Apologies for the lack of B&B coverage of yesterday’s historic England—USAUSAUSA matchup! I was far too busy partying IRL to bring our loyal readers a blog-based interpretation of events—my attentions were spent drumming, drinking PBRs, shooting roman candles, and screaming “HOMO!” at the TeeVee when they’dcut to David Beckham thoughtfully sulking—the things we do for Country!
All in all, the US acquitted themselves fairly well. It was a fair result for us if not an inspiring one. (Though it was inspiring enough to earn a tiny lil’ image & mention on the front page of The Paper of American Record!) This was kinda the outcome I was expecting, though I had optimistic mental-flickers of a 2-1 victory (almost realized through Altidore’s late chance at 66 min). Without a doubt, our most obvious weakness going into the tournament was our shaky centerback pairing of Onyewu & Jay Demerit, both of who were recovering from injury and thus missing the mental sharpness that comes from playing regularly. Although England actually weren’t terribly incisive, Gooch & Jay D were put to the test, by Emile Heskey (still cannot believe he starts for Capello up front) and to a much lesser extent Wayne Rooney. Though there were plenty of fist-clenching moments, we emerged unscathed and secured a valuable point in the process! Plus a bit of battle-tempered match experience for our newly reformed defense.
Ambient jubilation most definitely interfered with my ability to overturn new ground in terms of tactical analysis, but let this post serve as the recollections on a hazy dayAfter…
The English press today isn’t going for Robert Green quite as venomously as I thought they might this morning. Perhaps they have learned SOME minor lessons about hatefully turning on their own players! The NYT Goal! blog helpfully gathered all the UK headlines though:
- The Sunday Times: “Green Fingers”
- Mail on Sunday: “Calamity”
- The Independent: “Hand of Clod”
- Sunday Mirror: “Tainted Glove”
- News of the World: “Stars and Tripe”
The crappy punning I had seen so far all revolved around “British Spill” themes—nothing screams an opportunity for punning LAFFs like a once in a lifetime environmental disaster!
Although the game was level overall, Green was obviously at fault for the US’s equalizer (though it did seem just for us to get back into the game with a goal as cheap as the one WE have away at 4 min!). The English tabloids have variously termed Green’s bobbled ball as a HOWLER or a CLANGER. Cue the inevitable speculation about either the more experienced goalkeeper David James or Young English Hope Joe Hart starting in goal for The Colonizer against Algeria!
For the US, it’s pretty clear who’ll be between the sticks against Slovenia next Friday—yesterday’s Man of the Match Tim Howard!!!
Aight…I need, but haven’t had a Gatorade after that fairly thrilling opening game! Hopefully the green tea I slammed will give me the physiological resolve to LIVE-BLOG ON—it’s truly exhausting work!
I have to say I am flagrantly backing Los Uruguayos here, but not financially. They’re bringing a lot of offensive firepower to bear on a disheveled France squad “organized” for battle by the tactically clueless Raymond Domenech. Herrrre’s the teamsheets, freshly stolen from the wire and still piping hot:
Uruguay: Muslera, Victorino, Lugano, Godin, Pereira, Maxi Pereira, Perez, Arevalo Rios, Gonzalez, Forlan, Suarez.
Subs: Castillo, Fucile, Gargano, Cavani, Eguren, Abreu, Lodeiro, Scotti, Alvaro Fernandez, Sebastian Fernandez, Caceres, Silva.
France: Lloris, Sagna, Gallas, Abidal, Evra, Govou, Gourcuff, Toulalan, Diaby, Ribery, Anelka.
Subs: Mandanda, Reveillere, Planus, Cisse, Gignac, Henry, Malouda, Squillaci, Diarra, Valbuena, Clichy, Carrasso.
Referee: Yuici Nishimura (Japan)
Silky-but-sulky striker Nic Anelka is preferred up front, with scarfaced sexxxfiend Franck Ribery providing creative support and Gourcuff & Toulalan in the center (no Malouda about…won’t pretend to understand Domenech’s tactical mind! But looks like Arsenal’s Abou Diaby is on the right side of midfield). Uruguay are lining up with a 4-4-2 (according to ESPN)…but actually have more of a 3-5-2 with Maxi Pereira of Benfica bombing down the right.
Baby’s crap prediction? Uruguay 2-1? Please?
21 seconds!: Keeper boots down to Forlan, who immediately tries to spring Suárez with a saucy backheel—but nope.
3 min: Domenech looks hella tan and is wearing contacts. Could it make all the difference? NB: Uruguay is indeed playing a 3-5-2…’cept it looks like a 5-3-2 right now.
4 min: This game is gonna be really ugly. Uruguayos like to kick folks into the air, as the cultural stereotype goes, but so far France are at the shirt-tugging and ankle-kicking vanguard. Anelka just clipped down Lugano while chasing a ball—pissing off the Uruguay captain doesn’t seem like a great idea, he’s like a dormant volcano (sorta).
7 min: Jinking down the right, Ribery puts in an ultra-dangerous cross but Govou contrives to tap it a yard right of the post.
11 min: Goatee-sporting Philadelphia Phillie Shane Victorino is playing right-back for Uruguay, having naturalized after never receiving a call-up to the Hawaii XI.
Missed a Hugo Lloris bobble there…accidentally tipping the ball over his own head. The man clearly has what it takes to make it at Arsenal!
15 min: France look decidedly more comfortable in possession, and have had the majority of it. They also seem to be sweating a LOT less than the Albicelesters, but could just be the colors of their kits?
16 min: THUMP! Forlan, pushes it onto his right foot and takes a hearty pop from the edge of the box. Lloris is alert to it though and bats it away.
22 min: Editorial stream-woes. Pixels not players…coming back soon!
24 min: Sorta back, but fuck-all happening here. NEED TO FOCUS!
28 min: Diego Lugano, despite being captain and an experienced centerback, is having a helluva time clearing the ball. Uruguay looking a bit tatty at the back here.
40 min: Pareira’s knee has gone all jammy after booting Govou in the foot. He’s seemingly OK though—thrilling!
Halftime!!! My analysis has not been trenchant, but neither team has given me much to work with! My TeeVee commentator just described Uruguay as obstinate—probably fair, but they’ve also looked a little panicky. Sure France have shown composure, but perhaps too much. Hopefully Domenech busts out the star charts and sorts thing out at half time.
Correspondent/Coworker Leigh informs me of this chestnut from the opening ceremonies…a symbolic dung beetle rolling an enormous soccerball! I think this was the lead-in to R. Kelly. This match so far has been a bit more like 22 players rolling a (gradually larger & larger) ball of shit around the Cape Town pitch…but I’m holding out hope!
2nd half is go! Forlan and Suarez half another 1/4 of a chance to push forward…it is but it isn’t, you see. Here’s to hoping Uruguay gain a bit of fluency here in the 2nd half.
55 min: No hay mucho para contar…Uruguay have steeled things up at the back, looking a bit more resolute in repelling the French attacks. They’re still looking to Forlan to create his own chance, receiving the ball with back to goal. Nothing wrong with that, and it may well work!
59 min: French free kick on the left from 30 yards out, and Gourcuff tees it up horizontally for Ribery. He fizzes pretty far over.
63 min: 21 year-old creative mdifielder is on Nicolad Lodeiro is on in place of Gonzalez—an offensive change.
66 min: Sagna slips on the pitch and loses the ball to Forlan, and Uruguay break on a 3-on-2…Pareira gets in a cross, but its too close to the keeper Lloris.
68 min: There have been a couple of random yellows here, and now its Toulalan’s turn after he wipes out Pareira with a late tackle. The camera cuts away and Diego Lugano’s eyes have started to flash with the craziness I alluded to earlier. He’s nearly headbutting Toulalan as he talks shit…
70 min: Leggy pensioner Thierry Henry is set to come on, with the attendant hoo-haa from the crowd here. He’s on for Anelka.
72 min: The ball falls to Forlan after a Uruguay corner, and Forlan tries to hit it on the volley. He makes contact but screws it way wide. A juicy chance, squandered.
73 min: El Loco Abreu comes on for Suárez. A nice option to have coming off the bench, and poses a bit more of an aerial threat than the man he’s replacing.
