It only happens for one month every four years. No, it’s not Jeff Giles’ mom slashing her rates (that happens much more frequently). I’m talking, of course, about the planet’s largest sporting event, the World Cup, which begins next Friday. And throughout the tournament, I will be covering all the action taking place in South Africa for Popdose.
Part of me doesn’t know what to expect from this tournament. Back in the 2002 World Cup, held jointly in South Korea and Japan, it seemed like there was a changing of the guard, as previously unheralded countries like Turkey, South Korea, Senegal, and the United States reached the quarterfinals, while traditional powerhouses like Argentina and then-defending champions France didn’t advance beyond the group stage.
But four years ago, in Germany, the balance of power was restored, with the usual suspects smacking down the upstarts with depressing regularity. In the end, it was Italy beating France in the final, a game less noted for spectacular goals or brilliant saves than for Zinedine Zidane, in the final game of his legendary career, getting ejected for headbutting Marco Materazzi.
So here’s my preview of Groups A & B, with the other six groups coming in the next few days. By the way, I’ve created a Yahoo Fantasy Group for Popdose readers, so sign up and test your knowledge of international soccer against your fellow pop culture geeks. The password is “popdose.”
Group A (world ranking in parentheses):
France (9): Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Over the course of the tournament, you’re going to hear ESPN’s broadcasting crews express their shock at how badly this team is playing. They obviously haven’t paid much attention to the fact that, for all the talent in the squad, France haven’t played well as a team since their run to the Final in 2006, and lost a pre-tournament warm-up match to lowly China (ranked #87 in the world) on June 4. Their defense is strong enough to keep them in every game, but their inability to replace their former talisman Zidane, as both a player and leader, could very possibly see them go three-and-out like they did in 2002, when they were the defending world and European champions.
Mexico (17): As an American soccer fan, I naturally hate everything about Mexican soccer. But objectively, I can’t deny that, with France underachieving, they’re emerging as the class of the group. After years of keeping all their best players in the Mexican League, more and more have been making their way to Europe, most notably captain Rafael Marquez, who stars at Barcelona. The result, much as I don’t like to say it, is a talented, experienced squad with quality at every position, and a couple of rising stars in 21-year olds Giovani Dos Santos and Carlos Vela.
South Africa (83): It will be an emotional moment for all when Nelson Mandela attends the tournament’s opening match between South Africa and Mexico on June 11. Having the World Cup in his homeland is practically a victory lap for Mandela, who will turn 92 one week after the Final. Unfortunately, his presence is likely to be the only joy South Africa will experience. Despite having the home field advantage, an experienced coach in Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira, and the speedy Steven Pienaar in midfield, the team is a shell of the side that burst on to the world scene in the mid-90s. Look for South Africa to be the first host team to not qualify for the second round.
Uruguay (16): Barely qualifying after finishing fifth in South America’s qualifying tournament, then beating Costa Rica in a playoff, Uruguay return after missing out in 2006. They remain an enigma, possessing enough offensive firepower to be one of their continent’s dominant teams, but their tendency to flame out in spectacular fashion when things get tough catches up with them. They’ll most likely benefit from France’s indifference.
Prediction (in order of finish): Mexico, Uruguay, France, South Africa
Argentina (7): They’re perpetual favorites and have, in Lionel Messi, the unquestioned best player in the world. So why will they crash out in the quarterfinals? Three words: Diego Armando Maradona. The iconic former player has violated coaching’s #1 rule – never be bigger than your players – ever since he got the job in October 2008, and they’ve been inconsistent ever since. It’s a shame because, as much as they’re hated on the world stage, an Argentina side firing on all cylinders can be a thing of wonder. But Messi will undoubtedly provide a few moments of brilliance.
Greece (13): Their championship in Euro 2004 was seen as a low point for the game because it was won by playing incredible team defense, absorbing pressure, and picking their moments to attack very carefully. They’re like the Baltimore Ravens of international soccer, but without Ed Reed’s brilliance or Ray Lewis scaring everybody away. Although it’s a proven formula for success (see Italy’s four World Cup trophies) but one that nobody likes to watch. Still, in an otherwise weak group, it could be enough to see them through to the second round.
Nigeria (21): After failing to qualify for Germany 2006, it’s great to see the Super Eagles back at the World Cup because they’re always so much fun to watch. But without the injured Jon Obi Mikel, it’s hard to see who will provide the creativity in the midfield. Still, they, as well as the other African sides, will likely get a huge boost from the crowd, and if forwards Obafemi Martins and Yakubu Iyegbeni can get behind defenses, there’s a chance that Nigeria could return to its former greatness.
South Korea (47): It’s impossible to talk about South Korea without resorting to the stereotypes associated with them. We all know they’re fast, hard-working, and organized. And when you play in perpetually weak Asia and have a world-class player in Park Ji-Sung, that means you’ll always qualify for the World Cup. But because they don’t have anybody else of note, it also means that you’ll be catching the first plane home, just as they’ve done at every World Cup since 1986 that wasn’t played in their backyard.
Prediction (in order of finish): Argentina, Greece, Nigeria, South Korea