Welcome back to I, the mysterious editor; against all reason the host of this convoluted hubbub. The feedback to the preview of Groups A, B, C and D has so far been positive – in fact there are numerous reports coming out of Iran that upon reading Michael’s recognition of Ali Karimi, an elderly man wet himself.
Aside from incidental anecdotes about the success of this preview series, I’d like to use this opening to briefly mention the history of the World Cup. As much as it doesn’t seem fathomable, the tournament hasn’t been kicking around forever. The Roman Empire, while partial to a bit of incest, was not fighting their wars with elaborate free-kick routines and penalty shoot-outs like nations do today. The first FIFA World Cup took place in 1930 and was played in Uruguay; for reasons lost to history and good taste. As little as two months before the tournament was to begin, no team from Europe were committed to partake – this was because no European team were prepared to pay for travel, and, to a great extent, most nations questioned the importance of the whole thing. Eventually the Uruguay government and FIFA gathered, had some kind of drunken party, and agreed to pay the expenses of France, Belgium, Romania and Yugoslavia, and so the World’s biggest sporting competition began.
The final between Uruguay and Argentina was initially blighted by an argument over who would provide the match ball, as if the football manufactures were some kind of demented necromancers. It was finally settled that the Argies would provide the ball for the first half, and Uruguay for the second. Uruguay eventually managed to gain the victory, and thus became the first World Cup Winners. Such a magnificent victory it was, some Uruguayans can be seen still celebrating today, 76 years on.
That is quite enough of me. I will make way for Shane, Kristian, Iestyn and Kris R., who will be dissecting Groups E, F, G and H, just for your pleasure. Enjoy gentlemen, while you still can...
Shane hails from the Republic of Ireland, and spends most days smothering himself in laminated Steven Gerrard posters and hurling heinous abuse at Everton supporters. He is also an admirer of Boris Johnson’s hair (who isn’t, though?) and could tell you more about serial killers than you’d want to ever know.
For me, this is the toughest of the groups to call. Each team has many admirable qualities, but also has elements that give cause for concern. The Italians have unrivalled strength in depth at the striking position. Luca Toni, perhaps unknown to fans who don’t watch Serie A is the form striker having become the first man to score over 30 Serie A goals since Valentin Angelillo in 1958. The 6’5 Fiorentina man is just one of many classy forwards in a squad that includes Alberto Gillardino, Pipo Inzaghi, and Vicenzo Iaguinta. Defensively as sound as always, it is in mid-field where the Azzuri may struggle. Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo work effectively for AC Milan, but have been found wanting at International level in the past, often accused of going missing in big games. Those two players are key ; If they play well, Italy will do very well in this tournament.
There are also question marks over all 3 of the other sides in the group. The Czech Republic, so superb in previous European Championships have a number of key players who are the wrong side of 30. Unquestionably one of the most talented teams in the tournament, The Czech’s rather laboured through qualifying and it remains to be seen if this team can rouse themselves for one final effort. The “Black Stars” of Ghana lie in the long grass if either of the big two slips up. With players from clubs such as Chelsea, Roma, Dortmund, PSV and Udinese, and with a history of success at underage level, Ghana are a team to be respected. The United States round off the group, having registered their best ever finish at the finals in 2002 where they achieved a highly creditable quarter-final place. This success has not been built upon however, with many of the current squad still playing their club football at too low a level to improve. They are however likely to be amongst the fittest teams at the tournament, and should the summer heat become an issue, this could be an important factor.
Prediction: 1st Italy, 2nd Czech Republic
Kristian too, is such a fan of Liverpool, that not only has he spent £5000 pounds on travelling around Europe to watch them play over the past two years, he also dances with an effigy of Luis Garcia under moonlight every night, while listening to a hardcore dance-remix version of “You'll Never Walk Alone” by DJ Quick. Above all, he wants to be a football journalist, and I ask, who am I to stop him?