74 min: World o’ change here, Gourcuff making way for as Florent Malouda comes on. Domenech is a bit of an idiot isn’t he?
80 min: RED CARD! One of those random yellows I casually mentioned but didn’t flesh out was Nicolas Lodeiro. Well he’s just collected his 2nd yellow for a late n’ crunchy tackle on Sagna. Cue the Minor Threat…RED! I’M SEEIN RED! I’M SEEEEEEIN
88 min: There’s a semi-legitimate claim for handball after Uruguay have trouble clearing, and Henry tries to roundhouse in a high-bouncing ball. The ball struck his arm, but was totally unintentional. Write your own headline re: Henry shouts for handball…
90+1 min: Rearguard action for Uruguay, who just need to hold out here…France are knock-knock-knockin’ though.
90+2 min: Lugano’s eyeballs are about to burst as a flimsy-ass freekick is given to the French about 5 yards outside of the box.
PEEEEP! PEEEP! PEEP! Uruguay hold out, despite playing with 10 men for the final 15 or so minutes. They didn’t offer a whole hell of a lot going forward, but they’ve snatched a point from what is perhaps the most difficult game of the group (wait, fuck that, Mexico is tougher! point rescinded! [ed. my “point”, not the one earned by Uruguay]). However, Forlan looked capable of creating something out of scratch, once Uruguay cohere a bit and find some slightly more inventive services for their frontmen—though he did semi-fluff the match’s most clear-cut chance @ 72 min.
This result leaves everyone in Group A with a point a piece. Next Group A action will be next Wednesday the 16th with South Africa–Uruguay, then Mexico–France the day after! What more can a man say except…get Alexei Lalas off my TeeVee!
The day is finally upon us! After 4 years of waiting, let all work grind to a halt! Should I set up a WC-themed autoreply to my work email???
On paper, Mexico come into this as the rank favorites, but obviously there is no discounting the home field advantage the Bafana Bafana will enjoy here. Handy dandy Opta stats twitter informs me that “The host country has never lost its opening game of the World Cup : 14 wins, 5 draws”—good to know! Have to say, despite the thrill of the occasion, I can’t see the South Africans getting a result against an Mexican team that’s recently added some incisive attacking options to what has been a traditionally well-marshaled side. Starting lineups are in!!!
South Africa: Khune, Gaxa, Mokoena, Khumalo, Thwala, Tshabalala, Dikgacoi, Letsholonyane, Modise, Pienaar, Mphela.
Subs: Josephs, Masilela, Ngcongca, Sibaya, Davids, Booth, Parker, Nomvethe, Moriri, Sangweni, Walters, Khuboni.
Mexico: Perez, Aguilar, Rodriguez, Osorio, Salcido, Torrado, Marquez, Juarez, Giovani, Franco, Vela.
Subs: Ochoa, Barrera, Castro, Blanco, Hernandez, Moreno, Guardado, Magallon, Torres, Bautista, Medina, Michel.
Officiating this match will be Tashkent-based ref Ravshan Irmatov! Uzbek pride. No real surprises in the starting XI (for me!)—Mexico start with former Villareal & Rayas de Monterrey man Guillermo Franco up front, with a pairing of baby-Gunner Carlos Vela and rapidly-developing, globe-trotting Giovanni Dos Santos on the flanks. Looks like South Africa are playing a 4-4-1-1 with Mphela spearheading the attack, while wily winger Steven Pienaar starts behind him.
I’m slamming an editorial bagel real quick, so am missing out on what are sure to be some culturally-sensitive and incisive opening statements from fattened FIFA goose Sepp Blatter. If you want ACTUAL coverage, turn over to Paul Doyle. I hope to provide more laffs though…
WE’RE OFF! Mexico are in black jerseys here and the Bafana Bafana in yellow…¡vamos ya!
PIENAAR HAIR WATCH: Cornrow fusion looking good…dreadlocks flowing all over him.
2 min: Candidate for first African goalkeeping error of the tourney as Khune unwisely comes off his line to bat away a skimming cross…Dos Santos alllllmost bundles it in.
6 min: Bafana Bafana looking might nervous, and having trouble controlling the ball. Can’t blame ’em for letting the emotion get to them.
EL TRI HAIRWATCH: Kinda hard for me to recognize Mexico capitán Gerardo Torrado without his trademark hair poof/headband.
19 min: After some choppy moments and several S. African set pieces, Dos Santos leads Mexico on the counterattack. He has either Vela (or Franco??? sorry!) in support but elected to take a pop himself…floated high and wide. Gio’s the most dangerous man on the pitch right now…
25 min: Parreira’s South Africa are looking less conservative than I’d figured…but their passing in the final third has been sloppy and a bit too ambitious…
31 min: Mexico have had 61% of the possession so far, but are looking far less dominant than they had in the opening 15-or-so mins.
32 min: Carlos Vela, about 25 yards out and moved over to the right side, chips a ball in over the top for Guillermo Franco. He chests it down but he’s too close to keeper Khune by the time he can get his shot off and it’s swatted down.
34 min: Vela again popping up on the right side, looks like he’s switched with Dos Santos, and he put in another dangerous cross on the ground…no one on the end of it though.
37 min: GOAL DISALLOWED! Corner to Mexico, and Vela backs off his marker and is free at the far post. He chests it down and dispatches it into the net…but the linesman raises his flag. Couldn’t have been offside as S. Africa had a man covering the line. Posssssibly thought it was handball, but Vela chested it down cleanly. First FIFA conspiracy-style talking points!
42 min: Corner to South Africa…keeper Perez backpedaling and comes out to punch clear (unconvincingly), but it sails over his head. When did Ochoa stop being first-choice keep for El Tri?
44 min: Great move down the left side for South Africa, a TASTY cross comes across but Mphela can’t quite get his noggin on it. GET IN man!
45 min: Another corner for Mexico, and Kagisho Dikgacoi nods one juuust over the bar. Mexico looking pretty vulnerable from these corners—keeper Oscar Perez is only 5’7″.
HALFTIME!!! Vela and Dos Santos both looking capable of tipping the game Mexico’s way, but those set pieces might the the undoing of El Tri. Sadly I don’t have a cushy, buffering PPV stream for the World Cup like we did for CAN ’10, so there will be less jubilant screengrabbing than back in January—apologies for not having the funding to have a dedicated BOLAS & BANDEIRAS cameralady pitchside? Any volunteers willing to donate their duties to our journalistic cause? Hell, I’ll settle for a bootleg password for a photo agency password so I can steal someone else’s fotos!!! B)
46 min: We’re back! I’ve visited the aseo, I’m on my 2nd coffee, and ready for the 2nd half! I’m sticking with my predictions (made on twitter, but not formally here) from this morning: 2-0 to El Tri.
51 min: I’m drinking coffee here.
54 min: GOLLLLL 1-0 SOUTH AFRICA!!! The first of ’10 as Siphiwe Tshabalala, who has broken down the left several times, makes another run and blasts one from about 15 yards out. The net is a’bulgin and it rifles into the upper right hand corner. About that prediction…
55 min: Attacking midfield Andres Guardado, who had a quality season at Deportivo La Coruña comes on in place of Aguilar.
59 min: Dos Santos shimmies in from the right side, shuffles past two defenders and thumps a rising shot…which Khune does well to tip away from danger.
61 min: Shit is set to get livelier and livelier here, as Mexico are really starting to throw men forward. That’s what created the situation for Tshabalala’s excellent counter attack and riotously thump’d goal…
63 min: I wanna see El Chicharito!!! Will Javier Aguirre call on new Mexican striking sensation Javi Hernandez today?
66 min: Bafana Bafana are brimming with confidence here, they just had another chance which my semi-lagging stream prevents me from articulating in detail. Carlos Alberto Parreira is looking on with grandfatherly approval from the South Africa bench.
68 min: Experience-for-youth substitution here as Cuahtemoc Blanco comes on for Carlos Vela. His first World Cup appearance since 2002. Let me just say how culturally crucial I think it is to have a player named Cuahtemoc in the Mexican side…
72 min: ¡El Chicharito aparece! Javier Hernandez comes in to replace Guillermo Franco. Aguirre’s 3rd sub has pulled out basically all of his offensive stops now…
78 min: GOLLLL de MEXICO!!! 1-1! Guardado has time to pick out a cross, and with 3 Mexicans waiting in the box he finds an unmarked Rafa Marquez at the far post. He takes one touch and buries it…and we’re level.
