World Cup Preview: Group A
The 19th FIFA World Cup kicks off in nine weeks today, and as such Dotmund continues his almost-in-depth look ahead to this summer’s festivities. Today is the beginning of his preview of each of the eight groups, having been sent foraging for facts on the internet with only his trusty huge mackerel baguette for company. Predictably enough, we start with Group A.
Qualification Hosts FIFA Ranking 88 Best World Cup 1st Round (1998 & 2002) Last World Cup 1st Round (P 3 W1 D1 L1 F5 A5 (2002)) Head Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira (since October 2009 (also 2007-2008)) Most Capped Player Aaron Mokoena 99 (1999-present) Top goalscorer Benni McCarthy 32 (1997-present).
South Africa go into the 2010 World Cup as Africa’s first host nation with the old “the World Cup host have never been eliminated at the first hurdle” truism ringing in their ears. Having only ever qualified for two finals beforehand, and never having qualified from the group stages, something has got to give.
In spite of their top seeding as hosts, South Africa are the second-lowest ranked team in the competition by the March 2010 FIFA World Rankings, only North Korea are lower in the list. However, heart can, and should, be taken from their very respectable performance as hosts at the Confederations Cup last summer.
In terms of players, South Africa are a mixture. Big-name players well-known to European football supporters will of course be first on the team sheet, but South Africa have a recent history of using a majority of home-based or young players outside of competitive internationals, so the squad is likely to feature some unfamiliar names too. Portsmouth’s centre-half Aaron Mokoena is the country’s most-capped player and captain, and will most likely be joined by Everton’s attacking midfielder Steven Pienaar and Blackburn striker Benni McCarthy.
Lesser-known players to look out for are Mokoena’s giant partner in the back line, the 6’6” Matthew Booth of Mamelodi Sundowns who is currently Bafana Bafana’s only regular white player, and the splendidly-named midfielder Macbeth Sibaya of Russian club Rubin Kazan. This will be the 32-year old Sibaya’s second World Cup finals. Look out, too, for three of the star performers from last season’s Confederations Cup tournament. Teko Modise is a left-winger who currently plays for Orlando Pirates but is on the radar of several European clubs, including AC Milan, Inter and Manchester City. Katlego Mphela, a 25-year old striker scored twice in last summer’s third-place match with Spain, including a last-gasp free kick of some distinction. He plies his trade currently for Mamelodi Sundowns. Finally, Bernard Parker, a 24-year old who plays for Steve McClaren’s FC Twente, may be the pick of the bunch. An attacking midfielder or a forward, he can make a real difference to the game. However, he is currently at risk of a major ban for signing a contract with Twente whilst still under terms at Red Star Belgrade, so may not make the finals at all.
As for the coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, 2010 marks his sixth World Cup as a manager. As well as coaching Brazil to the 1994 title, he also guided Kuwait in 1982, the United Arab Emirates in 1990, Saudi Arabia in 1998 (getting sacked after the second of their three first round games) and Brazil’s again in 2006 during their run to the quarter-finals. Also involved with the brilliant 1970 World Cup winning Brazilian team as a fitness coach, Parreira will equal Bora Milutinovic’s all-time record of having coached five different nations in a World Cup finals. Not bad for a man who never played football professionally.
Qualification CONMEBOL (2nd place in Fourth Round) FIFA Ranking 17 Best World Cup Quarter final (1970 & 1986) Last World Cup Last 16 (P 4 W1 D1 L2 F5 A5 (2006)) Head Coach Javier Aguirre (since April 2009 (also 2001-2002)) Most Capped Player Claudio Suárez 178 (1992-2006) Top goalscorer Jared Borghetti 46 (1997-2008).
Time was when Mexico were very much the whipping boys of the World Cup. Regular qualifiers right from the off – missing out on only the 1934 and 1938 tournments between the inaugural World Cup and 1974 – Mexico didn’t secure their first draw until 1958 and failed to win until 1962. Hosting the World Cup in 1970 (and again in 1986) marked a real sea change in their team’s fortunes. Now El Tri are a team that any reasonable national team manager would want to avoid in their group. Ever-present in the finals since 1994, Mexico have qualified from the first round in each of the last four tournaments.
