December 04, 2009

World Cup fever

Next summer (winter in the Southern Hemisphere) the entire world will descend into a flag-waving, horn-honking, vuvuzela-blowing orgiastic frenzy for the World Cup.

There will also probably be some fantastic games played by some of the world's finest athletes. So for those of you who like the idea of soccer but don't really follow it, in honour of today's draw that partitioned the World Cup teams into groups, I give you my group-by-group, team-by-team breakdown and analysis, to use as a kind of Bluffer's Guide. Don't thank me. No, really. Especially not by name. Just remember that you heard it here first.

Group A

South Africa - "Bafana Bafana", aka The Boys, are probably the weakest host team in the history of the World Cup. The host team has never failed to progress beyond the group stage. Until now.

Mexico - A decent team, headlined by defender Rafael Márquez of Barcelona and young striker Carlos Vela of Arsenal, but they struggled to convince in the qualifiers and fired coach Sven-Goran Eriksson along the way. Dangerous but not intimidating.

Uruguay - The former World Cup winners (1950) have a perfectly respectable team, led by goal machine Diego Forlán, but just barely made it into the World Cup after winning a playoff against Costa Rica with a disputed offside goal.

France - Oh, Les Bleus! A team utterly teeming with talent, mismanaged by their appallingly bad manager Raymond Domenech, has made it into the World Cup only by the skin of Thierry Henry's left hand. And with or without Henry - who might be banned for some or all of the Cup for that - they're all but guaranteed to make it out of this very weak group.

My prediction: France will win the group, with Mexico second.

Group B

Argentina - Mighty Argentina, despite its boatload of extraordinary talent led by World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, barely squeaked into the World Cup, mostly because the inexplicable choice of Diego Maradona as their coach. Maradona's choices were erratic and irrational, and Argentina lost game after game that they shouldn't have. Still, they're just too good not to get out of this group.

South Korea - An extremely efficient, well-organized team that works together like clockwork and boasts the considerable talents of Manchester United winger Park Ji-Sung - but doesn't often play on this level. Did very well in 2002, but then, they were at home.

Nigeria - These are not the rampant Super Eagles of 1998, with Jay-Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu awing all before them, and they only barely made it into the World Cup at all. A collection of considerable individual talents not yet welded into a team.

Greece - A solid team who have mostly played together for many years (and who won Euro 2004.) Unspectacular but competent.

My prediction: Argentina will win, South Korea second.

Group C

England - Perennial heartbreaking underachievers England have a new look and new swagger to them now that they are marshalled by martinet coach Fabio Capello. Their best outfield players - Rooney, Gerrard, J Cole, Walcott, Terry, etc. - are superb, David Beckham and Peter Crouch give them tactical options, and the others are tough and versatile. But a giant question mark hangs over their net; David James, whose team is currently bottom of the Premier League, will be 40 when the World Cup rolls around, and all the other pretenders - Ben Foster, Paul Robinson, etc. - are prone to horrifying errors.

USA - No one takes the Americans seriously, but they should; they very nearly won this year's Confederations Cup, and were 2-0 up against Brazil before the latter giant roused itself. This could be the year American soccer finally gets some respect.

Algeria - A good team, but mostly I think they're just happy to be here, having defeated archrivals Egypt in a bad-tempered playoff game that led to riots in both nations.

Slovenia - These minnows (population: 2 million) somehow defeated gargantuan Russia in a two-legged playoff, and again, are probably just happy to be here.

My prediction: England will win, the USA second.

Group D

Germany - Soccer was once famously defined as "Twenty-two men run around for 90 minutes and then the Germans win." But despite having topped their qualifying group with their usual work ethic, teamwork, and ruthless efficiency, Germany are but a shadow of the sides that reached the finals and semi-finals of the last two World Cups. Still, no one will want to face them.

Australia - Don't rule the Aussies out. They're an extremely fit team, which will matter at some of South Africa's fairly-high-altitude stadiums, and they very nearly knocked eventual champions Italy out of the last World Cup, only losing to a very dubious penalty. But they're not as good now as they were then.

Ghana - The Black Stars are a powerful and dangerous team, led by the tremendous Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari in midfield. Capable of beating anyone on their day.

Serbia - Topped the qualifying group that included France, albeit barely. A rock-solid defence led by Nemanja Vidic of Manchester United and Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea. Their strikers all play for second-tier teams, though, so it's not clear where the goals are going to come from at this level.

