Until now, I’ve kept this blog pretty well focused on my writing, but there are three facts that compel me to move in a different direction today (and I will list them for you, Rafa Benitez-style):
Fact #1: The World Cup kicks off in Brazil this Thursday.
Fact #2: I really, really like soccer.
Fact #3: I have a blog where I’m free to write about whatever I like.
I’m guessing that you’ve probably figured out where I’m going with this… for the next few weeks, there’s going to be a lot of soccer talk on this blog. So, gentle readers, I beg your indulgence while I live out my fantasy of being a sports pundit.
I like to think of myself as a decently-informed soccer fan, but the World Cup always serves as a reminder of how much I don’t know. If you follow the NFL, or Major League Baseball, you likely have a pretty good handle on the world’s best football and baseball players. Basketball has a more global footprint, but the NBA is still a huge cut above anything else out there. Soccer is different. Top players play in so many different leagues that it’s almost impossible to keep tabs on all of them unless it’s your job.
That said, I think it’s relevant to disclose my background as a soccer fan, mostly so you can understand my limitations as an observer. I support Liverpool, so I follow the English Premier League very closely (as an aside, I visited Anfield in December, which was a massive thrill). I also watch quite a few matches from the UEFA Champions League, so I get some exposure to the biggest teams from the rest of Europe there, and occasionally I’ll catch something from the German, Spanish or Italian leagues (but usually only involving the same big clubs that are in the Champions League). I watch MLS as well, but not necessarily with the same week-in, week-out commitment.
Of course, that means that I don’t watch much from Mexico, South America, the Middle East, Asia, Africa… and there will be plenty of players at this World Cup who ply their trade in those leagues. Some of them will undoubtedly impact the proceedings in Brazil, and I will wind up feeling embarassed at having only been vaguely aware of them (or, worse, completely unaware of them) at the start of the tournament.
So, aware of my limitations but undaunted by them, I thought that I would give you my thoughts on each of the groups. I’ll start with Groups A and B today, and move on to the others as the week goes on.
We start with the home team, who are favored by many to lift the trophy on 13 July. I’m going to limit my discussion here to the group stage, so I won’t venture a guess (just yet) about their ultimate fate; for now, I’ll just hop on the bandwagon and agree with all the folks that are backing Brazil to win Group A. My sense is that they’ll get through it fairly easily. This may not be a “great” Brazilian squad, at least not in the context of their illustrious history, but they should have more than enough talent to dispose of Cameroon, Croatia and Mexico, especially with the raucous support of the home crowd. Obviously, they will be under incredible pressue to win the whole thing, and that might hinder them, but I don’t think it’ll happen in the group stage.
Each of the other three teams will feel like they have a chance to snag the group’s second qualifying spot. I sense optimism coming out of Mexico, but it’s hard to forget about their struggles in qualifiying. They needed a playoff victory over New Zealand to even make it to Brazil, and while they won it easily, the fact that they weren’t able to finish ahead of the likes of Costa Rica and Honduras in CONCACAF raises some real questions. The test in Brazil will be stiffer, and I don’t see Mexico advancing.
That leaves Cameroon and Croatia. Croatia might find their backs to the wall right off the bat if they lose the opener to Brazil on Thursday, and Cameroon surely feels buoyed by their 2-2 draw in Germany last week. Still, the fact remains the Samuel Et’o is 33 years old, and while he’s still capable of execllence, he’s not the force he was a few years ago. Cameroon’s plan will be to soak up pressure and then counter-attack with speed on the wings. Of course, that hinges on their defense actually being able to soak up that pressue, and I’m not sure they’ll be able to manage it here. I think the quality of Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic et al. wins out.
Group A Winner: Brazil
Group A Runner-Up: Croatia
Fascinating group here that pits the finalists from the last World Cup against one another. Four years ago in Johannesburg, Spain and the Netherlands were tied after ninety minutes. From there, Spain went on to win the match in extra time and then lifted the Euro 2012 trophy two years later to cement their place as one of the all-time great national teams. The Dutch, of course, lost that day, and then completely embarassed themselves in a disastrous Euro 2012 campaign marked by lousy attitudes and lacklustre play (compare to France’s 2010 World Cup performance). The rematch on Friday in Salvador is one of the most highly-anticipated games of the group stage.
There is a sense in the soccer world, I think, that Spain’s time has passed, at least when it comes to winning this tournament. Maybe that’s true – after all, these guys are getting older, and the rest of the world has had plenty of time to figure out a way to beat them. I know all that, and I’ve seen them struggle more lately than they used to, but when I look down the list of players in this squad, I just can’t bring myself to pick against them. I’m probably overvaluing past performance as a predictor of future results, but for now , I’ll take Xavi and Iniesta, thank you.
After 2012, it’s hard to know what to make of the Dutch. They have top-class talents like van Persie and Robben, but they had them at the Euros, too, and that didn’t work out so well. Van Persie didn’t have the greatest season at Manchester United, although between injuries and a poor supporting cast, it’s hard to lay too much of the blame at his feet.
Chile will make a strong push to secure that second qualifying spot and send one of the Spanish or the Dutch home early. They play a very attacking style, with an exciting combination of Alexis Sanchez, Eduardo Vargas and Jorge Valdivia up front. Playing on their home continent, they’ve become quite a fashionable pick to survive Group B.
Given the quality of their opposition here, it’s hard to see Austraila as anything more than an also-ran in this group. They are capable of spoiling someone else’s party, but it’s easier to see them leaving Brazil without a point.
In the end, I think Spain beats the Netherlands on Friday, and the Dutch camp sinks back into the morass of infighting that sunk them in 2012. Chile steps up and takes their place in the Round of 16.
Group B Winner: Spain
Group B Runner-Up: Chile