Continuing with my theme of FIFA corruption, is it any coincidence that just as Sepp Blatter is about to announce his candidacy for another term as FIFA chairmen, the vast bulk of voting blocks outside of Michel Platini’s UEFA received uniformally cake draws for the 2014 World Cup? I would suggest no, it most emphatically is not and worse yet, this is coming a few months after Blatter made the absurd suggestion that Platini’s UEFA, and CONMEBOL (home to few countries, and thus, fewer votes for the chairmanship) should give up world cup slots to the AFC and CAF (home to innumerable votes for the chairmanship), despite the plain truth that the AFC and CAF have a historically awful, and incredibly uncompetitive history in World Cups. Indeed only S. Korea and Japan have made any serious impact on the World Cup out of the AFC, and that is just in the past decade. CAF has advanced only one or zero of its entrants beyond the group stage in world cups going back throughout World Cup History. So why again should these federations earn extra slots at the expense of notorious overachiever CONMEBOL, and notorious power UEFA considering FIFA’s re-allotment of slots post tournament has always been based on confederation performance? I would suggest the reason is clear and obvious, Blatter wants to be named Dictator for life of FIFA, and will require the votes of CAF and AFC to accomplish this goal. So far, so good for his campaign, now onto the draw.
At the conclusion of qualifying one thing was very clear, this would be the most competitively stacked World Cup ever. Region by region virtually every federation in FIFA advanced all, or all but one of its international squads. Asia (AFC) was a perfect four for four for the first time since ’06, sending all four of its flagship sides, ditto North/Central America+ Caribbean (Concacaf), for the first time ever sending its top four sides, meanwhile Africa (CAF) and South America (Conmebol) managed to send nine of its top eleven sides, and UEFA sent 11 of its top 13 sides. In other words only four of the thirty two teams in this world cup are genuinely considered mild surprises as entrants: Ecuador, Algeria, Greece and Croatia, and three of the four are genuinely competitive sides (Algeria can thank its lucky stars it landed in the easiest group (it’s own presence being one of the reasons for that designation), as Algeria would have been annihilated if it had replaced Chile in group B, or Ghana in group G. The only issue likely to distort the incredible depth and raw talent of the squads in this cup has been the inbalance created by FIFA’s moronic non-seeding process (unlike the NCAA tourney, FIFA refuses to seed the tournament, as a result, pure luck determines the relative strength, or weakness of groups, and the relative difficulty or ease of a path to the World Cup Title) which ensures that teams have a drastically uneven scale of difficulty in their path from group play to possibly the Final. A look at the draw’s distortive results:
Group(s) of Death:
Traditionally most tournaments feature one group of death, possibly two, depending upon the relative depth of the nations in the tournament, and the teams awarded seeds. In this tournament the reality that four likely seeds all were tossed into the UEFA unseeded pot (Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and England) instead, insured that we would have multiple groups of death, and following the draw, we clearly do:
Group B features three different teams currently ranked in the worlds top 10 by both SPI and E.L.O. It is quite similar to 2010′s group D, and Group G which featured three powerhouses, and 1 punching bag with only two knockout round tickets on offer. To compare, Group E features not one team ranked in the world’s top 10, and Group’s C, E and H combined have fewer top 10 teams than Group B. While that might make you think group B is the toughest group, the sheer depth and power of Group G has an average ranking superior to that of B, which suggests the true scale of the ridiculousness of the FIFA draw, and its distortive power in determining who has a successful World Cup and who does not (and explains why Ivory Coast, one of the best teams in the world between 2004-2010, failed to make it past the opening group stage, when you’re grouped with 2 of the best eight sides in the world (Argentina and Netherlands (and the underrated powerhouse that was Serbia and Montenegro in ’06), and Brazil and Portugal in ’10), your tournament is already likely over before group play has even started).
Spain, and the Netherlands represent the finalists at World Cup ’10, and two of the best three sides in Europe (with Spain #1, and Netherlands #3), while Chile is generally considered one of the best four teams in South America, and has repeatedly scared the hell out of European powers over the past four years, beating faux-seed Switzerland in ’10, and recently pounding England in England in a serious friendly 2-0, and tying Spain in Spain 2-2, after having pushed them very hard in a 1-2 defeat four years in South Africa ’10. Australia will play the role of North Korea in ’10′s group of death next summer, likely to be on the receiving end of three consecutive crushing defeats at the hands of Chile, Netherlands and Spain. The question is, which poor top ten squad in the world is going to fail to qualify for the final 16 because of this moronic draw procedure? Will it be Spain, threepeaters looking for a fourth consecutive major championship, Netherlands, 2010 finalist, and UEFA power, or rising South American power Chile? My bet is on Spain, as crazy as it sounds. Spain has shown signs of slowing down, their defense not as good as in the past, their star players more injury prone than ever. Netherlands may be a better bet to fall, considering their disastrous Euro 2012, but they had a very strong qualification campaign and appear at the top of their powers, if it comes down to GD, or TG’s as a tie breaker, I believe the Netherlands are more likely to accumulate goals with their style of play than Spain, which has shown a propensity to play to 1-0 wins not withstanding their 4-0 thrashing of Italy in the Euro Final eighteen months ago.
