Traditionally, one of the greatest spectacles in every World Cup takes place not on the field, but on a stage about half a year before the event kicks off. I am speaking of course, about the World Cup Draw. As any fan of the red, white and blue will tell you–this is often a day-filled with stomach-wrenching pain, heartache and consternation. After all, the 1998, 2002 and 2006 editions of the draw found the Yanks twice-paired in brutal groups, and no matter what the brilliant Guy Bailey says about the 06 edition—it as once found the Yanks in the dreaded “Group of Death.” We all know what happened after that particular draw, so we won’t go into Jan Koller crushing our spirits seven minutes after our tournament started, the nothing-short-of-heroic undermanned performance against the Azzurri, and the Gooch penalty and Claudio Reyna prime-ending disaster that was the final fixture against Ghana. Again, we all know how that went, so no discussion of that whatsoever. Rather, let’s focus on how the tide turned this December. The Yanks avoided the group of death, and while I’d avoid the hallucinogenic celebration the Yanks group set off in England (now notorious The Sun headline and all), I’d say it could have been far worse. It could have featured a date with Brazil or Portugal, or Brazil and home soil darlings Cote D’Ivore. Instead, the great football gods decided the best thing for everyone involved in South Africa 2010 would be to pair them all together, giving us Group G, or, the Group of Death: Brazil, Portugal, Cote D’Ivore (that’s Ivory Coast in American), and the enigmatic Kim Jong-Il’s, who, apparently not content being the most mysterious side in the history of the World Cup, have hid themselves in a northern Johannesburg fortress, closed to non-North-Korean “press” and visitors, and staffed wholly by cooks and maids flown in from Pyongyang.
If Didier Drogba manages to take the field (my bet is he will—he’s waited years for this tournament, and he returned, albeit with a heavily fortified cast on his arm, to training today), the group will feature two of the top three sides in the world in Brazil (1) and Portugal (3), the darlings of the sleeper pool in the Ivorians (ranked 27), the most mystery and intrigue in the tournament in the North Koreans (the tournament’s lowest ranked side at 105), and finally, arguably four of the world’s ten finest players in Brazil’s Kaka and Maicon, Portugal’s Christiano Ronaldo and Cote D’Ivore’s Didier Drogba. As such, this is without question the most intriguing group in the tournament. Here’s my best effort at a breakdown:
Brazil is a bit different than your father’s Brazil. Hard-nosed midfielder and captain of the 1994 World Champion edition of the Selecao has constructed a side in his own image—shunning superstars such as two-time FIFA Player of the Year Ronaldinho in favor of players who are willing to buy into a defense-first, team-oriented counterattack system he feels will prevent the footballing aristocrats from repeating the failures of 2006, where they were ushered out of the tournament in the quarterfinals. His choices to leave Brazilian stars and mainstays off the roster (aloof but talented striker Adriano was also left behind) has been the source of great controversy in Brazil, so much so that Dunga has announced he will step down after the World Cup, win or lose, noting that the pressures and blame of the media, despite continued positive results, have been too much of a burden on the former Cup hero. Whatever the Brazilian press and public think of Dunga, his tactics have worked. The Selecao are ranked first in the world and are the reigning Confederations Cup Champions, having overcome a two goal deficit in the second half to steal the title from the underdog Americans. While they don’t play with the traditional flair and creativity one associates with Brazilian football, or Joga Bonito, they do have one of the greatest creative forces in the footballing world in Kaka playing the focal point of the attack in Dunga’s 4-2-3-1, and they get tremendous width on the flanks from Maicon and Kleber without losing their defensive shape, as Gilberto Silva simply rotates backwards to prevent dangerous counters when Inter Milan’s Maicon decides to use his attacking skills. They don’t like for talent at striker either, with the mercurial and pacy Robinho playing just behind the strong, fast Luis Fabiano, who is excellent and efficient in exploiting the holes created by Kaka and Robinho. What they lack in flair, they have made up for in proficiency, and Dunga is out to prove Brazil can win its sixth Cup on a fifth continent by adjusting to the way the world had adjusted to playing them. They may not be playing the “Beautiful game”, but they certainly play beautifully.
The Elephants of the Ivory Coast
Without question, Ivory Coast are everyone’s favorite sleeper. And why shouldn’t they be? As Bob Ley’s wonderful piece on the Mimosas (an Ivory Coast youth academy that literally takes children from disease and poverty-ridden shantytowns to a place where they can get an education and a shot at many European youth academies) pointed out—this is not simply a collection of European club talent; it is a collection of great talent with a good deal of familiarity with each other, as eight likely field players have been playing together since their Mimosas days, including Sevilla starlet Didier Zokora and young Lille starlet Gervinho, who captained the Ivorian Olympic team. The Elephants are a deep squad with great talent at forward. Beyond Drogba, Salomon Kalou is a more than capable goal scorer at the highest level and Gervinho found the net 11 times in France this year. This gives the capable manager Sven-Goran Eriksson options up top which are a perfect complement to a steady, albeit somewhat boring, midfield.
Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, whose brother Kolo is a key cog in the back four, is the best of that lot along with the aforementioned Zokora, who is a steady passer, and also happens to play with starter Abdul Kader Keita at Sevilla, which is yet another example of the longstanding chemistry present on the Cote D’Ivore squad. There are high expectations that accompany playing on home soil, especially when you are thought of as the best, or at least the most talented, of all the African sides. But high expectations likely won’t bother The Elephants, who strolled through qualifying, and who last time around, managed to stop a civil war and play at the World Cup all at the same time—heady stuff for anyone. If Didier, the man responsible for the Chelsea double and for ending the Ivorian civil war, is able to go—this is a side capable of beating anyone and capable of a deep run.
As mentioned in the introduction, the North Koreans, or The Chollima, as they are called in Pyongyang, are one of the most mysterious World Cup sides ever to take the field in the history of the tournament. The good news is that unless they win, nobody, including the North Koreans, knows much about the team. About the censorship, I’m serious but I jest if hinting that’s a good thing, but what can you say about a totalitarian fascist outside of…you know…he wears sunglasses that make him look like he just attended a gay pool party but he just named a different son his successor because his eldest is “too feminine”….mercy. Back to the North Koreans.
Three play professionally abroad, including Tae-Se Jong and Young-Hak-An, who plays professionally in Japan. Tae-Se has promised to score a goal in every group match, and he’s predicted the counterattacking North Koreans, who typically play a 4-3-3 which really looks more like a 5-3-2, will survive the group stage, finishing second behind Brazil. I’m sure they’ll have their game faces, but the likelihood many of the folks back home hear much about this trip to South Africa is not high.
If ever a team could be ranked third in the world and not thought of as a threat to hoist the Cup, the Selecao Das Quinas are that side. The general theory is that they are a one man show, and as Christiano Ronaldo goes, so will Portugal. While there is a bit of merit to this theory, especially looking at Portugal’s weak performances sans Ronaldo in the first half of UEFA qualifying—there is the counterpoint to the theory, which was Portugal surviving the two-leg playoff against Bosnia-Herzegovina without Ronaldo. Add to that the fact that Ronaldo scored zero times in twelve qualifying matches, and the Portuguese scored only 1.6 goals a game, and you understand the questions about how exactly this could be the third ranked side in the world. And yet—there is a superstar. Like Kaka and Drogba, Ronaldo is without question the class of his side. He’s asked a great deal in Carlos Quiroz’s 4-4-1-1 system, where the midfield, led by the inconsistent but brilliant Deco, steady Simao and Raul Meireles are expected to get the ball to Ronaldo, who is given the freedom to roam and make his classic darting runs in behind striker Hugo Almeida. The Portuguese are excellent on set pieces and dangerous on free kicks with both Deco and Ronaldo, and will be deep enough to trust the bench, where Quiroz can call on the likes of Sporting’s Liedson and Real Madrid’s Pepe. As qualifying indicated, they are far better in the back than reputed to be, and Eduardo is sound between the pipes. He’ll need to be as the Portuguese face two sides that can score at will in Brazil and Portugal. My general guess is their fate in this group will turn on the opening fixture, where they will meet a likely Drogba-less Ivory Coast. Survive that, and you know—as Ronaldo goes, so will Portugal.
Golden Ball in Group (Best Player)—Kaka
I just think it is his time to shine, and he’s the one superstar Dunga has seemed to embrace. The Brazilians are 21-0-2 when Kaka scores under Dunga.
Best Young Player in the Group—Gervinho, Ivory Coast
The twenty-three year old plays with flair not as common in recent young African players—and having scored four times in only thirteen caps, he’s certainly ready to succeed at the highest level. He should feel comfortable on African soil and I think he’ll be the difference between a disappointing exit and a second round date with Spain.
Golden Gloves (Best Goalie)—Julio Cesar, Brazil
He’s simply marvelous. It’s almost unfair that Brazil is so sound in net, given the embarrassment of riches on the rest of the field. As capable of the spectacular as he is steady in positioning, Cesar will make at least one stunning save in the next three weeks.
Match Predictions, in order
Brazil 2, North Korea 0 – Tae-Se’s dream of scoring in every match dies early. I think the North Koreans mystery and desire will keep this game close, and if I were a betting man, I’d bet on a narrow Brazilian win that gets the faithful in the home country a bit on edge. But with Dunga, what else is new?
Ivory Coast 1, Portugal 1—I just haven’t figured out how Portugal will score goals. I also think the athleticism and technical savvy of the Ivorian midfield should be just enough to weather the storm and salvage a result in a game both teams will think they need to survive.
Brazil 2, Ivory Coast 1—ABC will televise this match and it will be the “match to watch” in the group. I expect Drogba to return, and I expect Brazil to hammer away at his casted arm, so much that he earns a penalty. Too bad I also expect Robinho to be Robinho and I think the Ivorians will have great trouble dealing with Brazil’s width, especially side back Maicon.
Portugal 4, North Korea 1—Tae-Se scores for North Korea. This is all that is reported in Pyongyang.
Brazil 1, Portugal 0—Normally I’d think the Brazilians would be content to relax with six points in hand, but a Portuguese win would send the Brazilians off to play Spain in the second round. This means they have to press forward and I think the former colony will eventually break the Portuguese down, while doing enough in possession to keep Ronaldo and company out of the net. A heartbreaking defeat for Portugal, because….
Ivory Coast 5, North Korea 1—Tae-Se strikes again for the valiant North Koreans but Drogba and Kalou have too much class, and see the Elephants through on goal differential.
Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com.