Perched, four years on after South Korea and Japan and that Brazilian victory, and two years after Greece sent shockwaves through Europe, moments before history is about to unfold beneath our gaping mouths, we all sit straddled with fear, patriotism and sheer, blind excitement, and simultaneously, with the disturbing yet near-erotic knowledge that absolutely anything could happen. That, if we just believe hard enough, anything will happen.
This is every football fans wonderland; a one-month mecca of the best skill, talent and mastery the World’s “most beautiful game” has to offer. This is the World Cup 2006, and if you aren’t at least a little bit excited, well, that’s what you get for living in a crappy country who didn’t qualify.
From Hamburg to Munich, 31 national teams and a half* are spread around the very finest hotels Germany has to offer, on the brink of perhaps the biggest tournament of them all. Along with being serenaded by Toni Braxton’s official World Cup song “A Time of our Lives” at every possible corner, we can also look forward to Ronaldinho’s magic feet, Peter Crouch’s robotic arms, and Goleo VI – this tournament’s artistically challenged mascot.
And so, to wet your appetites, and for you to refer back to as the group stages progress, those footballing experts from across the Oratory, and indeed, from across the entire globe (from Australia to Singapore to the Wirral and back again), have come together to provide the very best, and most useful preview for this year’s proceedings. So sit back, make sure your wallchart is safely pinned, and get ready for enough opinions to shake the most dormant of football terraces.
I, the mysterious editor, will not be adding my analysis. I will leave that to those who like to think of themselves as professionals. Covering Group’s A through D, we have Paul, Gustavo, Michael and Jamie. Group’s E through H will have a different team entirely, because that’s just how diverse we are.
*I say 31 national teams and a half because, technically, one of the competing teams is a team from a non-existent country. Reminiscent of Spielberg’s ‘The Terminal’, since qualifying, the federation of Serbia and Montenegro has split into two separate nations; Montenegro and Serbia.
His surname is Stone, and for some god-forsaken reason he supports Kingstonian – a team so derelict that when you look them up on the Internet, Wikipedia actually tells you to get a life. He’s 20-years old, and through a lack of creativity more than anything else, he falls into the broad stereotype of trendy, computer game playing, football loving student.
If the last few World Cup hosts are anything to go by, watching Germany should be interesting for crowd reactions if nothing else. Luckily for them they’ve been put into a fairly weak group here, and should qualify as winners. The opening game against Costa Rica will see a lot of pressure on the Germans, as Wanchope and co will look to ruin the opening party. Trouble may be brewing though, with the shocking revelation from German captain Michael Ballack that the team are too “attackingly minded” that may damage team morale, particularly seeing I’ve never seen that phrase used about a German team in recent memory.
Ecuador are no pushovers, securing victories against Brazil and Argentina qualifying, and I fancy the South Americans to nick the 2nd spot in this group, with their game against Poland being of utmost importance. Costa Rica will hopefully entertain as they did in the 2002 World Cup, however expect nothing more than that from them. Having lost to a German regional team in a friendly recently, it seems Costa Rica’s chances of qualification are slim.
Having watched Poland play twice against England, it’s fair to say Poland’s inclusion here is only because of the weak group they faced, though they have the uncanny habit of qualifying for more major competitions than they should. This is actually the 6th World Cup Poland have managed to qualify for. Expect them to bow out gracefully here.
Prediction: 1st: Germany, 2nd: Ecuador
All the way from Asia (Singapore for those keeping score) is Gustavo. Self-proclaimed 22 year-old hunk, who likes to joke around and loves to be chronically depressed. Also an avid writer of a variety of subjects and genres. Footie fan for ages, and a cold-blooded Man Utd supporter. Internationally, he always hopes for England to do well, but secretly, his favourite footballing nation is Nigeria. Don't ask him to explain, he’s just fascinated with those wacky Nigerians.
Even as they inched their way towards the final with Brazil in the 2002 World Cup, many people were claiming that the era of great technical football by the Germans had ended in the late 1990s. But, you should never write off the Germans. Especially when they have the homeground advantage and the expertise of the legendary (and currently unpopular) Jurgen Klinsmann. Forget all the rumours about scandals and problems in the German camp; they have a team once again capable of making it all the way to the winner's podium at the end of the tournament. To start with, all three of their goalkeepers are great -- and Lehmann will definitely want to prove himself after what happened in the Champions League Final several weeks ago. Defensively, Germany look a bit lightweight with all the star defenders of yesteryear having passed on, but I think Huth will shine. Going forward, I do not think Germany have a problem; Klose's a proven goal-getter, Hitzlsperger is incredibly dynamic for a midfielder his age, and Chelsea-bound Ballack is the current golden boy of German football.
