World Cup preview — let the games begin

The World Cup starts tomorrow, and there isn’t enough time remaining to attempt a comprehensive preview. That’s no great loss, since about half of the 32 teams are largely a mystery to me.
Having already discussed favorites Brazil, Spain, and Argetina, here are a few observations about some other teams I think I know a little about.
Holland doesn’t consistently produce great soccer teams; it does so intermittently. The “Clockwork Orange” finished second in back-to-back World Cups during the 1970s. After a down period, Holland won Euro-1988 with a sensational new generation of players. That group sustained Holland as a reasonably powerful side through the 1990s.
Now, after another period of mediocrity, a third wave may be upon us. The Dutch have an embarrassment of riches in the playmaking and attacking positions – Van Persie, Kuyt, Robben, Sneijder, Van Bommel, Van der Vaart, and Afelley. The back four, led by Everton’s Johnny Heitinga, is a little suspect and some of its members, including Heitinga have been struggling for fitness. But the Dutch can try to shield the back four with rugged defensive midfielder Nigel de Jong, if they choose.
England seemed ready to field its best side, on paper, in decades until David Beckham and captain Rio Ferdinand were ruled out due to injury, and the fitness of underrated starting midfielder Gareth Barry became a question mark. But England still has plenty of star power (John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and Wayne Rooney) and, for once, a coach (Italian Fabio Capello) who seems able to get the best out of them in big matches. England thus still has a fair shot at making it to the semi-finals, where they haven’t been in this tournament since 1990.
Four years ago, I said I fancied Australia more than the U.S., given their collection of successful European-league players and their favorable grouping. The U.S. team crashed and Australia advanced to the final 16, where the Aussies gave eventual champion Italy all it wanted.
This year, the U.S. reminds me of that Australian team. Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and others have performed well in top European leagues, and with Slovenia, and Algeria joining England in our group, advancing doesn’t look like as big a chore as it sometimes is (though they are surely saying the same thing in Slovenia and Algeria). The biggest question mark is the defense, and success may depend on the fitness and sharpness of center back Oguchi Onyewu, who missed almost the entire 2009-10 season.
Defending champions Italy look like the definition of a team that hasn’t come together. Rumor has it that coach Marcelo Lippi doesn’t yet know his starting 11, and he has used all sorts of pairings during recent practice games (and the results show it). Italy is famous, though, for coming together as the tournament progresses. But, as good a coach as Lippi is and even with a decent amount of talent at his disposal, my hunch is that this isn’t Italy’s year.
Germany will be missing captain Michael Ballack, and its overall talent level seems middling compared to the traditional powers. But comparable German teams have made deep runs (as Germany did at Euro-2008), and it’s hardly out of the question that this team will too.
France is terrific on the wings (Ribery and Malouda) and good at the fullback positions (Sagna and Evra or Clichy). But the French seem far less impressive up the middle, where it counts the most, and its center backs look suspect. That’s not a formula for big success.
Portugal may be trading places with Holland, a team they eliminated in a contentious match four years ago. Portugal’s greatest generation has faded, leaving the great Ronaldo to conjure up his magic along side players who seem mostly to be a little past their prime. Perhaps Portugal has another good run left, but I see them as a diminished force.
Africa almost always produces a team that makes a nice run through the group stage before bowing out early in the head-to-head stage. And it has always been a different team (Cameroon in 1990, Nigeria in 1994, Senegal in 2002, and Ghana in 2006). This year, with the tournament being held in Africa, I figured that perhaps three African teams would make it past the group stage and that one might well make it into the semi-finals. The problem would be identifying those teams.
Ivory Coast is nearly everyone’s choice to make the deep run. But they are in a difficult looking group and their best player, Didier Drogba, broke his arm and (last I heard) his status for the tournament was unclear. Ivory Coast has a strong enough cast to succeed even without Drogba, if it comes to that, but it’s unclear whether they will come together under their coach Swen Goran Erikkson (ex-England and Mexico) who took over the team late in the day.
The rest of the African teams are largely a mystery to me. I know that, as a group, they haven’t been very impressive in the run-up to the Cup, but I still wouldn’t be surprised if a few of them advance. The groupings favor Nigeria and Cameroon, while the traditional home country edge, of course, favors South Africa.
I haven’t been paying enough attention to have any unique insights on “sleeper” teams. I’ve seen Serbia mentioned some, and its squad looks quite impressive. Uruguay and Mexico also have nice rosters, but their group, with France and the home team South Africa, will not be an easy one. Paraguay has a less impressive squad (to my relatively unschooled eye) but an easier group.
The soccer festival begins 12 hours from now and, having written this post, I’m now up for the Cup.

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