Whilst many people see Group C as the obligatory Group of Death, this one also has potential to cause a few upsets and ruin a few people's betting coupons. Any two of the four teams can go through and it is one of the more quality-filled groups. United States, Czech Republic and Ghana all play a high tempo game, whilst Lippi has adopted a much more attacking approach towards the traditionally defensive-minded Azzuri. Anything can happen in a World Cup - well, aside from England winning it, that is - but one would expect Brazil to top Group F and therefore you can bet your bottom dollar, pound or lira that all four teams want to top the group as opposed to facing Brazil.
It would not surprise me if Italy were the shock casualty of the group stages. It's not that they are a bad side as they have a great defence as per usual, a solid if not spectacular midfield and Serie A's top scorer Luca Toni up-front. However, in Totti they have the most over-rated playmaker on the world stage and players who besume me when mentioned as good players, namely Del Piero and Camoranesi. The other sides in the group play a high-tempo style which may worry Italy, who are a team in transition with regards to their style of play. I don't think they will be able to adapt sufficiently against a quality team such as the Czech Republic. The Czech performance in Germany revolves around Milan Baros. If he can score goals, they will win games. They should have won Euro 2004 and the squad is now two years wiser with regards to performing in big tournaments. If Baros brings his shooting boots and those around him supply him with the ammunition, I see the Czechs taking that coveted top spot in the group. As for who will have the honour of facing Brazil, I must admit to knowing little about Ghana. Essien and Appiah will provide energy in the middle but their striking options are extremely limited which will prove their downfall. The Americans will snatch second spot as long as they use their high-tempo game as they did in 2002. Watch out for youngster Eddie Johnson as well, I think he'll be a big name this year alongside the reliable McBride and electric Beasley.
Prediction: 1st: Czech Republic. 2nd: United States.
Sometimes confused by his own shadow, and so overstocked with the stuff, he occasionally sells bottled gravitas on weekends, Iestyn is the dark horse of footballing opinions, so much so that some are beginning to question if he actually exists.
Since Wales didn’t qualify, the United States are the team I’m supporting for the World Cup, meaning this group is the one I’m most interested in. It seems like this is a pretty predictable group. The Czech Republic and Italy are the two teams most likely to qualify, given the relative strengths of the sides. The Italian squad is one that boasts a number of big name players and looks good on paper. It does though, have question marks. Francesco Totti, for example, is coming off a severe injury that has kept him out since February, though he has at least played in pre-tournament warm-ups. In addition, players such as Gattuso aren’t exactly up to the high standards the Italians have. The Czechs, meanwhile, have a strong midfield that features wuality players such as Pavel Nedved and Arsenal new boy Tomas Rosicky. In respect of their squads, there’s certainly little to choose between them.
However, both teams have non-playing issues. The Czechs have struggled for the most part in major tournaments since their losing effort in the final of the 1996 European Championships, their semi-final appearance in the 2004 Euros aside, and it’s been said that they struggle under the pressure when they’re considered favourites. Italy, on the other hand, have the distraction of turmoil in the club game, with criminal investigations into corruption involving clubs, officials and the Italian FA.
Thus, there’s the possibility of a shock here. Ghana could spring a surprise since they have a good squad, several of whom ply their trade in Germany, but given their pre-tournament form (beating a woeful Jamaica side 4-1 doesn’t wipe out the fact that they lost to French club side Nice 3-0). Thus, I’m siding with the Americans. Bruce Arena’s side have qualified for their fifth straight World Cup and made the quarter finals last time. They have a lot of experienced international players in their side, particularly key man Landon Donovan, and a trio of quality keepers in Howard, Hahnemann and Keller. I may be going out on a limb, but I have a feeling that the Italians could be cracked more easily than the Czechs, who’re also possibly the better team being ranked second in the world, and they’ll be the ones heading on a surprise early flight home.
Prediction 1st Czech Republic. 2nd United States.
