How Do You Say ‘Three and Done’ in Afrikaans?: The Quadrennial and Funtastic Fanzine World Cup Preview
Me: Someone who has followed the long, arduous, sometimes tedious World Cup qualifying campaigns of various countries—from Azerbaijan to Zambia—in sundry outposts (Marshall Islands? Malta? Pre-volcanic Iceland? Canada?) so that you don’t have to. Believe me when I say, these qualifying proceedings drag on longer than a U.S. presidential primary. My preparation includes digesting tens of thousands of written words in the form of game recaps; player profiles; other publications’ previews; and even uniform rumors, leaks, innuendo, unveilings, and criticism (yes, there are actually Web sites for this).
You: Someone who is at least mildly interested in sports, and for one reason or another—hopefully love of the game, but possibly genuine curiosity—is interested in soccer. Welcome. And read on, if for no other reason, than to have something to say in the subway, in the elevator, at the bar, at the water cooler. In a few weeks, we’ll regroup and have a laugh at how far off our predictions were.
You probably know that the World Cup is taking place at various sites around South Africa. The World Cup tournament architecture is simple, really: 32 teams qualify from six different qualifying regions, based more or less by continent (The U.S. was top dog in the North America /Central America/Caribbean group). There are eight groups (A through H) of four teams each. The order the teams appear here is our projected order of finish within their group.
In group play, three points are awarded for a win and one point for a tie. Each team plays the other teams in their group once; so, three games each. The two teams from each group with the most points advance to the round of sixteen. From there it’s a straight-up, sixteen-team, winner-advances, loser-goes-home bracket. We have listed the FIFA world-ranking in parenthesis (FIFA is the soccer’s world governing body, and administrator of The World Cup). In a word, the rankings are specious1 (but actually less subjective than, say, the college BCS rankings), but are fun to look at anyway, so we include. Without further ado, your eight groups in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
And the rankings change. See here as they do.
Mexico (17), Uruguay (18), France (10); South Africa (83)
It takes a certain je ne sais quoi to make Ireland hate any country more than they hate England; but France striker Thierry Henry did just that with a few crafty swats of his hand. In France’s final World Cup qualifying match—a two game playoff against Ireland—Henry handled the ball twice (!) on the same play. The handballs went undetected by the men who are paid to notice such things, and Henry promptly dished to a mate who headed the winning strike past the enraged Ireland goalkeeper.
Since the Fanzine Sports Desk is located in New York, we look forward to merrily watching any game involving France in any bar starting with a “Mc”, “Mac” or “O-apostrophe.” Millions of Irish, world-world, will be sending out a big old dose of that negative karma. How do you say “cosmic payback” in Gaelic?
The feeling here is that Les Bleus will flame out; it doesn’t take much in the short, three-game round-robin of the opening round. One bad match—which describes most of France’s recent matches—will be their undoing.
On the other hand, Mexico coach Javier Aguirre has El Tri peaking at the right time and electric young talent (Giovani Dos Santos) and wily vets (Cuauhtemoc Blanco) make Mexico our pick to top Group A.
Uruguay is one of only seven countries to ever have won The WC (they won twice, way back in 1930 and 1950); their star has fallen since, but top-notch goal hound Diego Forlan should be enough for them to place second in the group.
South Africa? How do you say “three and done” in Afrikaans? (Ok, that’s the last time I drop that expression). The power of the home-crowd can never be overstated in soccer; to wit, no World Cup host-nation has EVER failed to advance out of group play, and England and France have won their only World Cups on home soil. Despite home-crowd advantage, despite sublime midfielder Steven Pienaar; despite their Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, South Africa, sadly will not advance. Hopefully the locals will not take their vuvuzelas and go home. We’d miss that mosquito-buzz background noise. So soothing.
Argentina (7), Nigeria (20), Greece (12), South Korea (47)
The strange case of Argentina: they are like some sort of yin/yang, good/evil Frankenstein, with best player and worst coach in the whole she-bang. We speak, of course, of Lionel Messi, the “New Maradona,” and Diego Maradona, the original version. Argentina should win this deceptively difficult group with panache, despite Maradona’s negative and distracting presence.
With Messi currently considered the world’s best player, and still a relative young’un at 22 (he’ll turn 23 during the competition), it’s shocking to recall that he saw limited, mostly substitute action for the Albiceleste (loose translation: blue and white stripeys) in Germany in 2006. Striker Carlos Tevez is a wonder to watch, a tireless dynamo, whose day job is with Manchester City, in the English Premier League.
Nigeria, despite an injury to midfielder John Obi Mikel, will benefit from home continent advantage, and will finish second. Striker Yakubu has scored more goals in the EPL than any African in history.
Greece won the European Cup in 2004 in a shock run, but failed to qualify for the last World Cup in 2006. Both Nigeria and South Korea will play looser, quicker, more entertaining soccer, to Greece’s detriment. And you thought those riots were bad a few months ago?
