Wednesday, June 07, 2006

WORLD CUP ALMANAC: The Group Stages


When, in 1998, FIFA increased the participating numbers for the quadrennial feast upon which we are once more about to gorge from 24 to 32, the apparent danger was that one could have too much of a good thing. The group stages, 48 games still packed into the opening two weeks of the tournament, are now a piranha feeding-frenzy of football consumption, a kaleidoscopic blur in which the hopes and dreams of 32 separate nations are tossed and blown, prised apart then reconstituted so that, like a battlefield on the morning after the bloodiest of struggles, all that remains are survivors: the strongest.

The knock-out stages that follow seem to play out with a leisurely grace in comparison, with a measly 16 games unfolding over the final fortnight, and - egads! - the eerie phenomenon of whole days sans football. Still, it seems the delights of World Cup football are immune to the pall of overfamiliarity, and the group stages, as bewildering and bloated as they are, are still the colourful heart of the tournament.

GROUP A is as good a place as any to start, wherein the the hopes of Mitteleuropa and two Latin American minnows dwell. The hosts, Germany, come to this tournament with their humblest prospects in some time. Only home advantage, tradition and the comfort of that old cliche about never writing the Germans off act as evidence toward a fourth German Weltmeisterschaft. But while they lack the quality of old, Jurgen Klinsmann's attacking philosophy is a refreshing change of approach and alongside Poland they should advance easily ahead of the diminutive challenge of Costa Rica and Ecuador. The Poles will give the hosts a right good test, and the prospect of avoiding England should add to bitter historical enmity to make Dortmund a very interesting place when they clash on June 14th.

The group about which you will hear the most over the next fortnight is GROUP B, where our plucky neighbours England take their usual place alongside Sweden. The Rooney Situation will remain irrelevant at this stage at least, as England without him remain a much superior force to their rivals. Sweden, however, could be in a bit of trouble in this group, their 36-year unbeaten record against England notwithstanding. Enormously dependent on the attacking talents of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrik Larsson and Freddie Ljungberg, their defence is shaky looking and their midfield sparkless. If Paraguay continue their improvement, with Roque Santa Cruz of Bayern Munich's recovery from injury paramount, they could take advantage of any lack of Swedish lustre. Trinidad & Tobago will provide the heartwarming stories and will get several spankings for their trouble.

Fascinating one, Group C. Two possible winners in Argentina and (stretching it a bit with such a young and inexperienced team, with decent attackers in Arjen Robben, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Dirk Kuyt, but not much in the centre of defence) the Netherlands, probably Africa's strongest side, the Ivory Coast and the perennial dark horses of Serbia & Montenegro. Argentina have a real chance of their first title since 1986. With a defence comprising of Roberto Ayala, Gabriel Heinze and Juan Pablo Sorin, the creativity of Juan Roman Riquelme, the flair of (injury permitting) Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez and the goalscoring of Hernan Crespo, they appear to have it all. Ivory Coast could surprise the two European contenders, however, with a team of familiar, Europe-hardened names such as Drogba, Bonaventure Kalou, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Aruna Dindane. Argentina and any two from three here.

From the group of death, as in all World Cups, to the group of sleep Group D. Mexico and Portugal should stroll though ahead of Iran and Angola, the latter in particular the epitome of the nation whose achievement was in their qualification itself. The Mexicans have long fancied themselves as genuine heavyweights in waiting, and their top seeding for the tournament is the result of excellent form over recent years. But they never seem to get it right at big tournaments and the fact that their best-known names are Jared Borghetti of Bolton and Rafael Marquez of Barcelona suggests a lack of true quality. The Portuguese look strong, and the offensive talents of Deco, Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo suggest they should top the group, but a their main striking threat comes in the underwhelming form of Pauleta, and the inability to turn pretty football into goals could scupper them again.

Group E is almost as much a group of death as Group C, if you attach any credence at all to FIFA's placing of the well organised but limited USA at 5th in their official rankings. Italy and Czech Republic are genuine heavyweights here, however, and the avoidance of Brazil in the second round will make the struggle for top place all the more interesting. The Italians are many people's tip for the big prize and their traditional defensive solidity is augmented by the red-hot form of Fiorentina's Luca Toni up front, backed ably by the fit-again Francesco Totti, the evergreen Alex del Piero and Alberto Gilardino of AC Milan. Add the desire to reinstate the nations good name following the recent scandals, and they should have the measure of an aging Czech side, for whom Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Jan Koller will be singing swansongs. Ghana are not the force of the Abedi Pele days, Michael Essien carrying the hopes of the group's minnows.

Another interesting group, is the one known as 'F'. Brazil go for the 'Hexa', and the national obsession with this honour demonstrates that five previous World Cup wins have not sated the hunger for success for the Selecao. Looking at their attacking riches, their favouritism is understandable, but there are question marks over their defence: the aging full-backs, Roberto Carlos and Cafu, Dida's poor season in goal for Milan and the lack of an obvious partner for Lucio in the middle. Edmilson's loss through injury denies them another defensively minded player, but the jewels of their attack - the world's best player, Ronaldinho, especially - will see them comfortably past well-organised Japan (whose hopes lie in the combination of Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura in midfield), Guus Hiddink-coached Australia (who will have the meat and power of a middling Premiership outfit) and a Croatia side bereft of the great talents of their 1998 predecessors. Second place is a lottery between the three others.

Group G will see France and Switzerland, as they did in qualifying, progress, this time unencumbered by the snapping presence of the Irish and Israelis. The brief challenge of Togo will rest with Emmanuel Adebayor of Arsenal, while South Korea, without Guus Hiddink will find the success of 2002 a long time ago and in a land very far away. Despite the obvious talents in their squad, it is very difficult to back the French following the disappointments of 2002 and Euro 2004. The aging limbs of Zidane, Makalele and Thuram and the slightly younger but possibly equally jaded Patrick Vieira will carry much of les Bleus hopes, but not to the extent that Thierry Henry will, the Arsenal man requiring a performance on the big stage to cement his global reputation. Internal squabbles notwithstanding, they will lead their Alpine neighbours - a decent and relatively young outfit - through to the last 16 handily enough.

Finally, Group H is home to the hapless Spanish, whose abundance of talent and status as a soccer superpower has in the past nonetheless never prevented them from stumbling ignominiously from the World Cup in one way or another. Whether this is as a result of some fundamental flaw in the national mentality or an absence of genuine homegrown quality in a league containing the cream of multi-national talent, Spain's lack of success is puzzling. This time, as well as ability, they have youthful promise, with Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas occupying key roles alongside the faded, but still deadly Raul and the rugged Carlos Puyol in defence. Themselves and Ukraine, for whom, it goes without saying, Andrij Shevchenko carries the main threat, should have little trouble against Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, with the latter two playing next Wednesday for what should be their only points.

TOMORROW: Who will win the bloody thing....?

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