Poland, who were impressive during their qualification for the World Cup, will not do well. Yes, the team is slowly rebuilding after a poor showing at World Cup 2002. Without their top goalkeeper in Dudek, however, I simply don't think they have much of a shot. Dudek, whether you like him or not, is one of THE best Polish players around and it boggles the mind as to why he's been outcast from the team. Still, with their two versatile attackers in Maciej Zurawski (who has done very well at Celtic FC this year as Henrik Larsson's replacement) and Ebi Smolarek (a vital player for Borussia Dortmund as of late), Poland may still have more firepower than the two so-called minnows of Group A. Of course, I don't personally think Costa Rica -- the third team in the mix -- are minnows at all. They might be guilty of inconsistency over the last couple of years, but their flamboyant style of play makes it very difficult to rule them out. Their defence has always been a problem, and I think it could be their biggest drawback again this time around. However, they do have a new face in defence in Michael Umana who stood out immensely when Costa Rica made the quarter-finals of the Olympics soccer tournament. Costa Rica can also bank on Paulo Wanchope - who considers this year's World Cup as his swansong - and midfield general Walter Centeo to deliver the goods for them. I have been accused of grossly underrating the final team from Group A; Ecuador. Sure, they had an exquisite qualifying campaign (beating both Brazil and Argentina along the way) but you only need to look at the statistics to realise that they traditionally perform better against South American teams. Edison Mendez, their star midfielder, is Ecuador's brighest player and he has a great opportunity to expand his playmaking horizons on the grandest stage of them all. On the whole, though, Ecuador's squad is pretty lightweight compared to my favourites in the group.
Prediction: 1st: Germany, 2nd: Costa Rica
All the way from The Wirral, England is Michael, who is so proficient in the art of HTML, certain sources suggest he could actually kill a man, inducing some kind of epileptic seizure as the reader gets caught in a haze of bold and underlining. Of course, today he uses his powers only for good.
The hosts can call themselves lucky for ending up in one of the easier groups. Even though the current incarnation of the national football team is seen as one of the worst in years, there is no reason why Germany shouldn’t make it through. Even if they’re dragged kicking and screaming by Michael Ballack, Germany should have too much for their opponents. Another factor to consider is the home support. Whilst in many cases home fans get behind their country in every tournament, the discontent amongst German fans with the team and coach Jurgen Klinsmann could mean that if anything goes wrong, then the pressure from the stands could be intensified. Whether that works to Germany’s advantage or not remains to be seen
From the other three teams I feel that the second qualifying place will be contested between Poland and Costa Rica. Poland would be considered favourites by some due to their prior experience in the World Cup, as well as having won eight out of their ten qualifying matches, although they looked ordinary when loosing to England. Costa Rica on the other hand do not have as great as a tradition then their European opponents, but also have a great flair which they showed four years ago in Korea. Individually Poland do not have any great quality, and they’ll be relying on Celtic’s Maciej Zurawski and Southampton’s Grzegorz Rasiak to get them the goals, whilst Costa Rica will rely on the experience of former Derby and Manchester City striker Paulo Wanchope as well as the talents of winger Christian Bolanos who was on trial at Liverpool earlier this season. It could be tough to call, but I fancy Costa Rica to pull off something special to ensure the surprise result. That leaves poor Ecuador who look likely to be the whipping boys. They managed to qualify thanks in large part to their impressive home record in altitude, including victories over Brazil and Argentina. Away from home was less impressive, winning one game, also at altitude. Unfortunately for the South Americans Germany isn’t at altitude, so therefore they’ll be lucky to finish up with a point.
Prediction 1st: Germany, 2nd: Costa Rica
Jamie was the last to submit his column to I, the editor, because, and I quote, he “was at a Bon Jovi concert last night”. We can deduce, therefor, that as well as having a thriving passion for football, Jamie loves middle-aged men prancing around with 1970’s haircuts singing ‘No secret codes now, no words as baby goes down’. Jamie also happens to be more English than the inside thigh of even the loosest prom queen in Essex
The first matches to be played in this year’s World Cup will feature the home nation Germany, Poland, Ecuador and Costa Rica. A lot has been said in the media about the apparent weakness of the current German team and it is true that they probably lack the efficiency and winning mindset of some of their more illustrious predecessors. However they have the advantage of being the home nation of this year (which should never be underestimated) and have a lot of good youthful players to back up the obvious trump card in Michael Ballack. In terms of the draw it is unlikely that they could have been given a more favourable group. In this first stage they really should expect to qualify comfortably and despite the notorious banana skin of the opening game I believe Germany will win all three of their group matches and progress.
