world cup XX by the numbers

As the final whistle blew in Montivideo last week, a 0-0 scoreline between Uruguay and Jordan was enough to see the South American champions ease past the visitors to become the thirty-second and final nation to qualify for World Cup 2014 in Brazil.

cristo redentor watches patiently as the big dance approaches next summer.

The 20th edition of the tournament, Brazil 2014 will be the first in South America since Argentina hosted in 1978. It will also be the second time the “Greatest Show on Earth” returns to the sport’s — with apologies to the Catalonian sympathizers out there —  spiritual home. The Seleção have not only (until recently anyway) been the flag bearers of the way the beautiful game should be played, but they’ve also been the most successful nation in terms of international championships, having won the tournament a record five times. Whether or not they’ll win their sixth title at home remains to be seen. But if they do manage to do so, they’ll become the seventh nation to do so on home soil.

So with the final field of 32 for Brazil now finally set, I rounded up twenty unique stats about the twentieth World Cup finals to get us all in the mood.

1 – World Cup appearance now for the lone debutantes of this World Cup, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

2 – Straight World Cups that have been held outside of Europe, a first for the tournament.

3 – Names proposed to name Adidas’ official ball for the tournament, including Bossa NovaCarnavalesca and the winner… Brazuca. I promise I’m not making that up.

4 – Nations that qualified from the CONCACAF region — Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, United States — as well as the AFC region — Australia, Iran, Japan, South Korea.

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the long awaited cinderellas

Over the last five to six years, the UEFA Champions League has become a bit of a dull affair. Season after season, we get to see the same super clubs battling it out with one another to see who gets to be this year’s queen of the ball.

APOEL nicosia

when i first watched APOEL play in the champions league this season, i was very confused. did someone let tottenham back in and force them to wear odd, yellow-stained kits?

Don’t get me wrong: the football on display over that time in the Champions League has generally been fantastic. We’ve been lucky enough to witness some dazzling individual and team performances. How can I really complain about getting to watch the best players in the world competing for the world’s preeminent title?

Well as it turns out, I can find something to complain about within just about anything.

Taking a closer look at the participants in the UCL Round of 16 over the past five seasons (’06-’07 through ’10-’11), only 15 of the 80 clubs have come from outside the traditional top five European leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). That 18.75 appearance percentage for clubs outside the top five leagues drops to 15% for the quarterfinals and all the way to a donut for the semifinals onward.  In fact, looking back over the last 15 seasons, only Porto’s magical run to the trophy in 2003/2004 featured any club outside the top three leagues taking part in the final.

If that type of trend isn’t concerning to you, it should be. Participation in the group stages and later of the Champions League is the footballing equivalent of a club hitting the lottery. The €5.5 million guaranteed to each of team might just be enough to sign a reserve player at a Bayern Munich or Real Madrid, but for clubs from the smaller leagues, it could be enough to stave off extinction. And the more the Champions League group stages are dominated by the bigger sides from the bigger countries, the greater the divide becomes between the big and the small. It won’t take much more than that to sentence an entire class of club acorss Europe to their doom.

Some don’t see that as much of a problem for the sport, as it’s just football prescribing to the “survival of the fittest” mentality that’s bound to come with the influx of money into the sport. They believe we’ll all be better off watching Barça and United square off again anyway, what with their superior skill and marketing might.

barcelona vs manchester united in the champions league final

thanks in large part to fc basel, we have been "spared" another barcelona vs manchester united final.

So despite Michel Platini’s best efforts to boost the participation of non-marquee league clubs, it’s clear that this is a tournament steadily becoming one for the have’s rather than the have-not’s. And to me, that’s a really sad thing.

While I’m always a fan that loves to take in and lay witness to extraordinary players doing extraordinary things, I’ve got an unmistakable urge to root for an underdog, too. Maybe that’s something ingrained in me as a Tottenham fan (and which duly made last year’s adventure extra special), or perhaps I’m conditioned to it from growing up in a country with wildly popular knockout tournaments that are primed to launch a Cinderella or two. But ever since the rise of the Premier League and the revamp of the European Cup into the Champions League, the tournament has had an increasingly distinct lack of underdogs for which we can root.