3. Costa Rica
The lesser of the three groups of Death, Group D features 2010 World Cup semifinalist and 2011 Copa America Champion Uruguay, Euro 2012 Finalist and World Cup ’06 Champion Italy, and Perennial overrated Knockout Round participant England, alongside Concacaf second tier squad Costa Rica. I may shock some England homers by arguing this, but considering Costa Rica’s track record in Concacaf qualifying, the Copa America, and Playoff qualifying for the World Cup, I think Costa Rica will shock plenty of participants. Lets remember that Costa Rica was a group winner and quarterfinalist at Copa America ’01, a quarterfinalist at Copa America ’04, had argued vociferously that the World Cup 2010 Playoff game winning Uruguay goal in their 1-2 aggregate defeat at Uruguay should have been waived off, and went 1-2 in group play in Copa America ’11. In other words, in their last four appearances in South America in Copa America, or World Cup qualifying, Costa Rica has earned 1 or 2 positive results each time. Can the same be expected of England and Italy? I’m not so sure. Costa Rica travels well in Latin America and has repeatedly shown no fear in nearly forcing playoff extra time against an Uruguay side that finished top 4 at World Cup ’10, and Copa America champion in 2011, or in Copa America tournaments where they’ve consistently shown well most of the time.
My expectation is that Italy will shown their talent and mettle, Uruguay attacking talent will punish England, and Costa Rica will punish 1 of the three sides, likely England in my view, but will finish last on GD.
4. Costa Rica
The clear G.O.D., FIFA rankings places G as signifigantly tougher than any other group (the average ranking of all other groups is 20+ save for D, while G’s average FIFA ranking is 11), while SPI and ELO generally agree. It seems clear to me as well considering that G houses the second best team from Europe in Germany, a squad that has consistently performed as a top 5-6 side in every single major tournament over the past decade (Euro ’04, ’08, and ’12, and World Cup ’06, and ’10) in Portugal, the best performing international side from Africa in Ghana, a side that was a handball away from the semifinals of World Cup ’10, and Confed Cup 2009 semifinalists, World Cup 2010 Round of 16 participant (outplayed Ghana in World Cup 2010 Round of 16 extra time 1-2 defeat) 2011 Gold Cup Finalist and ’13 Gold Cup champion, and Hexagonal qualifying 1st place finisher in ’13 USA. There isn’t a weak side in this group, and no other group is close at it represents the best from Africa, the best from North and Central America (+the Caribbean), and 2 of the best five teams in Europe.
What can we expect? Well the US not only landed the toughest draw, it also landed the toughest travel schedule of any team, a fact not lost on coach Klinsmann, indeed the only good fortune for the US was the schedule, which opens with Ghana, follows with Portugal and only ends with the strongest perceived team in Germany, and if the tournament plays out as expected, Germany may be resting players in that finale, giving the US, a chance at another point in the final game that will be a much tougher get for Portugal in its opener and Ghana in its second match, but this is the only silver lining to this very dark cloud.
While I’m inclined to project the finish based on my hopes, I must be rational in my expectations, and as such, Portugal will be a slight to moderate favorite over the US and Ghana for the runner up slot. I suspect that the group will play out like so: Germany will handle Portugal in the opener while the US will finally get revenge on Ghana for some close painful tournament ending defeats in ’06 and ’10 in its opener. In the second games, Portugal will get its vital victory following a crushing defeat in its opener (this is the difficulty, what do US fans want more? A Germany resting players in the finale because its already qualified for the Knockouts, or a Portugal overconfident after upsetting Germany? I’ll take the former as Germany is simply a much better side than Portugal and a much tougher opponent when at full strength), while Germany will finish off Ghana to qualify as first place finisher. In the finale’s, Portugal will take away what it needs against Ghana, as it did against Ivory Coast in ’10, while the US will either lose a close fought battle, or pull of a morale victory in earning a draw against Germany.
