I largely agree with everything that Paul has written, and the comments thread off of that one is excellent. Having had my daughter for the last three days, I’ve not had an opportunity to do much of, well, anything beyond pay her attention and acquiesce to her three-year old demands, so now that I have a moment, I’ll offer some comments.
I’ll take this group by group, and go out on a limb and predict the qualifiers (in order), and then have a bit more to say about our [*] chances at the end, tomorrow.
Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France.
Prediction: Mexico, France.
This group has been underrated, especially by the French media. Yes, S.A. are not so good, and in the international media they are two names, in this order: Pienaar and McCarthy. But I own a Kaizer Chiefs jersey so I figure I should defend these guys (the Chiefs were in Durban the same time I was; they for a match, me for a conference, they checked in as I checked out, and I said hey, can I? Couldn’t tell the lads that I really wanted an Orlando Pirates jersey, could I?) SA will have the home side advantage, and as Paul notes, the host side has pretty much always made it out of the group stage. Second, there is talent there. I know this kid probably will only see garbage time, but a name to remember is Claasen. Plays for Jonge Ajax. If I remember anything from my three years in Amsterdam and Holland, it’s that Ajax still have one of the best youth academies on the planet.
All that said, they don’t qualify. Why Mexico over France? Having watched both legs of an above average Ireland side against France, the latter were out played. France aren’t France any longer. Furthermore, and critically as any Yank knows, altitude matters. Mexico are conditioned and used to playing in Azteca Stadium. I haven’t looked at the fixtures that close, but the critical match in this group, France v Mexico, is at altitude.
Our rivals to the south take this group. And Uruguay don’t suck either, even though they did a France themselves to get past Costa Rica in the playoff.
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece.
Prediction: Argentina, Greece.
This is a tough group on several levels. First, who manages Argentina? If it’s the original Hand of God, he has, as one British broadsheet said yesterday, an inimitable ability to make a good side look crap. Give Messi, Aimar, et al. a proper manager, they top the group easy. But it gets a bit more complicated below Argentina. Greece are not what they were in Euro 2004. But then Nigeria also aren’t what they once were. These days, the Super Eagles have Nwankwo Kanu leading the side (and the front line), with the still emerging talent of Mikel Obi as the future. Any Arsenal fan will have an opinion on the soon-to-be relegated Kanu. I don’t see Nigeria being what they once were. I suspect that South Korea finish third ahead of Nigeria, and it’s not because Celtic signed Ki Sung-Yong. There’s more talent in every position on this side, whereas Nigeria seem to be isolating their value in a few key players.
Group C: England, United States, Algeria, Slovenia.
Prediction: England, United States.
Right. Don’t underestimate Slovenia, any of you.
Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana.
Prediction: Germany and Serbia (and a punt).
Germany win this group. But any of the other three can finish second. If I had to bet, I would bet on Serbia, but don’t underestimate the Australians (see 2006.) And if England finish first, and the Australians finish second, your best match of the last 16 (outside of the match the Americans are playing in) is England – Australia, just for the sheer provincial jingoistic value of it (it would be like cricket in reverse).
And Ghana may be all about Essien in the international media, but they have a reputation of being well organized in a disorganized way. Which, as a faux statistician, I can appreciate. But more critically, they have a lot of youth, and their kids have done well in FIFA tournaments in the past decade or so. That said, I still see them finishing last in this tough group. Serbia are that good.
It’s a tough one to call, Group D.
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon.
Prediction: Holland and Denmark.
The Oranje are not playing ‘total football’, and they’re better for it — they haven’t had a Cruyff, Neeskens, or even a van Basten in a generation or two. Hell, Bergkamp hasn’t played for the Oranje since Euro 2000. They win easily. The Ajax keeper is solid, van Bronckhorst only gets better with age, van Bommel has peaked but is still useful, hopefully van Persie is fit, and the rest, man, we wish we had this side. Denmark have a core of talent that has peaked under excellent management — allowing Martin Olsen to manage the side since . . . when? 2000. This has instilled a sense of stability, and considering, superficially, the relatively thin side talent-wise, this is impressive. They topped Portugal and Sweden (and an impressive Hungary side) in qualification. Japan always play well, and are smattered with some talent (Nakamura, who plays for Espanyol, has the best free kick on the planet, Beckham be damned, but then I am a Celtic supporter), but aren’t up to the Danes. Cameroon have to be a dark horse here. Look at their squad on Wiki
, and you’ll see if I am not mistaken, aside from two poor souls who play for Spurs, they each play at different top flight clubs in the top five leagues (aside from the few stragglers who are playing for clubs in Turkey (2), Scotland (N’Guemo has the misfortune of playing for Tony Mowbray at Celtic), Austria and Switzerland). A lot of quality in that side.
