June 11, 2010 Leave a comment
Today’s the day. The day that weeks of build-up, preparation and anticipation have been converging on. The beginning of the event that sold thousands of new high definition TVs, millions of tins of beer and a heckuva lot of Panini football stickers. My wallchart is up, I have bought my team (Holland) in the office sweepstake, and I have placed my first round of bets (an each-way wager on Robin van Persie to finish as top goalscorer at 10/1 was too tempting to pass up).
The 2010 FIFA World Cup starts today.
Predictions: Group stage
Of course, no self-respecting football fan would start a tournament without first making their predictions – which are, of course, guaranteed to be 100% wrong by the time the group phase has finished. So, anyway, here are mine.
Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
Winner Mexico, runner-up France. Mexico’s neat and tidy football will run rings around a ponderous France team which is collectively so much less than the sum of its individual parts, in a group which directly impacts England’s route through the tournament.
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece
Winner Argentina, runner-up Nigeria. Expect Argentina to come good despite Diego Maradona‘s managerial eccentricities, and for Nigeria’s Super Eagles to become Africa’s only representatives in the knockout stage, courtesy of a group draw which is not as difficult as it first appears. Greece, the 2004 European champions, are my tip to be the highest-ranked (13th) team to falter at the opening stage.
Group C: England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia
Winner England, runner-up USA. No complications for England here, although the USA will push them to their limit in their opening game tomorrow. Slovenia are better than most people think; Algeria are worse – neither will qualify.
Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
Winner Germany, runner-up Serbia. Forget Group G: this is the real ‘Group of Death’, with all four teams ranked in the world’s top 32. German efficiency will triumph here, with Serbia – the best European team that nobody knows about - picking up the pieces. Both Australia and Ghana will exit undeservedly; both would have been favoured to qualify from virtually every other group.
Group E: Holland, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
Winner Holland, runner-up Japan. Even though Japan have scored more goals for England this season than Emile Heskey, I expect their industry and technique to see them through to the knockout phase. Holland will concede goals, but they will also score them by the bucketful.
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Winner Italy, runner-up Slovakia. Paraguay are a good side who rarely travel well. Slovakia are a good side, period. It will be tight, but I am expecting the Slovaks to squeeze through. New Zealand? Well, it’s the taking part that counts, right? Tournament whipping boys.
Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal
Winner Brazil, runner-up Portugal. North Korea will vie with New Zealand for the heaviest defeat in the tournament. Even without the injured Nani, Portugal will have too much class for an Ivory Coast side which, despite a squad full of players familiar to Premier League fans, has yet to deliver anywhere near its potential on the global stage. And although this is far from a vintage Brazil side, they will still win this tough group with something to spare.
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile
Winner Spain, runner-up Switzerland. The Spanish dazzle with their intricate passing. The Swiss will bore with their obdurate defending (they were knocked out in the last 16 in Germany without conceding a single goal). Chile – a very good side – will struggle against both. Honduras will make up the numbers.
Predictions: Knockout rounds & the final
England will squeeze past Serbia in the last 16 (quite possibly requiring extra time and even penalties), and then play Mexico in the quarter-finals (and not France, as expected). Victory there will lead to a semi-final against Holland – battle-hardened after beating Brazil in their quarter-final – where England’s creaking defence, already minus captain Rio Ferdinand, will be overrun by the rampant Dutch.
In the other half of the draw, the two quarter-finals will see Italy avenging their Euro 2008 final defeat against Spain, and Argentina overcoming Germany. I expect Argentina, growing in confidence after an uncertain start to the tournament, being too much for a by then 39-year old Fabio Cannavaro and his teammates to contain.
The final? Holland to run out 3-1 winners after extra time, a mirror image of the 1978 final in which Argentina won by that exact scoreline.
Did I ever mention I’m a bit of a football romantic? (Smiles.)
Hopes and fears
My hopes for this World Cup final are much the same as for previous tournaments. Generally, I hope to see great football, with skill triumphing over cynical professionalism, but also:
- One serious, old-fashioned shellacking early in the group phase. I’m looking at North Korea’s games against Brazil and Portugal as the most likely candidates for this.
- One or two major teams – but not too many, and definitely not England – coming a cropper. Look to Greece, Chile, possibly even France to trip up in the group phase.
- A goal for the ages, one that lives long in the memory – such as Dennis Bergkamp‘s late winner against Argentina in 1998.
- The drama of a penalty shootout – but not too many (one or two is fine, thanks), and definitely not in the final.
- The final to be the best game of the tournament – which it never is – or at least half-decent, which it hasn’t really been since the Argentina v West Germany final of 1986. And please, please, please, anything but a repeat of the 1994 final, when Brazil beat Italy after it had finished goalless after extra time.
My fears, sadly, relate largely to a host nation which does not have the greatest safety record, in many respects:
- Policing and crowd control. 16 people were injured after a crush outside Nigeria’s warm-up game against North Korea last weekend, in which many spectators turned up with photocopies of tickets.
- Road safety. South Africa’s road infrastructure and the general discipline of drivers are poor by modern standards, a problem tragically highlighted by the death of Nelson Mandela‘s 13-year old great-granddaughter in a road accident after last night’s Soweto concert. According to official reports, there were 1,050 road deaths in South Africa in December 2009 alone.
- More generally the risk of violent crime, particularly in cities such as Johannesburg. According to global crime statistics, the murder rate per capita in South Africa is second only to Colombia, at around 1 per 2,000 heads. (You are 12 times more likely to be murdered in South Africa than you are in the USA, or 35 times more likely than in the UK.) Or, as comedian Frank Skinner describes it in today’s Times, South Africa is ”a country that has a higher murder rate than Kill Bill“.
From a footballing perspective, my single biggest fear is that a vital game – God forbid, the final itself – hinges on a controversial incident or officiating error which could have been averted with the use of technology, such as Thierry Henry‘s ‘Hand of Frog’ which set up France’s decisive goal in their playoff game against the Republic of Ireland. FIFA, in their infinite wisdom, voted earlier this year against the use of video technology in even its most limited form as an aid to match officials. I sincerely hope it doesn’t backfire on them.
And that’s it, really. The 2010 World Cup kicks off in about three hours’ time. Let’s hope it’s a good ‘un.