The other three teams in the group will therefore likely be left to contest the second place berth to Round 2. On paper and in the eyes of the bookmakers then the likely team to qualify will be Poland. Poland qualified in second place behind England in their group with one of the best records across Europe and therefore avoided the play-offs. However this was despite a less then convincing closing to their campaign where they very nearly let a comfortable lead slip against Austria at home and were played off the park in the 2nd half of that match. In addition to that they were brushed aside by England in the following match and the early form that was shown at the outset of qualifying seemed a long time ago. Since that time they have shown a worrying loss of form in friendlies, most recently a 2-1 loss to Colombia who have failed to qualify this year.
Ecuador arrive in Germany having finished 3rd in the South American qualifying section. On the face of it this is an outstanding achievement and follows up their success in qualifying for the previous tournament in Japan/Korea four years ago. However the underlying key factor for their qualification can be put down to the fact that their home games are all played at high altitude in the capital city of Quito. Of their total of 28 points an amazing 23 were picked up at home including victories over Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Away from home they managed only victory over bottom placed team Bolivia. The question will be whether they can adapt to the conditions in Germany and manage to play anywhere near the level they manage in Quito.
Costa Rica are the rank outsiders in Group A and come to Germany having finished 3rd behind USA and Mexico in the CONACAF section of qualifying. Most of their team ply their trade within Costa Rica itself and there are no real star names that enable an overly compelling case for progress to be made. On the other hand they have a strong team spirit as well as a decent level of technical proficiency. Most recently they managed to hold the Czechs at home to a single goal victory and Deportivo Saprissa (The country’s number one club side) were far from disgraced at the World Club Championship in December. I think with the Pole’s lack of form and confidence and Ecuador like a fish out of water away from home I am going to go with a shock and pick Costa Rica to triumph in a tight contest for 2nd place.
Prediction: 1st Germany, 2nd Costa Rica
Oratory Braintrust Prediction: Prediction: 1st Germany, 2nd Costa Rica
Trinidad and Tobago
A nation expects....yet again. The World Cup bandwagon is in full swing here in England, with flags on cars, flags hanging from windows, in fact, if I travelled a mile without seeing an English flag I’d be surprised. England have had a couple of impressive friendly results and performances, however expect the Swedes to continue their impressive record against us, not only winning the group, but going on to reach the quarter final. The team is solid throughout, spearheaded by match winners Ibrahimovic, Ljundberg and Larsson. Having seen how Larsson can turn a game such as a Champions League final, the Swedes have every reason to be optimistic.
Trinidad will come as whipping boys, with a large portion of their squad playing in the English lower leagues, however, I wouldn’t expect anyone to put more than 3 goals beyond their mighty goalkeeper Shaka Hislop! Also watch out for Aussie Dwight Yorke, and Trinidad and Tobago’s first ever white player, Chris Birchill of Port Vale. Paraguay are the weakest South American team to have qualified, and expect them to show that here, especially with inspirational striker Santa Cruz supposedly missing. Expect them to beat Trinidad and Tobago, and to perhaps literally put up a fight against Sweden and England, considering their ill discipline. Quality however should prevail.
Prediction: 1st: Sweden, 2nd: England
This is a very exciting group to watch, because all four teams involved - England, Paraguay, Sweden, and débutantes Trinidad & Tobago - have a reasonable chance of making it to the 2nd Round. England, have been considered as big-time threats for many years now, and in every competition that England is involved in, they are expected to win. No different this time 'round, and the English team will definitely be looking to repeat the performance of their predecessors exactly 40 years ago. Will they win the World Cup? The answer is the same as it always is: they should, but they probably won't. And I'll tell you why; the squad, while filled to the brim with exquisite talent, doesn't have the one player that will lead them to greatness. Michael Owen is great and all, but he isn't a complete striker. Wayne Rooney? If he wasn't injured, then perhaps I'd say England will definitely go further. Another problem for England is all the other injuries mounting up. Their most recent victory over Jamaica came at a price with injuries to several key players. It also showcased what a ponce Peter Crouch is with that spectacular penalty miss... Anyways, these are the facts: England has a great set of players (Stewart Downing is a diamond in the rough and I hope he plays a couple of games) under the guidance a very shrewd manager, but because of injuries to key players and massive expectations, I have to boldly say that if they can top Group B (and they should be able to do so save for another tricky match with Sweden), the furthest England will go is the round of eight.
