ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Bay Rowdies coach Ricky Hill has plenty of international soccer experience, having represented England on the under-21 team and playing three times with the senior national team.
As Thursday's start of the World Cup approaches, we asked the London native to share his thoughts on the 32-nation soccer tournament.
Here are his five things to watch:
The World Cup is a chance for superstars to cement their legacy
"I'm looking forward to seeing the top players perform their brilliance in front of the world. Everyone always says domestic football is one thing, but can you do it on the biggest stage? So, that brings in the likes of (Argentina's Lionel) Messi, (Portugal's Cristiano) Ronaldo, (Sergio) Aguero and (Gonzalo) Higuain from Argentina — you've got so many quality players throughout the world. Goalkeeping, likewise, you've got (Manuel) Neuer from Germany and the Spanish keepers and Joe Hart from England. I know the effect it had on me when I saw my first World Cup in 1966 as a youngster, and I really took notice in 1970 when Pele was all conquering. That kind of got me hooked on the game and gave me that incentive to try to be the best that I could possibly be."
Don't be surprised if host Brazil succumbs to high expectations
"I always root for Brazil. Of course, I always root for England too, but Brazil is the team that has never changed its philosophy. They've modified it slightly because they have more aggressive, athletic midfielders than they had previously. But their game has always been about moving the ball quickly, passing to each other, being creative and expressing yourself. And I've always admired that and used that as a mantra. They're at home, which brings its own pressure because sometimes it's not easy when the expectation is on you all the time. It's not easy for the players to perform under that kind of pressure and spotlight."
Don't overlook the Asian nations for beautiful play
"I admire quality team play. I remember in 2002 when South Korea got to the semifinals under Guus Hiddink. I admired the brand that they played, style that they played, the quick tempo that they played. Japan, likewise, they've progressed in the last 15-20 years. The style they play, it's more of a passing through everything, quick passing, good control, good movement. I had the pleasure of seeing them (last week) against Costa Rica (at Raymond James Stadium) and it was an example for all of our players of how the beautiful game should be played: The simplicity of it, the effectiveness of how it can be when you control the ball, pass the ball quickly and move elegantly."
England hasn't made it past the quarterfinals since 1990, but this could be the year
"I'm rooting for England to go as far as they possibly can, and I've been impressed with the way their brand has changed slightly over the last six to nine months. They've adapted from a strict 4-4-2 to a fluid 4-3-3 and have suddenly found the personnel that can fit into that system. And we do have a number of talented individual players along with a strong back four who understand how to play their positions and are pretty determined. So, I'm quite optimistic — if they can handle the climate and the conditions. It's one thing to have a hot day in England, but now you're in the humidity, the heat's coming from the floor, if it rains it becomes hotter when it stops raining. The physical capacity that it takes is something they've never experienced regularly. So that will be a telling factor for them, can they physically stay in games at a certain level of intensity and concentration for the duration of 90-plus minutes?"
Belgium could be the dark horse
"Belgium has a number of first-class players, but it's the first time they've been to a major tournament with people expecting them to do something. How they cope with that expectation will be telling. But they have (Vincent) Kompany, they have (Eden) Hazard, they have (Adnan) Januzaj. Unfortunately, they don't have (Christian) Benteke from Aston Villa (out with torn Achilles), but they have (Kevin) Mirallas from Everton. There's a number of attacking players. They have (Jan) Vertonghen from Tottenham defensively, so there's a number of first-class players. Conditions for a European team compared to a South American team, (Belgium) will not have encountered anything like that in their regular season, and it's how they are able to overcome that, not only in one game but three close games back-to-back and then in the knockout stages. How will they stand up to that after a long, hard season at their respective clubs will be a factor."