Shwew…at least it’s not the Group of Death:
3. Ivory Coast
While members of the groups of death are eyeing Group C, and group F with envy, I would argue that both groups house tremendous balance, and the opportunity for extremely exciting group stage games. Both groups are strong in depth, and very well balanced, featuring four squads that are equally potent and would generally fit easily as top 10-20 or so squads in the world. Colombia seems a sure bet to qualify for the knockout rounds, for much of Conmebol qualification, Colombia looked like possibly the best qualifier out of South America despite finishing 2nd to Argentina. I find it difficult to imagine that they will be knocked out in the group stage, but the battle for second place will be a true battle royale considering that Japan has battled toe to toe with all comers at World Cup ’10, Confed Cup ’13, defeating Cameroon, and Denmark, and grossly outplaying Italy in a crushing 3-4 defeat (they lead 2-0 through 40 minutes, and if not for an own goal, would have lead 3-2 with 10 minutes left), Greece looked terrific in qualifying, boast one of the most imposing defensive reputations in the world and if their young forward can stay healthy, could shock the world by advancing, while Ivory Coast, the flag ship African side of ’06 and ’10 so cruely sent into back to back groups of death, finally has drawn a group they’re capable of winning or qualifying from. Anyone could win this group on neutral ground and anyone could come out in the cellar but all should be expected to play well.
2. Ivory Coast
Perhaps unfairly ignored, Group F is nearly as difficult as Group C, and features three genuinely impressive squads.
2. Bosnia and Herzogovina
It goes without saying that Argentina should take group winner status, but the battle for second will be a bloody one, especially considering the fact that this Iran squad is a fairly strong one and will probably not be acting as a delivery mechanism for 3 points +improved GD/TG #’s. Indeed it would not be a shock if any of the other 3 sides in the group managed 4 points. Nigeria won the most recent confederation championship in Africa, and contains a wealth of attacking talent to go with one of the worlds best goalkeepers, while Bosnia and Herzogovina is the fifth piece of what was once Yugoslavia to qualify for a major tournament and only missed out on World Cup ’10 and Euro ’12 due to playoff defeats to knockout round qualifier Portugal. Tremendous underrated, if Bosnia can get its attack going, they should make the knockout rounds but all and all, all three teams have a chance for the last slot.
3. Bosnia and Herzogovina
The Groups of Life:
Nothing breeds optimism like landing like a group of life, and in Brazil next summer, there will officially be three groups of life: Group A, Group E, and Group H get this billing. In the case of A, Brazil proved to be a 7th straight host to have avoided a group of death, landing Concacaf 4th place finisher Mexico, the seventh best team in Africa in Cameroon (a team that probably shouldn’t even have qualified if not for good fortune in the CAF playoff draw (avoided all three of the toughest seeds)), and in Croatia a squad that struggled to put away heroic Iceland in a pathetic qualifying playoff performance. Group E displayed the perils of making a ludicrously awful seeding choice using inept standards. Switzerland, a squad that doesn’t even rate as a top 20 side in the world, parlayed non-participation in friendlies (a factor that can improve your FIFA ranking due to inherent design flaws), an inexplicable crash out of World Cup ’10 after opening group play with a victory over eventual champ Spain (lost to chile, and could only draw Honduras in a do or die finale), with a total failure to even qualify, let along perform well at Euro 2012 (and somehow, this total failure for FIFA jurists, merited Switzerland receiving a seed over Euro 12 knockout round participants Italy, England, Portugal, Greece and France as well as Euro ’12 qualifiers Russia, Croatia, and Netherlands, you know, the team that Spain required Extra Time to defeat in the 2010 WORLD CUP FINAL. Somehow FIFA looked at all that information, all of those eight European teams (and the rest of the world minus Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay and Belgium), and decided that no, Switzerland’s total failure to advance to the knockout rounds out of a moderate group in 2010, and failure to even qualify for Euro 2012, let alone show well, trumped all eight of those European teams accomplishments since World Cup 2010.
Honestly there’s something mind numbingly stupid, and incredibly absurd in that decision, and bare in mind, this decision by FIFA to gift Switzerland a seed, and a free ticket to the knockout rounds will result in billions of dollars in revenue loss from various nations crashing out early, while Switzerland parlayed zero accomplishments, and a pathetic qualifying path into an inexplicable seed, and even more inexplicable group of life that will propel it to an unwarranted spot in the final 16 come next summer, and a likely date against one of the weaker knockout out round finalists in the tournament (Group F isn’t exactly murderer’s row compared to the foes they might have been paired with). You’d almost think FIFA Chairman Sepp Blatter was from Switzerland or something. Wait a second……
Moving on, nothing to see here, so what can we expect from Group of Life E?
