World Cup preview

Jurgen Klinsmann has come under fire for saying that the U.S. soccer team, which he coaches, cannot win the World Cup. Michael Willbon even declared that Klinsmann should “get the hell out” of America (though this may have had more to do with Klinsmann saying, not without justification, that the Lakers are overpaying Kobe Bryant).

One can debate whether Klinsmann should have disparaged the U.S. team’s chances to that extent, but Klinsmann is right. The U.S. has no realistic shot at winning the World Cup.

We have plenty of company, though. In my opinion, all but (at most) a dozen of the 32 teams in Brazil have no real shot at winning. Moreover, I believe that only four teams have a decent shot.

The magic four are Brazil, Spain, Germany, and Argentina, not necessarily in that order.

Brazil is the clear favorite. A year ago, that wasn’t true. The team was stumbling.

But then came Brazil’s commanding performance at the Confederations Cup, capped off by the rout of Spain, defending World and European Champion. It reminded us that Brazil is still a dominant team when it plays at home, and demonstrated that the squad assembled by coach Felipe Scolari is talented and cohesive enough to do the business.

Scolari settled on his starting lineup at the Confederations Cup and has stuck with it ever since. This gives Brazil an additional edge, albeit small, over Spain, Germany, and Argentina who have all been tinkering.

However, each of Brazil’s three main rivals has the quality to compete on even terms with Brazil, at least on neutral ground. It is the home field advantage that, in my opinion, makes Brazil the clear favorite.

Germany has a squad full of outstanding players, and no weaknesses I know of other than, perhaps, at center forward. Argentina’s attacking quartet (Di Maria, Aguero, Messi, and Higuain, if that’s who is selected) is arguably the best in the tournament, but there are some questions about the center backs.

Spain still impresses me, but would impress me more if Diego Costa, its Brazilian-born center forward, had come back from injury looking sharper. I don’t think Spain can win this time without someone who finishes off his share of the opportunities created by the team’s great buildup play.

After the Big Four come two clusters of teams: the usual suspects and the upstarts.

The usual suspects — teams that have done reasonably well in their share of big tournaments during this century — include Italy, France, Holland, Portugal, England, and Uruguay. Of these teams, I rate France the most highly.

In a way that’s an odd choice. The French team disgraced itself in South Africa and didn’t play that much better at Euro 2012. Moreover, France barely qualified for this World Cup, as I recounted here.

But I really like the new French midfield — Cabaye, Pogba, and Matuidi. And I loved the front three — Valbuena, Ribery, and Benzema — until Ribery got hurt. Ribery is one of those modern superstars who has underperformed for his country in big tournaments, but I thought this might be his year, and was prepared to predict a French run to the semifinals.

With Ribery out and with questions about the center back pairing, I’m not as sold on France, but still think they may be “the best of the rest.” Plus, they play in an unimposing group (with Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras).

Two years ago or more, when I noticed how many Belgian and Colombian players suddenly were starring in the major European leagues, I decided that Belgian and Colombia would be my “dark horse” choices for the World Cup. However, many others noticed the same thing. Consequently, neither team can be considered a dark horse.

But having accomplished next to nothing on the international soccer stage for decades, Belgium and Colombia both can be called outsiders. And both find themselves in fairly easy groups, and thus in a position to make a good run.

Chile is another credible outsider, having demolished England in London (among other accomplishments). On paper, Chile finds itself in a difficult group. It must beat out both the 2010 winner (Spain) and runner up (Holland). But I’m not sold on this Holland team, a less experienced side than in 2010 whose few remaining stars, while still quite good, may be past their prime.

I expect at least one of the three “outsiders” to reach the Round of 8 and wouldn’t be surprised to see one of them make the Semis.

Yesterday, I estimated that only about half the field of 32 will play decent to good soccer. So far today, I’ve mentioned 13 teams. But not all of them will meet that standard. Which other half dozen or so teams will do so?

I think the U.S. will play pretty well. Unfortunately, we’re in a very difficult group.

Mexico usually plays pretty well at the World Cup, and may do so this time despite its miserable qualification campaign. The talent is there.

Ecuador looked a decent side in its 2-2 draw against England a week or so ago and has held its own in other “friendlies” against good European teams.

Switzerland is an underrated team, I think. Same with Bosnia.

Croatia looks a decent side. I haven’t seen Russia play since the 2012 Euros where they were mediocre. But Russia is in a weak group (with Belgium, South Korea, and Algeria), and thus has a decent shot at advancing even without playing all that well.

Among the five African teams, Ghana has the talent and experience to acquit itself well, but may struggle (along with the U.S) to get out of the “group of death.” I touted the Ivory Coast before the last two World Cups, but it suffered from being in very difficult groups. This year, its group is less difficult, but some of its stars may now be past their sell-by date.

Among the Asian teams, I kind of like Japan. They play fast and with decent precision, and they have more European-tested players than in the past.

Japan is in the same group as Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast. It should be an interesting scramble for second place (assuming Colombia lives up to expectations and wins the group).

Stay tuned to this space for reports (periodic reports, John, don’t worry) as the World Cup unfolds.

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