Wednesday, June 9, 2010

World Cup Preamble - Part II

I started a very lengthy blog a couple of days ago with comments and opinions on the UEFA squads participating in the World Cup. Continuing on that vein, here’s the rest, alphabetically, by confederation (please realize that this is somewhat ‘static’ and does not account for the last-minute news that could affect – much like a domino effect – the teams’ performances, game outcomes, and fans’ reactions):

Africa – CAF

Most people argue that Africa does not have enough representation, but I would venture to say that if one [FIFA] would have to choose between quality and quantity, they should go with the former. Case in point: in Germany ’06 the five countries present (Ivory Coast, Angola, Ghana, Togo and Tunisia) amassed a measly 12 point total (out of 48 possible). Ghana was the only one to make it past the group stages, but imploded against Brazil [3-0 defeat]. So then,…are you ready for another one of my “off the wall” ideas? It goes like this: Allocate the number of countries based on the combined performance of the confederation representatives on the previous edition of the tournament. So – let’s pick on Africa for the current example – if they did poorly last time around, reduce the number of teams they’ll allocate for the next World Cup. Yeah, I know, more of a challenge for the FIFA pencil-pushers…”why change”, seems to be their mantra… but that would at least present an incentive to do well… and definitely benefit the tournaments down the road…

Back to Africa though [for the time being, radical changes like this from FIFA are just as probable as people living on the Moon]… The usual suspects are lined up, with one notable exception: Egypt, the current African Champions, who were knocked out by Algeria after a dramatic playoff victory. Nothing new for the Pharaohs though; although ranked first in CAF, they have only once participated in a World Cup final tournament [Italy ‘90]. The ones who did make it are usual customers, all characterized by having great athletes, great potential, but an equally great lack of discipline and consistency. Oh, and one more thing: they’re all (aside from Algeria) lead by those mercenaries I mentioned in part 1 of this ‘Preamble’:

Algeria. A relative surprise (given that everyone was expecting Egypt to qualify from their group) has not made a World Cup appearance since ’86. Will likely fight for the bottom place among the 32 teams, but still can cause a surprise here and there [back in ’82 they stunned Germany with a 2-1 victory and were tied for points with Germany and Austria but missed promotion from the group on poor goal difference]. They say that all the ‘small’ teams have a big game in them, just wondering what team(s) will that come from this summer…

Cameroon. Spain ’82 brought the Indomitable Lions to the world stage for the first time ever, and although they did not lose one game [3 ties, including a 1-1 with Italy, eventual champions] they were announcing bigger things to come. In ’90 [Italy] Roger Milla & Co. were unstoppable: won their group (beating Argentina and Romania in the process) then Columbia in the round of 16 [doesn’t everyone remember the 38 year old Milla stripping flamboyant keeper Hiquita of the ball to put Cameroon ahead?] and were then only 7 minutes away from a semifinal spot [Mexican referee Codesal made sure that England were not ashamed by the African nation and awarded the Brits two (2) penalties - at least one of them completely fabricated – to ensure an extra-time “victory” for Lineker & Co.]. That, however, was the apogee of the Lions in the World Cup. Since then, they did not manage to make it past the group stage, and ’06 marked the first time they have not qualified since that historic 1982. The current squad will find it hard in the group stage as well (with Japan, Denmark and Holland) and over-dependence on Eto’o could make/break them. Despite having the most capped player of the tournament (Rigobert Song, with 137) Paul LeGuen [remember him from Lyon?] put together a fairly young team who will definitely look to impress the hundreds of agents, scouts and club owners present at the games.

Ghana. Four years ago they were the only African team to contribute anything to the World Cup spectacle, although they succumbed to Brazil in the round of 16. That feat is not likely to repeat, though, especially with midfield lynchpin Essien out of the picture due to injury. The midfield is still strong – with Appiah, Muntari, Asamoah – but the other compartments are not as strongly represented. Will need to work hard to get past Serbia and Australia in group D.