This season, however, has been a departure from that trend.

This Champions League campaign features a comparatively massive five clubs from outside the Big 5 Leagues, or 31.25% percent of the field. Not only is that the most we’ve seen since the 2001/2002 edition, but it’s the same as the previous two editions.. combined. There’s no way Platini can keep from cracking a smirk every time he hears those statistics.

Now, admittedly, three of those five sides aren’t exactly newcomers to this elite level of European football. And unsurprisingly, all of them all come from Europe’s best-of-the-rest leagues. Benfica of Portugal (League Rank – #6) is the most successful of that group, having won the competition twice, and finished runners up once. Russian Premier League (#7) sides Zenit St. Petersburg have a UEFA Cup to their name, and CSKA Moscow have made numerous appearances in Europe’s top competitions.

But, those two remaining clubs — Switzerland’s FC Basel and Cyprus’ APOEL Nicosia — are the real, live Cinderella teams that this tournament has been sorely awaiting.

FC Basel’s home Swiss Super League is ranked 13th in Europe, which most years would have enough to make them the team hailing from the lowest league in the Round of 16. But this year, they’re joined by an APOEL side that hail from a league ranked 21st in the 2010 Coefficient rankings from which this year’s tournament field was decided. At least In the 10 years of Champions League data that I’ve poured through, no league has ever contributed a Round of 16 (or equivalent) side with a lower UEFA Coefficient than the Cypriot Championship.

Now before anyone bites my head off for calling these teams Cinderellas, I am aware that both sides have at least made previous forays into the Champions League group stages.

APOEL Nicosia — or ΑΠΟΕΛ Ποδόσφαιρο if we’re writing it in proper Greek — have only once qualified for the group stages, in the 09/10 edition. Though they finished bottom of their group, they did manage split the spoils three times in group consisting Chelsea, Porto and Atlético Madrid. That campaign was highlighted by an impressive 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, in which Nenad Mirosavljević scored an 87′ equalizer. Prior to that year, APOEL hadn’t ever managed to advance past the 3rd qualifying round.

xherdan shaqiri of fc basel

underdogs with star talent -- like basel and xherdan shaqiri -- are breathing life into a tournament that was starting to feel stale.

Basel, meanwhile, have performed slightly better than their fellow Cinderella side in Europe’s top competition. They’ve managed to reach the Group Stage four times, the most ever for a Swiss team, but they’ve even done one better by reaching the final 16 when they qualified for the now-defunct Second Group Stage in the 2002/2003 tournament. That magical campaign included a number of impressive results, such as two thrilling ties with Liverpool, tying Manchester United away, and defeating Juventus at home.

But just because both teams have had (relatively minor) successes in Europe before, that doesn’t mean they’re not true Cinderellas.

Though the Swiss side are probably better known for being “the side that looks like Barcelona that’s not actually Barcelona”, their qualification to the group stage was historic in that they’re the first team from Switzerland to ever directly qualify for the stage by winning the league. They Swiss champions have also boasted one of the most impressive young players in the tournament in Xherdan Shaqiri, though the impressive winger will depart for Bayern Munich in the summer. It’s always easier to root for an underdog when they’ve got an exciting star player to watch.

APOEL are the debutante Cypriot side at this stage of the competition. As a club based in an island nation of only around a million residents, they’re pitted against a Lyon side that hail from a metropolitan area of around 1.4 million residents and the second largest in France. Just to even reach the Group Stage, they had to navigate through three qualifying rounds against stiff competition: Albania’s Skënderbeu Korçë, Slovakia’s ŠK Slovan Bratislava and Poland’s Wisła Kraków. Thanks in large part to these exploits, APOEL manager Ivan Jovanović was named Serbian Manager of the Year. If that’s not a Cinderella side, I don’t know one that is.

Perhaps understandably though, neither side are being favored to advance any further in the tournament. But that doesn’t mean they won’t move on, either. Despite losing their first leg yesterday 0-1, APOEL are capable of upsetting an unusually weak Lyon side… especially with the second leg at home. Basel’s chances of advancing are slightly less likely, with their tie against mighty Bayern looming next week. Bigger upsets have happened though.