Every World Cup review needs its sex symbol, and because Gramae Le Saux was too busy locked away in a cheap motel room, pacing the bathroom covered in baby lotion and making lewd remarks about the BBC, we had to hire Kris. A man so cultured, he sleeps with a silk duvet cover containing quotations of Shakespeare and Keats. Kris is also some sort of fashionable combination between Australian and Portuguese, but would not send me a blood sample so I could collaborate his genetics.
The Czech Republic are ranked number two in the world and, while that is a little too high, they possess immense quality particularly in midfield and attack. Milan Baros is a tremendous goalscorer at international level, in stark contrast to his ordinary performances at club level, so it is to him that the Czechs will look for goals. With one of the world’s best goalkeepers in Petr Cech and Pavel Nedved providing creative inspiration, expect the Czechs to take second position in the group.
Despite not technically being on the same level as their European counterparts, World Cup debutants Ghana pose a threat as an unknown quantity. They possess a dynamic midfield with Stephen Appiah and Michael Essien combining strength and pace with neat passing and phenomenal work rate. Sammy Kuffour is a mountain in defence and Matthew Amoah was a prolific goalscorer in Holland with Vitesse but has struggled since moving to the Bundesliga with Dortmund. Will find it extremely difficult to progress from a difficult group, but could cause an upset.
This group should produce some wonderful football as all four teams are good enough to get to the second round at least. The favourites are unquestionably the Italians, whose footballing pedigree and quality in every area should see them comfortably win the group. With a host of new faces such as Luca Toni and Daniele De Rossi as well as the experienced stars such as Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Gianluca Zambrotta providing the backbone, Italy could very well go on to win the entire tournament if things go their way.
Despite a strong showing in 2002 and an impressively dominant qualification, fans of the USA will not be holding their breath for too much from this tournament. This is no reflection on coach Bruce Arena who is one of the best around and has put together a tremendously organised and disciplined side. The team is focused around the midfield threats of Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley but aside from them there is very little to speak of. With two exceptional European sides and a potentially dangerous Ghanian outfit, don’t expect too much from the USA this time around.
The beauty of the world cup is that it throws together so many interesting combinations of playing styles. Here, we have four very different teams in the one group. You have the flair and devastating attacking play of Brazil, the skill and technique of Croatia, the powerful –almost British style- play of Australia, and the energy, fitness and togetherness of Japan. Brazil almost doesn’t need describing as everyone is aware of their qualities. If they click, they will win this World Cup. It is that simple. Croatia have a stronger squad than in recent years but are not yet in the class of the ’96 or ’98 teams that achieved so much. Their one area of concern in qualifying was that they did not score enough goals. They will be hoping that Dado Prso, and in particular, Ivan Klasnic of Werder Bremen can hit form at the right time.
Australia makes a welcome return to the World Cup for the first time since 1974. If Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill are fit, and Mark Viduka plays to his potential, “The Socceroos” could cause a shock. Defensive frailties – they will be relying on Craig Moore and Toni Popovic at centre back- may well be their downfall. However though, they do possess one of the best managers in the tournament in Guus Hiddink. Japan are an intriguing team to watch. They will work as hard as any team in the tournament and their fitness levels allow them to play helter-skelter football for the full 90 minutes. In Celtic’s Shunsuke Nakamura they possess one of the competitions best play-makers and are a real threat to Croatia’s prospects of advancing.
Prediction: 1st Brazil, 2nd Croatia
I don't think there is a doubt that Brazil are topping this group. Australia and Croatia may give them difficulty but I cannot see any problems for Brazil at this stage. Their team-sheet reads like someone's fantasy football team with Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Adriano and Kaka all likely to start. Of course, there is the usual mumurs that their defence is not up to scratch but I don't agree with that at all. The interesting thing to note is that the four centre-backs all played in European competition of some sort last season, with Lucio and Juan playing in the Bundesliga. I would be surprised if they picked up less than nine points. It is not that the other three sides are poor but I fear that Brazil are simply that good and only a few select teams can come close to challenging them. Viduka or Prso will give the Brazilian defence problems but it will be nothing compared to how Popovic or Kovac will feel as Ronaldinho, Juninho and Kaka come charging towards them.