Sweden is another team that is expected to do well. They have done well at the World Cup since 1994, but were humbled at 2002 by Senegal. This year, Sweden will definitely want to bank on the ageing wisdom of players like Larsson and Ljungberg who will be playing in what could be their last international tournament. I have a feeling Sweden will do well against old rivals England (as they have a fantastic record against the English)... but I'm not sure if they can handle Paraguay's unpredictably. I'm also not so sure if Zlotan Ibrahimovic will shine in the tournament as he's expected to do, as he has had a rather tame campaign in Italy this past season. All that aside, Sweden have a talented team and I believe they could be a surprise in the later stages of the tournament.
With Paraguay, one has to wonder if there is life after Chilavert (undoubtedly Paraguay's biggest star in forever). I think the team that Paraguay have is capable of causing problems and frustrating their opponents, but there's not enough firepower in the squad for them to make it to the 2nd Round. Don't get me wrong, Paraguay's strikeforce is pretty damn good with Roque Santa Cruz looking sharp after months of staleness and young Nelson Haedo Valdez being one tricky customer, but the midfield is not a well-oiled machine and the defence is rather shaky. Look out for the likes of midfielder Carlos Paredes and goalie Justo Villar -- they are vital to Paraguay's success and are poised to replace former defensive stars Celso Ayala and Francisco Ayala as Paraguay's brightest players. Paraguay are the underdogs in this group, and if they have some luck, could cause Sweden a real shock. The last team in the group, Trinidad & Tobago, could also stir up a rude awakening. They are not fancied to do well, and I think that's what will inspire T&T to show what they're made of. I think T&T have great teamwork, and Dwight Yorke will relish gracing the grandest stage of all for the first time in his colourful career. T&T might have the capacity to punish the other teams on the counter-attack, and at the very least cause Paraguay a host of problems if the Paraguayans are desperate enough to throw people forward in order to attain a superior goal difference. Of course, I'm a realist; at the very most, T&T will spoil the party for one of the three other teams, and have fun along the way with snappy passing and persistent attacking. It will be fun to watch veterans Russell Latapy and Stern John and even youngster Christopher Birchall bring the carnival atmosphere that embodies T&T to the World Cup.
Prediction: 1st England, 2nd Sweden
Similarly to Germany, England will be happy that they’ve avoided some of the harder teams, however they cannot afford to take of their challenges lightly. On paper England have a team which could go a long way, however under Sven Goran Eriksson England have had a history of uninspiring performances against lesser teams, most notably in the shock 1-0 defeat to Northern Ireland in qualifying. John Terry will play an important role in the defence with many expecting him to reproduce his rock-solid form for Chelsea at the highest level, whilst the whole nation will expect Steven Gerrard to be the beating heart of the team, especially in the absence of Wayne Rooney who probably won’t appear until the quarter-finals (should England reach that stage).
England’s toughest opponents will be Sweden, a team England have failed to beat since 1968. The Swedes are both strong at the back – they only conceded four goals in their whole qualifying campaign - and lethal in attack, with Juventus’ Zlatan Ibrahimovic tipped by some to win the Golden Boot. The match between England and Sweden should prove to be pivotal into who takes first, albeit irrelevant in some ways as both teams should have sealed qualification by then. With their abilities in attack and defence, as well as their very good history in this competition, it’s no surprise that Sweden are considered as dark horses. Paraguay will fancy themselves to pull off an upset, especially against England, and they have a solid spine running down the team, with Bayern Munich striker Roque Santa Cruz set to play a key role. However they don’t have the quality of either of their European opposition, and an ageing defence should lead to their downfall. Finally, debutants Trinidad and Tobago will just be happy to be at the big occasion and should be expected to be pushed aside, a statement backed by the fact that they lost seven games in qualifying.. Despite the leadership of former Aston Villa and Manchester United striker Dwight Yorke, the majority of their players ply their trade in Coca Cola Leagues in England, or in the inferior leagues in Scotland. However the ‘Soca Warriors’ will enjoy the ride and their fans will bring a party atmosphere to Germany for the short time they’re there.
Prediction 1st: Sweden, 2nd: England
The second group at Germany 2006 also doesn’t appear to have strength in depth. England go into the tournament as 2nd favourites and with the most realistic chance of success at a major tournament since Euro 96. A lot has been made of the injury to Wayne Rooney and it does seem unlikely he will have much of a part to play in the group stages. However at this early stage he shouldn’t be missed too much and there should be enough quality in the midfield to see off Paraguay and anything but a comfortable result against Trinidad and Tobago would be seen as a disappointment. With two wins under their belt it leaves a final match against Sweden to decide the ultimate destiny of the group.
