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.