Perhaps the most intruiging match throughout the group stages will be when Croatia and Australia face off. One can only liken it to if the Republic of Ireland - with Finnan, Reid and Morrison - faced England. Seven Croat-blooded players are in the Aussie squad, with three Croatians with the nationality Australian on their passport although I wouldn't expect any friendliness between the two sides as I think this will be the most important match of the group with regards to qualification. Japan don't impress me whatsoever, with - somewhat ironically - Brazilian born Alex Santos being their only glimpse of quality within the squad. You have to believe that Australia v Croatia match in Stuttgart on June 22nd will decide who qualifies. I think both sides are somewhat unfortunate to be drawn with Brazil, as both have the potential to spring a few surprises throughout the tournament. I feel that Australia have more individuals in the squad who can change a game, such as Viduka and Cahill. It will be extremely tight between those two but I think Australia will be celebrating their qualification, with the potential to go even further.
Prediction: 1st: Brazil. 2nd: Australia
In principle, this is quite a similar group to Group E. There are two easy favourites and two underdogs. Brazil are the obvious favourites for both the group and indeed the tournament. The defending champions have the strongest team in theory, despite the loss of Edmilson, including arguably the best player in the world, Ronaldinho, and a wealth of experience given that they have several players with 100+ caps and only 2 who have fewer than 10. Given the experience and skill on offer, I think that if there’s one certainty in this world cup, it’s that Brazil will get out of this group.
Thus, we move on to the rest of the group. The favourites of the three remaining teams will be Croatia. Like England earlier this season, they recorded a 3-2 victory over Argentina back in March, and began the period of warm ups with a 4-1 win over Austria. However, since then, they’ve slumped, drawing with Iran and losing to Poland in a game they dominated. They’ll be worried that in that game they seemed to have trouble creating changes, but they do have to consider that Poland are perhaps stronger competition than their opponents. Australia are a team that could cause a surprise. Their starting line-up features a group of players with a wealth of top-flight experience and talent, but this group does feature some players with a decidedly dodgy injury history, thus exposing Australia’s problem. They have a lack of depth, and thus have a limited number of options that could be crucial in tight games. Japan, meanwhile, boast a team that had a less than impressive qualifying campaign. They had to rely on last minute wins during the qualifying stages against Oman and North Korea, and despite a decent defence and a strong midfield, probably lack the strike power to make an impact.
Assuming the Brazilians will win the group and qualify comfortably, which I’m quite happy to stake my reputation on, there’s one spot available. Any of the other three teams could take it under the right circumstances, but I reckon it’ll come down to Australia v. Croatia for second place, and since that’s both teams last match, Australia will probably have at least one key injury by then, so I’m taking Croatia.
Prediction 1st Brazil. 2nd Croatia
Australia enter the tournament with the support of a nation swept into a frenzy after their first qualification in 32 years. The first eleven possesses real quality, with talents like captain Mark Viduka, Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, Marco Bresciano and Vince Grella. Kewell is the real class of the side, with the ability to turn a game at any moment. Guus Hiddink has brought a sense of real belief to the squad, with expectations high of achieving results against both Croatia and Japan and hopes of holding Brazil. There is the ability in the squad to advance from the group
Brazil is far and away the most technically gifted side in the tournament and with an attacking quartet comprised of Ronaldinho, Kaka, Ronaldo and Adriano have the firepower to destroy any opponent. There are question marks over the defence, but with the ball at their feet there is no better side around. Will comfortably win this group and will more than likely be holding the trophy aloft come July 9. With all eyes focused on Ronaldinho, watch for Kaka to make his mark from midfield.