81 min: Was that Joe Mothereffin’ Biden on camera just now? He looks nervous at hell…does he have a dog in this fight?
83 min: Striker Bernard Parker comes on for Steven Pienaar…is Parreira pushing for a winner here, or just trying to keep one of his best players fresh?
89 min: Ohhhhh my…a looong ball over the top bounces several times as Mphela chases, he controls despite being marked/chased by two Mexicans…and puts it against the post from 5 yards. Hearts in throats for South African fans here in Soccer City…
90 +2 min: One final attack for El Tri after several South African throw ins. Almost everyone back to defend for the Bafana Bafana…
PEEEEEEEP!!! Uzbek ref calls full time right on the dot. Not a bad result for the South Africans. They could have been down a coupla goals in the first half had the finishing of El Tri been a bit more deadly (Franco in particular had several headers he should have converted). Despite all the expectation, you have to think Parreira’s squad will be happy to have started off the Cup with a valuable point. I was especially impressed with Tshabalala, who scored a CRACKING (we’ll be using that one a lot, sorry) goal and also was playing provider with excellent creative passing vision in the 2nd half.
Mexico, however, will really feel they should have won this. Aguirre did some productive tinkering however…I’d like to hope Guardado starts against France next week, as he really added something else in attack. Promising performances from Santos, and to a lesser extent Carlos Vela.
IT’S OFFICIALLY ON!!! Gonna slam some wistful tacos here, and I’ll be back for Albiceleste v. Les Bleus @ 2pm or so!
No one can decide whether Brazil or Spain are the odds-on favorites to lift the cup on July 11. The bookies seem to favor Spain just a little bit: bet365 and Paddy Power have Spain at 4-1 and Brazil at 9-2. The belief comes from Spain’s strong showing in the Euros of two years ago, where they won all 6 of their games, scoring 12 goals and letting in only 3.
Xavi finished as the Player of the Tournament, but there were similarly strong performances from almost every other member of the team as well. David Villa got the Golden Boot with 4 goals, Fernando Torres scored the crucial winning goal against Germany in the final, Iker Casillas stood strong throughout, including the penalty shootout against Italy, and Carlos Puyol was a monster in defense. Most notably, however, was the quietly controlling holding-midfield work of Brazilian-born Marcos Senna. Many thought the Villareal midfielder, and not Xavi, deserved to be named Player of the Tournament after a near flawless performance, acting as a stabilizing lynchpin, grounding Spain’s attacking flair through tireless ball-winning and exquisite distribution. Though Senna’s past season has been hampered by injuries, many were surprised by Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque‘s omission of the midfielder from the 23-man national squad. It remains to be seen if the new Spanish lineup will be able to compensate for the absence of such a quietly important player.
Judging from the performance in a friendly with Poland a few days ago, Spain are looking very strong indeed. The 6-1 win was magnificent, with this absolutely bonkers second goal inciting fawning praise from journalists around the world:
This kind of cohesive, technical, and effective team play will need to be flawless to cut apart defenses stronger than that of the Poles.
Apart from the familiar faces from the Euros, Sevilla winger Jesus Navas and his alien eyes have been having a breakout season, and will be looking to cement his rapidly-growing reputation with a strong international showing. Barcelona tumbling champion Sergio Busquets, will be looking to somewhat make up for Senna’s absence, playing a holding midfield role behind denter-mid tag-team of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, although Xabi Alonso is probably the more solid (and balanced) man for the role. Cesc Fabregas was given the number 10 shirt, which seems to indicate the certainty of his position in the starting lineup. I can’t really figure out where he’ll play, however. Maybe in a more attacking midfield position? Or maybe next to Xavi, with whom he shares the same DNA, allowing Iniesta to operate more as a winger?
However Spain lines up, they are probably the most talented side in South Africa, and judging on their pre-tournament performances, the bookies are justified in picking them as favorites. There are still some doubts, such as questions about the tiredness of the squad, which was blamed for their embarrassing defeat to the USA in last summer’s Confederations Cup (USA! USA! etc.). If all goes according to plan (or probability), it could end up Spain v Brazil in the final: Nu Brazilian Pragmatism vs. Hyperactive Spanish Rebirth… Could be majestic.
Before thinking about the 2010 Chile team, let’s take a trip down memory lane to 1989, the infamous “Maracanazo” incident. Losing 1-0 to Brazil in a World Cup qualifying match at the Maracana, Chilean keeper Roberto “El Condor” Rojas took the opportunity of having a firework thrown in his vicinity to remove a razor blade hidden in his glove and slice upon his face. The referee abandoned the match. When the trick was later discovered Rojas was given a lifetime ban by FIFA, and Chile were banned from taking part in the 1994 World Cup. Classic stuff!:
In 2010 Chile are coming off a spectacular qualifying run, finishing second, just one point behind Brazil. Despite having a head shaped like a bowling ball Humberto Suazo finished as top scorer of the qualifying rounds, netting 10. Despite such a strong showing the international press seems completely oblivious of Chile’s presence in South Africa. I guess this makes them actual dark horses, as in horses that are so dark that a team of 11 horses can enter an international football competition almost invisibly.
Apart from Spain’s inevitable top position, competition in Group H is pretty open for the second slot. If Chile continue their fine form, they could easily edge out the Swiss and the Hondurans.
Apart from Suazo’s goals, Chile rely on their speed, such as that fro exciting youngster Alexis Sanchez. They’re a bit shaky at the back, and will have to solidify their tactics to get through their group. Their games should be attractice to watch, at least. Also I like their chants:
“Somos los hinchas, más anarquistas, los mas borrachos, los más anti-fascistas ..”
It’s getting close to deadline time and I don’t have much to say about Swiss football. Apologies to the Swiss people. but this will be brief.
Switzerland are a young, organized and efficient side coached by German legend Ottmar Hitzfeld. Big man Gokhan Inler will work alongside Tranquillo Barnetta to retain possession in midfield. Their strength could make it hard for teams like Spain and Chile to ping the ball upfield with their usual panache. Young guns Gelson Fernandes and Eren Derdiyok could provide the Swiss with, for lack of a better word, firepower going forward.
In short, this young Swiss side will probably prove more of an obstacle to some of the pretty possessors they’ll come up against, although I don’t see them making it through.
It is wonderful to see Honduras in the World Cup again, having only qualified once before, way back in 1982. Honduras has produced some exciting new talent in recent years, and they could be the most promising little fish to make a proverbial splash in the, uh, big international pond? (Sorry)
Midefielder Wilson Palacios is Honduras’ high-profile player. After an impressive season anchoring the Wigan attack, Palacios was bought by Tottenham, where he has continued to impress. Rumors abound now of Barcelona’s interest in Palacios to fill the Yaya Toure role, the gobbler-up of loose balls, the sparker of attacks, the supplier of emergency tackles. Palacios’ efficient midfield work, alongside his very-old-looking ex-Wigan teammate Hendry Thomas will be key to Honduran progression.
Maynor Figueroa, also of Wigan (very curious to know ore about the Wigan-Honduras connection… is Tegucipalga a sister city or something?) is very strong in defense as well.
Up front, as we learn from this grammatically-extraordinary headline, Carlo Costly is not available! Cagliari legend David Suazo and the ancient ex-Napoli striker Carlos Pavón will be responsible for getting the goals.
This is really the best Honduran side of all time, and with Group H’s second spot seriously up for grabs, don’t be too surprised to see these ultimate dark horses making some waves in the knockout stages.