South Korea hosted this bash two cups ago, in 2002: they were physically fit, ran endlessly, and as a result, were fun to watch. (We won’t mention all the calls that went their way, at Italy’s and Spain’s expense, nudge-wink. Home-field advantage, you see, isn’t just some kumbaya, soaking-up-the-crowd-love intangible).
England (8), United States (14), Slovenia (23), Algeria (31)
Ok, full disclosure: I’m American. But I’m no jingoist. I don’t always like the editions of U.S. Soccer. In fact, I sometimes have downright loathed the U.S. teams. But, man, I like this team. Watch goalkeeper Tim Howard constantly berate his own defenders, like some petulant, teenaged drama queen. Marvel at quick and shifty attacking midfielders Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, equally fine at dishing it out or taking it to the net. And love, both in name and deed, Herculez Gomez. Dude lights up the Mexican Primera League, secures a surprise place on the U.S. roster, and promptly scores two goals as a late-game substitute in two World Cup tune-ups.
England should win the group, with its overall on-pitch talent, and coaching acumen. In Fabio Capello, England have one of the best gaffers in the tournament. You know the running joke, how England always flames out in the quarter finals? Not this year: Capello will be the x-factor that takes them a step (or perhaps two?) further this go-round.
Slovenia and Algeria round out another deceptively tough group. Slovenia might sneak an upset win or draw against England, but Algeria is a bit schizophrenic to do much damage. After England, any of these other three could advance. But we’re sticking with USA! USA! USA! In fact, we have an odd feeling about this team. Good-odd. And you heard it here first: World, meet Clint Dempsey and Herculez Gomez. Who knows, England v United States—Saturday June 12, 2:30 p.m., on national TV—might even overshadow the LeBron speculation.
All you need to know about Group D is this: Germany’s nickname is Die Mannschaft, which translates as The Team. Now that’s blunt, to the point, no effing around. The feeling here is, despite the absence of captain and field-general Michael Ballack, Germany will still win the group.
Sparks will fly when Germany and Ghana meet on June 23 in the last Group D match. Why? Because during the last club match of the English season—the F.A. Cup final in late May—Portsmouth’s Ghana national, Kevin-Prince Boateng, awkwardly tackled Ballack, of Chelsea. Herr Ballack came up lame; Germans cried into their beer steins; conspiracy theories flourished. It gets stranger: the Ghanaian’s half-brother, Jerome Boateng, is on Germany’s squad. (Lord, it’s easier to follow horse racing).
Serbia’s tough defense is anchored by Manchester United’s hard-man, Nemanja Vidic. Another Serbian defender, Neven Subotic, was raised in, and eligible to play for—wait for it—the United States. Long story, but he plays for Serbia now, so let’s not get too down when his bruising, 6’4” frame shuts down opposing strikers.
Ghana’s best player, Michael Essien (day job with English Premier League champions Chelsea, when he isn’t hurt) is hurt again and out of the competition, in a blow to African Football in general as he’s one of the most-recognizable and talented players on the continent.
Australia made a nice run last time around in Germany, but were beaten by eventual champs Italy in the round of 16 on a crap-call that awarded Italy a penalty kick, in a tie game, in injury time. The Aussies, along with Brazil, are two of only a handful of teams in this tourney to wear yellow jerseys, so maybe some of that Brazilian o joga bonito will rub off.
Any two of these four teams could advance, but we’ll stick with Die Mannschaft (who have won three World Cups, and reached the finals in ’02 and the semi’s last time around) and the ruthless D of Serbia.
Netherlands (4), Cameroon (19), Denmark (36), Japan (45)
We’re going out on a limb here, to say—flat out—that Netherlands will win the Cup this year. Like Spain, they enter almost every international competition as threats to win, then don’t (they won a single Euro championship in 1988). They are, however, always brilliant, fun to watch, attack like demons, score scads of goals, run around like mad in their iconic orange jerseys, cheered on by their crazy and high-spirited orange-clad fans. They’re a team you can feel good about rooting for.
After the Dutch, this group is a toss-up for second. We’re going with The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon: partly for the nickname, partly for their home-continent advantage, but mostly because of world-class forward Samuel Eto’o. The at-times sulky striker has been an integral part of the European club champions two years running, this season with Inter Milan and last season with Barcelona.
Denmark’s forward Niklas Bendtner earns his kroner playing for Arsenal, arguably the most exciting, attack-minded team in English football. And loose-cannon defensive midfielder, Christian Poulsen—in the proud tradition of his Viking forebears—has been known to punch, kick, stomp and otherwise maim and piss off opposing attackers (Italy’s Francesco Totti famously spit at him in a European Cup game in 2004).
Japan doesn’t seem to have the scoring chops to make much noise, and are the weakest in this balanced and deceptively tough group.
Italy (5), Paraguay (30), Slovakia (38), New Zealand (78)
If we may paraphrase Mickey Rourke from that decidedly non-soccer film, Barfly: “We don’t hate Italy. We just seem to feel better when they aren’t around.” Italy can’t help but advance from this, the weakest group in the tournament. This little piece of luck is another reason we, er, don’t hate the defending champs. They’ll advance, winning games in their inimitable 1-0 way. The dope on the Azzurri is that they are four years older than last time around, fielding much the same team.
