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.
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.
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.
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.
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.