••• Official BOLAS & BANDEIRAS Qualifying Picks: Spain, Honduras
Touted as the great African hope at the first World Cup to be held on the African continent, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect of of Côte d’Ivoire. From back to front, they are undoubtedly the most star-studded African side, boasting many players from the famous ASEC Abidjan academy. They also sport a bit more solidity in defense, with Kolo Toure commanding things at centerback, and the fairly trustworthy Boubacar Barry in goal. Though perhaps not the tightest markers in the world, the can call on Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboue on the right and the 5’5″ left back, “The African Roberto Carlos” Arthur Boka. Indeed, the grit continues in central midfielder, where Barcelona’s Yaya Toure lines up aside Romaric of Sevilla (who missed out on the CAN ’10 in Angola and whose return to the side will be welcomed). Yaya is becoming an increasingly mature midfield boss and box-to-box runner, not unlike a young Patrick Vieira. However, it is their offensive firepower that is most remarked upon, with Salomon Kalou, Arouna Dindane, Kader Keita, and goal-scoring youthman Gervinho fighting for a place in attack.
It’s the latter that might be the most potent new addition to the Ivorians attack—he is quite pacy and coming off an excellent season at Lille. Obviously, there’s also captain Didier Drogba leading the line. Drogz is undoubtedly one of the finest players in the world (and it’s increasingly looking like the elbow injury he sustained last week will not prevent him from playing), however it’s been said that his desire to lead the team can sometimes undermine The Elephants larger tactical plan. Perhaps that will all change under new gaffer Sven-Goran Eriksson, the former Benfica/Lazio/England manager who took over in March. A bit more tactical steel and organizational maturity is definitely what Ivory Coast have lacked in their last several years of international soccer.
Although they failed to get out of their group (admittedly the most difficult in the tournament) in the 2006 WC, The Elephants impressed in hard-fought 2-1 defeats to both Argentina and The Netherlands—no shame in losing to either of those two—and beat Serbia & Montenegro 3-2. However, their performances in the 2008 and 2010 African Cup of Nations were decidedly less convincing. 2008 saw them start promisingly, but get dismantled 4-1 by Egypt in the semifinals. 2010 was yet more embarrassingly, as they utterly collapsed against Algeria in extra time.
That most recent defeat is what really sows seeds of doubt—centerback Souleymane Bamba in particular was totally at sea, 100% at fault for two free headers which helped Algeria equalize and then take the lead in extra time. They showed a total lack of heart in that game as well, letting a late goal reduce them to rubble. They have a very, very difficult group, so they will need a bit more mental clarity and determination to eek out of the group ahead of Portugal.
It’s perhaps unavoidable that analysis of the qualification of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (hereafter North Korea!) would mostly certain around political themes. This is only the second time they have ever qualified for the finals, the other being their (cliché watch) FAIRYTALE 1966 campaign in which they knocked out Italy and led 3-0 against Eusebio’s Portugal, only to lose 5-3. The actual footballing prowess of the 2010 has been overshadowed by various scandals, including their failed attempt to use a player as both a goalkeeper and striker—but also by the fact they are the odd man out in a very, very difficult group. An exceptionally in-depth look at the tactics and approach of this current squad comes via zonalmarking.net’s seriously in-depth investigation, detailing not just their tendency to play with almost 6 men at the back but also the attacking threat they pose.
“If you expected them to be well-organised at the back but lacking technical quality upfront, think again. Their front two are the two best players in the side – Hong Yong-Jo plays a classic trequartista role, playing between defence and midfield and looking to play through balls for the striker. And what a striker he is – Jong Tae-Se makes intelligent runs starting from wide positions and has a lethal shot on him.”
It’s enough to give one pause, and perhaps the North Koreans are capable of pulling off a surprise—but against Brazil or Portugal?
Carlo’s Queiroz‘s squad struggled during the qualifying rounds, but are gradually cohering as a team in their recent friendlies. Queiroz is not everyone’s favorite as a tactician, and during his time at Manchester United was frequently criticized for his overthought conservatism. Indeed, Portugal’s most disappointing run of results in the qualifiers were a string of three nil-nil draws (two against Sweden but also against Albania!). One man who Queiroz knows well from his days coaching ultra-odioua Man U is Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite all the Nike marketing buxxx and media hype, Ronaldo has not played well and has not scored a goal for the national team since Feb 2009 (a penalty in a friendly against Finland). The time is nigh for Ronaldo to start producing, especially with last week’s costly injury to Nani (the man “replaced” him at Manchester United). I find “CR9” to be an obnoxiously petulant diva, and am definitely capable of offering objective analysis regarding him! What his first season at Real Madrid has proved, however, is that he is not much a team player—he can be a great distributor of the ball, but tantrums ensue if the result of the build-up play doesn’t immediately re-include him. Let’s not dwell on unpleasantries though, as there is a lot more to the Portuguese seleção than one brat with too much hair gel.
Portugal have a reliable centerback partnership in Chelsea’s Paulo Ferreira and Bruno Alves of Porto, both tall and with excellent positional sensibilities. They certainly do not lack experience or creativity in midfield, with Deco and Tiago lining up in the center. They’re backed by the newly fit-again Pepe, a centerback at Real Madrid who fills a holding midfield role when playing for nation. Another offensive threat who will be looking to assert himself in the absence of Nani is Atlético Madrid’s Simão Sabrosa. Finally, normally playing as a sole striker, is Liédson. Born in Brazil, he was controversially given Portuguese citizenship (after 6 years of residence there playing for Sporting) and called up to the national squad in late 2009—just in time to score some crucial goals in Portugal’s stuttering pursuit of World Cup qualification. The seleção‘s first match against Ivory Coast will be crucial for both teams to claim early points in a deadly difficult group. I’d love to see Portugal win it all—provided Ronaldo break his leg in the first game. B)
That other seleção can’t seem to ever avoid being tournament favorites, despite lacking some of the flashier starpower of the 2006 squad. Dunga‘s charges come into the tournament looking dramatically more pragmatic than Parreira’s “magic rectangle” of Ronaldo (the one without abs), Ronaldinho, Adriano, and Kaká. The three points of that polygon who are casualties that time around epitomize Dunga’s philosophy—there will be no flashy, partying passengers under his watch.
Dunga, a man who sports a flat top and served as the no-nonsense holding midfielder who captained Brazil to the 1994 cup, is not fucking around—he’s looking to win, not to package some sort of cultural advertisement for Brazilian “samba style” soccer.
Dunga’s footballing philosophy is perhaps best embodied in his choice of captain, the knuckle-dragging, kick-up-arse-delivering centerback Lúcio. It’s also highlighted in his choice of Maicon (before he became the Hotttttest Right Back in The World™ through his performances at Inter Milan) over Barcelona’s right-side bombing Dani Alves; the latter simple doesn’t play enough defense to be Dunga’s frist choice. Between the posts is who many consider the best goalkeeper in the world, Inter’s Julio Cesar. Where Brazil might be the most vulnerable is in Dunga’s old position. The rapidly aging Gilberto Silva provides cover in front of the back four, with the only alternative being Felipe Meio (and exciting prospect coming off a nightmarish season at Fiorentina). The Brazilian media clamored for the inclusion of the partially resurgent Ronaldinho, who has regained some form since his move to AC Milan, if not Santos youngsters Neymar and Ganso. The team was supposedly too dependent on Kaká, a player admittedly not at the height of his powers at the moment, for creativity. However, I feel players like Benfica’s Ramires (formerly at Cruzeiro) or even Josue, can be counted on for moments of inspiration pushing forward.
There was basically only one surprise call-up, and that was Wolfsburg’s Grafite (formerly of São Paulo). He offers another option in attack, although many are tipping fleet-footed target man Luis Fabiano of Sevilla to be the tournament’s top scorer. Brazil should obviously qualify with ease—though they might struggle against more defensively resolute teams (perhaps even North Korea), unlike in the past this is a seleção that knows how to grind out ugly wins.
••• Official BOLAS & BANDEIRAS Qualifying Picks: Brazil, Ivory Coast
La Albirroja stood proudly atop the South American qualifying group, before falling off a bit and losing their final four games (two of those to Chile & Brazil, who qualified above them). Along the road to qualification they put in some impressive performances however, including beating both Brazil and Argentina in Asunción. They’re coached by the Argentine Gerardo Martino, in charge of the national team for the last four years after claiming the Paraguayan domestic league tittle on four occasions with clubs Cerro Porteño and Libertad.