Croatia are as always a mixed bag. There is plenty of promise about them, particularly in brilliant young playmaker Niko Kranjcar (who also happens to be the coach’s son) and the evergreen Nico Kovac, but a suspect defence and an over-reliance on the over-rated Dado Prso means that Croatian fans cannot expect too much from this squad. Will probably finish in second place ahead of Australia, but that is by no means certain.
Japan enters the tournament with their hopes resting squarely on the shoulders of playmaker Hidetoshi Nakata. As always, he will be the focal point of the team and they will look for him to give them class going forward. Nakata will be supported in midfield by Shunsuke Nakamura and Junichi Inamoto but, these three aside, Japan look decidedly lightweight. Will struggle to finish any higher than fourth in this group.
France has been fortunate to receive such a kind draw. With players of the class of Thierry Henry and Claude Makelele, even an underperforming France team should have no problems in qualifying here. Switzerland are a deceiving team to watch. While not blessed with any major star players, they have consistently qualified above their seeding over the past few competitions, eliminating the more fancied Irish twice in a row. In Johann Vogel and Hakin Yakin they possess a solid and talented mid-field and Arsenal youngsters Phillipe Senderos and Johan Djorou help make up a solid back four. Scoring goals may well be a problem for them, and don’t be surprised if they draw many or all of their group matches as they were prone to doing in qualifying.
Togo are perhaps the biggest unknown quantity in the competition. Many of their players play in the smaller leagues of Europe such as the Belgian league or the French second division. Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor is their talisman and was the top scorer in the African section qualifying. To be blunt, I am not expecting Togo to win a game at this world cup as the step up in class will be too much too soon for many of their squad. South Korea completes the group, fresh from their semi-final finish on home soil in 2002. Having lost Guus Hiddink and his successor, the Koreans are now lead by former Rangers manager Dick Advocaat. As in 2002, they possess players of great speed, fitness and no-little skill, though it would be wrong to suggest they are as good a side as they were in 2002. The European experience gained by many players after their showings in 2002 will have helped their chances of repeated success in Germany. The form and fitness of Manchester United’s Park and Duisberg’s Ahn will be crucial in their quest for qualification.
Prediction: 1st France, 2nd Korea.
Poor Togo. The African minnows have accomplished so much by getting to this World Cup and could have been rewarded with a group in which they had an outside chance of progessing from. Instead, Franz Beckenbauer and his ball-grabbing friends drew a tough group. I was meant to be following Togo around Germany during the World Cup but examinations have got in the way but they still remain the team I will be rooting for. Sadly, a poor showing in the African Nations - they didn't score a goal - coupled with a tough group here leads me to believe that they're going home early. The only hope for them is if Adebayor has an outstanding tournament but I cannot see it. Switzerland will be on the early flight home with them. They have a decent squad but there is just something missing which would turn them into a good squad. South Korea on the other hand have that something. They have that buzz, they have that zip and that star quality in Park Ji-Sung which should carry them through the group stages. They won't come near to their semi-final achievement of 2002, mainly due to the fact there won't be a Egyptian linesman.
France's lack of backing amongst people bemuses me. I look at their squad and I see a team that is more than capable of going all the way in Germany. Perhaps it is due to their poor showing in 2002 and 2004 that they are not really considered contenders but a squad which has the world's most influential player, Thierry Henry - who could probably turn Gravesend & Northfleet into title contenders - must be considered potential winners. The old rear-guard such as Desailly and Pires have gone and have been replaced with Abidal, Malouda and Marseille sensation Ribery. It is a good blend of youth and experience, as cliché as that sounds and up-front they have power, pace and finishing ability. They will top Group G with ease and could very well finish with at least a bronze medal (if indeed, they gave them out) this summer.
