Red Right 88

In Cleveland, hope dies last

World Cup Preview – Group G

Many commentators instantly labeled this as the “Group of Death,” and indeed it contains three teams that would be heavy favorites to advance out of any other group. Still, there’s a bit more separation among the sides than the label might imply. Brazil, although it will receive a vigorous challenge from Portugal and Ivory Coast, is so strong that it most likely will advance. And North Korea, of course, has almost no chance. That leaves Portugal and Ivory Coast vying for what will likely be second position.

Brazil is famous for being brilliant at football, great at throwing parties that involve women in bikinis dancing around in the street, and not bad at winning major tournaments. If the World Cup were to consist of some kind of football monarchy, then Brazil would be king. They’ve been to all of them, and they’ve won five (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002), making them the most successful team in the competition’s history.

Much to the chagrin of a Brazilian public who had bought into the notion of style before results, Dunga has reminded the Selecão there’s another way to win. To this point, Dunga’s way is proving more consistent: 2007 Copa America, 2009 Confederations Cup, finishing on top of CONMEBOL qualifying, number one team in the world. As a result, the cries about the style of Brazilian football have been drowned out by the victory celebrations.

The Brazilians have world-class quality all over the field, a range of attacking options to complement a stingy defense and perhaps the world’s best goalkeeper. In short, the elements that make them favorites to take a sixth World Cup home to Brazil. Whether a championship devoid of Joga Bonito will appease Dunga’s critics is another matter.

Heading into this World Cup, Portugal is something it would never have dared dream a year ago: hopeful. After a tumultuous year in which Portugal looked in shambles and danced on the edge of the World Cup nonqualification abyss, the team has turned it around.

Rather than despair about the retirement of its “Golden Generation” — Luis Figo, Rui Costa and others — recent performances have finally given rise to optimism about Portugal’s current crop. Led by the transcendent Cristiano Ronaldo, this team could do real damage, but that is only if it doesn’t stumble over its enormous first hurdle.

Regardless of this being just their fifth World Cup, Portugal have already felt a few big highs and crippling lows. They fared particularly well in the 1966 and 2006 World Cups, finishing in the top four in both. But they stuttered their way to this one, with a rather up-and-downy qualifying campaign. And the past decade has been both kind and cruel to Portugal. On the one hand, it has seen them qualify for every major international tournament — in fact, they are one of just five teams to play in every World Cup and Euro Cup since 2000. However, the ultimate goal — hoisting the trophy at the end — has eluded them; a fourth-place and a runners-up finish are the closest they have come to winning the World Cup and Euro, respectively.

Much of Africa has pinned its hopes on Ivory Coast. The team is enormously talented offensively but much weaker defensively. Plus, it drew this impossible group, with the prize for finishing second a likely Round of 16 game with Spain. This team will have to be very lucky to progress very far.

After a disappointing Africa Cup of Nations, the Ivory Coast made up for it by breezing through the qualifiers to make it to just their second World Cup. Last time around they suffered from being in a strong group alongside Argentina and Holland. This time they will see more of the same. Ivory Coast’s World Cup hopes were potentially damaged when talismanic striker Didier Drogba broke his arm in a final tune-up match against Japan. We probably won’t know whether Drogba will play until Ivory Coast’s first game, so it’s hard to predict what to expect from the Elephants until game time.

About as unsympathetic an underdog as there might be, the North Koreans play dull, defensive soccer and were fortunate to qualify. Their upside is probably limited to a draw against Ivory Coast or Portugal.

The World Cup affords the rich getting richer and pariah nations like North Korea to dispel stereotypes. But in a country as furtive and paranoid as this one, do not expect a full-fledged public relations effort to burnish its image. Even if its World Cup history includes a 1-0 victory over Italy in the 1966 World Cup, followed by a 3-0 lead over Portugal before Eusebio scored four goals en route to a 5-3 comeback win, there seems very little self-promotion emanating from within this state. The lowest-ranking team in the finals (106 in the FIFA rankigns), North Korea defeated Mongolia, Iran, UAE and Saudi Arabia to qualify for the first time since ’66. That’s when the Koreans really got something to complain about after being grouped with Brazil, Ivory Coast and Portugal.

The highlight of the tournament for the North Koreans may have been when they tried to sneak Kim Myong-Won, normally a forward, onto the roster as a goalkeeper. The move backfired when FIFA ruled Kim can only play in goal.

Information for this preview was researched, and more team information is available, here, here, here, here and here.

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