Regardless, even if neither team advances, both clubs have proven that there is room in European club football’s ball for an unfancied side or two. Other small clubs from around Europe have undoubtedly taken notice, and will use Basel’s and APOEL’s success as inspiration for their own ambitions. Coupled with Platini’s Financial Fair Play coming into effect in the coming seasons, it could be just the boost those clubs need to find the belief that they too can make an impact.

And if that’s the case, perhaps we’ll get a yearly dose of the Cinderella magic in the Champions League, instead of once every blue moon.

isolated occurrences of football

Sometimes working on new posts can be a difficult process. Selecting a subject to post about is difficult enough, but a million other thoughts run through my mind too. Do I need to be writing about what everyone else is writing about? I really should quit only writing about Tottenham. Will anyone actually care about this subject? So keeping on topic is often an infinitely harder task than one might assume. Soccer is splintered into so many different subcategories (clubs, countries, leagues, tactics, gear, etc.) that I often find myself starting a posting on a particular topic, and then finishing on another related topic. The Wikipedia-effect, if you will.

lonely soccer player

while this little guy seems lonely, the players on the following pitches might be a bit worse off.

For example, I’ve been working on a piece entitled just around the corner (which you can now find here) for about three weeks now. The post was born out of a thread I saw on r/soccer, discussing the close proximity of some rival grounds around the world. It seemed like an interesting topic that would make for a readable post. However, I didn’t want to be a complete mooch and hijack the thread content, so I thought it better to unearth some examples of my own. But in that research, I started stumbling across stadiums that weren’t just several meters apart, but instead were several thousands of kilometers away from their nearest neighboring pitch.

(Oddly enough, this research also spawned a post that made an earlier appearance on the blog this summer, the sort-of internationals. I wasn’t lying when I said it’s tough for me to keep on task.)

And since I got steered off course and find this more interesting now, you get to hear about the lonely football stadiums first. Don’t worry: you’ll get those “too close for comfort” pitches in a future post. I’m sure you’re giddy with excitement.

To start this off, let me be clear in saying this is not a definitive list. I’m sure there will be some forlorn field somewhere in the middle of nowhere that my simple internet searching couldn’t unearth. While a majority of the pitches on this list will predictably come from island nations, there are a few mainland gems to consider too… and as difficult as it is to find island stadiums, there’s absolutely no way I could find all of the isolated continental ones too. So forgive me if I left off your favorite marooned ground off the list.

ummm, where are those 2000 seats? no wonder nobody wants to come to play saint helena.

Francis Plain, Saint Helena Island
Found on the most isolated inhabited island in the world, the school-side 2,000 seat stadium is also the solitary pitch on the island. Trust me, I scoured the entire landmass on Google Maps looking for others. Located in the middle of the Southern Atlantic Ocean and currenlty lacking an airport, Saint Helena’s closest neighboring island is 810 miles away. While this helps to explain why the island was chosen to detain the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte, it also explains why it’s the only British Dependency to have never played an “international” match. That said, with the imminent development of an airport by the Crown, a movement has begun to establish a national team. I’m no betting man, but I’d put my money on this field becoming the home of that team — should it ever actually be formed.

a molini… moments away from being swept way by the sea?

Á Mølini, Faroe Islands
Though the Faroe Islands just won their first ever European tournament match a few weeks ago at the somewhat remote Svangaskarð Stadium — the home of B68 Toftir in a village of just 800 —  there was another Faeroe Island stadium that caught my eye for being much, much more isolated. Á Mølini, the home of EB/Streymur, is a 1000 seat stadium on the extreme Northern edge of the main island near the tiny village, Eiði. The first time I saw a picture of this pitch, I actually thought it might be floating on the ocean water. In fact it’s so remote, Google couldn’t even compute directions from the capital city. That’s probably why when EB/Streymur drew Manchester City in the Europa League a few years ago, the game had to be played away from Á Mølini… presumably because nobody knew how to get there.

mount sajama football match

this game was actually played during the summer in a tropical climate.