My prediction: This is the Group of Death. None of these teams are going to be happy to see the other three. I'm going to say Germany and Ghana, but don't quote me.

Group E

Holland - The always-very-good-but-never-quite-good-enough Oranje have a wealth of attacking talent - Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie - and can be expected to go far, but just as in Euro 2008, they aren't strong enough at the back to win the whole thing.

Japan - Good enough to top their Asian group, but generally comes up short against European and South American teams. Their deadliest weapon is the left foot of Shunsuke Nakamura, whose free-kick skills are legendary.

Cameroon - Africa's second-best team has all-world striker Samuel Eto'o up front and Arsenal midfielder Alexandre Song cleaning up at back. This is their sixth trip to the World Cup, and they won't be happy with merely getting out of the group stage - this team has the talent and desire to reach the quarterfinals and beyond.

Denmark - The minnow Danes won Euro 1992 and have a history of punching above their weight, but even with Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner in their ranks, they'll need to be very lucky indeed to get out of this group.

My prediction: Holland will win, Cameroon second.

Group F

Italy - The defending champions play a slow, boring, chippy, extremely defensive game. And they do it very well. But they aren't near as good as they were four years ago, and I for one would like to see them go out early. Not going to happen, though.

New Zealand - Just getting to the World Cup is a massive achievement for the All Whites, given they come from a nation of 4 million where soccer is maybe the third most popular sport (after rugby and cricket.) And they even have a fighting chance of making it out of this group.

Paraguay - For a team whose members play for (lower-paid) South American and second-tier European teams, Paraguay did amazingly well in the qualifiers, finishing tied with Chile and only one point behind Brazil. It's hard to see them doing as well on neutral ground, though.

Slovakia - Like most Eastern European teams, the Slovaks are very capable, but they're still out of their depth at the World Cup.

My prediction: Italy will win (bleah), Paraguay second.

Group G

Brazil - Brazil spins out new soccer superstars every year. Under their coach Dunga, their jugo bonita, or "beautiful game", has been replaced by a hard-nosed, pragmatic approach that has conquered all before them. The favourites to win the whole shebang. Again.

North Korea - The giant question marks. They're extremely fit, fast, and well-organized, and what they lack in natural talent may perhaps be made up for by the incentive of knowing that if they lose their despotic leader will not be at all happy with them. They have a history, too: the 1966 North Korean team defeated Italy and was the first Asian team to get out of the group stage. On the other hand, they only got here above Saudia Arabia via a tiebreaker ... and to their misfortune, this is an extremely strong group.

Cote d'Ivoire - Africa's best team, "Les Elephants" have a world-class spine of Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré and his brother Kolo Touré. A big, physical, ferociously talented team, they showed at the last World Cup that they can mix it with anybody, and nobody will be happy to play them.

Portugal - Led by the world's best and most annoying player, Cristiano Ronaldo, with able support from teammates like Manchester United's Nani, Chelsea's Deco, and Juventus's Tiago, Portugal has nevertheless managed to seem like less than the sum of its parts during qualifying. If they manage to hit their gear, however, they can be deadly.

My prediction: If D was the Group of Death, then G is the Group of Doom. At least one very good team is going to fail to make it out of here, and even mighty Brazil can't afford to make any mistakes. Still, they'll win the group, and I'm going to say Cote d'Ivoire will come second.

Group H

Spain - The Euro 2008 champions run a close second to Brazil in sheer talent and, surprisingly, toughness. Up front, Fernando Torres, David Villa, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas are the best attacking five on the planet, while behind them Iker Casillas has been manning the sticks for Real Madrid's first team since he was 18 years old. The only question is whether their relatively anonymous defence can hold up.

Honduras - Have a history of overachieving, but without their home-crowd support (and their hatred of rivals Mexico and the USA) to fuel them, can they succeed? I have my doubts.

Chile - Just like Paraguay, they've overachieved by using a consistent group of capable players, but are probably out of their depth among the big teams. Fortunately, there's only one big team in this group.

Switzerland - Excellent defense, mediocre attackers, boring to watch, lucky to be here.

My prediction: Spain wins, with Chile second.


Anonymous Chong said...

Hi Jon....where do you find the time to write this, I don't even have the time to read it all but will do so...fair comment on England though, talking of which I may head across to SA with Dave Drake and a couple of others....what are your plans?

6:59 AM  

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