It's that time of year again when the sweepstakes, pools and spreadsheets make their electronic passage through the networks of many an office around the World. With so many games on offer, I've decided to limit myself to just two such games – as we all know, too many games before this World Cup could result in burn out come the knockout stages.
I opted for the Metro newspaper's online game, which has free entry but cash prizes for the overall winners. In addition, I pumped 300 pence into the Guardian's coffers for the chance to win a return significantly higher than the entry.
For some, the process of picking a fantasy team borders on the scientific. For others, it's just picking the household names. I usually go somewhere between the two, adding a little blind optimism and partisan support.
Jens Lehmann (Germany, Metro and Guardian) – I've chosen Jens for both games because put bluntly, I can't see many teams scoring past Germany. They one-nilled their way to the final last time around (save for the Saudi Arabia match) and look to offer the same this time too. As host nation, and in a relatively easy group on paper, I don't see the likes of Coast of Rice, Poland or D'or Ecua scoring a goal at all. Jens has done well this season and will be out to amend for his sending off in the Champions' League final.
Ricardo Carvalho (Portugal, Metro and Guardian) – in all honesty I didn't realise I'd chosen Carvalho for both games. This is made all the more surprising by the fact that I don't even rate him that highly. However, I'm willing to let my judgements become an afterthought if Messers Scolari and Mourinho see fit to play him. As Portugal sit two central midfielders in front of the back four, allowing anyone else in the team who feels so inclined to attack at will, it means Carvalho et al may well be protected. I'm banking on a clean sweep of clean sheets in the group stage, with Angola and Iran offering very little. Mexico might prove to be somewhat more tricky, but the thinking is that both teams will already have qualified by then and offer little in an attacking capacity.
Rafael Marquez (Mexico, Metro) – Admittedly, my knowledge of Marquez stretches only as far as Champions' League performances, although that could stretch to any of the Arsenal squad on this season's performance. As with Carvalho above, I don't see Marquez's Mexico suffering in the group stages with Angola or Iran. The Mexicans find themselves high in the official FIFA rankings, but it would be unfair to deny them a reasonable chance of reaching the quarter finals. Favourable draws may see them progress quietly, but even when they do go out I don't anticipate a flurry of goals.
Carlos Puyol (Spain, Metro) – Despite Spain's inability to link quality players with quality performances, they may well finally be benefitting from good club performances in the Champions' League. The likes of Puyol, Fabregas and Reyes all had relatively successful seasons. Of course the Spanish front line of Torres, Raul or Villa may flatter to deceive, but the hope is that they cause enough of a diversion so that Puyol and his compatriots are kept quiet until the quater finals at least.
Stan Laziridis (Australia, Metro) – Let me explain myself here. Please. I couldn't afford anyone else with the Metro's budget. Being a Villa fan it does pain me to pick a Blues player, but the thinking isn't completely without reason. Laziridis has spent a large part of his career on the left wing and still gets forward often, despite playing at left back now. In the slight hope that he provides a deep cross that Viduka might head in, Stan the Man could give me some light relief. And if he fails, well, it's just another failure for Blues.
Fabio Cannavaro (Italy, Guardian) – Cannavaro is one of a few defenders who needs very little justification. He may not have the immediate physical presence, but his quality is undeniable. Italy haven't got the easiest of draws but it's also unlikely they'll concede a plethora of goals. Despite scandal and corruption surrounding the domestic game, expect the Azzuri to go the last four at the very least.
Juan Pablo Sorin (Argentina, Guardian) – Villareal enjoyed a successful Champions' League campaign before losing out to Arsenal in the semi final. The Argintinian captain often makes inroads going forward as well as being a tough tackler in defence. His fierce shots may inadvertantly cause a goal or two in the group stages, and again Argentina would expect a last four berth after the disaster that was Japan/South Korea.
John Terry (England, Guardian) – one of any number of players who was good before Mourinho, and great during Mourinho. Four years ago Terry wasn't a serious contender and now he's the first choice centre back. England shouldn't concede many goals with an embarrassment of riches in terms of centre backs, and the quality full backs of Neville and Cole. Robinson is now the undisputed number one so England should have a solid base at the back if Crouch, Owen and Walcott can't make any headway at the other end. A fantastic header of the ball, Terry is a threat at set pieces and has scored goals at important times at club level. A player who has really kicked on in the last couple of years, he could be England captain for many years to come under the new regime. But probably not.
Steven Gerrard (England, Metro and Guardian) – 'Stevie G' would have been a first choice pick even before Sven Göran Eriksson announced laid all his cards out for all to see, specifying that Gerrad may be used in a much more forward role than we've seen him for England before. Steven is one of those players who will try and win a game single-handedly, but still contributes to the team. Gerrard has a penchant in scoring in major finals, and the league cup final too, so expect Andy Gray to scream over the top of Martin Tyler for some time to come yet.
