Up for the cup — surprise packages

Before every World Cup, the question is always, which unheralded teams will make a surprise run deep into the tournament. As Bill James once said, though, if we could figure out who will surprise us it wouldn’t be a surprise. And in a tournament like this, anticipating surprises seems particularly like a fool’s errand. Never having seen Togo play, and not being able to name a single player in their squad, how can I guess how Togo will perform?

I will predict that one black African team will sneak up on the field. If that happens it won’t really be a surprise, though. In almost every World Cup one such team — Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon — does well. This year, the best candidate probably is the Ivory Coast. To make it past the first round, they will have to edge either Argentina or Holland (plus Serbia), but I’m not sold on the Dutch team this year.

Australia is another interesting dark horse. Though many would rate them last in their group (Brazil, Croatia, and Japan), their squad seems pretty strong. It’s possible that I’m unduly influenced by my familiarity with their English Premier League contingent, but that group plus others who have been successful in Europe (Viduka, Kewell, Schwarzer, Cahill, Emerton, Moore, Alosi, Bresciano) compare favorably to the U.S. foreign legion in my estimation. And expect the men from Oz to be well coached by Dutchman Guus Hiddink.

Ukraine, playing in a seemingly weak group, is another possibility as long as superstar striker Andriy Shevchenko can stay healthy (in all honesty, however, it’s been several years since I’ve seen Ukraine play). The Soviets always seemed to fizzle in the Cup, and Russia has made no impact since the Soviet breakup. Maybe Ukraine (which often supplied the best Soviet players, including the legendary Oleg Blokhin who now coaches Ukraine) can do better.

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