Prediction: 1st: France. 2nd: South Korea
There’s always at least one feel-good story at the World Cup, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’ll happen here. The former German colony of Togo is one of the eight teams making their World Cup debuts here, and as the least fancied team in the tournament, they’re going to be a favourite for the neutral fan. They boast a number of players at top European clubs, including Arsenal’s Emmanuel Adebayor, and whilst they’ve had an unimpressive warm-up schedule and issues over bonuses, they’re the kind of team that could escape the group stages and surprise people. Plus, you know, they have a voodoo priest travelling to Germany to help them, and if there’s one rule I always follow, it’s never argue with voodoo.
It’s not particularly unrealistic to predict the upset in this group. Whilst France are undoubtedly one of the top teams in the world, with a wealth of talent all over the park, except perhaps in goal where the highly eccentric Fabian Barthez is first choice, they also have a history of being upset in major tournaments. And the fates are on Togo’s side – in 2002, France were eliminated bottom of a group that included an African team making their World Cup debut and surprisingly qualified for the second round in Senegal. Togo eliminated Senegal in qualifying. Even more eerily, hosts of that tournament South Korea are also in this group.
The Koreans did well in the last tournament, but this time they aren’t on home soil and thus, I don’t think they’ll do as well this time around. Their only wins in warm-ups came in Korea, and they were well beaten by the unimpressive Ghanaian side in their last match. Thus, we come to the other side in the group, Switzerland. The Swiss aren’t exactly the strongest European side to make it through this far, and will mourn the loss of striker Jonathon Vonlanthen to a hamstring injury. They’re unbeaten in warm up games, and since the voodoo guy travelling with Togo said that Togo would beat France and South Korea, I’ll go with them to win the group. Yeah, my entire prediction for this group is based on voodoo. So sue me.
Prediction 1st Switzerland. 2nd Togo
Despite their numerous problems, France are far and away the strongest side in this group and should win it without too many problems. The biggest problem that the French have is that the side is built around the wrong star. Zinedine Zidane is the team’s centrepiece but is Thierry Henry who should be the focus. As good a striker as there is in the world, Henry dragged Arsenal to the Champion’s League final and was again the best striker in the Premiership. With David Trezeguet, Djibril Cisse and Louis Saha for support goals will not be a problem. Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira are a dominant presence in midfield while Zidane can still be brilliant. The defence is more of a worry with the awful Mikael Silvestre and the extremely shaky Jean-Alain Boumsong likely to appear at some stage.
Heroes four years ago in their home country, the South Koreans are not likely to emulate those feats again. They lack any real star players, with the side centred around Manchester United’s Park Ji-Sung whose skill and work rate places him in a different class to his team mates. Will finish ahead of Togo, but will more than likely be swept aside by the French and Swiss.
Twenty-year old midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta possesses immense talent as well as arguably the greatest name in world football. Alongside captain Johan Vogel in the heart, he is the centrepiece of the Swiss side and is involved in most good things they do. Up front, Alexander Frei is a dangerous marksman and a real physical presence who will cause many problems for defenders. They lack any real flair in attack though and, while they will finish second in this group, they won’t progress beyond that.
Togo is along for the ride. There is very little to speak of, with Arsenal youngster Emmanuel Adebayor the only real talent in the squad. Hard working and physical, they lack the temperament and ability to compete with the Europeans and the technically superior Koreans. This is compounded by the fact that half the team hates the other half and the coach has had precious little time to get his squad together. Expect Togo to return home without a point to speak of.
