By Ryan Thies of the Long Beach Post
As a Group, group G is the most difficult to dismiss. It is undoubtedly the group of death and while other groups may run four deep, this group has three teams that could win the whole thing. But one of them won’t even make it to the elimination round. And the other two won’t win it all, because even they have their fatal flaws.
North Korea- My favorite moment of the World Cup draw (besides when the US drew Slovenia and Algeria) was North Korea’s inclusion into this group. It let me send all my friends two texts messages, the first one said “North Korea just got nuked…” and then two minutes later “in the World Cup draw.” I can only imagine what they thought during those two minutes but the whole thing still makes me laugh. In fact just North Korea’s inclusion into this group makes me laugh. This group looks like the football Gods wanted to play a joke. This group is like a schoolyard fight between the three biggest bullies and the scrawniest kid in school. This group is like Team America on a soccer pitch.
North Korea is the lowest ranked team to qualify for the Cup (South Africa is lower, slightly, but as host country they didn’t have to qualify). The fightin’ Kim Jong Ils–on a good day–are one of the 80 best teams in the world, and they are taking on three teams that could conceivably win the tournament (you know, if it were possible to win it all). This team hasn’t made the World Cup in over 40 years, they played only 1 international friendly in 2009, and they only made this World Cup based on the strength of combined 9-2 victories over Mongolia.
But, like their country, the rest of the world doesn’t really know what to expect from North Korea’s soccer team. They tried to skirt the rules by labeling one of their strikers as a goalkeeper but FIFA saw right through that one; one can only imagine what other tricks they will try. The striker/keeper trick is a telling one though: rather than load up on defense and try to grind it out they want more attacking options and they are going to try to keep up with some of the best goal-scoring teams in the world. This has to be a Kim Jong Il-level delusion and they can’t possibly actually score a couple goals against 3 of the best teams in the world right? Um…right? I liked it better when I was laughing at them.
Funny subplot–South Korea was set to provide North Korea with a free TV feed so they could watch the World Cup, but seeing as how the North recently sunk a South Korean ship, it is possible that that offer will be revoked. Could North Korea be pushed to resolve this or open up negotiations with the outside world in order to watch the World Cup? It wouldn’t be the first time the tournament has helped create peace.
Ivory Coast- The people of Côte d’Ivoire know all about the World Cup creating peace. It was during qualification of the ’06 World Cup that Didier Drogba (whom you know from Time Magazine, Vanity Fair, and any other magazine that would have him) pleaded with his countrymen to lay down their arms. The peace process was a rollercoaster that began in 2004 but by WC-qualifying hostilities had begun to flare up again. To say Drogba singlehandedly ended the Civil War would be overly-simplistic, but to deny his role would be foolish (although with Cristiano Ronaldo gone, Drogba is my most hated player in the EPL, so denying that he has any redeeming qualities would not be beyond me).
In that ’06 World Cup they were also drawn into a very tough group–which isn’t that far-fetched because Ivory Coast’s lack of international experience leaves them in a lower tier so they are almost guaranteed two top tier teams. The system creates this cycle: Ivory Coast is good but hasn’t had success at the World Cup, so they get drawn with top teams, which prevents Ivory Coast from having success at the World Cup, which means that next time they get drawn with the top teams. It’s why they can be ranked 16th in the world but still have to face two top-5 ranked teams. The only way to break this cycle is to advance to the Elimination round.
But advancement is probably asking too much. Drogba broke his arm and it is hard to imagine him playing; well I take that back it is not hard to imagine Drogba going all Ronnie Lott and having his arm amputated rather than miss this, but ultimately you have to imagine someone (probably his club team, Chelsea) will prevent that from happening.
Even with Drogba in the lineup, the Ivory Coast recently lost to South Korea. In the African Cup they lost to Algeria. In the ’08 they lost to Egypt and Ghana. But 2009 showed they have potential too; they beat Cameroon at home and they tied Germany on the road. The home-continent advantage (which I’ve previously pointed out might not be a huge factor) should at least give them a little boost and maybe the Do-It-For-Drogba movement could propel them. And if that happens, and they rally, and this team advances out of this group, they could then go on to beat Spain in the Elimination Round, they could then see Cameroon in the Quarters. It’s easy to imagine a team riding that teamwork a long way, but it’s also as easy to imagine them not having enough talent (even with a half-a-working-Drogba) and not even making it out of the first round again. What’s hard to imagine–with their suspect defense and their propensity for off-days and now missing their best player–is them winning it all.
Brazil- If you don’t know much about soccer, and someone asks you who you think will win it all, just say “Brazil.” Their off-days are better than most team’s peaks. The players that don’t make their World Cup squad could form a team capable of advancing far into the tournament. Their history and love of the game make them an easy team to watch and cheer for.
But this year’s team is not vintage Brazil. This team is like a Brazilian woman–better at the back than up front. In their last 5 friendlies they haven’t given up a goal. In the Confederations Cup they had three clean sheets in five games. In the 18-game World Cup qualifying they gave up a total of 11 goals. Since the beginning of ’09 they have beaten England, Argentina, Italy (twice), the US, South Africa, Uruguay (twice), and Paraguay. That’s 23% of the World Cup field they’ve beaten just in the last 18 months. In ’09 they won the Confederations Cup, in ’07 they won Copa America. In 2006, they won their first four World Cup games by a combined score of 10 to one.
But then something happened in the quarters…they lost one-nil to France. The dominant Brazil team just never showed up. It’s nearly what happened in the Confederations Cup. Brazil breezed through scoring 11 goals in the first four games. They played America in the Final, and Brazil just didn’t show up. The US was up 2-nil before they knew it. Fortunately for Brazil they found that fifth gear and came back to win, but the seed of doubt should be planted.
This current Brazil team seems to believe the hype, and FIFA recently promoting them to number 1 in the world certainly makes that worse. And the lack of World Cup warm-ups might come back to haunt them too (they have not played competitively as a National Team since March). If this team comes out like they did against France or the US, and believes that all they have to do is show up, then they could be in for a rude awakening. And seeing as how I’ve spent this long trying to convince you that no one will win the Cup, I’m going to stand by that and say that someone, somewhere, will prove to Brazil that nothing less than their best will be enough.
Portugal- Like the US playing England, Brazil playing Portugal adds an interesting back-story to an already very good game. But the real story of Portugal will be if their qualifying efforts are improved on in the actual tournament. In the Euro ’08 qualifying, Portugal was sometimes lacking (drawing against Finland (twice), Armenia, Serbia (twice), and losing to Poland). But in the actual tournament they were quite formidable (dominating Turkey and the Czech Republic before a tough loss to Germany).
Similarly in the ’06 World Cup the Portuguese beat Mexico, Netherlands, and England before a penalty gave France a one-nil win in the quarters. More recently they were held scoreless by Cape Verde Islands (sadly I used all my Lost jokes on Uruguay otherwise I would assure you that Cape Verde was captained by the Smoke Monster). Drogba’s injury certainly makes advancing easier, but there is a very real possibly that Portugal assumes they have this group locked up and then stumbles against someone they shouldn’t.
This team possibly has the chops to win it all, but if they lose to the Ivory Coast or Brazil or (God-forbid) the North Koreans their dream is over before it begins; and right now that’s exactly what I expect to happen.
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.