Group E: Netherlands*, Japan, Cameroon*, Denmark
Now that Spain have gotten off the scheid, Netherlands are the best team never to win the big one. They’re traditionally fun to watch, with a longstanding bias towards attacking football. That’s still the case for this year’s version, which features attacking players like Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben who play for some of the biggest club teams in Europe. The Dutch defense, on the other hand, tend to ply their trade a little closer to home (i.e. aren’t all that good). Still, that didn’t stop them during qualifying, where the team went 8-0-0 with a +15 goal differential. Safely through.
Japan have fallen behind regional rival South Korea, and can’t be happy with getting drawn against two power teams in the group. Their plan has to be to shut the game down, keep things close, and hope that former Celtic star and dead ball wizard Shunsuke Nakamura (aka “Beckhamura”) can bang in a free kick. That might work once, but once won’t be enough to advance.
Cameroon are the highest rated team in Africa according to FIFA’s ranking system. That rating is due in large part to striker Samuel Eto’o was arguably the best player in the world two years ago. After slumping indifferently through much of last year, Eto’o engineered a trade from Barcelona to Inter Milan. He’s clicked in Italy, though, scoring 7 times in 14 games. If he keeps that form up, the rest of Cameroon’s speedy side can just concentrate on getting him the ball in good places.
Denmark are the quintessential second-tier European side. They don’t have anyone the quality of Eto’o, but have top-tier players randomly strewn through the lineup (striker Nicklas Bendtner; defender Daniel Agger), and always play hard. Although SPI doesn’t much like them, there’s a chance that they could catch Eto’o on an off day and beat Cameroon, thus sneaking into the second slot. Problem is that their lack of explosiveness on offense also makes them the most likely target for an ambush by Japan.
Key to the Group: Which Eto’o shows up in South Africa
Advancing: Netherlands, Cameroon
Group F: Italy*, New Zealand, Paraguay*, Slovakia
I mentioned earlier that England caught the second-easiest draw in the tournament. Well, Italy caught the first. Italy had a pretty typical qualifying run for them, in that they had a couple of randomly inexplicable results (only beating Cyprus by 1 at home? A draw against Bulgaria?), but ended up comfortably winning their group anyway. This team is not as good as the team that won it all in ’06, largely because it is the same team that won it all, just 4 years older. They disappointed at the Confederations Cup in their last tournament, and they’ve only gotten older since then. It’s tempting, then, to pick them to crash out spectacularly. But against Paraguay and Slovakia?
New Zealand is just happy to be here:
See, look at the joyous faces!
Paraguay is another team that SPI really likes. I think the system is a little too generous to second-tier South American teams—play Brazil and Argentina enough times and you’re bound to steal some points no matter how bad you suck. They did do well in qualifying, coming in 3rd. But with the possible exception of Roque Santa Cruz, there’s not any big name talent aboard. Again, a candidate to disappoint. But then, to disappoint they’d have to lose to . . .
Slovakia. Huh. Well, to be fair, Slovakia did win its qualifying group (although with an underwhelming +5 goal differential against teams other than the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, who themselves threw up a cool -46 GD in qualifying). It also beat the U.S. 1-0 in a recent friendly, albeit at home against a weakened US team. The team’s best player by far is a defender, Martin Skrtl of Liverpool, and that’s how they’ll have to play—0-0 is a win for these guys. But they’re also the only team here that’s likely to play better than their rep instead of worse.
Key to the Group: The last defending World Cup champ to come in old and slow was France in ’02. Like Italy this year, France had to travel a long way for a tournament in a non-traditional host country, and play in an awkward group against awkward teams. France didn’t make it out of the group.
Advancing: Paraguay, Slovakia (yeah, that’s right)
Group G: Brazil*, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire*, Portugal
Brazil have been the best team in the world for years and show no signs of stopping. In a bit of a turnaround from past years, they come in how, having won the South American qualifying group, and the ’09 Confed Cup. And here’s one for the statistically inclined among you. Number of Brazilian World Cup losses in the past 19 years to teams NOT featuring Zinedine Zidane: 0. Zizu’s home for this one.
It’s probably best that North Korea keeps its citizens in a media bubble, because its players would probably choose to stay home and eat missile parts rather than get their hats handed to them like they will be in South Africa. They should schedule a friendly against San Marino afterwards to get their pride back.
Cote d’Ivoire are generally considered to be the best African team, FIFA rankings be damned. The SPI is especially high on them, and gives them the edge over Portugal in this group. They’ll run out players from Chelsea, Arsenal, Man City, Sevilla, and other top European clubs, with that talent spread fairly evenly across the field. The headliner is Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, who has a bit of Randy Moss in him, in ways both good and bad. This iteration of the national team hasn’t done much in competition, though, not winning the African Cup and not making it out of the group in ’06 (though, to be fair, the group did include Argentina and Netherlands). If they’re ever going to break out, it will come this year on quasi-home soil.
Portugal might not be that good anymore. Yes, they have possibly the world’s best player (and certainly the world’s cuntiest human) in Cristano Ronaldo, but the “Golden Generation” that gave past Portgual teams its depth has aged past its peak. Grizzledom works at the back, where defenders can trade speed for savvy. And it also works in the mind game department, with the Portuguese traditional among the league leaders in fouls and cards drawn. But there’s not much up front other than Ronaldo. Unless he produces some real brilliance they’ll find it tough to keep up. There’s a lot of alligator blood here, though.
Key to the group: The number of Ivoirois on the field at the end of the Portugal game. Anything above 10 and Cote d’Ivoire should go through. Anything less and Portugal will grind out another result.
Advancing: Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire
Group H: Spain*, Honduras, Chile*, Switzerland
Speed round: Spain are still really, really good; Honduras aren’t, at least not away from Tegucigalpas; Chile benefited from playing at altitude during qualifying, and will benefit again from a couple of group games at altitude.
That leaves the Swiss, who to me are the key to the group. They were terrible as hosts at Euro ’08, but seem to have used the facility ramp-up they got from that tournament and turned it into a sneaky good team. They won their group in qualifying, and swamped the USA 3-1 during a recent exhibition. Their youth team just went so far as to win the Youth (U-17) World Cup by beating Nigeria in Nigeria. Unlike Portugal, their golden generation looks to be on the way up instead of the way down.
Advancing: Spain, Switzerland