The World Cup is almost here, so what should you know about the teams, groups and so on? I am glad you asked, here are the nuts and bolts to the World’s sport. It is a bit of a lengthy article, so while I would love for you to read the whole thing, feel free to jump around. Hopefully it will be long, but an easy read.
I would like to officially change the name of this group to “Group Ehhhhhh”, as in all the teams are decent but you cannot be any more than lukewarm on them (as in, how was the movie? Ehhhh, it was ok).
France is the most talented team in the group, but they really struggled in qualifying, have a coach who really has struggled to make him team work, and the culmination of it all has been a mediocre team from what should be a really good team. A team boasting Franck Ribery, Nicolas Anelka, Patrice Evra, Thierry Henry, Florent Malouda, and a host of other stars, there should be no question of if they will be advancing, but the French have been so inconsistent but they needed Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland to sneak into the field. Expect them to advance, but to underachieve.
Mexico is a team that is more familiar to most Americans because it is our rival. They are somewhat like France, but less talented. They should probably be a better team than they are, but with so many homegrown stars that do not play in Europe, they do not pop quite like the French team does on paper. Keep an eye on Javier Hernandez, the recent Manchester United signing, as he tries to impress in South Africa. I think he will impress and is absolutely worth keeping an eye on when you are not sure what to look for in a game of two teams you don’t know. Mexico should be advancing, but with Uruguay and hosts South Africa fighting them for that last spot, it will not be an easy task.
Uruguay is best known for world class striker Diego Forlan of Atletico Madrid. He is so good that he might steal a game for Uruguay, but they are still not expected to advance. Luis Suarez of Ajax also looks to make an impression on the world’s largest stage as he and Forlan form a formidable strike combo. Uruguay also is one of the few nations to win multiple World Cups and hope that their duo of fantastic strikers, their solid but unspectacular midfield and an ok defense are enough to advance them.
South Africa is certainly not the favorite in the group, but they have something in their favor. No host nation has ever failed to advance to the knockout rounds. Now South Africa is probably one of the worst host nations in a while, but the fact that home field advantage is in play is HUGE. I expect them to pull out at least one surprise result if for no other reason than the power of the home crowd at the World Cup. Steven Pienaar is the man to watch as he is likely to be at the center of any South African moves to attack. Look for the fans to be using annoying horns that will absolutely sabotage any coverage trying to happen.
Argentina are the runaway favorites here. They boast the best player in the world in Lionel Messi, and though he has not set the world on fire with the national team, he is still truly electric and should be at the center of Argentina’s every move. However, Argentina’s talent does not stop there. Their list of strikers alone is staggering: Diego Milito (of Inter Milan and THIS ARTICLE), Gonzalo Higuain (coming off a huge goal haul for Real Madrid), Sergio Aguero (the recent Chelsea transfer who has all the talent in the world), and Carlos Tevez (the fiery Manchester City striker who has impressed me just about every time I have watched him). Unfortunately, there are only so many striking spots so much of this talent goes to waste. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that scoring should not be a problem for Argentina. The trouble has also come in the form of Diego Maradona. He may have been one of the best players ever, but he has also been one of the most frustrating managers for Argentina. His ridiculously talented squad fumbled through qualifying (including a 6-1 loss to Bolivia), and once they qualified, he told everyone to “Suck it” (yes, it is an exact quote). Argentina, when playing to full potential, is one of the best teams in the world, but they have a lot of progress to make as a team instead of a group of good players, if they are to claim the ultimate prize.
Nigeria is perhaps the best of the rest of the teams in Croup B. They are pretty solid everywhere, but not stunning anywhere and will need for the home-continent advantage to kick in for progression to the knockout stages to become reality. As I look through their roster, I recognize a lot of names, but they all go under the category of “yeah he is pretty decent’ rather than “yeah they can count on him”. Obafemi Martins has been the savior in the past, but he is getting up there in years. If Nigeria is to advance, they are going to need to score some goals, which is not always easy for them. For the record, I do realize that I used the term “home-continent advantage” and how ludicrous that sounds, but the World Cup is that big a deal.
South Korea is yet another Asian team that I do not know much about. Ji-Sung Park (of Manchester United) is the man to watch for the Koreans, and that is about all I can be sure of. He was on fire through qualification and has played well on big stages throughout his career and I expect nothing less here. Keep an eye on him, but if South Korea is to advance, it will be thanks to his supporting cast since he cannot advance them alone.
