"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."
Seven days to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Now that all the squads have been set and the teams have begun arriving in South Africa, it's time for my pre-tournament preview and my (generally insane) predictions.
Overall, this has the makings of perhaps the most exciting World Cup in two decades. Of all the interesting aspects of the tournament, geography provides the most compelling storyline. A European team has never won a World Cup held outside Europe (the eight tournaments held outside Europe have been won by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay). Add to that the aging, largely unimpressive nature of many of the European powerhouses (England is fielding the tournament's oldest team; France barely qualified; Italy seems lackluster; Germany is a shambles of injuries and managerial spats) and the fact that this is the first African tournament (an Asian team, South Korea, made the semi-finals in the first Asian tournament), the possibility for surprises seems high. I would be shocked to see a repeat of 2006 in Germany, with an all-European final four (Italy, France, Germany and Portugal).
It's hard for non-American's to understand, but this is also the first time I can remember that a major US media company (ESPN/ABC) is hyping the tournament like crazy and signing up to show all the matches in HD. They have even dumped the dubious announcing team of JP Dellacamera and John Harkes in favor of some Brits (and not just any Brits ... Martin Tyler, one of the best in the business). There's a lot of genuine excitement in the tournament, not just in a "team USA goes to the Olympics" kind of way. I think the fact that so many matches from the EPL, La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga are shown on cable TV means that many more Americans actually know the top players who will take part from watching them with their clubs, which makes it more interesting and fun, and of broader appeal than simply the team USA matches.
Group A: This is one of my favorite groups, because all the teams are damaged goods and I can craft an argument for any two of the four teams making the elimination round. France has the pedigree (winner in '98, runner-up in '06), but their current form is poor and they have no clear leader. Mexico always rise to the occasion in the World Cup, but they have a relatively weak squad this time. Uruguay have tradition, but just squeaked past Costa Rica in the post-qualifying playoff to make the tournament. And South Africa are only here as hosts -- they would never have qualified otherwise. Mexico and France are likely to advance, but I think if the hosts can get three points from Uruguay, it might be Mexico and South Africa. Don't underestimate home turf advantage, particularly in far-away Africa.
Group B: While this is potentially a sneaky-hard group, Argentina are absolutely loaded with talent and my odds-on favorite to win the tournament. The big unknown is whether their coach, the volatile Diego Maradona, is a help or hinderance in their campaign. I think the first match -- the morning match on Saturday June 12 between Nigeria and Argentina -- will speak volumes about the Argentine character and potential in this tournament. Nigeria are arguably the best or second best African team in the tournament and I think they could make a run as far as the semi-finals. South Korea are quick, disciplined, physically fit and dangerous. Greece's defensive anti-football can cause problems, but they are light on talent and goal scoring threats I can't see them advancing. Argentina and Nigeria get out of the group.
Group C: The big question here is which USA team shows up. If it's the Confederations Cup runner-up, then I think they have a chance not only to advance from the group, but to win the group outright and potentially avoid a rematch of the 2002 quarter-finals with Germany. If it's the team that played the first half against Turkey, they won't make it out of the group. They are a difficult match-up for England in the opening round with their speed and goalkeeping. Donovan is peaking, Dempsey seems fully recovered from injury, and Bob Bradley made some clever choices bringing Findley, Buddle and Gomez rather than the usual re-treads (i.e., Ching). If Altidore's ankle sprain is really bad, I'd love to see Gomez up front. Unfortunately the USA are always inconsistent in group play, and their back four have been shockingly bad. Onyewu is struggling (he can't jump), while Specter and Bornstein looked terrible in the run-up friendlies. That said, England seemed very flat in their pre-tournament matches. They were totally unimpressive against lively sides from Mexico and Japan. They are over-reliant on Wayne Rooney to score goals. [UPDATE: ... and Rio Ferdinand, their captain and anchor of what has been a shaky central defense, injured his knee in training and is out of the competition]. There is no reason they shouldn't do well, but there's a nagging feeling of dread surrounding the team. Slovenia and Algeria are both good sides, but I don't see either challenging. USA and England advance.
Group D: I don't think Germany are all that good, and without the leadership of Ballack they could be in for some tough matches. Ghana, one of the best African sides, was dealt a tremendous blow with the injury to Michael Essien. Australia has some decent players (Schwartzer, Cahill). Serbia was great in qualifying, and can claim some of the old Yugoslav pedigree in World Cups. I think this is a bit like Group A in that you could make good arguments for a variety of outcomes given that there are no dominant teams. I like Germany to (barely) win the group, with Serbia taking the second place.
Group E: Holland are one of my favorite teams in the tournament, and along with Argentina one of my picks to go deep. I think they win all three matches in this group. The only interesting bit is who gets the second spot. I like Denmark, who had an under-rated romp through qualifying, besting Portugal and Sweden in a tough group. The crazy Samuel E'to controversies have added fuel to an already burning fire around Cameroon. And while Japan did ok against an out-of-sorts England, they have been in poor form for most of the last year or so. Holland & Denmark.
Group F: This is a gift of a group for Italy. New Zealand are woeful. Slovakia are ok, but have limited tournament experience (other than as a part of Czechoslovakia pre-breakup). Paraguay had a magical qualifying run during which they beat both Brazil and Argentina to finish one point out of first place in the South American qualifying table. In a more difficult group, Italy struggles, but here, it's Italy and Paraguay moving on.
Group G: Probably the worst possible draw for Brazil: a quality African side from Ivory Coast on near home turf (with Didier Drogba amongst the top strikers in the world right now, along with Kalou and the Toure brothers); '06 semi-finalist Portugal led by Christiano Ronaldo; and an unknown North Korean team. I would not be shocked if Brazil didn't make it out of this group. The Brazil-Portugal match on June 25 will be incredible. My head tells me Brazil and Portugal advance, but my heart tells me Brazil and Ivory Coast, the latter riding the African wave of goodwill to the elimination round. [UPDATE: Drogba broke his elbow in a friendly with Japan yesterday and is out of the World Cup. No way Ivory Coast beats Portugal without him. Goodbye heart, hello head.]
Group H: Spain have to be the favorite to win the cup after their Euro '08 win, their incredible unbeaten streak (ended by the USA in last summer's Confederations Cup), and their huge pool of talent at the peak of their careers. However, they don't seem to travel all that well. Chile are an unheralded but high-quality second place team in this group. Honduras is lucky to be here (thank you, Jonathan Bornstein, the USA defender, whose injury-time goal knocked out Costa Rica and allowed Honduras to qualify for their first World Cup in three decades). And Switzerland don't have the quality to compete here. Spain and Chile move on.
Round of 16
Nigeria d. Mexico
USA d. Serbia
Holland d. Paraguay
Brazil d. Chile
Argentina d. France/South Africa
England d. Germany
Italy d. Denmark
Spain d. Portugal
Nigeria d. USA
Holland d. Brazil
Argentina d. England
Spain d. Italy
Holland d. Nigeria
Argentina d. Spain
Argentina d. Holland