Ivory Coast. The Elephants have disappointed in ’06 (granted, in a difficult group, with Argentina and the Netherlands) and are looking to prove to the world they have improved. Their group, however, is not much easier (with Brazil and Portugal this time). There are plenty of big names with experience at top level in the squad: Kolo Touré and Eboué in defense, Yaya Touré and Zokora in midfield, Kalou, Dindane and of course, Drogba up top. The question is: would Sven Göran Eriksson be able to get the most out of them? Given recent “accomplishments” [see dismal record with England, Manchester City and the Mexican national team] I would not put any money on it. His stellar days guiding Lazio to the European Cup Winners’ title [‘99] and the Scudetto [2000] are way too far behind for today coaching accomplishments’ recordkeeping [“you’re only as good as last game’s result”]. To throw a wrench in the works, Didier Drogba fractured his arm during the friendly with Japan a couple of days ago and he’s doubtful for the tournament. Without their top goalscorer, their chances are drastically reduced. Yet, knowing Didier’s fighting spirit, I would not be surprised to see him playing with a cast on his arm. Would definitely give his team a huge moral boost!

Nigeria. Like Cameroon, the Super Eagles had some positive results in the 90’s [two minutes away from a quarterfinal spot in ’94, if not for 2 goals from Baggio who tied the game in the 88th minute and secured Italy’s victory with a penalty in extra time, and another round-of-16 exit in France four year later]. Since then, however, their performances have been sub-par: didn’t make it out of the group in ’02 and did not qualify in Germany [‘06]. The current squad looks promising [as in Cameroon’s case, one can sense a rebuilding effort taking place] but Lars Lagerback (former Sweden coach for the last 10 years) has his work cut out for him: they have some firepower [Kanu, Yakubu, Martins] but lack depth in midfield [exacerbated by the absence of Chelsea midfielder Obi Mikel] and [especially] the defensive end. Funny bit of trivia: their group contains Greece and Argentina again [it did so in ’94, when they did very well] but we all know that history does not repeat itself too much in football…

South Africa. Good manners dictate that one should not say negative things about a host, regardless of circumstances, but politics, or beating it around the bush has never been my strong point [dirty minds, please stay away from any “beating it” and “bush” innuendos]. I’ll try to tone it down a bit then… The team has not even qualified for the African Nation’s Cup earlier this year, and might be the first host nation that not to make it out of the group stage. We might witness something similar to the World Cup in ’02 when it seemed like everyone involved in the game (on and off the pitch) made everything possible to ensure that the hosts progressed. Depending on who you listen to, Parreira has worked a small miracle so far with the squad, but more than a fair share of luck is needed in order for the team to do well. I wish them luck, for that would contribute to the World Cup’s success, but I’m afraid that years from now they’ll just be remembered as the country who hosted a great tournament off the field…

Asia – AFC

Not surprisingly, all four teams qualified for this World Cup are from the Eastern region of AFC. If in the past we had the occasional Iran, Saudi Arabia [missing it the first time since ‘94], or Kuwait, that is no longer the case this year, with Australia (participating as a “guest” – more on this later) locking in on one of the spots going forward, to the detriment of Saudi Arabia.

Oh, hell… why wait while we’re on the topic? Australia, tired of playing – and typically losing – the playoff qualifier against a team from South America, have decided to leave the Oceania Football Federation and join the AFC. With FIFA’s support, and enough back-door machinations to make Watergate seem like child’s play, they succeeded, in March 2005. If Japan and South Korea would typically have a spot assured, and now Australia added to the mix, then only one other team from Asia would make it to the World Cup. To everyone’s surprise, that was North Korea, with the Saudis not even able to fight for the play-off spot! The question that lingers: did FIFA really support this move for the good of the game, or political/financial reasons? Yes, rhetorical question, I know…

Some of you may point out that Israel is also playing outside of their geographical zone, and although I don’t agree with that “move” either, at least theirs was justified [to some extent] by the fact that most of the teams in the AFC did not want to compete against them, so they got “expelled”. But now, let me ask you: should Russia join AFC (most of the country is in Asia, ‘far as I’m aware) in which case they’ll increase their chances to qualify? And while we’re at it, why not have Romania join CONCACAF? Kiddin’ of course, but I hope you get my point.