Nevado Sajama, Bolivia
Okay, so maybe this isn’t exactly a pitch. But the top of South America’s second tallest mountain did serve as the sight of the highest altitude football match in history. And considering that two of the planned players for the match couldn’t even make it to the 21,463 foot summit due to altitude sickness, I’d say that this is easily one of the most isolated “fields” on the planet. It’s not known who won the game, nor do I think anyone really cares. All were just glad that nobody invited the Bolivian president to this match, as he probably would have given one of the scientists/players a kick in the frozen junk.

lawson tama stadium

probably one of the most attended stadiums on the list, it

Lawson Tama Stadium, Solomon Islands
It was about time that we included a pitch from one of the far-flung island nations of the Oceania region. There are literally dozens of pitches that I could have included in this list, all of which are perfect examples of extremely remote fields. But I picked the home of the Solomon Islands National Team because of their fan’s propensity to pack the ground. Despite the fact that the “stadium” has no official capacity, quintuple-digit crowds are not unusual when either Los Bonitos or OFC Champions League matches are being hosted.

the football pitch in gspon, switzerland

though located in central europe, the stadium in gspon, switzerland is is in — or above — the boonies.

Ottmar Hitzfeld Gspon Arena, Switzerland
Though nowhere near the height of the pitch in Bolivia, the mini-pitch located in the Swiss Alps does hold the distinction as the highest elevated pitch in Europe at 6,587 feet. The town of Gspon, though only a (comparatively) short distance away from many of Switzerland’s major cities, is isolated in the fact that there aren’t any roads that leads to the village: you either have to hike up the side of the mountain, take a ski lift, or be flown in by helicopter. The stadium itself serves as the home of FC Gspon, and has also hosted the European Mountain Village championships. As recently as 2009, it wasn’t any more than a gravel pitch until it was renamed for Ottmar Hitzfeld. However, the German footballing legend had never even visited the hamlet before being flown in by helicopter for the dedication ceremony. (Want to see some more? Here are some shots from “around town”, as well as some more shots from a few matches in the “arena”.)

galolhu rasmee dhandu national stadium in the maldives

the stadium in the capital of malé can hold 10% of the national population.

Galolhu Rasmee Dhandu, Maldives
Located in the middle of the Indian Ocean — about 250 miles from the mainland — the Maldives National Team makes its home in the capital city of Malé. Considering it’s one of only two kept, grass pitches in the island chain (though there are many others spread throughout the 26 atols that comprise the nation) every single match in the island’s top Dhivehi League is played in the Rasmee Dhandu stadium. Seating just over 10 thousand spectators, it’s one of the largest buildings in a country considered the smallest in Asia.

stade d'arlit, arlit, niger

the groundsmen in arlit are clearly top notch. well, there is grass in the middle of the desert. maybe they are top notch.

Stade d’Arlit, Niger
Niger is the 22nd largest country in the world and 6th largest in Africa, yet there are only five football stadiums in the entire country. Since a majority of the land-locked country is covered in desert, most of the country’s population and stadia can be found near its (relatively) lush Southwestern borders. However, there is a small uranium mining town in North-central Niger by the name of Arlit. A large French expatriate population works at the mines, and predictably, they’re going to need their football. Therefore the town’s 7000 “seat” Stade d’Arlit is the only footballing temple within a 900-mile radius. Home of the Niger Premier League side Akonkana FC, it’s so remote that I can’t even find a picture of the damn thing, and the only picture I could find that showed any football in Arlit is this.

reactions to the world cup draw

Seven months out, and we’re already reaching fever pitch. Today is the day that the 32 qualifying nations find out their fates for next summer’s World Cup finals in South Africa.

the stars aligned in cape town to help align the groups for the 2010 world cup.

I almost feel like I’m on the right side of the pond today, with all of the coverage that the draw in Cape Town is drawing from the American press. I’ve seen prominent front-page stories from CNN, The LA Times, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The New York Times. Twitter is predictably blowing up, with even non-soccer fans tweeting about the sport for a change. And that’s not even mentioning all of the on-air time that we’re getting from ESPN2 today: a full hour-long pre-draw special from ESPN’s soccer team and 90 minutes of post draw analysis, and they’re covering the entire draw live. I could, however, do without the presence of John Harkes.