Frank Lampard (England, Metro) – I remember seeing Lampard at Valley Parade where he scored two goals for West Ham against Bradford City. I was in the West Ham end yet he was getting more insults from his own fans than his opposition. By his own admission Frank was flirting with good times when in the West Ham squad, but it was his Chelsea move, and more importantly José Mourinho, who has transformed Lampard from bride to pastor. Lampard calls, and takes, all the shots now. His 'engine' is second to none and in theory his partnership with Steven Gerrard is a mouth-watering one. Of course this has as yet failed to materialise, but as they are both players who go for the big occasions, England will be lucky to have them. We may even forget about Rooney.
Xabi Alonso (Spain, Metro) – There are those who believe they are the only ones to notice that Alonso has been essential to Liverpool's good performances. Far from it. There's a once-silent majority who now publicly declare their faith in Xabi Alonso. It's fashionable around Anfield these days to say that "Crouch has a good touch for a big lad", "Cissé is useless" and also surmise that without the linchpin that is Xabi Alonso, Gerrard would have nowhere near the roaming capabilities he enjoys at present. Alonso won't always chip in with goals, but when he does expect them to be spectacular. Having already scored a goal from inside his own half this season, Alonso may be planning a similar effort from the entrace tunnel minutes before kick-off.
Ronaldinho (Brazil, Metro and Guardian) – It highlights the unpredictability of Ronaldinho when the Metro and Guardian list him as a midfielder and forward respectively. The point to be made here is that Ronaldinho will be part of a 'fantastic four', which could be expanded to a five should Robinho get some game time. Ronaldinho likes to float around the attacking end of the pitch, but Big Phil Scolari will have to pull on the reins to make sure the Best Player in the World™ performs his defensive duties.
Juan Roman Riquelme (Argentina, Guardian) – When Riquleme made the move to the then-unfashionable Villareal, eyebrows catapulted to the top of many a forehead. Only a penalty miss by the mercurial talent in the semi final versus Arsenal denied him a place in the Champions' League final. Riquelme showed his undoubted quality in the friendly versus England in Geneva, and will be the creative force for Argentina in this year's Group of Death. A trip to the final wouldn't surprise many of the press, but it's the quality in his feet that will do the 'JRR talking'. Sorry!
Zinedine Zidane (France, Guardian) – Zizou hasn't had the best of seasons for Real Madrid, and he himself has admitted that his performances are becoming sub-standard. That's sub-standard by the Zidane scoring system, mind. This veteran may be ready to hang up his boots, but don't expect many teams to deny him his swansong. France have a big point to prove following poor campaigns in 2002 and 2004. Zidane has it within his power to remind everyone of the quality that won him the World Cup, and by default the 10 other Frenchman on the pitch.
Michael Ballack (Germany, Guardian) – Michael Ballack has been criticised for his lacklustre Bayern München performances of late. He's saving himself for the World Cup, and will be playing at Chelsea next season anyway. Ballack was the inspiration for Germany's route to the final last time around, and expect the same this time. In much the same way as his new team-mate Lampard, Ballack remains focused on success. His temprament was proven beyond any doubt when he received a yellow card in the semi final against South Korea. Whilst lesser people, and Gazza, would break down at the thought of missing out on the World Cup final, Ballack shook it off and scored the winning goal to put the Fatherland into a Ballack-less showdown. I'm just not looking forward to 'Ballack' related headlines in the Red Tops next season.
Thierry Henry (France, Metro) – Henry's World Cup story doesn't fit the correct mould. In fact Thierry doesn't fit any mould. He won the World Cup in 1998 without being half the player he is now. An unsuccessful time at Juventus prompted a move to Arsenal and he has never looked back. Except that in 2002 he was inexistant, and poor at 2004. A further loss in this year's Champions' League final hasn't put paid to suggestions that Henry is a 'Big Game Bottler'. However we're all waiting for the day when one of the World's best players comes good and does what we know and love – doing fantastic but eventually losing.
Adriano (Brazil, Metro) – I don't recall any report of Adriano that didn't use the word "burly". He doesn't possess the deft touches and creativity of Kaka and Ronaldinho, but he's effective all the same. Should his football career fail, expect Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Adriano to perform during pantomime season as the front and rear of the comedy horse respectively.
Luca Toni (Italy, Guardian) – Luca Toni hasn't yet become a household name outside the households of Italy. The likes of Totti and Pippo Inzaghi have those accolades but they haven't had the recent spectacular records of old. Toni celebrates his 29th birthday today which suggests he has seen and done it all, but far from it. His status as relative unknown quantity outside of Italy draw comparisons to Toto Schillachi.
GK: Jens Lehmann, DF: Rafael Marquez, Ricardo Carvalho, Carlos Puyol, Stan Laziridis, MF: Steven Gerrard (c), Frank Lampard, Ronaldinho, Xabi Alonso, ST: Adriano, Thierry Henry
Guardian Fantasy Fussball:
GK: Jens Lehmann, DF: Juan Pablo Sorin, Fabio Cannavaro, Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry, MF: Juan Roman Riquelme, Steven Gerrard, Zinedine Zidane, Michael Ballack, ST: Ronaldinho, Luca Toni