Anyway…let’s quickly review the AFC teams:

Australia. The Socceroos are presenting a fairly experienced squad [read “old”, with 9 players over 30] yet would find it difficult to repeat the ’06 performance, when they were robbed the opportunity of extra time in the round of 16 by a highly controversial Totti penalty in the last seconds of regulation. With Schwarzer [one of the most consistent players in the EPL] in goal, Cahill, Emerton, Grella and Kewell providing the attacking spark, they look decent on paper, until you look under the covers and realize all these guys are over 30. Ditto for their defense, where they’re likely to be outpaced by most of the competition. I like their fighting spirit, but unfortunately, it will take more than that to make it out of a pretty solid group [Germany, Serbia and Ghana]

Japan. The Nippon Daihyō first made it to the World Cup in ’98 and has not missed one edition since. A largely home-grown squad (only 4 players play outside the J-League) does not have many individual talents (aside from Honda [CSKA Moskow] and Nakamura) but possess plenty of discipline, top physical shape and a never-say-never attitude. They’re looking to improve on a dismal appearance four years ago in Germany, but truth be told, they [and South Korea] will struggle without the all-out support they received 8 years ago as host countries.

Korea Republic. Much like Japan, the South Koreans qualify relatively easily for the big event, but doubt they’ll be able to repeat the performance [referee-enhanced] from 2002 when they finished 4th. Their game is similar in style and attitude with their co-hosts from 8 years ago, but I would be really surprised if they make it out of group B [with Argentina, Nigeria and Greece].

Korea DPR. In my opinion, the biggest qualifying surprise for this edition of the World Cup. They managed to hold Saudi Arabia to a nil-nil draw in Rihad on the last day of the qualifiers, preventing the Saudi’s 5th consecutive appearance [which apparently shook them so bad that they succumbed to lowly Bahrain in the playoff game, for a chance to meet New Zeeland in the Asia-Oceania play-off]. The North Koreans have the second youngest team in the tournament, averaging 25 years and 4 months [Ghana is the youngest at 24 yrs and 9 mos.] and will likely approach it with a young, exuberant, got-nothing-to lose-just-happy-to-be-here attitude. In truth, they’ll find it difficult to sit at the grown-ups’ table…and don’t look for any England ’66 World Cup heroics from this squad [for those into trivia that falls into the “one-in-a-lifetime” category, the name Pak Doo-Ik is synonym to the group-stage elimination of the Italian squad from WC ’96 by – yes, you guessed it – North Korea! They went on and were pretty close to a semifinal spot (leading Portugal 3-0 in the 25th minute) before Eusebio (4 goals on the day) ended a beautiful Cinderella quarterfinal dream].

North, Central American, and Caribbean – CONCACAF

With all of the shuffling between FIFA confederations (see earlier note on Australia) the region has lost a potential spot in the final tournament, as the fourth-placed country must now go through a play-off with the 5th placed country in South America. That move – unlike the Australia one – I tend to agree with. This region [based on the overall quality of the teams] does not deserve to have 4 teams representing the region (or if they do, they better prove it by beating the South Americans). USA and Mexico are the automatic qualifiers, with third spot claimed by any of the other smaller nations: Costa Rica (most likely, who this time lost the play-off with Uruguay), Honduras (who made the list this year), El Salvador, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, etc.

Honduras. At only their second World Cup appearance [Spain ’82 was the other one] Los Catrachos are another squad that will fight for the 32nd spot. David Suazo [Genoa] and Wilson Palacios [Tottenham] are a couple of known names; all others are just in for the highlight of their lives!

Mexico. After a couple of “mixed-results” and “near-failures” with several managers over the last few years [la Volpe, Hugo Sanchez, Sven Goran Eriksson] Javier Aguirre has returned for a second spell at the helm [previously held the position in 2001-2002] and created a Mexican team that can play [see most recent warm-up result: a 2-1 defeat of Italy] and has a good mix of established players [Salcido – PSV, Rafa Marquez – Barca, Osorio, Torrado, Blanco] and young exploding talent [dos Santos – Tottenham, Vela – Arsenal, both 21]. For all their talent, inconsistency has plagued them in the past, and although they have always made it to the round of 16, the only time they made it to the quarterfinals was in 1970 and 1986 [incidentally, both tournaments were held in Mexico, so there is some value in hosting the event; South Africa should be encouraged by it]. Long story short, not much should change this year, as Argentina awaits them in the round of 16. They should push for winning group A [with France, Uruguay and the host nation] in order to hope for a better opponent and hopefully an extend the run into the quarterfinals. But that’s highly doubtful…

