With just nine months to go until the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, the continental qualification campaigns are drawing ever nearer to a close.
And whilst the likely qualifiers and familiar nations look set to come through, there have been a few results lately that suggest the gap in quality between the footballing giants and relative minnows is beginning to close.
The outright quality and entertainment value at the international finals has certainly come under scrutiny over the last few years with the last truly memorable competition arguably being World Cup 1998 which boasted a number of dramatic encounters and strong, world class teams.
Tournaments since have largely disappointed on the main as fancied nations have flopped or failed to show the attacking, thrilling play that they have been associated with – Brazil 2006 and Argentina 2010 to name just a couple.
Nowadays, the majority of football spectators would probably place higher importance on the UEFA Champions League as opposed to the European Championship simply because of its proven strength in depth and the guarantee of numerous hi-octane, goal packed matches.
Without question, certain results recently have suggested that a few of football’s big international names are falling back towards mediocrity.
France’s last outing, a 0-0 stalemate in Georgia, did not boost their credentials as potential contenders in Brazil next year – nor Holland’s dismal 2-2 draw in Estonia with the Orange Army saved only in stoppage time by a Robin Van Persie penalty.
The Czech Republic, once renowned for their ability to cause any side in World football a problem, lost 1-2 at home to lowly Armenia – whilst Portugal struggled to overcome a Northern Ireland side who had previously stolen a point in the reverse fixture earlier in the qualifying campaign.
Small pieces of proof, perhaps, that the big names of the game are now not so superior in comparison to their less illustrious counterparts.
Of course, results such as Ukraine 9-0 San Marino suggest otherwise, but aside from the absolute no hopers like the aforementioned and Andorra, the whole picture of European and indeed World football is looking to be more competitive overall.
Whether it is a case of the minnows improving or the giants failing to perform remains to be seen, but the notion that there is ‘no such thing as an easy international fixture’ appears to be truer than ever.
And the expansion of Euro 2016 to 24 teams will really give further encouragement to some lesser sides on the continent who will feel they can push for qualification for major finals for the first time.
On the bigger picture, nations such as Germany and Spain must feel that they can continue dominating the rest of the field over the upcoming years having maintained their high level of quality and play consistently, avoiding some of the surprising results which have involved their once equal rivals.
Ultimately, providing the football is played in the right way and teams commit to winning games, next year’s World Cup could be the most entertaining and competitive yet since the 1998 renewal.