One of most bizarre narratives surrounding the Paraguay squad is the absence of Club América stiker Salvador Cabañas, leading scorer in the qualifying campaign, after he was shot in the head at a Mexico City bar back in January. Luckily Cabañas survived this attack, but its unclear if and when he’ll return to playing. Paraguay’s biggest name, Manchester City benchwarmer Roque Santa Cruz, will be expected to rush into the goal-scoring void. It was initially thought Santa Cruz would continue the pine-riding role he’s filled this season, however Paraguay’s other tall, powerful target man, Benfica’s Oscar Cardozo, may not shake off an ankle injury in time to play. However, a last minute boon to the Paraguayan attack is that Argentina-born Lucas “La Pantera” Barrios has been granted a Paraguayan passport (his mother is from Paraguay) and has been named to the squad. After scoring 49 goals in 53 appearances with Chilean side Colo-Colo, he earned himself a move to Borussia Dortmund, where he finished the season with 19 goals—he’s a tidy finisher, tall, strong in the air, and tends to simply pop up in the right places.
The All Whites reached the World Cup after triumphing in a eyeball-gougingly dull playoff against Middle Eastern footballing titans Bahrain. FIFA has really got to do something to retool the weight given to the Oceania group, which used to feature Australia before they appealed to be classified within Asia. NZ topped a qualifying group consisting of Vanuatu (pop. 243,000), New Caledonia (pop. 249,000), and Fiji (to whom NZ lost 2-0 at home). This is the second time the Kiwis have qualified for a World Cup, the other being in 1982 when they lost all three group stage games and were sent packing. Without being too grumpily dismissive, I can’t see why it won’t also be 3-and-out for them here in 2010.
They’re captained by Blackburn Rovers centerback and Stanford graduate Ryan Nelsen. Leading the line is Plymouth Argyle’s Rory Fallon, who scored the goal that brought them to South Africa. Again, I’m trying to keep the patronizing to a minimum, but it’s highly likely that New Zealand are the least talented team appearing at the cup—prove me wrong, Kiwis!
The Slovak republic became an autonomous nation at the beginning of 1993, their national FA was founded that year, and this will be the first tournament the national team has qualified for. Triviatime! In the days when a Slovak puppet state was established by the Nazis (1939-45), there was briefly a Slovakia squad, and they even beat Germany 2-0 in their inaugural match! Qualification for the 2010 cup, overseen by Bratislava-born coach Vladimir Weiss, is a major achievement for the Slovaks and shouldn’t be underplayed—they topped a group that including the Czech Republic (beating, drawing), Poland (beatin’ ’em twice), and Nor’n Ireland (beatin’ ’em twice). I won’t pretend to understand the socio-cultural dynamics between the two former components of Czechoslovakia, but apparently many Czechs are supporting their former countrymen in their absence of their own team:
“As long as we’re not there in South Africa, I’ll definitely keep my fingers crossed for Slovakia, unlike a lot of Slovaks who don’t keep their fingers crossed for us when they don’t qualify. But that’s there [sic] problem, and I’ll definitely be glad if the Slovaks get out of the group stage.”
Central to the Slovak team is Napoli attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik, who’ll be the most likely source of creativity. The most familiar name to international audiences may be Liverpool’s Martin Sktrel, the intimidatingly bald centerback. He’s recovering from injury, but is expected to be fit and could provide some crucial experience to the Slovakia side. It’s going to be tough going to escape the group ahead of Italy and Paraguay, but the qualifying rounds already proved that Slovenská footballing prowess shouldn’t be scoffed at.
The Azzuri dove, bitched, and smirked their way to success in 2006 without really ever impressing on the field. Particularly galling, as noted by our Aussie guestBlogger Nick, was Fabio Grosso‘s dive against Australia which sent them through. See the Zapruder-like analysis below and decide for yourself!
But, alas, I reckon we’re talking 2010 here! It’s a much noted cliché that the Italians are most likely to succeed when little is expected of them, and indeed this is an Italy squad which has not been deemed of notable vintage—so pray that they ACTUALLY FAIL! They have looked seriously uninspired in the friendlies leading up to the tournament, drawing against Cameroon and Switzerland and losing 2-1 to Mexico. After Roberto Donadoni’s stewardship was deemed a failure, 2006 WC-winning brow-furrower Marcelo Lippi is back at the helm. He has faced vocal criticism for selecting an aging squad which features 9 members of title-winning team. Specific eyebrow-raisers are right back Gianluca Zambrotta (33) who faltered in his post-WC move to Barcelona and had an unimpressive season at AC Milan this year, as well as the now-calamitous 36 year-old centerback Fabio Cannavaro reprising his role as captain. Cannavaro was an absolute joke during HIS post-WC move to Real Madrid, he’s been crap at Juventus since then, and his decline is such that he’s recently decided on a move to play in the United Arab Emirates.
Luckily there are some fresher faces who are nosing their way into the side (although American-born traitor striker Guiseppe Rossi was trimmed from the provisional squad during the final paring down). Due to the injury of Andrea Pirlo, Fiorentina’s excellent midfield general Ricardo Montolivo looks set to start. Hopefully 25 year-old Giampolo Pazzini, coming off a breakout season scoring 19 goals and leading Sampdoria to a 4th-placed finish, will get some minutes up front (if only because Vincento Iaquinta is such a fuckhead!). Lippi, however, has tended to prefer Iaquinta & Alberto Gilardino, spearheading a 4-4-2 formation. Though the prospects of qualifying out of the group look nearly nailed down, they face a tricky opener against Paraguay. If they fail to top Group F, they would likely face the Netherlands in the round of 16…can’t say I wouldn’t delight at seeing the Oranje send home the Azzuri early in the tournament.
••• Official BOLAS & BANDEIRAS Qualifying Picks: Paraguay, Italy
Games involving the Dutch in South Africa should be quite easy on the eyes, unless flawless defending is your thing. But if you’re into goals, goals, goals, scored through Tricky Flicks, Mazy Dribbles and Fruitless Backheels then you’re in for a treat. In short, this 2010 edition of the Holland football team has ample firepower going forward (with artistry to boot) but shakiness at the back and in goal could negate whatever goals they claim up front.
(Robben cleansing Europe of scum)
Arjen Robben is one of the best players in Europe at the moment, (a few weeks ago maybe THE best), but he is struggling with a hamstring injury that he picked up in a pre-WC friendly while attempting some sort of combination Tricky Flick/Fruitless Backheel. With a fully-fit Robben in their side Holland could be said to be one of the favorites to lift the cup, but without him they seem to be regarded as a dark horse favorite; or maybe just slightly dark: a bright horse laying in the dappled shade of a plane tree.
Robben-less, the Dutch attack is still one of the strongest at this World Cup: Champions-League-winning Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Dirk Kuyt, Klass-Jan Huntelaar, and the mighty Robin van Persie. Van Persie will be particularly interesting to watch: missing most of the last season through injury, Van Persie may be fresher and stronger than most of the other players who have just finished tiring 38-game seasons in Europe. In the last couple of Arsenal games, Van Persie looked magnificent, almost single-handedly lifting a disillusioned Arsenal squad. If his form then was not a fluke, he could put in a legendary performance in South Africa.
An oldie but a goodie:
With the national retirement of Edwin van der Sar, Maarten Stekelenburg has stepped into goal for the Dutch, striking fear into the hearts of an entire nation. Stekelenburg has regained his spot as first-choice keeper for Ajax, but there remain many questions about his reliability. Playing behind a back four of questionable pedigree, Stekelenburg will have to assert his authority in goal to give the Dutch the solidity necessary to progress towards the Final.
Looking strong in qualification (topping their group, embarrassing Portugal), the Danes will look to captain (and Mark Hamill look-alike) Jon Dahl Tomasson to continue the squad’s strong form in South Africa.
Remember Euro 1992?! That has been the Danish rallying cry for the past eighteen years, but World Cup appearances since have failed to repeat such a feat: reaching the quarter-finals in ’98 was the farthest they got. The Danish team this year could be the strongest since 1992.