United States. The Yanks have not missed the big event since 1990, but their game has not always been consistent. Nor has their “exit” point: in ’90 – group stage, ’94 – round of 16, ’98 – group stage, ’02 – quarterfinals [1-0 loss after they dominated Germany, the eventual finalists], and ’06 – group stage again. Mathematically (based on this simple set of stats) this should be an “up” year. And there are attenuating circumstances for it: 1> Lots of international experience, with only 4 players currently in the MLS, 2> A relatively easy qualifying group [with England, Algeria and Slovenia, although they have not previously met the last two in any competition] and 3> More depth in all compartments [still, they do seem a bit shaky in defense at times]. They will likely make it out of the group, and then face Germany in the round of 16 for a potential rematch of the ’06 quarterfinal. One thing they need to work on: confidence [in last year’s Confederations’ cup, after eliminating Spain in the semis, took a 2-0 lead against Brazil in the final, only to let in 3 goals afterwards. Top echelon teams don’t usually allow that kind of comeback].

Oceania – OFC

With Australia making the move, others have now more than a mere theoretical chance to fight for a World Cup spot via the play-off match. In reality, the only one with real chances is New Zealand (topped their group with 15 points, 7 more than New Caledonia, who came in second).

New Zealand qualified after a 1-0 victory over Bahrain [0-0 in the first leg] which 35,000 Kiwis in Wellington celebrated as if they won the world cup itself! Known as the “All Whites” [poking fun at the highly successful “All Blacks” rugby team], the New Zealand team only participated in one other World Cup [Spain ‘86] with nothing to show for it [3 games, 0 points, 2 goals for and 12 against]. This time around, they could steal a point here and there from the likes of Paraguay, Slovakia or Italy… but they should not be far from that fight for the 32nd spot…

South America – CONMEBOL

Last, but not least, Latin America: Gotta love the Latin flair, spectacle, ball skills, creativity and passion for the game. Of all 19 World Cups so far, 9 were won by teams from this continent [ok, only 3 teams – Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina – but still…] Brazil and Argentina are perennial favorites, and always supplied the best teams, the superstars, but there are always South American teams that are exciting to watch: Columbia [with Valderrama, Asprilla & Co in the 90’s], Paraguay [with Chilavert in ’89-’06], Peru [with Cubillas, back in the late 70’s], etc. Here’s how they line up this time around:

Argentina. After a difficult qualification campaign [1-0 victory over Uruguay in the last game] they have been heavily criticized for not taking it seriously, and for sub-par performances, particularly from their European stars (yes, even Messi did not seem to find the same rhythm he enjoyed with his Catalan club). The squad, at least on paper, looks good…and although there are some holes in defense [Samuel and Demichelis make a strong pair, but there’s not much depth beyond that…and they have not decided on a first choice keeper… to add to that, Zanetti and Cambiasso – both having an excellent season with Inter – have been left out of the squad!], the midfield is strong [although Veron, at 35, may find it difficult to keep pace and Mascherano is prone to yellow cards], while up front they seem to have the best lineup in the tournament: Messi, Tevez, Milito, Higuain [hot for Real Madrid this season] and Aguero are likely to scare the pants off of the staunchest defenses. The problem for the highly controversial ‘spotlight-always-on-me’ Maradona is to find the right recipe for success. Critics say he’s not the best for that job, but admiring him tremendously as a player [and strictly as a player], I hope he gets a chance to win the World Cup as a coach as well. Only that would prove his critics wrong. In reality, that might be hard to reach, despite their obvious attacking prowess.