Greece. What to say about Greece… Well, no one will accuse them of attacking too much. If you tune into a Greek game, enjoy the names resembling spilled alphabet soup, and a brand of football that is absolutely suffocating. For the fans. Though there are scorers such as Gekas, there will not be much offensive and attacking football from the Greeks. However, that could be just enough to advance them in this group, as no team other than Argentina really sticks out. I cannot question the fundamentals and possession of Greece, but the Pentagon would be impressed with how much Greece defends.
England will be the favorites here, and rightfully so. They are not deep at striker, but Wayne Rooney is a good guy to have flying solo up top. I am not sure if England will go with the 4-5-1 formation with Rooney up top, but I think it is best for them to start with at least. If they want to sub in Peter Crouch or Jermain Defoe that is fine but the lone wolf up top might be best. There is also an embarrassment of riches at midfield with Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and a host of talented midfielders to feed Rooney up top. The English defense is equally impressive with John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ledley King, Ashley Cole, and Glen Johnson. They are really pretty loaded, and should be the favorites to move well beyond the group stages. A fun note about England for the casual observer: England is notoriously bad at penalty kicks. Keep your fingers crossed that they are eliminated by PKs if they are indeed eliminated because it would be funnier than you think. Another great thing about England is being able to mock their accents. Really, who spells COLOR with a U? Stop it, England.
United States does not easily turn into a coherent sentence about the team. The Americans should be moving out of the group stages, but will be playing second fiddle to England. Landon Donovan will be key, as will Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, but if the US wants to move on they are going to need for the defense to take about 20 steps up, and Jozy Altidore is going to have to be a scoring threat. Jozy is still young, and wildly talented, but he tends to disappear for long stretches of time. The win against Turkey definitely boosted morale, but for the US to be successful beyond the group stages, they will need to step up the D in front of Howard and get some fluidity when attacking. For more on US Soccer, check out the review of the US vs Czech Republic friendly. A lot of good info on there about the team as well as the game.
Algeria is probably not going to advance but could make things interesting. Here is all I actually know about Algeria: Their nickname is the Desert Foxes, which is pretty cool, and the only player whose name I truly recognized on their roster was Nadir Belhadj. Accordingly, you should watch him as he is pretty good. However, I am pretty clueless about the Algerians. They are not a team that should be slept on, but they are a team that the US should expect to beat. Looking at their qualifying results, they should be a decent watch and I wish them all the best when playing Slovenia and England. No comment on my wishes when they play us.
Slovenia is a spelling bee waiting to happen. Again, I apologize and know nothing about them but that their names could not be more difficult to spell for your average Joe. Just looking at the numbers, I would say watch Milivoje Novakovič (yes, I had to copy it) who has 14 career goals, or in other words 10 more than anyone on the roster. i am going to go ahead and bet that teams need to stop that guy if they want to beat Slovenia. I am going to go ahead and guess that Slovenia is defensive minded if their leading goalscorer has 14 goals in 37 national appearances. That really is not a bad ratio, but when no one else has more than 4 it seems to hint at something.
Germany is going to be hurting without captain Michael Ballack, but from a purely soccer perspective, it would be foolish to call him irreplaceable. He was certainly a great leader and an influential player, but he is perhaps a bit over the hill and the torch has been handed to Bastian Schweinsteiger (great name) in central midfield. There is one guy to watch, but you should really just watch the Germans in general. They play good football, win a ton, and have a flair for the dramatic to make up for their lack of general flair. They will advance but do not seem to be generating much hype outside the group. I think they can handle the 2nd place team of Group C in the first knockout round but who knows beyond that. Philip Lahm is another guy to watch. he will be the guy who plays defender streaking up the sideline to send in a cross then having to bust his ass to get back on defense.
Australia is better known for their wacky rules to American football than their soccer, but they play both down under. The Socceroos have a shot at the second round, but will not sneak up on everyone like last year. Everton midfielder Tim Cahill will be the man to watch for Australia, but they will need huge games out of Fulham Keeper Mark Schwarzer and co. if they are to end up in 2nd in a very very strong group.
Serbia have a very underrated squad. Frankly, that is true of most of central Europe, and Serbia is no exception. Dejan Stankovic (Inter Milan) and Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United) are the best known guys and are certainly worth watching, but this could also be a coming-out-party for youngster Radosav Petrovic. He is just 21, but he has a chance to make his mark if he gets time on the pitch. Serbia is my pick to advance out of this group, but largely because of factors that will be discussed momentarily. I do not know about Serbia, but there are 3 names to look for.
Ghana took what was perhaps a mortal blow when Michael Essien was ruled out of the World Cup. It also made my job much tougher since he is just such an obvious choice as their best player and a guy to watch. Instead, let’s go with Portsmouth (for now) midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng. He had a pretty good season for a dismal club, and should have a chance to shine in this group. However, he is not a huge scorer (if you don’t believe me, check out his penalty kick against Chelsea in the FA Cup Final) and Ghana is likely to struggle with goals. Ghana would have a shot with Essien but it is going to be tough for the Black Stars as it is.