Sweden traditionally have been a huge thorn in England’s side with limited success against them over the past few decades. As a team most sides will find them very organised and hard to break down. They also have a good deal of talent up front with Ibrahimovic and Larsson more then enough to score against the majority of teams. Their midfield will be hard working and pacy with incisive threats from the likes of Ljungberg. The Swedes finished behind Croatia during qualifying and are the other team whose record allowed them to skip past the play-offs and qualify as a best placed runner-up.
Paraguay are a well organised unit as well and have been a little unlucky in previous tournaments being squeezed out in extra-time against France in 1998 and Germany in 2002. Fitness allowing Roque Santa Cruz provides a very useful focal point in attack and they have the ability to cause some difficulties for both Sweden and England. They probably lack the cutting edge to progress from the Group but won’t be the type of side who disgrace themselves and will try to the last. Qualifying at the expense of Colombia and Uruguay was a good achievement.
Trinidad and Tobago have already exceeded their own expectations by making it to the final stages of the World Cup for the first time. They will be out there to enjoy the experience and it is good to see a player of the calibre of Dwight Yorke to get his chance to play on the biggest stage. Rusell Latapy despite his advancing years will show some tricks and nice touches from an advanced midfield position but a team that is made up primarily of journeyman pros from the English and Scottish lower leagues will struggle to make much impact in terms of point scoring.
The final positions in this group are likely to hinge on the result of the England versus Sweden match. This could well end up being tight like many other similar encounters between the teams and a draw seems quite possible. Therefore with goal difference coming into play I would expect England to scrape through in first place ahead of the Swedes with Paraguay gaining a consolation victory over the Caribbean side to finish 3rd.
Welcome to the group of death. 2nd favourites Argentina, perennial underachievers Holland, African Nations Cup runners up Ivory Coast, and an underrated Serbia side, who managed to pip Spain into the automatic qualification spots from the European qualifiers. Argentina and Holland will be the favorites to qualify from this group, particularly the Argentinians, heavily tipped to go the whole way, with players such as Messi, Crespo and Riquelme available to them, as well as world class wing back Lionel Scaloni.
The Dutch went through qualifying unbeaten, in a group which included the Czech Republic, and providing they avoid penalty shootouts, this could be their big chance to impress. Marco Van Basten has done an impressive job in turning the Dutch team’s fortunes around, particularly seeing they didn’t even qualify for the last World Cup.
Ivory Coast have many underrated players, with 2 of Arsenals best players marshalling the back line in Emmanuel Eboue, and Kolo Toure, who is fast becoming one of the best centre backs in the World. The Ivory Coast certainly looked the strongest team in the African Nations back at the turn of the year, but were cruelly beaten by penalties by Egypt.
As for Serbia? Count their chances as between nil and zero. They deserved a better draw.
Prediction: 1st: Argentina, 2nd: Holland
Two heavyweights in world football against two teams hoping to make their mark on the biggest platform there is. Man, this group is going to provide some great action. Let's start with Argentina first. You all know their history. You all know about the legendary Maradona and the prolific Batistuta. You all know how Argentina have failed to live up to their billing in recent times. And you all know how they are, once again, considered top contenders to the throne. This year, the Argentinians truly have a squad capable of blowing the competition away. Hernan Crespo will lead the attack with Javier Saviola, but the rise of the likes of Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez has me very excited for Argentina. Their midfield is equally as impressive; Scaloni, Aimar, Riquelme, and Cambiasso are all talented players. Defenders like Sorin, Cufre, Ayala and Heinze will no doubt make it hard for any team to get a whiff at goal. All in all, Argentina have a squad full of potential. Of course, the question is there: can they live up to the greatness of Argentina circa 1978 and 1986? Perhaps a better question is, will they choke? Argentina crumbled under heavy expectations in 2002. This is 2006, though, and I believe Argentina have all the credentials needed to go all the way.
Will this be the time for The Netherlands to shine? I hope so. Ruud van Nistelrooy is one of my favourite players and I really want him to do well in the tournament. He needs to regain some of his form that he showed in his first season at Manchester United. I am also looking forward to watching new generation players like Arjen Robben, Rafael van der Vaart, Dirk Kuyt, and Johnny Heitinga take the field with so much at stake. For some of the older players (Van Der Sar, Cocu, Bronckhorst) it is probably their last chance at stardom. I'm gutted that stars like Kluivert and Hasselbaink won't be playing but perhaps it's for the best. I think the Dutch finally have a side with the right kind of mix of experience and exuberance that will propel them to greatness. Maybe even surpass Cruyff's team from the 1970s. Of course, this is a very tough group, and the Dutch will need to play it smart if they want to avoid a spectacular exit.