Brazil. Year ago, the Cariocas coined the phrase “joga bonito”. They were a pleasure to watch and had 11 magicians on the field, who stroked the ball with the passion of an artist who made art for art’s sake, not for money… I’m not going to dwell on the classic teams (with Pele, Garrincha, Jairzinho, etc), but the last “beautiful” Brazilian team I can remember played in the ’82 tournament in Spain. Socrates, Falcao, Junior and Zico … were the last of a dying breed [why? At that time, only 2 of the 22 players were playing outside of Brazil: Falcao (Roma) and Dirceu (Atl. Madrid)]. In ’94 they won the World Cup for the 4th time, with the most un-Brazilian team and approach, captained by the most un-Brazilian player ever: Dunga [the first final that was also decided by penalties]. In ’98 they were favorites again, but lost the title to an inspired Zidane, while Ronaldo freaked out just before the final [still not sure what exactly happened before that game, but he was just a shadow of the mercurial striker known as “Il Fenomeno”]. In ’02 they made amends and won the fifth title against a depleted German side [again, in my opinion, the poorest tournament in recent history]. In Germany (although favorites again) they exited early, in the quarterfinals against France…So here we are in 2010, clear favorites again, but this time with a squad that’s even less Brazilian than what we’ve seen before. The defensive unit – hardened with years and years of experience in the German and Italian leagues – reads like a who’s who of defensive stars: Lucio is a rock and I’ve never seen him give less than 110%, Maicon, Dani Alves, Bastos are up and down the sides as true wingers, and the goalkeepers (all 3: Julio Cesar, Gomes and Doni) are top notch. The midfield is more along the same lines, with Kaka (although he had a quiet year with Real Madrid), Elano, Melo, Baptista and Kleberson [a Brazilian team using two defensive midfielders…who woulda’ thunk it?]. Up front, Robinho seems to be reenergized by his move back home (never settled in Europe, especially at Manchester City), Luis Fabiano is on another hot streak, while the backup options are two players that any team will put in the first 11 any time: Nilmar and Grafite [note that Ronaldinho has not made the cut (Barcelona had good reason to let him go) and his Milan team mate, Pato, was also left out]. Clearly a favorite, Brazil will adapt a very pragmatic style of play (what else would one expect with Dunga now in charge) but the romantic in me is hoping that Danny Alves and his cohorts will remember why soccer fans would rather watch the Brazil Samba than German Panzers! That, however, may prove to be impossible. The current Seleção only has 3 players that play in Brazil [even those 3 had spells across the Atlantic] so it’s Europeanized beyond repair…

Chile. ‘La Roja’ led the qualifying campaign most of the way, before being overtaken by Brazil towards the end [by only 1 point]. The Chileans usually send average teams with one or two star players to the World Cup [Zamorano, Salas] but this time around, there’s depth in the squad, and Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa has put together a team that has a good grip on transitional play, is quick on the counter, and even though there are no big names [aside maybe from Humberto Suazo, Real Zaragoza’s forward] they come to South Africa with high hopes… Switzerland are their main competition for the second spot [in a group with Spain and Honduras] but if they make it, their road will stop in the next stage, as they’re likely to meet Brazil.

Paraguay. With another Argentinean in charge, they have qualified for the 4th successive World Cup with an impressive final tally: 10 wins [Brazil only had 9] and 3 draws [just as Chile], which assured them of a 3rd place in South American qualifiers, ahead of Argentina. The team style of play has evolved from a purely defensive approach (although they’re still strong in that area, with plenty of experience) to something more attack-minded, supported by such quality players as Roque Santa Cruz (Man City), Cardozo (Benfica) and Nelson Valdez (Borussia Dortmund). Midfield control is an area they can improve upon, but if they make it out of group F [Italy, New Zealand and Slovakia] which is not entirely out of reach, they’ll fall to Holland in the next round.

Uruguay. ‘La Celeste’ seem to have a knack for making it to the World Cup via the play-off game, whether it’s against Oceania [Australia in 2002] or Costa Rica (as of this year). Yet, they haven’t made much progress past the first round in recent history. For all the talent in their squad, this should be a good year to improve on that record. Their notorious hard-tacking style of play – often viewed as least ‘South American’ – is likely to get them in trouble, but, in looking at the squad, there is plenty of value all around, which is likely to carry them past the group stage. Muslera [Lazio] is a very capable young keeper; there are plenty of players with European experience in defense [Caceres – Juve, Godin – Villareal] and midfield [Diego Perez – Monaco] while Forlan and Abreu should provide the fire power. In a tough group A [France, South Africa and Mexico] it will be a close race for the first two spots, and scoring goals (which has been hard for Uruguay, despite their impressive list of forwards) is what will put them in one of the two spots. Personally, I think group A is the closest and any of the four can make it through…

So that’s it. 32 teams lined up at the start of what the South African organizers are promising to be a great sporting, historical, social, cultural, and political event (not necessarily in that order). There’ll be joy, there’ll be tears, undoubtedly timeless memories, new [and established] stars will shine, heads will fall [metaphorically speaking of course], and I can’t wait for the whole thing to start already!

Regardless of the outcome, for those of us addicted to the sport it will be difficult to function normally over the next 30 days or so. For me personally, having La Furia Roja (yep, that’s Spain) win it all would be the icing on the cake!

¡Arriba España!

(for up to the minute information, news and all the details of the World Cup, check out the official web site of the tournament:

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