While lacking any real superstar talent, Denmark are a very talented and (more importantly) cohesive unit, whose organization and team-spirit was plain to see in their successful qualifying rounds. Striker Soren Larsen spoke of the team ethic present in the squad:
“Our main strength is our team spirit. We keep things tight and try to get forward with plenty of passing down the flanks. It’s very similar to the Netherlands, really, but not quite at the same level. We fight for one another, so if someone makes a mistake, we run the extra 100 metres to help them out.”
Tomas Sorensen in goal together with center-backs Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaer keep it tight at the back, and Christian Poulsen will pull the strings from a holding midfield position. Striker Nicklas Bendtner has had a funny time at Arsenal. He became a bit of a laughing stock by appearing delusionally cocky and self-assured in interviews, and incited much grumbling and harrumphing from stuffy British announcers for wearing PINK BOOTS. Some seemed shocked and appaled at the state of the world wear a man can step onto a football pitch wearing pink (Forza Palermo!), although some said that it was a guarantee of the reality of his manliness. Either way, Bendtner’s pink slippers eventually found the ball and made the ball eventually go into the net. He compensated for his inaccurate finishing with good movement, deft ball-control, and muscle, also popping up in defense to head away from set pieces. Bendtner’s form with Denmark has been fairly stellar. Look to Bendigol/Barndoor to supply most of the Danish goals this summer.
After a disappointing campaign in Germany 4 years ago, Japan arrive in South Africa with a new coach, some new talent, and the desire to repeat their 2002 progression into the second round. Fortune was not smiling particularly brightly on the Japanese, and they will certainly have a hard time getting through Group E. I really don’t see them pulling it of, and if they do it will be a huge accomplishment for Asian football.
CSKAMoscow’s young midfielder Keisuke Honda could be the hottest new Japanese talent, and after a stellar showing in the Eredivisie and a promising start in Russia, Honda will surely hope to make an impression on the international stage. Also keep an eye out for young Catania striker Takayuki Morimoto, “the Japanese Ronaldo,” whose pace and skill have attracted the wandering eyes of a few big European clubs.
After big-upping Cameroon in this year’s CAN, I sadly watched the Indomitable Lions look decidedly domitable as they barely scraped through their group before getting soundly beaten by Egypt.
Sadly, I don’t really have a reason to think Cameroon will fare much better in South Africa. Alex Song and Samuel Eto’o, Cameroon’s two best players in my opinion, epitomize the model of hugely talented club-player who somehow becomes a less-than-spectacular national-player. With Song, who still plays with the same effectiveness and elegance for both Cameroon and Arsenal, it is a question of formation. Paul Le Guen seems unable to replicate the role that Arsene Wenger designed for Song at Arsenal: that of a holding midfielder, able to get forward enough to provide killer passes while always able to defend against a counter-attack if one of the center-backs has strayed forward. With Eto’o it’s more a case of not getting the same service from his national teammates that he gets from their club counterparts.
Recently at Inter, Mourinho has turned Eto’o from a central striker into a winger-cum-left-back. It will be interesting to see whether coach Paul Le Guen takes a cue from this change, allowing Cameroon’s other strikers to take a more leading role.
One young player who may make a big impression is Eto’o’s possible strike-partner, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who may replace Pierre Webo and Mohammadou Idrisou up front. Le Guen has said that he thinks Eto’o and Choupo-Moting understand each other and communicate well on the pitch. Choupo-Moting certainly looks like a good finisher in this video (disregard the fact that he’s playing for HSV/scum):
A prolific strike partnership between the two would be a welcome change from the lack of finishing prowess seen in Angola earlier this year.
The defense remains doubtful, with Rigobert Song looking to become the first player sent of in three World Cups, and N’Koulo and the others still looking a bit shaky. If Le Guen chances upon a killer new formation for the Indomitables, they can surely challenge for second spot in Group E, but they won’t progress without a vast improvement to the form they’ve shown so far in 2010.
••• Official BOLAS & BANDEIRAS Qualifying Picks: Netherlands, Denmark
Panic in the streets of north Berlin as the HILARIOUS (not actually hilarious) news of Michael Ballack’s injury hit the presses. I was staying at a sublet in the Berlin neighborhood of Wedding at the time, an area known for a large immigrant population and relatively high crime rate (barely any crime at all, by American standards). It’s really a great place, and I feel some affinity
with it, as it was where I stayed during my first trip to Berlin. So I was relatively pleased to discover that the player responsible for the German captain’s exclusion from the World Cup was born and raised in Wedding, and declined an offer to play for the German national side in favor of … Group D opponents Ghana! None other than Portsmouth FC’s ruff-n-tumble midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng.
Now it’s always unfortunate when important players miss a tournament due to injury, but part of me was overjoyed not to have to watch Ballack’s constant whinging (presumedly picked up during his stay at Chelsea) and douchebag smirking, not to mention his own dangerous tackling. Talented footballer, but he really is one of the major pricks of the sport.
Needless to say, German fans are pretty crushed. Ballack was the veteran of the otherwise very young squad, and without him in midfield young guns like Sami Khedira (Ballack’s replacement), Mesut Özil and an in-form Bastien Schweinsteiger (recently transformed from winger to central midfielder at Bayern Munich) will have to take more leading roles.
Apart from the Ballack-shaped hole in midfield, Germany really don’t have a good striker. Klose and Podolski both became benchwarmers after losing form (only managing 5 Bundesliga goals between them last season), and Mario Gomez seemed a bit of a joke at the Euros. Perhaps Klose (last WC’s top scorer) plays better at an international level, but this past season has really been a shocker for him.
Captained now by the young (and excellent) right-back Phillip Lahm, Germany are looking less like their normal lineup of big Teutonic bruisers, and more like a younger, dynamic side with lots to prove. Look to the German midfield prospects to really shine if Germany are to get anywhere near the Final, despite a solid qualifying run.
I’ll let our new addition to the B&B editorial staff Nick Keys / kickknees, world renowned Aussie poet and square-artist, supply us with a review of the Australian side. All I know is that Cahill is feisty, Schwarzer magnificent, and they got cheated by Italy last time around. Here’s to a good showing with their second Dutch master. Players to watch: Ken Oath.
Kickknees says: It’s probably fair to say that there is an expectation disjuncture amongst Australian fans. On the one hand we have those fans (the world over) who hibernate between World Cups, emerging a few months before the tournament begins, suddenly kitted out in shirts and scarfs, ready to shout themselves hoarse, drunk on anticipation, stumbling and slurring their inept punditry. For these Australian fans expectations are high. On the back of an outstanding tournament in Germany 4 years ago, with the same players, another Dutch coach, it would seem that getting out of the group is the minimum requirement.
On the other hand, for the fans who actually follow the team, the fact that the starting XI is almost identical (injury permitting) to the team that lined up four years ago is a worrying sign, demonstrating an alarming generational gap in Australian football. Results-wise, the qualifying campaign was flawless, yet Pim Verbeek’s side has been consistently questioned for its lack of attacking quality. The logic of this perspective goes as so: if you can’t dominate teams in the attacking third in Asia, then you can’t make a significant impact at the World Cup. It’s a pretty compelling argument, and one that holds true (although almost no Australian fan will accept it) for their performance against Italy in the 2nd round at the 2006 World Cup. Sure, we got robbed by that filthy cheating prick Fabio Grosso (who incidentally went on to score the winner in the Semi-Final, and the winning penalty in the Final), but the truth is that the Socceroos never looked like scoring against Italy.
But it’s hardly Pim Verbeek’s fault that Australia doesn’t have any world-class strikers. Mark Viduka has retired, and even if he had played on, he’s not the force he was. So the burden falls to Nagoya Grampus striker and J-League top scorer Josh Kennedy. Standing at 6′ 4″ he’s a handy target man, and a crucial player to the structure of the team. He has scored important goals for Australia in his short international career, but he’s not the kind of striker that’s going to worry Nemanja Vidic or Per Mertesacker all that much. As gets pointed out ad naseum, Tim Cahill is the talisman of the team, and when the team needs a goal, he will provide it or the team will fall. Cahill’s problem this time around is that he’s no secret. Having said that, Cahill has talent that you can’t coach against: the timing of his runs and positioning in the box is as good as anyone in the world. Cahill is reportedly under an injury cloud (neck) for the first game, but it’s hard to see him not playing. Hapless Harry Kewell has a body held together by labratory-grown ligaments and muscle tissue, making him a form of artificial life. Add to this the artifice of the media-soap opera called Will Harry Be Fit Enough To Hobble To Bench? and you have a frankly boring distraction.