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia.
Prediction: Italy, Paraguay.
Italy are old, over rated, and I dislike them with a passion I would normally hold in reserve for Rangers. But this group is a cakewalk. Slovakia are touted in the European media, because of their group performance. But let’s look at that closely. Who were in that group:
The Mountaintop (San Marino)
I know I gave Slovenia some cred above, but that’s based on their playoff performance against a real side: Russia. This group ought to have resulted in the Czechs and Poland, but both sides were fragile and thin. And as much as I love Northern Ireland and David Healy et al., let’s be realistic: Norn Iron gave this group a respectable run. If the Northern Irish are giving your group a run, it’s not a strong group. There is some quality in Slovakia, especially at the back, but I don’t see them going through.
Paraguay, on the other hand, took four points out of six from Argentina in qualification, won at home and lost away with Brazil (but the goal differential was in Paraguay’s favor: 3-2), lost at home to Chile 0-2 yet won away 3-0 . . . I have to go with Paraguay for second here.
Who was the fourth side in this group? Oh right. The All Whites. Who wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for Australia’s defection to Asia. If their playoff hero is one Rory Fallon, of my local side Plymouth Argyle (who have been in the relegation zone all season of the English second tier) and one of their best players is Chris Killen, of Celtic (who rarely sees the pitch), you’re in trouble. They do have Ryan Nelson, who allegedly plays respectfully for Blackburn Rovers . . .
Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Cote D’Ivoire, Portugal.
Prediction: Brazil (going out on a limb here I am), Cote D’Ivoire.
The so called group of death. It isn’t. It’s not as though every tournament every year requires a group of death. In 2006, Italy, USA, Czech Republic, Ghana, now that was a group of death. On paper, at least until Arena’s side played, there was no pushover. Everybody should get 3 from our nuclear-eneabled friends of the Axis of Evil. Unless Kim calls in an airstrike.
Why Cote D’Ivoire and not Portugal? I’d like to say it’s because the Ivory Coast had a much more impressive qualification run than Portugal did, but let’s be honest: they didn’t. Portugal had a more difficult path, until the playoffs, where they barely managed to get past Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is gut instinct here, Portugal are over-rated, I have a dislike for one Ronaldo that I would normally reserve for the Kenny Millers and Barry Fergusons of the world, and I feel it’s Cote D’Ivorie’s time.
Oh, and they have a couple blokes who play up front for Chelsea.
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile.
Prediction: Spain, Chile.
Spain are Spain. The Confederations Cup blip aside, they’re currently in my (Yank) opinion, the best side on the planet. This group comes down to second, and even here, it’s an easy call. Chile performed admirably in a difficult qualification group, finishing second. As much respect as I have for the Swiss side, who have done a good job in the past several tournaments (they have a tendency to qualify . . . and I’ll leave others to exploit the obvious stereotypical cliches) their qualification run wasn’t exactly challenging. It was Greece. Whom they beat by a single point. Somehow, Luxembourg took five points out of this group.
[*] Being a beersnob of some repute, I belong to something of an ad-hoc yet exclusive international mailing list of like minded arrogant fucks (and this is as exclusive as I ever will be: a bunch of pissheads who know their way around a pint). Several of the guys (and yes, sadly, we’re all guys) on the list follow this game. So when the draw was made, I sent out an email to said list, and said something to the effect that “we can make it out of this group”. The first response was from a friend of mine who resides in Manhattan (and by virtue of his owning season tickets to the Yankees, an eternal enemy of LGM): “Who is the “we” (though I have a feeling you mean both your native and adopted lands)?”
I don’t mean both.
UPDATE: Randy Paul’s predictions
at Beautiful Horizons match mine, aside from having France win their group (I predict Mexico) and swapping Chile and Switzerland . . . more people seem to be going for the Swiss, but I’m sticking to my guns.