguay, Costa Rica.

Why? Uruguay’s recent overachievements have troubled people into thinking this group is harder than it is – I’d be shocked if Suarez emulates his Premier League form here, considering it’s been a long season and we’re now in a completely different climate. Just think that England could have been drawn with Spain, Brazil or Argentina; I think they got off relatively easily. Italy and England are my favourites to go through. Believe it or not I can see England’s balance of youth and experience being (whisper it) a breath of fresh air.

Group E: France, Ecuador, Honduras, Switzerland.

Why? France are another team for whom the draw could have been much worse. I expect their pattern of success (1998 winners), failure (2002 group stage exit), success (2006 final) and failure (2010 group stage mess) to continue, with a run to the semi-finals on the cards. Second spot is very much up for grabs; Swiss are favourites but I don’t really fancy them. Ecuador could surprise everyone who has been saying they can’t play away from home. Their draw against England tells me they’ve taken that into account and will have been training appropriately. They have a real chance of getting out of this group.

Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Nigeria, Iran.

Why? Argentina should have little problems winning the group comfortably, but who to follow them… Cases could be made for all three; Bosnia will be up for it as it’s their first World Cup and I expect them to be as passionate as anyone, whereas Iran and Nigeria may be better suited to the climate. Ultimately however, getting Argentina out of the way in their first match may suit Bosnia and I think they will go through as runners-up to face old rivals France in the next round.

Group G: Portugal, USA, Germany, Ghana.

Why? Germany who? For certain on paper Germany should have no problems here. But I look at this group, I see a Ronaldo who looks more determined than ever, I see a former German star in charge of one of their group rivals, and I get the feeling this is not one that will be decided on paper. As a team Portugal may not look that great, but I really can see them putting in a fantastic one-off performance and shocking the Germans in their opening match. Need I mention the climate as well? Shrewd management will also benefit the United States. And as for Ghana, they may just be victims of an unfavourable draw this time around.

No really, Germany who?

Group H: Belgium, Russia, South Korea, Algeria.

Why? All games in this group will take place in the south of Brazil, which is supposedly a colder climate and will therefore benefit Belgium and Russia most, and Algeria least. Belgium should get a good start and top the group, playing some attractive football in the process. With Fabio Capello in charge, I would also expect Russia to get past South Korea and Algeria to finish in the runners-up spot. Should they do so, they would have another southern match in the next round (the Group G winners, on the other hand, must jump from a warmer climate to a colder one, with a lot of travel thrown in to boot). This could give them a valuable advantage – and I would have Russia down as possible quarter-finalists.

So that’s that for now. What, you were expecting me to name my overall winner? Well, I agree with most people in thinking that Brazil and Argentina are the two favourites. Argentina have (arguably) the easier side of the draw, and I feel perhaps Messi has been saving some part of himself this season in preparation for the tournament. But it’s nigh on impossible to make any picks for the knockout stages quite yet. Once the groups are over, I plan to do another short post on part 2, and I’ll show my final hand then.