Serbia & Montenegro is the third team in the group, and I'm going to avoid the whole Yugoslavia issue. Going to get straight to the point; S&M have a very strong defence. Mladen Krstajic and Nemanja Vidic will marshall the backline with confidence and aggression. Combine this with the attacking prowress of guys like Dusan Basta, Savo Milosevic, Mateja Kezman, Dejan Stankovic, and giant Nikola Zigic... and you have a team absolutely difficult to beat. This basically means that Argentina and The Netherlands will need to come up with something special to ensure that S&M don't sneak in at one of those two teams' expense.
And then, there is the small matter of the African team with so much promise in Ivory Coast. I look at their team, and have to admit that on the whole, the Ivoriens have a squad capable of shaking the foundation of the football world. Didier Drogba will lead his team with all guns a-blazin', and really... Ivory Coast have nothing to lose. That's what makes them so bloody dangerous. Also factor in the individual talents of players like Kolo Toure and Bonaventure Kalou and even Guy Demel. What does this mean? Simple; Ivory Coast, while playing at their first World Cup Finals, might just ruffle some feathers. I can't wait to see how Group C turns out because quite frankly, it is the group to watch. Plus, there's some history with The Netherlands and Argentina (WC 1998). OH WAIT, remember Yugoslavia/Netherlands at Euro 2004?! Okay, sure, it's Serbia & Montenegro now but they've got some of the same players! JESUS, this group is going to rock so damn hard.
Prediction: 1st: Argentina, 2nd: Holland
Group C is possibly the toughest group to call as all four teams have their great strengths. Argentina enter the tournament as one of the heavy favourites, and quite frankly it’s not hard to see why. They have some fantastic player in the form of Villarreal playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme as well as the exciting Barcelona forward Lionel Messi who is tipped to be the next Maradona. Another positive factor in Argentina’s favour is their determination to avoid the humiliation they suffered in 2002 when they failed to get past the group stage. On that occasion they had to go past England, Sweden and Nigeria. Unfortunately for them their group this time round isn’t any easier.
By far the biggest game of the first round should come between Argentina and The Netherlands. The Dutch have a fine squad which has been developed since Dutch legend Marco van Basten took charge. They have five or six quality players including strikers Ruud van Nistelrooy and Dirk Kuyt. Another tough opponent for the Argentines will come from debutants the Ivory Coast. Although many of these players are unheard of, over the next few years you will probably see them in an Arsenal shirt alongside defenders Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue! All joking aside the Ivorians have a very good squad, which they proved when reaching the final of the African Cup of Nations earlier this year, and they could very well cause an upset to the big two in the group. That leaves Serbia and Montenegro to round up the group. The former Yugoslav Republic qualified strongly, remaining undefeated in a group containing Spain and Belgium and they have a strong group spirit. A lot of that spirit will be required against opposition of the highest order, but with players such as ex-Chelsea forward Mateja Kezman and 6ft 8in Red Star Belgrade striker Nikola Zigic, the Serbs could provide a surprise or two. As I have mentioned this group is tough to call, and I’m going to play safe and predict that the big two progress, but I won’t be surprised if one of them don’t make it.
Prediction 1st: Argentina, 2nd: Holland
Every major tournament has one. The “Group of Death”. Four quality teams all who have a realistic chance of progress through the competition drawn together in one pool. Argentina are unfortunate to experience this two World Cups in a row. This time it is arguably even tougher. After having lost out to Sweden and England last time around they will be keen to avoid the same fate again. Out of all the teams at this years tournament they may be the best all round equipped side. They have a rugged defence led by Walter Samuel, a competitive midfield with flair in abundance and top quality strikers in Tevez and Crespo. But there again they had that last time round as well. Much has been made of the delights that the likes of Riquelme and Messi will provide for us to admire but can they do it on the biggest stage when the pressure is on?
Holland also approach the tournament as one of the perennial favourites. Their past efforts have often been littered with fragmented squads and combustible morale. Will this time be any different for them? With Marco van Basten at the helm it appears they have a coach who the whole squad is willing to unite behind due to the unerring respect a man of his integrity, ability and achievements demands. Dead-wood has been cleared out. The Dutch now have an enviable mix of youth and experience. If they click I defy anybody to find a team (Brazil included) who are more delightful to watch. Slick passing, awesome movement and great goals. Utterly dominant in qualifying they will be in the shake up in this group.
Serbia are a team who evoke many emotions in people for a variety of reasons. A very recent chequered history for the country outside of football means they probably won’t appeal to many neutral observers. I suspect the Serbians won’t care a bit. They are very strong defensively (conceding one goal in the whole of qualifying) and competitive across the whole pitch. There attack will feature the often mocked and derided Milosevic and Kezman, both of whom though unsuccessful in English club football have proved themselves on the continent at both club and international level. Serbia will be a handful for all in their group.