Paraguay have a great striker in Roque Santa Cruz, one of those players who seems to do better when he dons the national jersey (in this case, the red and white stripes of La Albirroja).
Slovakia—the end syllables of former Czechoslovakia—has qualified for their first WC sans their Czech brethren. They have a young and speedy attack, and might give Italy’s—what’s the opposite of young and speedy?—defense fits. And you wouldn’t want to meet imposing, shaven-headed, central defender Martin Skrtel in a dark alley. Which is perhaps unfair; we don’t know the man, so can’t speak for his character. We do know he’s an aggressive, 6’3” presence for EPL stalwarts, Liverpool.
New Zealand is arguably the weakest team in the tournament (the jury is out on North Korea), because of a less than strenuous Oceania region qualifying campaign that included matches against soccer never-beens like Vanuatu and Fiji.
Brazil (1), Ivory Coast (27), Portugal (3), North Korea (105)
The proverbial Group of Death, and sadly, one of these heavy hitters—Brazil, Ivory Coast, or Portugal—will not be spending any part of July in South Africa. Hint: Brazil is Brazil, so will go through. Our pick is this: Portugal goes home, Ivory Coast advances. And as if it isn’t bad enough to be in the Group of Death, because of the layout of the groups, tourney darlings Spain likely await the second place finisher here, so it’s added incentive for Portugal and Ivory Coast to perhaps knock down Brazil to second.
Brazil-of-the-Yellow-Jersey will always have one-named legends on their team and the most gorgeous fans on the planet. But, hey, Kaka? What is that, Brazilian irony? Don’t you know that in just about every other language in the known universe, your name means “shit?” I can’t even say his name around my two girls—who are half-Ukrainian—because they start giggling uncontrollably and accuse me of making some sort of South Park-ish, scatological joke.
Ivory Coast wear orange, and might need some of that Dutch Total Football mojo, since their best player, Didier Drogba (holder of this past season’s EPL goal-scoring title with Chelsea) broke his arm last week in a WC tune-up game. The team, and the nation, is hopeful he’ll return, as he hasn’t been ruled out of the competition. The Elephants are deeper than Drogba, of course, with the brothers Toure—midfielder Yaya and defender Kolo—Chelsea’s Salomon Kalou, and the young and rising forward Gervinho. A dangerous team, for sure, playing at home (sort of).
Portugal will be the odd-man-out in this group, they struggled in qualifying, and world-beater Cristiano Ronaldo currently seems better on the club level than national. Young Nani plays for Manchester United up front, so could emerge here as a not-so-secret revelation.
North Korea, qualifying for the first time since 1966, is a throwback to all those old-timey Olympics, where we didn’t know much about the Romanias and Bulgarias of the world. If the Iron Curtain had an Iron Curtain, this is it. Alas, it looks like they’ll be the other teams’ three guaranteed points.
Spain (2), Chile (18), Honduras (38), Switzerland (24)
Another intriguing group where, after the clear favorite (Spain), second place is up for grabs. Spain will go through as first place. What awaits them will be the second-place finisher from the Group of Death, so if Spain wins the cup, they will have earned it.
Most of Spain’s starting XI play for either Barcelona or Real Madrid, the storied arch-rivals of La Liga. Watching this incarnation of Spain is to behold history; they are that good: arguably, one of the finest teams ever to grace a soccer field. Almost every position, you can say, “Oh, that guy is one of the best in the world at his position.” Fernando Torres (Liverpool) and David Villa (now with Barcelona) are universally hailed as the best strike combo in the world. Field general Xavi pairs with Andres Iniesta in midfield; to see them interact is to understand why soccer is referred to as the Beautiful Game.
After Spain, we’ll go with Chile, who finished second (behind Brazil) in the challenging minefield of the South American qualifying group. And never underestimate the power of a national tragedy (in this case, February’s earthquake) to unify a team and country.
Honduras has some world-class players, but qualified as the third place team in the U.S.’s region, not exactly considered an across-the-board hotbed of soccer talent.
Switzerland, on the other hand, qualified in Europe, which is its own reward, and automatically earns respect. Still, the biggies in this group are Spain—who hope to continue their run of international dominance after 2008’s emphatic Euro Championship win—and La Roja of Chile.
We’ll check in again in a few weeks, after the opening round, to either gloat at how well we nailed this sucker, or more likely, hat in hand, to beg forgiveness, and create excuses for how badly we misread all the signs. And we’ll do another prediction, from the knockout rounds forward, of who we actually think will win.
One final note: if you are reading this in the U.S., all games are to be televised live on either ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, or in Spanish on Univision. South Africa is seven hours ahead, so most games here kick off at either 7:30 a.m., 10 a.m., or 2:30 p.m. EDT. If you are fortunate enough to live in New York or other large cities, do yourself a favor: watch at least one of these games out among others, preferably among an ethnic enclave whose team is playing. You might just get hooked.