In terms of their squad, Mexico resemble a great redwood tree in an American national park, strong but unchanging down the eras. Their most capped player holds the all-time record for an outfielder, whilst their squad for 2010 is likely to feature some spectacularly seasoned campaigners, the majority of whom all play in Mexico’s national league.
Gerardo Torrado will be just 31 by the time the tournament kicks off, but the defensive midfielder already has 107 caps and two World Cups to his name. Meanwhile, striker Cuauhtémoc Blanco, now 37, has 109. He was left out of the 2006 squad after falling out with the coach, and had similar disagreements with Sven-Göran Eriksson but is now back in favour to the delight of his devoted public. Youngsters to watch for include Manchester United’s latest acquisition, 21-year old forward Javier Hernández and his Barcelona counterpart, 19-year old Jonathon dos Santos. Hernández particularly is something of a rising star for the national side, with four goals in his four appearances.
The coach, Aguirre, played for Mexico during the 1986 World Cup and replaced Sven-Göran Eriksson at the helm as the national side stuttered and stalled. A popular if controversial figure, Aguirre quickly got himself in hot water for kicking a Panamanian player during a Gold Cup match. This will be his second World Cup as Mexico coach. His first, in 2002, saw his team top their group with wins against Croatia and Ecuador and a draw with Italy, before losing 2-0 to the United States in the last 16.
Qualification Winner CONCACAF-CONMEBOL play-off versus Costa Rica (CONCACAF 5th place) FIFA Ranking 18 Best World Cup Winners (1930 & 1950) Last World Cup 1st Round (P 3 W0 D2 L1 F4 A5 (2002)) Head Coach Óscar Tabárez (since 2006 (also 1988-1990)) Most Capped Player Rodolfo Rodríguez 79 (1976-1986) Top goalscorer Héctor Scarone 31 (1917-1932).
Uruguay are perhaps the single country with the most remarkable World Cup record of all. With a population even today of just 3.5 million people, they won the first two tournaments they entered, not losing a finals game until their run to the semis in 1954. 2010 is their 7th World Cup since that run ended in Switzerland 56 years ago, with 1970’s run to the last-four their best display in the intervening years. Not since 1990 have La Celeste made it past the group stages at a World Cup tournament.
Whether or not they will this year seems fairly up in the air, too. They wiggled through the qualifiers, finishing 5th in the CONCACAF group and then narrowly beating Costa Rica 2-1 on aggregate in the two-legged play-off. Their particular weakness is their form away from home, which is unlikely to be a help in the South African winter. However, their indifferent World Cup form masks what is a very decent team. Their last four Copa America performances have yielded three semi-final places and a runners-up spot.
When one looks at the squad, it’s not hard to see why, as it features a number of names very familiar to the European football fan. Of the most recent squad, called up for a 3-1 friendly win against Switzerland in St. Gallen, just 6 of the 19 play their club football in South America. Perhaps their most famous current player is the ex-Manchester United striker Diego Forlán, who will be 31 by the time the tournament begins and who was the team’s top scorer in qualifying with 7 goals from 13 games. His likely partner, Luis Suárez of Ajax (where he is club captain), has scored 70 times in 93 outings for the Dutch giant, and 10 in 29 caps for the national side. As is virtually the law for any South American team in the World Cup, Uruguay also boast a player nicknamed El Loco – Botafogo’s striker Sebastián Abreu, who is just 4 goals away from breaking his country’s 78-year old scoring record.
Elsewhere on the pitch, experience comes from AS Monaco midfielder Diego Pérez, whilst the team captain is the very highly rated centre-back Diego Lugano of Fenerbahçe. Also look out for Porto left winger Cristian Rodríguez. My hopes that the squad will include 2-cap midfielder Diego Arismendi of Stoke City, and currently on loan at Brighton and Hove Albion, are probably slim.