Ivory Coast travel to Germany as probably the strongest of all the African sides. Their squad is well represented throughout the top leagues in Europe and features the strength and power you would associate with strong African sides of the past such as Nigeria and Cameroon. In fact it was Cameroon that they qualified at the expense of to be in Germany. Eboue and Toure from Arsenal feature in a quick defence and the front-line will be led by Didier Drogba who has the ability to trouble any defence if his on top of his game. Being in such a tough group probably has played into their hands a little because the weight of expectation will be less. Given a simpler path a 2nd round place at the very least is what they would have been hoping for.
In terms of overall conclusion this is very tough. I am going to stick my neck out and say Holland edge the group ahead of Ivory Coast. I think Argentina will suffer when Riquelme is stifled and Serbia probably won’t have quite enough firepower. I expect a lot of draws from the six games and probably not many points between qualifiers.
Prediction: 1st Holland, 2nd Ivory Coast
Oratory Braintrust Prediction: Prediction: 1st: Argentina, 2nd: Holland
On first glance, you’d expect Portugal to look at this group and start planning for the 2nd round, however, things are not quite what they seem. Having put in impressive performances against both France and Holland, Mexico will enter the tournament with a lot of confidence, whilst the Iranians have an incredibly underrated team, with Ali Karimi in particular a huge threat.
Angola come into the tournament very much unknown, and while they look a pushover, they qualified for the tournament ahead of the Nigerians, who are a tough proposition for any team. Their team is young, and with a striker in Fabrice Maireco Akwa scoring 1 every 2 games at international level, they may well spring a surprise.
Portugal and Mexico should certainly do the 1-2, but whilst I’m not brave enough to predict it, I have a funny feeling we’re going to see a major upset or two in this group.
Prediction: 1st: Portugal, 2nd: Mexico
Now, this group is totally wide open. Portugal, Iran, Angola, and Mexico make up Group D. I'm not very keen on this group, but here we are anyways. Let's start with Mexico. They are always capable of giving a good show. And with two lightweight teams in the group, Mexico will fancy their chances of going as far as... say, the QFs? In years gone by, though, the Mexicans have flattered to deceive. If they are indeed to reach the QFs, it will be for the first time they have done so when the tournament was not held on their homeground. In my mind, however, Mexico do have a good team that will impress many people. One of their youngsters, Francisco Fonseca, will do very well at the tournament. That is my belief, at least. Anyways, with Jared Borgetti leading the attack, players such as Mario Mendez and Rafael Garcia will have the opportunity to shine and lead Mexico out of Group D in second place. Who will be in first place? Portugal. Okay, they messed up badly at 2002. But look at who their manager is now. SCOLARI. The man's a tactical genius. Sure, bring up his narrow defeat to Greece in the Final of Euro 2004. I just need to remind you the good he's done with Portugal since he's taken over. He's transformed a side with potential into a team with no one to stop them but themselves. Cristiano Ronaldo is the man to watch. Alongside him will be the remainder of the famous veterans of Portugal folklore, who will look at this tournament as their absolute last chance to win the big one. Figo, Pauletta, and the rest of the gang must have felt so sad when they lost to Greece at Euro 2004. Now, they have one final hurrah to look forward to. Portugal should easily cruise past Iran and Angola to top the group, and if they do well enough... may find history beckoning for them.
Angola has already made history, qualifying for the World Cup for the first time. They are not rated highly, though. In fact, they are the only lightweight team not capable of causing any sort of upset, according to most critics. What do I say? There's truth to that statement, but I think they still could pose some problems -- especially for Iran and Mexico. Antiono Lebo Lebo is a good defender who is something of a hidden gem in the team, along with Paulo Figueiredo and Fabrice Akwa who will spearhead most of Angola's attacking plays. Look for Angola to at least produce some pretty football. Lastly, we have Iran. Always a tough team to play against, most people would say. Iran is always capable of putting up a fight against many European teams, and with Ali Daei back to create hell for defences... Iran has an outside shot of doing some worthwhile damage. Ali Karimi is Iran's most crucial player, however. Don't rule out Karimi turning some heads at the tournament. Ferydoon Zandi, a hardworking midfielder, will also feature prominently for the Iranians. All in all, though, this group is rather clear-cut. Stranger things have happenned, though.
