The 19th FIFA World Cup kicks off in eight weeks today, and as such Dotmund continues his almost-in-depth look ahead to this summer’s festivities. Today he continues his preview of each of the eight groups, having been sent foraging for facts on the internet with only his trusty big pencil for company. Up for examination in this week’s post, Group B.
Qualification – 4th place in CONMEBOL FIFA Ranking 9 Best World Cup Winners (1978 & 1986) Last World Cup Quarter final (P5 W3 D2 L0 F11 A3 (2006)) Head coach Diego Maradona (since November 2008) Most capped player Javier Zanetti 136 (1994 – present) Top goalscorer Gabriel Batistuta 56 (1991-2002).
For the first time in a number of tournaments, Argentina go to South Africa without the added burden of being favourites. Instead, they’re just a very, very good bet. A lot of the reticence towards backing Argentina for a tilt at their third title has come from their stuttering form throughout qualifying: finishing only fourth in the CONMEBOL group, they had to wait until the penultimate game to secure their passage to the finals.
This is an unusual position for Argentina to be in. Not only is their position in South America undiminished in terms of talent, but it was further established with Olympic gold in Beijing less than two years ago. A lot of the current uncertainty is as a result of coaching shenanigans. Whilst the Olympic success came under the stewardship of Under-20 coach Sergio Batista, the senior squad were falling to unprecedented qualifying defeats. After a loss at home to Chile, Coco Basile resigned his post and was replaced by Diego Maradona. As a player, Maradona is as great as there has ever been. As a coach, however, he is very inexperienced and some of his decisions have looked suspect. Particularly notable is his scattershot policy to awarding new caps, although the collapse of his relationship with playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme will probably be of greater concern once the 23-man squad is finalised. No other player, past or present, is as deified as Maradona is in Argentina. The question is, does anyone dare sack him?
Whether or not that will be needed, however, could still be a moot point. As unpredictable as his management has been so far, few national coaches have the kind of talent at their disposal that Argentina boast. Their frontline is either mouthwatering or terrifying, depending on if you are a neutral or their opponent: Sergio Aguero of Atletico Madrid, who was joint-top scorer during qualifying with Barcelona’s outrageous Lionel Messi, perhaps the world’s greatest player. Also in attendance will be Carlos Tevez of Manchester City, a bullish and brilliant centre forward.
In midfield, the team are anchored by team captain Javier Mascherano of Liverpool and Real Madrid’s Fernando Gago, whilst the majority of the playmaking duties since Riquelme’s much-publicised international retirement fall to veteran Juan Sebastian Veron, now playing back in his homeland for Estudiantes, whom he inspired to the 2009 Copa Libertadores crown. Familar faces, too, provide a formidable-looking, but in qualifying overly-breached, defence. Inter’s veteran full-back Javier Zanetti is back in favour after missing out in 2006. He’s joined by ex-Manchester United man Gabriel Heinze, Inter’s Walter Samuel and the hard-tackling Martin Dimichelis of Bayern Munich. Quite who will play in goal is anybody’s guess, as Maradona has capped no less than five new ‘keepers in the last year. Most frequent custodian throughout the qualification games was 37-year old Roberto Abbondanzieri of Internacional, but Maradona is yet to select him in any of his squads.
Qualification winner of Group B in CAF third round FIFA Ranking 21 Best World Cup Second round (1994 & 1998) Last World Cup First round (P3 W0 D2 L1 F1 A3 (2002)) Head coach Lars Lagerbäck (since February 2010) Most capped player Mudashiru Lawal 86 (1975-1985) Top goalscorer Rashidi Yekini 37 (1986-1998).
With this the first World Cup tournament to be held in Africa, it’s fitting that the team many thought would be Africa’s first champions are in attendance, pipping Tunisia to top spot in the final qualification game. A lot of Nigeria’s reputation in world football, however, still hinges on that increasingly distant gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, although the team did finish in third place at this year’s African Cup of Nations.