Netherlands should be the team to beat in the group and is among the teams to beat in the tournament. Boasting playmakers like Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan), Rafael Van der Vaart (Real Madrid), Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich), Robin Van Persie (Arsenal) and a host of other solid guys. They will not be the same team as they were in Euro 2008 where they tore everyone apart early, as they lost Edwin Van der Sar to international retirement, but they are still a phenomenal team and should not have a problem moving on. Watch Robben and Sneijder especially, but also watch those orange jerseys. First off, I love them, but second, you might wonder why they are wearing orange when orange is nowhere to be found in their flag. It is because their parliament is called the House of Orange after William of Orange. History lessons on OuttaTownClowns? Check.
Denmark qualified pretty strongly, but will have their work cut out if they hope to advance further. To me, they are a pretty average European team. A striker who people think is better than he is (Nicklas Bendtner), a decent organizer and defender in back (Daniel Agger) and general quality without much depth or flash. They have an excellent shot at advancing, but it will not be easy, and they will need for guys all over the field to play their best if they want to advance.
Japan is yet another example of an Asian team I know nothing about. Shunsuke Nakamura is the man to watch, but that is about where my analysis of Japan ends. Apologies.
Cameroon can be summed up in two words and an oddly placed apostrophe: Samuel Eto’o. He is one of those guys who can single-handedly lift his team to the knockout stages, especially in a group where there is not a ton to be worried about. Jean Makoun is also worth keeping an eye on, but looking over their roster another thing caught my eye. Rigobert Song and Geremi Njitap have combined for (drumroll please) 244 caps. If that is not experience (and perhaps a sign of aging), then I do not know what is. Also, their nickname is The Indomitable Lions. That is just an awesome name. Awesome enough for me to pick them to advance and cross my fingers.
Italy is kind of in the same boat as Germany this year in that they are clear favorites to win their group but not much is expected of them as far as deep runs in the competition. They are still the defending champions and deserve respect, but their lack of striking firepower, aging key players and a coach with the creativity of a boulder could spell trouble for Italy. The Azzurri do have some young talent in the form of Giuseppe Rossi, Alberto Gilardino and they are certainly two guys you should keep an eye on, but if you watched the last World Cup, you will recognize many of the names as much of the roster is similar. Do not look for Italy to get too aggressive though as manager Marcello Lippi much prefers the conservative game. That does not mean that Italy will not score much, but do not expect stunning soccer out of Italy. One oddity about this Italian team is that every player but one (Giuseppe Rossi, Villarreal) plays domestically. That is very rare in today’s day and age but we will see how it works for the defending Champions.
Paraguay starts the run of South American teams that are not great but are wily and tricky teams that can sneak up on you. For my taste, there is one too many South American/Central American teams in the field, but that is an argument for another team. Paraguay is a solid team but will not blow you away at any position in particular. Roque Santa Cruz is an excellent striker, but did not get almost any playing time at Manchester City, and Oscar Cardozo of Benfica has had a good campaign but neither are guys you look at and think “game-changer”. Christian Riveros (Sunderland) is the man to watch in midfield as he hopes to help out his boys up top and maybe bag a goal of his own. Paraguay have a definite shot to advance, but they will need to beat New Zealand handily and cannot really afford to lose by more than a single goal. It will be tricky, but progression is a definite possibility for Paraguay.
New Zealand is better known for rugby and Flight of the Conchords than soccer, but the “All Whites” will be measuring success outside of results. Even competing with the teams in their group will be a victory and a simple goal would be a big step for the Kiwis.
Slovakia will be competing with Paraguay for that second spot. They also happen to fit as another somewhat underrated Central European team. They have a very solid team across the board and are probably a touch better than Paraguay, but advancing past the group stages will still be a battle. The man to watch is 22 year old Marek Hamsik (Napoli). He already has 31 caps at 22 and 8 goals in those appearances. He is absolutely a man to watch on a team that could move on in the competition.
Brazil is not the team they used to be. The Samba Kids are no more as Manager Dunga has reined in the usual flair of the Brazilian team and turned them into much more of a conservative team with attacking intent than the beautiful football that Brazil used to play. However, that does not mean that Brazil wins less, it just means they will not be as fascinating to watch. Despite being placed in the Group of Death, they are still a virtual lock to advance past the group stages. Boasting names like Kaka, Luis Fabiano, Lucio, Julio Cesar, Dani Alves, Maicon and Robinho, Brazil is clearly a team to be feared even if their usual flair is under wraps. They are clearly among the favorites to win the Cup, as always, and with a roster like that, it is well-deserved. I would suggest watching everyone, but in particular Grafite. It is hard to tell who will play for Brazil up top, but he is a guy who could really make a name for himself worldwide with a big performance. Nilmar is another guy to keep in mind, but really, with a team this talented, you should keep an eye on as many guys as possible.