The always easy-on-the-eyes Charlize Theron hosted the draw, although she might regret the decision after being accosted by FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke’s kiss. And they also brought out a host of athletic stars to further boost the even’ts profile. The least surprising of them being David beckham and the small animal on his head his awful hair. But we’re not here to talk about celebrities, are we?

Many were surprised to see Portugal and France miss out on being seeded for the draw, but I can’t really argue with that logic. Both had horrid qualifying campaigns, although the same could be argued for Argentina (I suspect that their flaky manager, legend Diego Maradona, had something to do with that). Going in, the USMNT seemed primed for a group of death again, and France definitely deserved to get a hard draw for their dubious qualification. But of course, that’s not how things all ways work out.

Group A – South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
Well, it’s fair to say that our hated rivals to the south had a somewhat friendly draw. Mexico gets put in with the softest seeded side in South Africa. (Tangent warning: why is FIFA so dead set on giving the host country such a free pass? They’re the only side in the field that didn’t have to go through any qualifying and then we give them a further break making sure they’re not pitted against one of the top sides in the world.) However, they will also face a stern Uruguay side that scored bucket loads during qualification. And of course the remaining side in the group is France, who were spared the sword they so deserved during this draw.

This group should really only be contested between les bleus and el Trí. Luckily for the Mexicans, France will probably keep their pathetic excuse for a coach, Raymond Domenech. He couldn’t coach ice to melt, let alone coach an extremely deep side to advance. So I fully expect them to once again struggle to make out of the group. And sadly, I don’t think that the home side have enough talent to take advantage of the coaching shortcomings.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Steven Pienaar (Aouth Africa/Everton), Adrés Guardado (Mexico/Deportivol la Corunña), Diego Forlán (Urugay/Atlético Madrid), Yoann Gourcuff (France/Bordeaux)
PREDICTIONS: Mexico takes the group, while the French barely nip Aouth Africa for second.

Ggroup B - Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece
Though many may give this group a “group of death” ranking, I don’t quite think that’s appropriate. That said, every side in this group is a pretty solid side and making it one of the hardest to predict.

With the talent that Argentina have in their ranks, they should walk through this group. Unfortunately, this national team is in crisis as they have an idiot at the helm. Brilliant as Maradona was as a player, he is a terrible manager and has done a very poor job inspiring a side with the best player in the world (Messi) at their disposal. Nigeria, though shaky in qualifying, have been one of the more dominant teams in Africa for the last 16 years. I expect a good showing from South Korea, as they look to build on their their seventh straight finals appearance and will hope to channel their semi-final run of 2002. Lastly are Greece, champions of Europe in 2004, who managed to scrape into the finals by beating a scrappy Ukraine side in the European play-offs.

maybe having a legend like maradona leading your talented side isn’t such a great idea.

Though one would think that argentina will rule this group, it wouldn’t be wild to see any one of these teams advance. I do think the weakest team, on paper at least, is Greece. But the game isn’t played on paper, is it?

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Lionel Messi (Argentina/Barcelona), Taye Taiwo (Nigeria/Marseille), Park Ji-Sung (South Korea/Manchester United), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (Greece/Genoa)
PREDICTIONS: South Korea shock to win the group, with Argentina making it through by the skin of their teeth and at least one fake Maradona seizure on the field after a narrow victory.

Group C – England, United States, Algeria, Slovenia
I went into this draw fully expecting the USMNT to get screwed over again. I knew it was going to happen. Everyone I spoke to knew it would happen. And then it didn’t, and I don’t even know how to react. Relief? Ecstatic? Horror?!?! Despite the favorable draw, I’m still very worried about the Yanks. We have a nasty habit of playing to the level of our competition. Remember the loss to Iran in the 1998 World Cup? And and then there’s the Bob Bradley factor (Read my previous piece on Bob here). He’s not what i would call a tactical genius.