Nigeria’s own league being a very weak affair, all 23 of their squad are likely to be players who are based abroad. A large percentage of these are likely to be very familiar names to British football fans. Joseph Yobo, Yakubu (both Everton), Seyi Olofinjana (Hull City) and John Obi Mikel (Chelsea) are all mainstays of the first eleven, whilst Danny Shittu (Bolton Wanderers) and Dickson Etuhu (Fulham) are probable squad players. The team itself is captained by Portsmouth’s Kanu.
Other notable players include defender Taye Taiwo of Marseille, where he forms an important partnership with Argentinian group rival Gabriel Heinze, Victor Obinna of Malaga, a striker who was the joint-top scorer in qualifying and Peter Odemwingie of Lokomotiv Moscow, one of only three players to start all ten qualifying games. Unfortunately for the Super Eagles, Ikechukwu Iche of Real Zaragoza, who was top scorer with Obinna and played all of the qualifying games is likely to miss out due to knee ligament damage.
Happily, however, no such problems seem likely to hinder their most important player of all, Vincent Enyeama of Hapoel Tel Aviv. Goalkeeper at the 2002 World Cup aged just 19, now 27 he forms a vital cog in Nigeria’s defence. Playing every minute of the final qualifying campaign, Enyeama conceded just 5 goals. In addition to his athleticism and presence, he is also notable for his goalscoring record. Enyeama boasts 1 goal in every ten starts for Tel Aviv, a record he also had during his spell at Enyimba International between 2001 and 2004.
Nigeria enter this year’s tournament with a new coach, their 8th in the last 10 years. Shalibu Amodu paid the price for the Super Eagles’ failure to reach the ACN final – just as he did in 2002, also just months before the World Cup. His replacement is Swede Lars Lagerbäck, who resigned from a nine-year tenure as the boss of his home nation following their failure to qualify for South Africa this year. Exactly what to expect, then, is anyone’s guess.
Qualification 1st place in AFC 4th round Group B FIFA Ranking 49 Best World Cup Fourth place (2002) Last World Cup First round (P3 W1 D1 L1 F3 A4 (2006)) Head coach Huh Jung-Moo (since December 2007 (also 1995, 1998-2000) Most capped player Hong Myung-Bo 136 (1990-2002) Top goalscorer Cha Bum-Kun 55 (1972-1986).
Asia’s most successful ever team at world level qualified for South Africa finishing ahead of their nearest rivals – both geographically and in terms of World Cup pedigree – North Korea in the group stage. 2010 is their seventh-successive qualification for the finals, by far and away the best record for any Asian team.
Yet, they’re still seen as something of a gimme. Their outstanding run to the 2002 semi-final was on home soil, say the naysayers. It was masterminded by Guus Hiddink, arguably the finest coach in football today. They only actually won three of their games. However, South Korea (or Korea Republic, to give them their proper name), are no longer a pushover, at home or abroad. Last time out, in Germany 2006, they recorded their first ever finals win on foreign soil. In a group where only Argentina look to be nailed-on qualifiers, South Korea will be aiming to go one better this time.
In terms of players, the Republic increasingly exports its finest talents to Europe. Combined with a home league growing in stature, the final 23 is likely to be a mixture between well-known names and new talent. Their finest player, captain and top scorer during qualifying is Park Ji-Sung of Manchester United. Other survivors from the 2002 tournament likely to feature include Lee Young-Pyo, once of Feyenoord and Tottenham, now at Al Hilal and recipient of 111 international caps; strikers Ahn Jung-Hwan (Dalian Shide) and Lee Dong-Gook (Jeonbuk Motors) and veteran goalkeeper Lee Woon-Jae, aiming for his 4th World Cup squad.
South Korea are not a rearward-looking side, though, and many of these players are likely to be superceded in the starting eleven by newcomers. Jung Sung-Ryong, 25, of Seongnam Ilhwa is likely to fill the goalkeeper spot, with Lee Seung-Ryul of FC Seoul, not yet 22, is the current hotshoe centre forward – although Korea often find themselves reliant on supporting midfielders to boost their goal tally. One more player to watch is Cha Du-Ri, another of the European-based players from SC Frieburg. He’s the son of one of the most esteemed Asian players of all and South Korea’s record goalscorer, Cha Bum-Kun.
