By Ryan Thies of the Long Beach Post
Today is the final day of my previews and as excited as I am for this thing to start, I am going to miss writing these–Uruguay fans, I’m going to miss you the most. Especially since you’re going to crash out in the first round, our time together will ultimately be too short.
As with many things, there is a very real possibility that the main event can’t live up to the hype. And considering this year’s top players have the shelf-life of Gulf coast shrimp, this whole thing might be won by the team that simply has the least injuries. Urm, um, that is, ya know, if it were possible to win. Which it’s not. Moving on…
Group H is just another example of the, ah, interesting grouping of teams. The only two countries in the world that speak Portuguese are grouped together. The two most prominent English-speaking countries in the world are grouped together. The conspiracy theorist in me can’t help but notice these coincidences; like have you ever noticed that FIFA always schedules Trinidad in the same group as Tobago?
But anyway, in Group H three-quarters of the group are Spanish-speaking. Now, I know what you’re gonna say: “But Ryan half the field speaks Spanish.” Well, you’re wrong, only a quarter of the field speaks Spanish (actually 7 out of 32, which isn’t even 22%). And looking at the groups, there was about a 3% chance of having a Spanish supergroup like this one. If it feels like I’m using my math nerd-dom to drag my feet because I don’t want these to end…you’re right. I’m also paving the way to refer to this as Group Menudo.
The number of teams that have a legitimate shot to win the World Cup could be counted on Rahm Emmanuel’s hand. Italy is too old, Argentina too crazy, France too old and too crazy. England, Germany, Ivory Coast, and Ghana have too many injuries to overcome. Really the only teams that have a true chance are Brazil, Netherlands, and…Spain.
Spain — The biggest knock on Spain is the same knock on Netherlands: history. Spain hasn’t made it past the quarter-finals in half a century. They crashed out in the Group stage four times during that stretch. Before 2008, they had similar success in Europe–no championships in 44 years but 3 first round losses.
But then 2008 happened. The Spanish began an attacking football that is nearly unbeatable. They are always moving forward, asking questions, pushing the boundaries, looking for weaknesses in those that oppose them. I think you know where I’m heading with this one, there can only be one nickname for this team: The Inquisition.
It was no coincidence that this squad hit their stride two years ago and haven’t stopped since. They have exactly one player older than 30, they do not have a single teenager on the roster. Their stars play for the best clubs in the best leagues in the world. In fact, Arsenal’s captain, (and arguably the most untouchable player in England) Cesc Fabergas, cannot even crack their starting 11. Their midfield is incredible with everything flowing through Barcelona star Xavi. Their strikers are deadly–if Fernando Torres is at full-strength alongside Euro 08 star David Villa they could combine for double-digit goals. Their defense is solid to go along with their long-line of stellar keepers. This isn’t a collection of superstars (even though that is exactly what they all are) but instead a cohesive unit that is Dangerous.
Just in the last year they have beaten eight different World Cup teams. They were undefeated in qualifying. And in their last 18 games against teams in this year’s World Cup they are 16-1-1. That lone loss to the US last summer never ceases to amaze me.
It is honestly hard to think of reasons that they wouldn’t win. They don’t have the apathy that Brazil occasionally displays, and they have had more recent success than the Netherlands have. But I’ll do my best…
1- Of the 13 Euro champions only one (West Germany ’88) went on to win the World Cup two years later. As I’ve said before, to win it all takes luck. Having won a championship recently, Spain might have used that luck up. (Of their 16 wins against World Cup teams, ten of those wins were by a single goal including five one-nil wins.) Obviously it takes skill to win that often, but winning five games one to nothing also takes quite a bit of luck.
2- The US victory wasn’t just luck (although that was part of it). Instead the US unveiled a blueprint for how to beat Spain. And it’s the same blueprint that free-flowing teams have always faced: clog the midfield. Spain really does flow through Xavi. Their strikers play with the ball at their feet. Even their defenders are known for keeping the ball rather than just booting it. All of these things are what form a dangerous attack. And all of them can be exploited.
The teams that Spain has beaten repeatedly (France, Italy) are too old to keep up. Teams like England or Argentina aren’t disciplined enough to truly bog down the game. Ironically the US is one of the few teams with the youth and energy but humble ambitions (along with superb goalkeeping) to slow down and survive the Spanish onslaught.