Switzerland brings a solid, competent side with an excellent midfield to Brazil, and probably the best Swiss side to play in a world cup in decades (mind you that’s like saying the current Cleveland Browns team is the best Browns incarnation in the past decade) to a group that featured Conmebol’s poorest entry, road warrior Ecuador (sarcasm inteneded), Perennial Concacaf third place finisher Honduras, and persistent major tourney disappointment, and all around bad guys France (you know, the squad that was supposed to be drawn out of the Conmebol/CAF pot, and so insured to play against a top European side+ a seed, but instead, through French marketing efforts, instead had the procedures changed, and was gifted a group featuring the worst seed, and the worst team from the Conmebol/CAF pot not named Algeria or Cameroon, and a concacaf road punching bag).
Switzerland and France are the class of the group, please hold in the laughter, and as such would normally be expected to advance, however this is another in a long line of mentally weak, narcissistic French squads prone to internal squabbling and disappointing performances away from home, and playing in the Brazilian heat and humidity against Ecuadorian, and Honduras squads used to difficult Latin American environments, and a Swiss side known for playing consistently to its ability could prove problematic. As it is, I still can’t see Ecuador or Honduras pushing France out due to the talent deficit, even a team as mentally weak, and as tough and as firm as Gumby should be able to hold out against teams that would rank at the very back end of a list of World Cup qualifiers from top to bottom.
Ecuador and Honduras have a chance, but in Ecuador’s case it depends on rescuing its road form which was miserable in qualifying, and in Honduras’ case, it depends on Honduras holding tough and using the environmental familiarity they have with Latin American soccer to their own advantage. Both squads feature more talent than outside observers imagine, and could pull a shocker or two, neither could have landed in a better group considering their outsider status.
Group A seems a rather simple projection, turning entirely on whether or not you think Mexico is what it looked like during qualifying, or if their playoff form, and their form from 2011, and 2012 is more likely to be what they bring to the table. If Mexico is anywhere near right, Croatia and Cameroon, two of the very worst squads to qualify from their region should be eliminated, if Mexico isn’t, there may be an actual battle to determine who earns the right to be pounded by the Group B winner.
Brazil should win the group easily, this is a class Brazil side, and one that probably would have contended for a semi-final birth in another region, Neymar leads an attack that as per usual is quite potent and should prove fiercsome at home.
Mexico struggled during qualifying but boasts an incredible array of attacking talent and depth in the midfield and in goal. Additionally their home based players hail from only two different clubs, and so the chemistry should be excellent. I can’t see Mexico getting ousted by a poor Croatia side missing its talisman (Mandzukic), and I can’t see them losing out to Cameroon either (and if you don’t buy that, remember, Mexico, regardless of draw, has advanced to the knockout round in every single World Cup they’ve played in since 1986 (that’s six in all).
That last member of the group of life club, Group H, home to rising power Belgium, yes Belgium, a side that hasn’t come close to qualifying for anything since it qualified for World Cup 2002 back in the fall of ’01 when it ousted the much fancied Czech republic in a playoff is now coached by former star Marc Wilmots. On the one hand Belgium had no business whatsoever being a seed in this tournament, regardless of how impressive their current form is, and their qualifying campaign (they annihilated just about everyone, and appear to be a top 4-5 team in Europe), they simply haven’t done squat in a decade+2 years. That does not a seed make. However FIFA wanted to rig the draw to protect South American squads, and the means by which they did so insured that Switzerland, and Belgium were swept up in their plans to boot. At least in regards to Belgium, we know Belgium is more than capable of making a deep run in the tournament if they can manage to avoid top 6 sides. Beyond Belgium, there is only Russia, a second or third tier European side, and South Korean, a former Asian power that has fallen off a bit in recent years. Not much can be said about Algeria beyond the fact that they looked awful in South Africa four years ago, and barely qualified this time despite being gifted a seed in the African Qualifying playoff that they clearly did not deserve.
2. South Korea
Knock Out Round Predictions:
Round of 16:
Brazil over Netherlands
Colombia over Uruguay
Switzerland over Nigeria
Germany over S. Korea
Chile over Mexico
Italy over Ivory Coast
Argentina over France
Belgium over Portugal
Brazil over Colombia
Germany over Switzerland
Italy over Chile
Argentina over Belgium
Brazil over Germany
Argentina over Italy
Brazil over Argentina