In coach Oscar Tabárez, too, there is considerable experience and grit. Tabárez was at the helm the last time Uruguay made it past the World Cup group stages in Italy 20 years ago. Now, as then, a second round match with Argentina beckons. And don’t bet against it: Uruguay versus Argentina is the most regularly occurring fixture in international football history.
Qualification Winner UEFA play-off versus Republic of Ireland (UEFA Group 7 2nd place) FIFA Ranking 8 Best World Cup Winners (1998) Last World Cup Finalists (P 7 W4 D3 L0 F9 A3 (2006)) Head Coach Raymond Domenech (since July 2004) Most Capped Player Lilian Thuram 142 (1994-2008) Top goalscorer Thierry Henry 51(1997-present).
The 1998 champions find themselves still stuck at the crossroads. For several years at the start of the last decade they were one of the finest teams seen in Europe for a generation. Since winning the European Championship in 2000, however, disappointment has never been too far away. However, for a team who went 12 years bewteen World Cup tournaments between 1986 and 1998, this new propensity to get there by whatever means possible (Thierry Henry’s hand, perhaps?) should probably be looked on as a welcome addition.
Given some of the lacklustre displays Les Bleus have produced in recent years, it’s difficult to remember at times that they were World Cup finalists last time out in Germany. Of course, the player who inspired that run, Zinedine Zidane, is now long since retired, and France find themselves trying to balance the remainder of the experienced and be-medalled players from their golden generation with the up-coming talent from Ligue 1, which has received a major boost to its standing this season with two French clubs making it to the Champions’ League quarter finals.
France struggled through qualifying, missing out in their group to Serbia before beating Eire in a contentious play-off game last November, subsequently missing out on a seeding for the draw. Goals have been their greatest problem. Only twice in the last calendar year – which included nine World Cup qualifying games – have France scored more than once in a game, and one of those occasions was against Faroe Islands in Paris. Their top scorer in qualifying was Toulouse striker André-Pierre Gignac, with just 4 goals.
Much pressure, therefore, will fall on the shoulders of Thierry Henry. Now 32, this may prove to be France’s record goalscorer’s last World Cup finals. Also up on deck will be Chelsea’s Nicolas Anelka, whose 64 games for his country have produced a disappointing 14 goals only. Other familiar faces likely to be in South Africa this summer include Arsenal’s Bacary Sagna, who played more of the qualifying games than anyone else, his clubmate William Gallas, Chelsea’s in-form attacker Florent Malouda and ex-Arsenal and Pompey man Lassana Diarra. Creative duties look set to fall to Bayern Münich’s Franck Ribery, still much-coveted by the English big-spenders. Backing Ribery up will be Yohann Gourcuff of Bourdeaux, with Jérémy Toulalan of Lyon likely to rival Diarra for the anchor spot. In defence, Manchester United’s Patrice Evra looks to be a shoo-in on the opposite flank to Sagna, whilst AS Roma’s Philippe Mexès is now very much the go-to centre half. In goal, two youngsters look set to battle it out – 23-year old Hugo Lloris of Lyon is currently the first choice, but 25-year old Steve Mandanda of Marseille saw the majority of the action in the qualifiers.
The coach, incredibly, is still Raymond Domenech. For all the relative underachievement he has presided over, and for all of the eccentricities – not picking Robert Pires, alledgedly because his star sign wasn’t compatable, being a personal favourite – the improbably-eyebrowed Domenech arrives in South Africa as one of the most long-serving national team coaches in the tournament. Expect absolutely anything and everything.
MY (useless) PREDICTION
On paper, South Africa should be outclassed here, but home advantage does count for a lot. Whether it will be sufficient, however, is another matter. I fancy Mexico to come out on top in group A, as both Uruguay and France are rather reluctant travellers. I fancy France to just edge through, but I think this group will probably be much closer than a lot of people may have thought. Forget Brazil-Ivory Coast-Portugal in Group G: I think this is the REAL group of death.
3. South Africa
* all data is correct up to April 8th 2010.