Prediction: 1st France, 2nd Switzerland
Oratory Braintrust Prediction: Prediction: 1st France, 2nd Switzerland
Spain are perhaps the competitions worst serial under-performers. Despite being able to call upon some of the very finest players in the world, and the general strength of La Liga, Spain have never performed to any great extent at a major championships. Whether this time will be any different is anyone’s guess, but they do again possess some world-class players, particularly in mid-field. Defence will be key for this Spanish team, with Sergio Ramos and Asier Del Horno playing in their first major championships. Ukraine and Tunisia are perhaps the two most under-rated teams in the competition. Possessing much more than just Andrei Shevchenko, Ukraine breezed through qualification playing football reminiscent of the Dynamo Kiev team of 1999.If they can compete physically in mid-field, they can shock a lot of people at the tournament. Tunisia are - almost unbeknownst to everyone- the 2004 African champions and are not to be dismissed as also-rans before the competition even starts. With Frenchman Roger Lemerre at the helm, Tunisia qualified comfortably with striker Dos Santos notching 6 goals. Much sought-after Ajax defender Hatem Trabelsi commands his back four with a European style meanness and fellow defender Rahdi Jaidi of Bolton adds a towering presence at free-kicks and corners. Tunisia are the type of team that can score a goal at a set piece and then kill the game, a skill that may come in very handy in Germany. If a major team is eliminated early, don’t be shocked to see that it is the Spaniards at the hands of the Tunisians. Saudi Arabia are an unknown quantity and sadly for them are highly unlikely to get any positive results at this competition.
Prediction: 1st Ukraine, 2nd Spain
If you think of World Cups, you always think of Saudi Arabia. Well, maybe not but they are the world's perennial whipping boys since 1998. Who can forget the 8-0 suffered at the hands of Germany in 2002? The Saudis are a victim of their own success in a way. By far the best Arab team in the world, their reward is to be hammered by some of the world's best teams. Luckily for them this year, it would appear that there isn't a team who have the capability to thrash them by eight goals, although Spain could come close. It really does depend which Spain shows up. On paper, they have one of the strongest squads in the tournament. They are graced by the world's best goalkeeper, a strong defence, one of the best midfields in the tournament with Xavi, Alonso, Fabregas, Luis Garcia and Joaquin... not to mention Villa, Torres and Raul up-front. The problem is: it's Spain. The ultimate choke artists. They will top the group here but whether they can go far in this tournament depends on the mentality of the squad.
One of the things I'm looking forward to seeing during this World Cup is how the Ukraine perform, especially Shevchenko. Having stormed the top of their qualifying group which included Greece, Turkey and Denmark, Shevchenko ensured he would actually showcase his talents on the biggest stage. Unfortunately, Ukraine go into the tournament with Shevchenko not fully fit. Rebrov and Voronin are good players - don't let Rebrov's time at Spurs cloud that judgement - but Shevchenko needs to be fit and playing well in order for Ukraine to do so too. I think that the world expects so much of him and he might fail to live up to those expectations, leaving Tunisia as a somewhat surprise runner-up. In Santos, they have a striker who may surprise a few people. I've seen him play for Toulouse and the African Nations, and he can be one of the unexpected stars of the tournament.
Prediction: 1st: Spain. 2nd: Tunisia
Well, there are two teams likely to go through here, and they’re the European teams. The Spanish are perennial under-achievers in major tournaments. Despite having strong squads they’ve never managed to achieve the potential they’ve shown. They suffer from much the same problem England do – pressure of an excessive public expectation considering the massive success Spanish teams have in European club competitions and the sheer talent available to them. This time around, Spain certainly have the talent to challenge, with one of the best ‘keepers in the world in Iker Casillas and star striker Raul, but there are questions about their ability to perform as a team. They only finished second to Serbia and Montenegro in qualifying after 5 wins and 5 draws, before demolishing Slovakia in the play-offs.
The other favourite is the Ukraine. The former Soviet republic has made the finals for the first time, and is one of the stronger debuting teams, behind perhaps the Czech Republic. They certainly have a potent strike-force – Andriy Shevchenko is one of the best in the world – though their midfield is a bit lightweight. Manager Oleg Blokhin has guaranteed a semi-final appearance, which is possible if unlikely. They were the first European team to qualify, and did so comfortably.
The other teams in the group are Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. I don’t think the Saudis are in contention, since they aren’t exactly the strongest of the Asian teams in the tournament despite their performance in qualifying. Their star man is probably 34 year old Sami al Jaber, the former Wolves player who’s also the only member of the squad to have played for a European team. Their performance in their warm ups has been abysmal, with no wins, and they’re destined to go home at the first hurdle.