Prediction: 1st: Portugal, 2nd: Mexico
In contrast to the previous group, Group D is another easy group to call with both Mexico and Portugal considered almost certainties to claim their berths in the second round. Mexico are considered dark horses by some to go all the way, and were even seeded for this tournament ahead of the likes of the Netherlands and Portugal. In a squad with a good mixture of youth and experience, Mexican hopes will rest on young Argentine-born striker Francisco Fonseca and veteran forward Jared Borgetti - Mexico’s all time record goal scorer. The squad itself is solid if unspectacular, but they should definitely make the last 16. A hurting Portugal are also expecting an easy passage into Round Two. Like Argentina and France four years ago Portugal were expected to make it through their group with the minimum of fuss, but were unceremoniously dumped by South Korea and the USA. That coupled with the fact that they lost on home soil in the final of Euro 2004 to some crappy team who didn’t even qualify for this World Cup (Hi John!) means that Portugal will be eager to show that they can perform on the big stage. Led by Luiz Felipe ‘Big Phil’ Scolari, Portugal have a whole host of talented individuals including wingers Christiano Ronaldo and Simao Sambrosa who are young and have pace. There really shouldn’t be any reason why Portugal can’t go far.
The other two teams in Group D will be simply looking for pride and victory over one another. Iran I would assume have the advantage as a few of their players play in the German leagues, including Bayern Munich midfielder Ali Karimi, a key player in the Iranian squad in the eyes of many. That leaves debutants Angola to look at. Angola are somewhat of an unknown quantity but some how managed to pip Nigeria to the top of their group to get to Germany in a remarkable qualification campaign. However a very poor African Cup of Nations suggests that they are not ready for the big time, and the only thing Akwa and the rest of the Angolan team will be playing for is pride.
Prediction 1st: Portugal, 2nd: Mexico
Before Group D begins Portugal are certain to start off as favourites to top the section. Over the past decade they have turned in enough good performances to warrant them always being mentioned in terms of potential winners if not quite reaching the position of overall favourites. Some familiar faces have disappeared as the years have gone by and in their place some very good players have stepped in. They are now able to boast the considerable talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Sabrosa Simao. Deco will be controlling the play from the centre of the park and the defence should be solid enough featuring Chelsea’s Ricardo Carvalho. As the disputes over Deco’s selection (he is Brazilian born) have subsided they should approach the tournament with a unified approach and in good form having finished qualifying unbeatean. During that run they scored a very healthy thirty-five goals including seven in one match against Russia.
However in Mexico they have a very tough hurdle to clear to top the group. The Mexicans approach this World Cup as one of the highest ranked teams on the planet. In a recent friendly against the French in Paris they controlled and dominated the play against the home side looking extremely comfortable in possession and incisive through the midfield areas. Indeed with a bit more firepower and cutting edge in the final third it could have been a very good night for the Mexicans. With Rafael Marquez they have a player who may just be the single classiest defender in the tournament. Impressive in defence, great distribution and someone who can glide up the pitch in possession to get many of their attacks flowing. Without doubt he is the star player for the Mexicans and they will look to him to inspire them to something like the form of his club side Barcelona. I am expecting big things for the Mexicans in this tournament if they can find their goal-scoring touch.
The final two teams in the group are Iran and Angola. Both of these sides would have to produce a big shock or two to progress to the knockout stages. Iran are a solid side and some of their players will be very familiar to the German fans as they ply their trade in the Bundesliga. They are probably lacking though in enough departments to lead to the conclusion that the top two teams here will brush them aside.
Angola could prove to be a bit of a thorn in Portugal’s side. The African nation is a former Portuguese colony and may well be motivated enough to put up a real fight in their opening match against Felipe Scolari’s side. It is also worth pointing out that it is Angola who accounted for one of the top African side over recent World Cups Nigeria in qualifying. That aside though their lack of big match experience will probably see them return home after this stage with their big chance for glory the match against the Iranians.
With the final game going to prove decisive in Group D I expect Portugal to allow Mexico enough time on the ball to control the match and go on to win and ultimately top the group.
Thank you kindly to Paul, Gustavo, Michael and Jamie for their hard labour. A cyber round of applause is in order, I think [you can do so over at our forums, in the Column feedback section]. Most, if not all of today’s Footballing Braintrust will be back in mere hours, to deconstruct a whole cornucopia of national teams in entirely more gratifying depth, so please stay erect and sober for that. Additionally, we wouldn’t be worth a dime if we didn’t bring the same generous amount of coverage to Group’s E through H, and that just happens to be next on our agenda. Our beleaguered crew for that are Shane, Kristian, Iestyn and Kris, who just happen to be warming up behind the curtains as I type, so I better get going to make room for their large ego’s. I do believe it has been a pleasure.
Take it Easy,
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