Portugal boast the world’s 2nd or 3rd best player in Cristiano Ronaldo, and other talents such as Nani, Simão, Deco, Paulo Ferreira, yet really struggled through qualifying. The problem appears to be that they have too many creators and not enough guys to make the supporting runs. That is not to say that they do not have great scorers, but they do not have anyone like Xabi Alonso or the old David Beckham who is there purely to feed the other players. The creativity is good, but when it is such individual creativity, it predictably does not mean team success. Like France, Portugal had to play in the qualifying play-offs to even qualify despite their talented squad. They are certainly a threat to qualify for the second round but their work will be cut out for them in this group.
Ivory Coast is the most talented African team we have seen in a long time. Didier Drogba has a great story (I would suggest this article), a great leader, and a great player, but he is not alone for Les Elephantes. Solomon Kalou (known by some as Kalou-less as in clueless) is a strike
partner he knows well from their days at Chelsea, the Toure brother Yaya and Kolo provide veteran presence and outstanding talent, and Emmanuel Eboue, and Didier Zokora serve as outstanding supporting cast for their talismanic striker. They are in the Group of Death, but they are more than able to advance to the knockout stages with solid play. I think they are more than capable of beating Portugal, and if they can, their qualification should be safe. I see all three teams already mentioned beating North Korea, Ivory Coast and Portugal losing to Brazil, and the goal differential being key if Portugal and Ivory Coast draw. However, if Portugal cannot withstand the Ivorian attack, they will find themselves back in Lisbon before they know it.
North Korea can be summed up in only a few words for me. That is because I know nothing about them. Thanks Kim Jong-Il. I did see them get a draw with Greece though, so that was impressive. Still, a goal would be wildly impressive for North Korea. Think of the World Cup as North Korea’s Nuclear Test. Impressive it was there at all, but a complete dud as far as any bang.
Spain is the best team in the world. Fernando Torres, David Villa, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Iker Casillas, Carlos Puyol, Joan Capdevila, David Silva, Jesus Navas, Sergio Ramos, Fernando Llorente, Juan Mata, Xabi Alonso, Pedro, Victor Valdes, Pepe Reina. How often can you name almost every player on the roster and they are well-known and world class players? Being the best in the world does not mean World Cup success, but there is no match Spain will go into in which they are not the favorites. Their 3rd string keeper is better than most 1st string keepers. Their strikers are second to none. Their midfield is frightening beyond all belief. Their defense is solid. They play great football. There is not much not to like, but they often fall short on the bigger stages. They get labeled soft because they struggle against the rougher and stronger teams, and that may be a fair assessment, but they are still the most talented team in the world. It goes without saying that anything less than 9 points in this group would be a little surprising.
Switzerland is a very experienced team but without much flash. Alexander Frei is the man up top (40 goals in 73 appearances), but he is starting to get up there in years and needs help if Switzerland is to grab the second spot. Hakan Yakin is also a guy to watch in midfield, but he too is getting up there in years. If the Swiss are to make any kind of noise in this group, they are going to need top notch keeping and solid defending as Yakin and Frei try to handle the scoring almost single-handedly.
Chile is not much of a threat, but after Spain, it will be a scramble for the second round and they could have a shot. The man to watch is Matias Fernandez, the 24 year old, who can change the game. He is not the kind of game-changer someone like Messi is, but he can be big for Chile and could potentially help lift them to the second round. It is not something I would bet on, but it is certainly possible. Apart from him, I do not recognize many names so I will be watching them with curiosity just as much as you.
Honduras is yet another team with a chance at qualifying in a somewhat weak group outside of Spain. Wilson Palacios and Maynor Figueroa are names that will sound familiar to EPL fans, but the men who have been the biggest influences for Honduras are Carlos Pavon and Amado Guevara. However, they are 36 and 34 respectively and will need solid production from everyone else if they want to advance. That is really a theme with this group. The teams have a few outstanding players, but they need the supporting casts to step up if they want to advance. I think Honduras is among the best equipped to step up and step into the second round.
There you have it. All 32 teams and it only took me 4200 words to sum it up! I hope you are as excited for the World Cup as I am, and as time slowly ticks toward kickoff in South Africa, we can do nothing but wait for the glory of the World Cup.