Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The World Cup Draw

Well, if you read my last post and you followed the draw, you know that I think the USA got one the best possible draws -- as good as we could have reasonably expected. Overall, however, it was kind of a predictable draw, with few surprises and few really compelling story-lines in the group stage.

The USA's Group C is comprised of England, Algeria and Slovenia. England are a very strong side, but they have exploitable weaknesses at striker (other than Rooney, they are looking at the lumbering Heskey, the unpredictable Crouch or the untested Defoe) and certainly at goalkeeper (vis. "Calamity James"). And, England always struggle outside, well, England, but certainly outside Europe. They haven't made it past the World Cup quarter-finals in two decades.

Second and third match opponents Algeria and Slovenia are, at least by FIFA rankings, among the weaker teams in the tournament. Not that the US team couldn't blow it against either of them -- you'll hear a million times between now and June that there are no weak teams in the World Cup -- but believe me, Sunil Gulati and Bob Bradley were doing cartwheels in the aisles when they heard that we avoided both Ivory Coast/Ghana out of Africa, and France/Portugal out of Europe. And ESPN is going to market the fuck out of the England/USA opener, with Beckham and Donovan, the ghost of 1950, and the rise of the colonies to challenge the inventors of the beautiful game.

Mexico looked at first to have secured a dream draw in Group A against the pathetic hosts, South Africa. But Pot #3 produced the very good Uruguay, and Pot #4 cursed them with France. Heh. They still have a shot at advancing, but having to open against the hosts is never a great result. I think they could just squeak through, but I wouldn't be surprised if they finish last in the group.

Argentina, Holland, Italy and Spain received major gifts from the draw, particularly Italy. I'd be shocked if any of these four don't finish first in their respective groups. The English were feeling pretty good about their group, too, with only the game against the USA presenting a difficult match-up.

There isn't a clear Group of Death, but the best candidates are probably Group G with Brazil, Portugal, Ivory Coast and doormats North Korea; and Group D with Germany, Australia, Serbia and Ghana. You have to like Germany and Brazil to finish at least second in their respective group, but there could be some very big surprises. Mexico's Group A may not be Group of Death, but it's clearly a "Group of Grievous Injury."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

World Cup Draw Preview

This Friday at 9:00am Pacific time, the iniquitous bureaucrats from FIFA, along with a handful of celebs and pols, will get together in Cape Town, South Africa for the once-every-four-years ritual known as the World Cup Draw.

This horrendously boring event, which can be cringe-inducing in its mock seriousness and cheese factor, involves grown men and women drawing 32 balls (representing the qualified teams) from 4 glass pots and placing them into eight groups. To punch it up, there are lots of speeches and terrible musical performances. Despite this, the draw, which is televised in 170 countries, is expected to be watched by almost 200 million human beings.

Why? Because the draw matters. Matters, at least, to the billion or so people who care about the sport of football and its ultimate tournament, the World Cup. The aspirations of teams and nations to footballing glory will hang, in some measure, on the result of the draw.

FIFA announced the seeding for the tournament today and produced a first surprise: they abandoned the tradition of seeding based on performance in the last two World Cups and went with FIFA rankings as of October 2009. On this basis, France were excluded from one of the top seedings (which prevent the best teams from eliminating each other in the first round); while Holland moved into France's spot.

The #1 seeds will be spread out across the 8 groups, and include hosts South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, England, Holland, Germany, Italy, and Spain. No arguments there. Excluding France was extremely fair, given their poor form of late (and the taint of their qualification over Ireland on Thierry Henry's handball). It was equally fair for them to elevate Holland, who have been on a tear and are FIFA ranked 3rd in the world.

The other major decision FIFA made was to put the North American teams in Pot #2 with the relatively weak Asia/Oceania teams, rather than with the unseeded but stronger South American or African teams, who went into Pot #3. This was clearly done to enhance the likelihood of African teams making the elimination rounds, but makes it much more difficult for the USA and Mexico, who would have had a high probability of drawing South Africa, the weakest seeded team by far, in the group stage.

From the USA perspective, the best case would be: 1. South Africa (or England, who always suck outside Europe); 3. Paraguay (or Algeria, if #1 is England); and 4. Slovakia or Slovenia. The worst case would be 1. Brazil or Spain; 3. Ivory Coast or Chile; and 4. France or Portugal.

And then there is the proverbial "Group of Death." Every World Cup has one, or at least a debate about which of the several tough groups truly constitutes this cup's Group of Death. The GoD refers to a group in which at least three strong teams are drawn together, meaning that one pre-tournament contender gets sent packing before the elimination round. There's a chance for a Brazil, Mexico, Ivory Coast, Portugal group, or a Spain, USA, Cameroon, France group.

When the dust settles, and we've endured Sepp Blatter, and Charlize Theron, and David Beckham, the freaking Soweto Gospel Choir, Johnny Clegg, et al., at least we'll have a tournament.