By Ryan Thies of the Long Beach Post
We are halfway through the field and I hope I’ve done a good job convincing you that no one will win the World Cup. Every one of the contenders has serious flaws, but while previous groups featured whole teams packed with wild-cards, three of Group E are wild-cards because of how reliant they are on one player. You can’t win the World Cup based on one-player. So Group E, and their 28 counterparts throughout the world, will not win it all.
Japan- This is the fourth straight World Cup that Japan has qualified for, but that is due in large part to a relatively weak Asian field. Their performance in their friendlies was even weaker (the only teams they didn’t lose to–Scotland and Venezuela–were also the only two that weren’t World Cup-caliber foes). In fact, as a team Japan has been outscored 9-1 in their four warm-ups this year.
Shunsuke Nakamura–who has been injured and missed all of those warm-ups–is their best hope to score. He will always hold a special place in my heart for his time at Celtic, especially his beautiful free-kick goal at Old Trafford in the Champion’s League, and assuming Nakamura is healthy he can be one of the most-dangerous free-kick men in the world (even more dangerous than a certain injured kick-bending heart-throb). But Nakamura may put one, maybe two, in the back of the net and it still won’t be enough. The Japanese don’t have enough talent to keep up with their three groupmates, and they certainly don’t have anywhere near the talent to win it all.
Denmark- I’m still not sure who overrates Nicklas Bendtner more: me or himself. But either way the Arsenal striker might be my favorite person in the world. (Sadly, that is not an exaggeration). I can’t explain why; he’s only 22 so he’s too young to have really accomplished anything, yet his mouth is more unstoppable than the BP oil spill. He has some absolutely miserable games (the kind of days where he couldn’t find the back of the net with Google Earth and a Garmin), and yet my admiration for him knows no bounds.
The reason I bring up Nicki is that he is the key for Denmark advancing. Not in the “they need him to play well” kind of way, but more in the “he has to put up a remarkable performance” kind of way. In the 20 games he has started for Denmark, he has scored 8 goals and has 5 assists. Their defense is respectable but their offense is almost entirely reliant on Bendtner. And he has shown that there are days when he is unstoppable (it’s just that those days are slightly farther apart than we would prefer.)
Before him, Denmark failed to qualify for the Euro 08 or for the ’06 World Cup but in ’02 they made it out of Group and in ’98 they made it to the Quarters. In other words, the previous generation of Danish footballers had some success and now it is the new generation’s turn. And there are two things to know about this new generation: 1) they will have some true international success once their day comes and 2) their day is not here yet…and therefore Denmark will not win it all.
Cameroon- With one of the cooler team names in the world, Les Lions Indomables have some real potential. FIFA already considers them the 11th best team in the world and a strong Cup showing would vault them into the Top 10. From ’90 to ’02 they made all 4 World Cups before missing the ’06 one; in Africa they have had some success–making the quarter-finals this year and the title game two years ago (both times losing to eventual champion Egypt). They qualified easily for this year’s World Cup and in Samuel Eto’o they have one of the best strikers in the world–he scored 9 goals in 10 WC Qualifying games. Eto’o recently threatened to not play because of some criticism from a former Cameroon player, but I take that threat about as seriously as I do a seven-year-old threatening to run away from home. Eto’o is like James Brown putting back on his cape and limping towards backstage–it is a stage act designed to force the people to show how much they love him. But he loves the big stage too much to really leave.
Like most of the African teams, Cameroon is a semi-chic pick to advance deep into the tournament, due in part to that damn home-field advantage everyone talks about despite the fact that Cameroon is as close to South Africa as Los Angeles is to Hawaii. And there’s also the fact that Eto’o will be dealing with the same long Champion’s League season that the German team will. If he’s tired can the rest of the team pick up of the slack? Probably not. But if he puts on a show and this team keeps their defense intact, the Indomitable Lions might exceed the already high expectations. They still won’t win it all, they just don’t have the depth of talent for that, but the semi-finals are not out of the question.
Netherlands- Like Germany, the Netherlands are a little harder to find flaws in. Ever since the 70s (when they finished as runners-up twice) the Clockwork Orange football has been an exciting one. They have a flair in their attack and they play defense in a way that doesn’t slow the game down. Yet they still seem to disappoint–in ’06 a talented Dutch team only put one goal in against Serbia, and was held scoreless against Argentina and Portugal (the second game being an elimination game). In ’02 they didn’t even make the World Cup and ’98 they lost on PKs to Brazil.
The biggest knock on this team is probably how slight a knock it takes to injure their players. This team is more frail than Samuel Jackson in Unbreakable. Even when they are spread throughout Europe on their club teams, they still seem to share the same fragility. A strong wind during the group stage and half their starting eleven could end up with the plague.
In Europe they have had significant success–making the Semis in 4 of the last 7, including winning it all in ’88, but that success has rarely translated into the World Cup (making the Semis just once in the last 7 World Cups). So now it becomes a philosophical question: can we blame the current team for the sins of their forbearers? Basically should history really be a factor in current endeavors? I say “Yes!” Because without history there would be no reason to say the Netherlands can’t win it all, and that would then eliminate my whole theory. So I say this team will have the same shortcomings as before and the Netherlands will breeze through Group only to choke in PKs in the later rounds. If you’ve already filled out your bracket, you more than likely have that choke game coming against Brazil in the Quarters; but if the Dutch make it through that game…
If you offered me the Dutch or the Field (the other 31 teams), I would take the math and take the Field–therefore, the Dutch won’t win it all. (However, if you offered me 10 to one odds on the Dutch to win it all, I’d be really tempted…)
Ryan Thies is a writer for The Long Beach Post. This Column originally appeared on the Long Beach Post and is republished here with written consent.