Before we get into the third part of my World Cup previews, don’t forget to join the Yahoo World Cup Fantasy Group for Popdose readers. The password is “popdose.” Thanks to those of you who have already joined.
Group E (world ranking in parentheses):
Cameroon (19): The Indomitable Lions will rise and fall based on the mood of Samuel Eto’o. When he’s happy, he’s one of the best strikers in the world. But he’s a notoriously mercurial egotist and can singlehandedly destroy his team’s chances. Think of him as the Terrell Owens of world soccer, but not as cuddly. Sadly, the latter seems to be the case right now. Cameroon haven’t won any of their four warmups, with Eto’o getting ejected in a 3-1 loss to Portugal shortly after Cameroonian legend Roger Milla publicly criticized Eto’o. It’s a shame because a Cameroon team firing on all cylinders can go as far as they did when Milla led them to the quarterfinals in 1990.
Denmark (36): The “Danish Dynamite” team that shocked the world when they won Euro 92 is way in the distance. But they’ve got experience in goal and the midfield, a young and hard-working defense, and a great coach in Morten Olsen. In keeping with a Scandinavian stereotype, they’re never flashy and getting results by being solid technically and tactically. With Cameroon imploding, that should be enough to get them second place in the group.
Japan (45): Even though they are Asia’s highest ranked team (not counting Australia), they really aren’t very good. All but four members of their squad make their living in the lightly regarded Japanese league and only a few players remain from their second-round finish in 2002. They’re the type of team you always want to root for as an underdog, but always disappoint. I can’t envision a scenario where they don’t finish at the bottom of their group and go down as one of the worst teams in the tournament.
Netherlands (4): Speaking of teams that everybody roots for but always leaves its fans scratching their heads, no team has done that as regularly, and often in spectacular fashion, as the Netherlands. This year should be no exception. Even if Arjen Robben is ruled out for the tournament through injury, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie whould provide more than enough class in the midfield to breeze through the group and look like the world-beaters they should be. Then, come the knockout stages, they’ll crash out in the quarterfinals to Brazil.
Predicted order of finish: Netherlands, Denmark, Cameroon, Japan
Italy (5): If only Nixon could go to China, then only the Azzurri can win the World Cup just as their domestic league is racked by a match-fixing scandal that surprised absolutely no one. The defending champions have been unimpressive in their run-up, losing to Mexico and drawing Switzerland, but they usually deceive at this stage. By their second match in the tournament, they’ll be executing the catenaccio (“the door-bolt”) to perfection, not allowing their opponents within 25 yards of goal and hitting back on the counter. They should easily make it to the quarterfinals, and could possibly go further than that, depending on playmaker Andrea Pirlo’s fitness and form.
New Zealand (78): No team benefited more from Australia’s move out of Oceania than the All Whites, who are returning to the World Cup after a 28-year absence. Sadly, this only means that they’ll be embarrassing themselves on the world’s biggest stage. As a D.C. United fan, I love captain Ryan Nelsen for what he did for us from 2001-04, but he’s likely to be partnered in central defense with Andrew “Whoops” Boyens of the New York Red Bulls. And the rest of the squad isn’t much better. Depending on how much you love watching teams get overmatched, New Zealand’s games should be either a hell of a lot of fun or painful.
Paraguay (31): Sentimental favorites, they will be playing on pure emotion as a result of the plight of influential striker Salvador Cabañas, who was shot in the head in January. Playing in their fourth consecutive World Cup, Paraguay has one of the toughest defenses in South America and enough creativity in the midfield to get the ball to the excellent Roque Santa Cruz. That should get them through to the second round, but not enough for me to miss their former goalkeeper and Henry Rollins-lookalike Jose Luis Chilavert, who was one of the game’s most colorful characters during the 1990s.
Slovakia (34): My Popdose colleague Jeff Vrabel will likely take this as a personal slight on his ancestral homeland, but the newcomers to the World Cup will have to rely on a complete meltdown from Paraguay in order to advance. They won’t be pushovers, mind you. This is a big and physical team with speed on the wings that will fight for every 50-50 ball. It’s just that they’re inexperienced at this level and their best defender, Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel, has had a difficult time staying healthy this past year.
Predicted order of finish: Italy, Paraguay, Slovakia, New Zealand