Coach Huh J-M is now in his third spell as national team coach, as well as spells on the backroom staff. His first two reigns were fairly short, usually blighted by his insistence on choosing up-and-comers rather than established stars in his squads, which had a predictable effect on results. So far in his 2-and-a-half year spell this time, he seems to be striking a better balance.
Qualification Winner of UEFA play-off versus Ukraine (2nd place in UEFA Group 2) FIFA Ranking 10 Only World Cup First round 1994 (P3 W0 D0 L0 F0 A10) Head coach Otto Rehhagel (Since 2001) Most capped player Theodoros Zagorakis 120 (1994-2007) Top goalscorer Nikos Anastopolous 29 (1977-1988).
Greece have become such a formidable foe in the UEFA group in recent years, particularly since their outstanding win at the 2004 European Championships, that it’s hard to believe that this is only their second ever World Cup finals. Helpfully for the t-shirt printers, they’ve been drawn into a group with two of the same teams that they faced in 1994 – Nigeria and Argentina. They’ll be looking to improve on their results in the United States: they still await their first finals tournament goal after a pair of 4-0 losses (to Argentina and a very strong Bulgaria) and a 2-0 reverse to Nigeria sent them packing in 9 days.
They almost didn’t make it at all. Despite a good start in their qualifying group, a pair of losses to Switzerland left them needing to beat Ukraine in a play-off. Greece left it late, drawing goallessly in the home leg before an impressive away victory in Kiev. Overall, the impression is that Greece are tough, but not impossible, to beat – and that they tend not to save their very best form for tournament play.
I expect them to do a little better this time round. Continuity in the coaching staff has been key, and Greece are now one of the better-drilled and most disciplined teams in the competition. Built around a solid defence at efficient counter-attack, it’s perhaps surprising that the regular back men are relatively inexperienced at international level. Expect the defensive line to be built around Sotirios Krgiakos of Liverpool. His likely partner is Australian-born Avraam Papadopolous of Olympiacos, but at only 12 caps so far, he’s not got huge international experience. The real steel of the side is in a pack of defensive midfield players. Christos Patsatzoglu of Omonia Nicosia can be employed in midfield or defence, whilst Konstantinos Katsouranis of Panathinaikos is a more natural midfield anchor. Creativity comes from his PAO teammates Dimitris Salpingidis and Greece’s captain, the well-respected Georgios Karagounis.
Greece’s most famous players internationally are their centre forwards. Georgios Samaras, once of Manchester City and now with Celtic played all but two of the qualifying games, but he’s nowhere near as prolific as Angelos Charisteas of Bayer Leverkusen, who stands just seven strikes from the all-time Greek goalscoring record. More important than either of them, however, is Theofanis Gekas of Hertha Berlin. He scored half of Greece’s 20 qualifying goals, and has 20 goals overall in 46 caps. As for the coach, Otto Rehhagel is one of the most beloved figures in the history Greek sport after their Euro 2004 exploits. The German is also the most experienced coach in the history of the Bundesliga, with 820 games as a coach in addition to over 250 as a player. After Greece’s failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, he offered his resignation, but his devoted playing staff talked him from walking away. With a nine year spell in charge, Rehhagel is one of the most experienced coaches set to be operating in South Africa this summer.
MY (useless) PREDICTION
It’s hard to see this group going to anyone except Argentina, however eccentric Diego Maradona’s behaviour turns out to be. As for a runner-up, I fancy Greece. It will be tight between them and their two rivals, and their organisation and teamwork should serve them well. It should not be forgotten, however, that Nigeria – always a dark horse – have a team of hugely experienced players at European level and a defence that only shipped 5 goals during the qualifying games.
4. South Korea