Sunday, December 06, 2009
The thing most notable every time a World Cup draw is made is how adrift most of us are as to the actual ability of all but a handful of teams. As William Goldman famously said about Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.” Few of us have watched a wide range of qualifying games in Europe, never mind South America, Africa or the other confederations, and our assessment of the capabilities of teams is based largely on the players they have playing in either the Premiership or the Champions League.
And so we have a few misdiagnoses of the groups. Everyone agrees that Group D, which sees Germany, Australia, Ghana and Serbia square off, is the Group of Death; these are four teams of broadly similar ability, the Germans would be reasonably considered the favourites but none of the other three will be overawed by them. But there is also too much respect being paid to Group G, where Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast will slug it out for the top two spots. The group, however, is likely to be hellish only for the latter two; Brazil, motoring along efficiently if inelegantly with Dunga’s brand of pragmatic football, will probably take the group – and I fear, the tournament – comfortably. So it’s up to the Ivorians and the Portuguese to fight for the second spot. Many, watching the tournament in their Premiership-refracted haze will bill it as Drogba v Ronaldo, but there'll be more than that. And I suspect, the Portuguese, wary of being muscled out of it by an Ivorian team unfazed following their fine performances in the Group of Death last time round, are probably the more worried.
Other highly competitive groups are likely to be Group B, with Argentina, Nigeria and Greece – all of whom met each other in USA 94 – all in the running, with South Korea possibly being the bystanding kingmaker. It may not be dazzling football though, especially with the Greeks involved. That may come in Group E where the Danes play their footballing mentors the Dutch, with Cameroon also capable of excitement providing excitement. And though European Champions Spain are likely to win Group H at a canter, Honduras, Chile and Switzerland are all capable of fighting for second place.
France and England both got draws that, though favourable enough, could prove to be harder than they first appear. Nobody fears France these days, as Ireland showed in Paris last month, and both Mexico and Uruguay will fancy their chances, even if the Mexicans have never yet beaten France in international football. Particularly perilous for France is the fact that their easiest match, against hosts South Africa comes last, by which time dropped points in the first two encounters could put them under pressure. And, with the notorious benevolence often shown to host countries by referees, the karmic wheel could swing right round in an unpleasant manner for the French. My hunch is that France’s collective lack of backbone (which cannot be entirely blamed on the hapless Raymond Domenech) could see them on an early flight home.
England should be able to finish top of their group but the sort of complacency the English do best could give them a few jolts. The US are a tough side for anyone to beat, and should provide stiffer resistance to England than in last year’s friendly at Wembley. Slovenia will be similarly undaunted having given England a decent game in another friendly last November. A young Algerian team may be four years short of gelling into a formidable side but they will, like all the other African teams bar the hosts, have the advantage of playing in January’s African Cup of Nations in Angola. Algeria shocked the world in 1982 before being disgracefully shafted by West Germany and Austria, and now they are arguably better, with many of their players having come through the French national youth team system. A technically gifted side who showed immense character to come through a torrid tie with Egypt, they can cause anyone trouble. That said, I expect England to finish top, which they will want to do, presuming Germany finish top of Group D. The Germans are now back to the level of composure where they can unnerve the English and were the two to meet in the second round, England’s World Cup would end there. If they avoid each other, England can reach the quarter-finals and, with some extra discipline, the semi-final. That’s really as far as they’ll go, with suspect goalkeeping, an occasionally febrile defence and a glaring lack of strength in depth to be their undoing when up against the big boys.
And who are the big boys? Spain, Brazil, Germany, Italy. The winners will come from one of those four. Argentina probably could do it if freed from the mania of Maradona’s management and an African side might benefit from a tournament held on the continent. The Ivory Coast look like the only side strong enough to put up an ultimate fight but they too will probably have to hope for semi-finals at best. And the winners? My head rather than my heart, says Brazil, who these days are eschewing the jogo bonito in the same way they did in 1994 and 2002. And we know what happened then…