For that reason, I wouldn’t be surprised for them to get a positive result against England; I mean history is on our side. But for the very same reason, Algeria and Slovenia scare the crap out of me. I don’t really expect for the boys to get more than a single point from those games combined (so a loss and a tie). I hope for more, but I’m not holding my breath. The other thing we have to be concerned about is our growing list of injured stars, and whether not those players (Onyewu and Davies in particular) can make miraculous recoveries in time to make the plane.

England should also pretty happy with their draw. And while they’re sure to trip up against one of the sides (fingers crossed for the game against us!), Fabio Capello’s side should have no problem winning the group. If they can stay healthy, they will remain one of the tournament favorites. Capello is arguably one of the best managers in the game, and I think he has righted the ship that McClaren was sinking.

As for the other two sides, I really don’t know a damn thing about either. Both Algeria and Slovenia are minnows in the world game. But they can’t be slouches either, as they qualified over traditional sides (Egypt and Russia respectively) that many expected to qualify.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Wayne Rooney (England/Manchester United), Landon Donovan (United States/LA Galaxy), Karim Ziani (Algeria/Wolfsburg), Rene Krhin (Slovenia/Inter Milan)
PREDICTIONS: England take the cake, while i’m pulling for the Americans to take second.

beckham vs. donovan: the galaxy teammates will face each other in the first round

Group D – Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
This is another really tough group to call, as each side has a lot of talent and a lot to prove. Germany are the obvious favorites, despite not having a truly sensational player on their side. That said, I think they’re a very organized squad with lots of up-and-commers. You also can’t discount their extra motivation following the tragic suicide of number one goalkeeper Robert Enke.

Austrilia’s Golden Generation will be looking to make one more big splash on the world scene before their time has passed. Serbia are a team on the rise; they could easily upset the Germans on the right day. And lastly are Ghana, who are my dark horse in this tournament. I fell in love with them during the 2006 finals, and I think they could make a deep run on their home continent. Led by do-it-all midfield Michael Essien, they’ve got a surprisingly deep squad peppered with Euro-based talent.

While I think Germany will win the group, the other spot is seriously up for grabs. Can the Socceroos reproduce their Asian domination from qualifying? Can Serbia shake their underdog tag? And can Ghana be the tormentors that they were in the Germany four years ago. I’m having a hard time choosing!

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Mario Gómez (Germany/Bayern Munich), Tim Cahill (Australia/Everton), Danko Lazović (Serbia/PSV), Michael Essien (Ghana/Chelsea)
PREDICTIONS: Die mannschaft will steam roll the group, maybe with a hiccup along the way. The second spot is a bit of toss up, but I’d wager Ghana will advance for the second straight finals.

Group E - Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
I think this group will pretty much be straight up what you would expect from it. And while there could be some surprising results along the way, it would shock me if Holland and Denmark didn’t advance. Of course I’ve just jinxed them both, but whatever. On paper both sides are far superior to the perennial Asian and African finalists. I’m not saying that Japan and Cameroon suck by any means, I just don’t think either side is dangerous enough to overcome their European conunterparts.

The Dutch and Danes each rolled in their qualification campaigns. But don’t be surprised if the Indomitable Lions pull of a miracle on their home continent, especially if Eto’o gets hot.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Wesley Sneijder (Holland/Inter Milan), Niklas Bendtner (Denmark/Arsenal), Shinji Okazaki (Japan/Shimizu S-Pulse), Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon/Inter Milan)
PREDICTIONS: The flying Dutchman will get a point from their clash with the Danes, but win the group by squashing the other two sides. Denmark will clean up, but not to the extent of the Dutch, taking second place.

Group F- Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Boy did the defending champions land a sweet draw. As of right now, it looks like the Italian’s path to the round of 16 is almost guaranteed. Their biggest resistance will probably come from the Paraguayans. Keep in mind that Italy are an aging team (a prime example being former world player of the year Fabio Cannavarro, who is a shell of the player we saw inspire them to glory in 2006), and their qualifying campaign was far than stellar. So maybe there is hope out there for the other sides to catch the azzurri on a day where their old legs aren’t quite up to the task.