Tunisia, on the other hand, only made it through after grabbing a late draw against Morocco. They don’t really have any star players, though they work well as a unit, but have a poor pedigree in World Cups, having only one victory back in 1978 over Mexico, despite qualifying four times. They’ve yet to make it out of the group stage, and it won’t happen here, either. Neither the Saudis nor the Tunisians pose a threat, so it’s down to the two European teams. Since it wouldn’t be the World Cup without Spain choking at some point, I’ll go with Ukraine to win the group over them.
Prediction 1st Ukraine. 2nd Spain
Saudi Arabia are arguably the weakest side in the tournament and will not pose any threat to Spain and Ukraine progressing to the round of sixteen. The Saudis’ greatest World Cup moment will forever be Saeed Al-Owairan’s extraordinary solo goal against Belgium in 1994. Don’t expect to see anything resembling that here, although youngster Yassar Al-Qahtani has been drawing plenty of praise from the Asian media.
Perennial underachievers, the Spanish enter the tournament with a strong squad and a manager dead set on restoring some pride to the national side. They are very solid in defence, with Champion’s League winner Carlos Puyol and rising star Sergio Ramos ably joined and supported by a host of talented players in Carlos Marchena, Michel Salgado, Pablo Ibanez and Antonio Lopez. They are world class in midfield with Xabi Alonso, David Albelda and Xavi as good as any combination around. Up front, the experience of Raul meshes with the raw talent of Fernando Torres, with David Villa providing a dangerous option from the bench. No real threat to them winning the group, so expect to see them meet Switzerland in the next round.
Tunisia look stronger than four years ago and are technically very sound. With Hatem Trabelsi providing quality width in defence and naturalised Brazilian Santos a lethal goalscorer, Tunisia have the potential to make life difficult for opponents. With their first choice goalkeeper being 40 years old and the side lacking any sort of creative spark in midfield though, they will be lucky to take any points off either of the far stronger Europeans sides. The game against Saudi Arabia has the potential to be one of the direst of the entire tournament.
Ukraine will be praying that Andriy Shevchenko is fit and at his best as with him they are a major threat. As good a striker as there is in the world, Shevchenko is universally respected and admired and will create problems for any defender around. Without him, Ukraine goes from a side good enough to make the quarter finals or so to a unit lucky to qualify for the second round. Bulgaria building their entire team around Stoichkov in ’94 is quite analogous to this Ukraine side and it worked quite well for them.
That’s it. That’s our World Cup Group Stage Preview. Can you believe it? I can’t, but I have denial issues. We had a good time though, didn’t we? Please reassure me, because I genuinely don’t know. We learnt a lot though, that’s for sure. I think. For starters, Iestyn is a bit of a loose cannon; Switzerland and Togo to qualify above France? Who does he think he is to have outlandish opinions like that? And we learnt Kris R. doesn’t let bias stand in the way of trying to be right. And, if you’re like me, you learnt lots of funny, foreign sounding names. Above anything though, after reading this piece, I really can’t wait for the games to begin. Well done gentlemen, you have got an ageing, long-finger nailed cynic a little turned on, because there is nothing quite like the thrill and submission of watching a great, anticipated football match.
Stay tuned for an in-depth analysis of all the major teams, which will either be up by the time you read this, or over the weekend.
And please, enjoy the World Cup. It only comes every 4 years, so make the most of it.
Take it Easy,
- The Football Braintrust,
The Editor of this column, and of the Football section of the Sports Oratory in general is Richard Asby. If you wish to write, lament and shriek your ill-humoured views about the beautiful game, feel free to send column submissions my way [email@example.com], or, alternatively, join our forums and post a column in our Reader’s Columnist Corner. Do it before we all start falling dramatically to the floor with wrists cupped to our foreheads, leaking a whole stream of bodily fluids and sobbing like a bad audition tape because of post-World Cup depression. I’m waiting...