The form guide for Australia was totally thrown out the window in the final warm-up against the U.S.A. The previously obstinate defence was very open minded to all U.S. attacks, indeed Vince Grella was so atypically open minded that he sought to aid the U.S. attacks whereever possible. And although they only scored one goal, the Socceroos threatened the U.S. goal on many occasions. The U.S. thoroughly deserved their victory, but you can expect Verbeek’s Australian team a this World Cup to be very tight at the back, extremely fit, physical, highly organised and judiciously picking their moments to go forward.
My money is on Serbia and Germany to go through, but no team in the group is seriously intimidating in the way a Spain, Brazil, Argentina or (I hate to say it) England are. It’s not crazy to hope that a draw against Germany could set the Socceroos up for a win against Ghana and passage through to the 2nd round. But I’m just happy that the team is at the World Cup again. A 2nd Round match up against the USA would be ideal…
Serbia’s matches might be a bit dull, unless you like watching big defenders stopping players from scoring. Serbia’s first World Cup as an independent nation sees them heading to South Africa with one of the most formidable defenses of the competition. Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic (“the only man who could slam a revolving door”), Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic, and promising young central defender Neven Subotic will apply massive hurt to any chicken-neck strikers who dare to saunter into their box. The Big Back Four will try to keep the goals to a minimum, but second- or third-string Wigan keeper Stojkovic might make up for their vigilance with some comedy gold in goal.
Zigic and Pantelic up front is not the worst striker combo imaginable, and service from Champions League winning Dejan Stankovic could supply the Serbians with some substanital firepower. The optimism of an entire newly-independent nation will surely boost the fighting spirit and self-confidence of this actually quite impressive team. Dark horses, for sure.
In 2006 Ghana, playing in their first ever World Cup, impressed the world, progressing to the quarter-finals before losing respectably to Brazil. Since then the Ghanaian team have remained an organized unit, playing strong and defensive football, with a modicum of flair in attack. Nothing too flashy here, but seemingly more reliable than other African sides of late.
Just like earlier this year in Angola, Ghana will be missing their star captain Michael Essien. Though without him they still managed to reach the final of that competition, where they were narrowly beaten by Egypt. Throughout that competition Ghana looked surprisingly strong, considering the extreme youth of the side they were forced to field due to injuries not only to Essien, but to several other key players (most of whom are fit and ready for South Africa). Football Afrocentrists like us here at B&B can only hope that this Ghanaian generation have maybe developed a NEW AFRICAN FOOTBALL STYLE that could finally see the immense talent at hand molded and shaped into a ruthless Winning Machine.
Captain Stephen Appiah as well as Sulley Muntari (another Champions League winner) will try to make up for Essien’s absence in midfield. Young Udinese midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah could be the Black Stars’ most exciting prospect, capable of artful dribbles and sneaky passing. Asamoah Gyan (scorer of the first ever Ghanaian goal in the World Cup, which was also the fastest goal in World Cup history) is fresh from a great season at Rennes and could continue his good form with the help of good service from the Ghanaian mids.
Also exciting will be the fiery head-2-head sibling-struggle of Ballack-knacker Kevin-Prince Boateng against brother Jerome (presumably the more serene, peaceable Boateng). Look to German media for some first-class whining if Ghana go through at the expense of Germany.
This is actually a very open group. It remains to be seen if Germany can cope Ballack-less. If they lose their first game (against Australia) qualification will be there for anyone to snatch.
••• Official BOLAS & BANDEIRAS Qualifying Picks: Germany, Ghana (forgive me Nick)
Perennial quarter-finalists (7 times in all!), England are hoping to make up for the disappointing non-qualification for Euro 2008 with a strong performance in South Africa. Pragmatic Italian© coach Fabio Capello has seemingly instilled a sense of discipline into a squad of (it must be said) spoiled, narcissistic underachievers (although considering Steve McClaren’s spectacular success with FC Twente in the Erdevisie, it remains questionable to what extent the coach was at fault for such a poor showing). Expect to see an England side operating through fear (at Don Fabio’s wrath), and attacking, or rather counter-attacking in an obvious Pragmatic Italian© style.
England’s historical football mindset has always been that of entitlement, as the game’s “inventors,” “Football’s coming home,” and such dreck, as the purveyors of a sort of “civilised” football. In recent years one may notice a marked blindness to national players’ on-field chicanery (Rooney’s numerous dives, Gerrard constantly winning free-kicks by barging into defenders and then screaming at the referee with his arms outstretched) while denouncing similar activity in foreigners. Adding to this warped perspective the constant pressure of suicidal national media attention, constantly digging up scandals, indulging celebrity ego-trips, have created a dysfunctional team of 21st century PR-non-humans, playing the sort of football that makes the eyes bleed. If England are to go anywhere in this World Cup it will be due either to the Iron Fist® of Pragmatic Italian© Capello, or the manic brilliance (and diving) of world-class striker Mr. Potato Head.
England won the World Cup in 1966 thanks to a “goal that never was,” and it seems as though they expected to win the thing each year ever since (or, at least, when they qualified). Paul Wilson suggests things are different this year. And if they fail, for the first time in 9 competitions, to progress beyond the group stages, it seems as though they’ve prepared their excuses in advance.
One of my most patriotic moments has to be seeing Big H.A.W.K. rapping in front of DJ Screw’s record store in a promotional video for the U.S. Men’s National Team.
The relatively star-less American side is one of the few American sports franchises that I can whole-heartedly get behind. Clint Dempsey, rapping above, grew up in a trailer park in southern Texas playing soccer with Mexican children. Fresh from another successful season at Fulham (where he scored this contender for goal of the season and became the first American to play in a European final) he will be sure to shine in attack, supporting Jozy Altidore, “the Haitian Didier Drogba” who endeared himself to the Hull City fans with his strength and work-rate last season, despite only scoring twice. Exciting new MLS Pichichi-to-be Edson Buddle (at 29 finally hitting his stride after an injury-ravaged career) may also have a breakout Cup, scoring twice in a friendly against Australia on Saturday to stake his claim at the head of the attack. Landon Donavan, the closest thing the USMNT has to a superstar (if being on Jimmy Kimmel once=stardom) seems to finally be hitting his peak form following a spectacular loan spell at Everton.
Defence will be the USA’s weakest link, as Onguchi “Gooch” Onyewu is struggling to recover form following a lengthy injury, while Carlos Bocanegra is decidedly B-List. The great Tim Howard in goal boosts the American defensive prowess somewhat.
This 2-0 win over European champions Spain last summer to reach the Final of the Confederations Cup (ending Spain’s xx-game unbeaten streak) could be the greatest moment of this generation of American players:
Being picked alongside England is perfect for the kind of post-colonial grudge match that makes international sports so wonderful. England vs USA should be a hot-blooded affair, hopefully evoking that great upset of 1950. Though the Guardian seem to have picked the least optimistic American fan for their Fan Network, I think we have a good chance at reaching the quarter-finals, hopefully embarrassing England along the way.
Walking around Paris last week, it seemed as if more Parisians were excited about Les Fennecs in the World Cup rather than Les Bleus. The French seem to realize that they don’t really deserve to be in the competition, and that they won’t win the thing. But for anyone with Algerian heritage/sympathies, its simply a pleasure to be taking part in the World Cup, since Algeria have in a way already won by qualifying for the World Cup at the expense of their hated rivals, Egypt (or as one French-Algerian I met would have it, the Egyp-chiens).
Algeria looked impressive, “cohesive” Steev said, as they knocked out the Ivory Coast in this summer’s CAN, before looking decidedly unimpressive as they got tonked 4-0 by Egypt in the semis. Algeria lack WC experience and are of unreliable quality, but if they can string together a few solid, organized performances, they could, uh, go through … I guess.