Paraguay and Slovakia will definitely be threats to the Italians, though. Paraguay will view their CONMEBOL campaign as a huge success, including several high profile results, the biggest of witch were a 1-0 win over Argentina and a 2-0 win over Brazil. Slovakia were shock group winners in UEFA qualification, having dispatched traditional stolworts such as the Czech Republic and Poland. And then there is New Zealand, making only their second finals appearance ever. Unsurprisingly, i’m not expecting much out of the All Blacks.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Giuseppe Rossi (Italy/Villareal), Nelson Haedo Valdez (Paraguay/Borussia Dortmund), Shane Smeltz (New Zealand/Gold Coast United), Stanislav Sesták (Slovakia/Bochum)
PREDICTIONS: Italy will move on to try to defend their crown in first, with Paraguay stealing a surprise move into the second round.

Group g – Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal

Ladies and gentleman, this is your group of death. Sure, there is a completely underwhelming team in the group in North Korea… though I’m half holding out hope that their supreme leader Kim Jung-il will fire their manager and try to guide the team himself. But the rest of the teams are all being considered by some members of the press as potential teams to hoist the World Cup Trophy on July 11th.

What can I say about Brazil that hasn’t already been said? Talent wise, they’re loaded. They have some of the best players in the world playing for some of the biggest clubs in the world. And though coach Dunga has them playing atypical Brazilian football — called defense in the rest of the world — his results are hard to ignore.

Les éléphants, lead by Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, are considered by many to be one of the best African teams of all time. They have loads of players playing in European first division sides. Honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see them make a run to the semifinals.

And then there is the enigma that is Portugal. They have the other best player in the world, but poor Cristiano Ronaldo tends to disappear in big games. (Hey Ronnie, just a reminder: every game in the World Cup is big game) So if they can coax their star man to finally prove his big price tag, keep their deep side healthy, and put their dismal qualification run behind them, then we can expect big things out of this side. But that’s a big if.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Luís Fabiano (brazil/sevilla), Hong Yong-jo (North Korea/FC Rostov), Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast/Chelsea), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal/Real Madrid)
PREDICTIONS: A tricky group will produce a predictable winner in Brazil. As for the second spot, I’m going to have to go with the elephants of the Ivory Coast edging out the fancied Portuguese. Even if that proves wrong, regardless of when they crash out, it will no doubt be followed by a large Ronaldo temper tantrum.

Group H – Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile
Despite the Spaniards being knocked out of the Confederations Cup this past august by the USMNT, I still think they’re the best team in the world. Their qualification record was spotless, going undefeated while scoring 28 goals and conceding just 5. They have the deepest midfield in the world, so much so that great midfielders such as Everton’s Mikel Arteta can’t even hope to get a cap. And if Fernando Torres and David Villa can stay healthy, they have the most potent attacking duo in the world. Though la roja might struggle to keep their amazing run of form going, they could easily replicate their success at Euro 2008.

And boy did Spain get a cake draw to help them repeat their success. Switzerland won their UEFA qualifying group, but it was very weak (Greece, Latvia, Israel, Luxembourg and Moldova). Honduras did so so in CONCACAF qualifying, but almost all of their wins were at home. And though Chile were shock runners up in CONMEBOL qualifying, I can’t really expect them to be strong enough to knock down the Spaniards.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Andés Iniesta (Spain/Barcelona), Alexander Frei (Switzerland/Basel), David Suazo (Honduras/Inter Milan), Mark González (Chile/CSKA Moscow)
PREDICTIONS: Spain sweep the competition aside to win the group. The other three teams will battle it out, but i think the Swiss will end up at the top of the heap.

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So here we are. You’ve got my initial predictions for what’s going to go on in our newly formed groups. Now we have the next seven months to argue back and forth about who will or won’t meet my expectations. And I, for one, find that wait to be the worst seven months ever. The anticipation for the summer’s events is just too much to handle. Thank god we’ve got all of the action in Europe to keep my attention tied up. Otherwise, I might just go insane.