3- The last strike against Spain is that they didn’t get an easy draw. They’ll survive their group (which is easy) but they would have survived any group. But staring opposite them is the Group of Death. If Brazil stumbles and finishes 2nd in Group G we could be looking at Brazil/Spain in the first elimination game. A game worthy of the Championship could be for a berth into the Quarters.
But Spain’s tougher test might be in the Quarters against Cameroon. Les Lions aren’t a lock-down defense but they do play a pestering midfield that could frustrate (read: beat up) Spain. A physical but energetic team could be the only way that Spain is going down.
Fortunately for me (and for the column’s premise) I expect them to run into that type of opposition. And I expect their luck will run out.
Chile — More than anyone outside of the African teams, La Roja are starting to get some darkhorse rumblings. The team that beat Paraguay, Denmark, Slovakia, and Argentina is a formidable one. But the reason they’re a darkhorse and not an out-and-out favorite is that this is the same team that lost to Paraguay, Spain, Mexico, and (by four goals) to Japan.
You’re going to hear a lot about Chile throughout this cup because they are more attacking than anyone else. They play with as many strikers as defenders, with their mission being to keep the ball as far up the pitch as possible. This style is why they could make some noise and certainly develop a following but it’s also this style that leaves them vulnerable (like when they lost 3-nil to Paraguay). There’s a rumor that their fans are drunker then most, but at the World Cup that’s just par for the course.
And while I fully expect them to survive the group, there is the little matter of the winner of the Group of Death waiting for them. But if the world is praying for a Spain/Brazil game, Chile is probably willing to sacrifice virgins to make that happen. Because if they duck Brazil, Chile could face a worn-down Ivory Coast or a Portuguese team that’s just waiting to collapse. And suddenly Chile could be in the Quarters. Unfortunately for them, I don’t expect that to happen.
La Roja didn’t make either of the last two World Cups, but in ’98 they did survive the Group stage- only to get slaughtered by Brazil in the first elimination game. Barring a miracle, the same thing is going to happen again this year.
Honduras — The US has played Honduras five times in the last twelve months, which means that most US player saw Honduras more times than they saw Avatar. The US won four of those games (all of which were in the Gold Cup or WC Qualifying while Honduras’ lone consolation prize was in a friendly).
But despite the one win over the US earlier this year, Honduras’ recent form can’t instill confidence. They haven’t played a World Cup foe since that US game, and in the five games since then against non-WC opponents Honduras went 0-3-2 being outscored 8 to 2.
Their nickname–Los Catrachos–roughly translates to “from Honduras”. Which is a bit like how all NHL teams in Canada have team nicknames referring to the fact that they’re from Canada. Honduras only made one World Cup before, twenty-eight years ago, and they didn’t win a game. This time around the team only made the World Cup because of Jonny Bornstein’s header to tie Costa Rica. But surely their tournament results will be the same.
Switzerland — The only country that doesn’t speak Spanish, the Swiss might feel a bit left out when their group throws the end of the year party. But Switzerland was going to feel left out in any group that didn’t include the Cayman Islands or the gold coin vault that Uncle Scrooge use to swim in.
They’re also going to feel left out style-wise. While the Spanish have the best attack in the world, and Chile has the most aggressive one, the Army Knives are left to bask in the glory of being the only team in history to be eliminated from the World Cup without ever allowing a goal (they lost on PKs after another nil-nil draw in the first elimination game in ’06.)
They’re also going to feel left out age-wise. Spain’s success is due in large part to their age. They have managed to put a team together, born entirely in the 80s, that is at peak-age. Meanwhile the Swiss are starting a striker born in ’75 but could rely heavily on Xherdan Shaqiri who was born in ’91.
The one place the Swiss won’t feel left out is their own homes. Fortunately for them, nobody else will win the Cup either.
Well guys and gals it’s been a lot of fun looking at these 32 losers with you. Feel free to come back tomorrow just for old times’ sake.
I’ll be doing some recaps throughout the tourney–unless Uruguay survives Group A, in which case I’ll be hiding under a rock. Or if Italy makes it to the Quarters, in which case I’ll be walking into traffic.
Thanks for reading, and let’s go U.S.
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.