Players to watch: Karim Matmour’s got a nice touch, Hamid “Endless Boogy” Bougherra is “solid” in defense, Chaouchi is comical in goal, Ghezzal might score a goal, captain Mansouri will control the game in midfield, or at least appear as if he is controlling the game because he is wearing the captain’s armband. This will be Algeria’s 3rd WC, and they have never progressed beyond the group stages before.
Slovenia is the smallest country taking part in this World Cup (population: 2 million)! And apparently they are solid in defense (I know nothing about Slovenian football).
Robert Koren impressed at West Brom. “Beanpole striker” Novakovic is prolific in front of goal. At the other end Samir Handanovic only let in a few goals in qualifying rounds. Slovenia seem to be playing with a cohesiveness that other, stronger teams may lack. I’d pick them over Algeria to be the surprise team to go through from Group C.
Added drama (maybe) could arise from the apparent grudge-match-status of SLO-ENG after a controversial loss to England in a friendly last year:
Slovenia have not forgotten the manner of their defeat nine months ago, when Rooney stood accused of diving to win a penalty that led to Bostjan Cesar limping off and being sidelined for two months with an ankle injury. Koren insists there is no talk of revenge, despite Cesar vowing to make the rematch an “unpleasant experience” for Rooney, but a sense of injustice continues to burn.
Go Slovenia! Give ’em Hell!
I await Saturday with a feverish patriotism. “Final nail in the empire,” Dempsey scoring a hat-trick and lifting his shirt to reveal “I belong to Fat Pat,” Rooney to be sent off for cussin’, NEW WORLD ORDER. USA! USA! etc.! etc!
••• Official BOLAS & BANDEIRAS Qualifying Picks: USA, England
That other Albiceleste, also twice World Cup winners, pose an interesting predicament. They possess two individuals who some claim to be the greatest footballer of all time—unfortunately one of them is their cuddly-but-clueless coach Diego Maradona.
At the helm since late 2008, El Diego is undeniably a cult-like figure, commanding the respect of the nation and theoretically of his footballing charges as well. However, under Maradona La Selección stumbled badly through qualification—they equalled the worst defeat in their history, falling 6-1 away to Bolivia (blaming the altitude, despite backing Andean nations a year before when FIFA tried to ban high-altitude matches) and their hopes of qualifying hung in the balance until a 2-1 victory against Peru in their final match. That was when 57 year-old Boca Juniors striker Martin Palermo scored a last gasp winner in the torrential rain, prompting the now-famous Diego penguin-slide celebration featured above. El Diego hasn’t forgotten Palermo’s heroics—he’s seemingly been included in the side as some sort of talismanic mascot. It’s hard to see why else he’s come along (except to see the South African sights!) as he is slow, mono-faceted, and competing for a place with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Diego Milito, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Kun Agüero—all strikers on whom he’s got nothing except years. But, see, he scored this goal in the rain!!! Maradona hasn’t exactly distinguished himself with his formulaic selection policies; he’s called up more than 120 players since taking charge, utilizing a learn-by-doing approach to tinkering with his squad. Controversially, his final 23-man list didn’t contain seriously-in-form midfield schemers Javier Zanetti or Esteban Cambiasso, who both excelled in Inter Milan’s recent march to Champions League & Scudetto glory. A high-level ego spat has also seen 2006’s star performer Juan Roman Riquelme pushed into international retirement, replaced by Juan Sebastian Verón in the role of unmoved midfield mover.
Perhaps tactictal nous isn’t required when you have the current best player in the world (only demented Madrid fans and nativist freak Rooney-devotees question this) in the form of Lionel Messi. La Pulga Atomica was otherworldly this season, scoring 47 goals in all competitions, many of them exceedingly easy on the eyes. Despite his La Liga-based heroics, Messi has yet to really distinguish himself in an Argentina shirt…and one has to imagine he is itching to do just that. Final doffs of the editorial hat to the world’s best number-five (the traditional, Argentina-style midfield lynchpin) Javier Mascherano and 22 year-old fantasista/Benfica sensation Ángel de María. The Argies are being tipped by many to hoist the cup this year, but will it be because or in spite of their legendary skipper?
The South Koreans have actually qualified for the last six World Cups, famously making a dubious run to the semi-finals in 2002. The national team didn’t win itself many new fans as the co-hosts back in ’02, when their combination of extreme dirtiness and FIFA-backed refereeing leeway saw them unfairly dump both Italy and Spain out of the cup. I frankly can’t remember much of their performance in 2006, except that they drew with France and lost out to Switzerland in the qualifying stages? Perhaps their most successful appeal for the support of neutrals this time around could be: We’re Not North Korea!!!
Analyzing the clip above, I’m struck by the lack of pace and mobility in the squad. Not pictured is their captain and undisputed leading talent, Manchester United’s Park Ji-Sung. He’s the driving creative force behind the team, and likely to play provider for Monaco’s no-nonsense finisher Park Chu-Young. I am admitting to a lack of editorial curiosity about the South Koreans—any loyal supporter-correspondents feel free to write in with more nuanced thoughts!
Another team I am hoping doesn’t qualify making things interesting in Group B are the Greeks. They’ve only qualified for the World Cup once before, back in 1994, and they’ve never won a match there. ’94 also found them sharing a group with Nigeria and Argentina, and they are likely to have relive the memories of losing to both here in 2010. In stark contrast to their government’s fiscal policies, Greece is known for their well-organized and extremely conservative approach. They’re led into battle by coach Otto Rehhagel, who shocked and bored Europe in 2004 when Greece won the European Championship.
As a tactician, Rehhagel is famous for advancing the theory of kontrollierte Offensive (controlled offense)—sounds aesthetically inspiring, does it not, prospective spectator?! Many of the “stars” of that generation are still fixtures of the Greek squad, but hopefully Rehhagel is pursuing a tactical rethink after failing to win a game in the 2008 Euros. Don’t hold out too much hope, however, as he’s recently been plying a 4-3-3 schema that might also be termed 7-at-the-back Endlessly Heading Balls Away. Jesus wept. However, renewed success with such limited resources might just kick off a Rehhagel-for-Greek Minister of Finance campaign.
It’s tempting to recycle chunks of Nate’s African Cup of Nations breakdown of the Naija Super Eagles, but add that expectations are YET LOWER due to the absence of Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel with a knee injury. This fan report from the Guardian says it all, really: I Fear the Worst. Another disappointing casualty to injury is Ikechukwu Uche, a player I remember fondly from his free scoring days at Recreativo Huelva! The Nigerians can boast a semi-formidable strikeforce in the form of Yakubu (though he’s lightyears from being in-form), Obafemi Martins, and the ageless Nwanko Kanu (seriously, how old is Kanu? NO ONE KNOWS!!!).
In the absence of Mikel (who plays a much more offensive role for Nigeria than his MakeleleLite™ duties at Chelsea) the midfield creativity will be in the hands of Lokomotiv Moscow’s Peter Odemwingie, who impressed at the African Cup of Nations (when he wasn’t mangling various joints on the spongy and poorly-laid Angolan turf). Perhaps holding midfielder Dickson Etuhu, with knowledge gained from master man-manager Roy Hodgson and Fulham’s run to European near-glory, can provide some much needed on-field leadership?
The quality (or lack thereof) of African goalkeepers has been a recurring meme, particularly after the komedy kapers witnessed at CAN ’10 in Angola, but Nigeria have a fairly reliable shot-stopper in Vincent Enyeama (though his positional sense is NOT great). He was recently linked with a move to Arsenal (insert joke about what being a prospective Gunners keeper sez about one’s reliability in goal). Enyeama recently spoke out against the Jabulani, the ultra-aerodynamic official tournament ball, and after tipping away a supernaturally dipping shot noted he was “sure an angel was protecting me, otherwise, that would have been a goal”. Will there be a preponderance of angels at this World Cup, or will we witness the goalkeeping atrocities we bore witness too back in January in Angola? Rather than angels, I think what Nigeria need to succeed is some rather more terrestrial concentration at the back. Joseph Yobo and Danny Shittu, neither of them brilliant but both adequate professional centerbacks, have pulled some Keystone Cops-type shit in the past. Hopefully pragmatic Swedish gaffer Lars Lagerback has adequately drilled his defense. If so, the Naija boys have a healthy chance of qualifying out of the group.