Greetings budding soccer fans,
I’m back to help you with your task of learning to accept, embrace, and love the soccer world cup (the Rugby World Cup will be a whole separate series of posts, and it’s not until next year anywho). This installment of “World Cup Preview” will focus on the teams in groups A and B and since some of our readers have stated things to the effect of “I’m not sure who to root for” I’ve kind of geared the article in that direction. (Note: feel free to leave comments, requests, suggestions, even insults, it lets me know you’re reading)
First up, and most important, is the host nation Brazil. They’ll be favorites going into the tournament as they are almost every time. Brazil is always good. The worst they’ve ever been in the world cup is “pretty good”. They range from “pretty good” to “utterly dominant”. This Brazilian squad is more the latter than the former. They’ve got the benefit of playing on home soil in front of rapid home fans. They’ve got the next “best player in the world” (once Messi and Ronaldo are done sharing that title) Neymar. And they’ve got a world class player in every position with the possible exception of goalkeeper (and even there they have tremendous experience). This team is going to play fast, attack often, and score a lot of goals. The cup is theirs to lose.
Croatia are the European representative in group A. At first you might think “how good could Croatia be?”. But before you even ask that you need to remind yourself that any team that qualifies out of Europe is a legit squad. They may lack a bit in terms of star power (Mario Madzukic is not really a household name to those outside central Europe) but they are a strong, cohesive squad, who on their day can certainly frustrate the giants of world football. I’m not calling for an upset of the mighty Brazilians but that match will certainly be no cakewalk.
If ever a team has limped, backed up, and stumbled into a world cup Mexico are that team. You might be thinking “I thought Mexico was good at soccer” and to an extent you’d be right, they were good at soccer. Nowadays they’re having a problem integrating their European based players with their Mexico based players. In their final qualifying match their coach selected only home based players (from only 3 teams) and gutted out just enough to win (with a little indirect help from the USA). In the gold medal match of the London Olympics the Mexicans took the gold medal away from the heavily favored Brazilians but for some reason El Tri has since taken several steps back rather than solidify their status as a world power.
Cameroon is an African squad full of European based players. They’ll look to play fast and into their captain Samuel Eto’o. The problem with this strategy is that Mr. Eto’o's age is listed at 33 and could be as high as 38. They’ll be a fun team to watch, fast paced and full of enthusiasm. But I wouldn’t put a lot of money on them with the bookies. They could concievably advance from this group but would almost certainly go no further.
First up in group B is the expected group winner, Spain. Spain won the World Cup last time out and won the Euro tournament (basically the World Cup, but with only European teams) two years ago. They’re loaded with talent (Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Ramos), they’re shoulder deep in experience (they’ve won the last 3 “major” tournaments they’ve entered), and they’re almost all in their mid to late 20s. Their flaws, if they have any, would be their lack of a world class striker (as a City fan I’m tempted to put Alvaro Negredo in this category, but i’ll show restraint especially given recent form) and their possible lack of hunger (they’ve won everything there is to win so the desire might not be the same of some other teams). Interestingly Spain sometimes opt to play without a striker and just play with six midfielders. It would be similar to an NBA team opting to play without forwards and just play with 3 point guards. You might ask why on earth they’d want to do that and the answer is that they essentially have Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and Tony Parker. Look for Spain to go deep into the tournament on talent and experience alone.
The Netherlands were World Cup finalists in 2010, losing to Spain in extra time. Since then though the Dutch have continued to win but have largely failed to impress. Their squad is aging and has always been prone to infighting amongst the bigger egos. They were once upon a time one of the fastest, most technically skilled squads in the world but have since abandoned most of what made them fun to watch in favor of the attributes that often help a team win, i.e. defense and deliberate pacing. To score goals the Dutch will be relying on Robin Van Persie and Manchester United fans are currently learning the hard way that goals from RVP only is a very risky proposition. The Dutch should advance out of the group stage, but to go any further some of the younger players will have to step up in a big way.
At first glance you might be tempted to write off Chile. They’re not known as a soccer powerhouse in the way that Brazil and Germany and Spain are. But this is a team that finished third in South American qualifying (NOT AN EASY TASK), if you’re looking for a peppy squad of underdogs to root for this might be the team. There are no out and out superstars (no offense to Arturo Vidal, you’re just not a household name), but a plethora of solid contributors who do what they need to do to win. All this being said, winning is not going to be easy in this group. Depending on the form of the teams in June this is very close to a “group of death”.
The Aussies (or soccerroos) made it into the round of 16 at the 2006 tournament and were only a few sketchy calls away from upsetting eventual champion Italy. But times have changed since then. Australia’s best player is 34 years old, most of its players play in the Australian league (again no offense, but if you’re going to win the World Cup most of your players are going to have to be playing in Europe, this is a fact), and the FIFA ping pong balls have bounced in such a way to put Australia into a group with the last two World Cup finalists and the 3rd best team in South America. Root for them if you want, but they’re toast.