The favorites: France and Mexico
June 11 South Africa vs. Mexico
June 11 Uruguay vs. France
June 16 South Africa vs. Uruguay
June 17 France vs. Mexico
June 22 Mexico vs. Uruguay
June 22 France vs. South Africa
Key players: Stephen Pienaar (Everton).
As most humans are probably aware, South Africa is hosting the World Cup this year. As any soccer following human knows, no host nation has ever failed to make it out of the group stages. Even the lowly United States in 1994 and Japan/South Korea in 2002 have advanced. Now this trend faces its biggest challenge. South Africa is not a good team, they would be lucky to be called an average team. Hell, they are lucky that North Korea and New Zealand are in the tournament, lest they be called the worst team.
South Africa is a great sporting nation. From Zola Budd to the Springboks, South Africans are obsessed with sports and obsessed with winning those sports. They are also the one of richest soccer leagues in Africa. Unfortunately for them, their ambition and local money does not match their ability when it comes to soccer. Quite simply, they are bad.
One way to judge the quality of an international team is to see how many of that team’s players are currently plying their trade in Europe. The big leagues in Europe are the place to be in soccer. That’s where the money is, that’s where all the best players from around the world play. South Africa has only a handful of players operating at a high level in Europe, and only one who could be considered a star. To provide context, the US could field an entire team of players from high level European leagues.
While things seem bleak, South Africa is not without hope. They have one excellent player in Stephen Pienaar, a couple of intriguing talents in Aaron Mokoena and Tsepo Masiela, and an excellent coach in Brazillian Carlos Alberto Parreira (who won a World Cup as Brazil’s coach). And, maybe more importantly, they have the home crowd and all the pressure (expectations) and advantages (referee decisions miraculously seem to go your way at home for some odd reason) that go with it.
South Africa are likely to park the bus and play on the counter-attack. Most teams that lack the talent or skill to compete make use of this tactic. It involves playing most of your players in a withdrawn, defensive position in front of your own goal and structuring your game to try to prevent the other team from scoring. Then, if you get a lucky break or a turnover, you try to race down the field and put a goal on the other team while all their players are caught on your side of the pitch. It can be incredibly boring….and incredibly successful. Perhaps the most famous success being Greece winning the European Championships (at one stage beating France by scoring a goal on the only shot they attempted all game).
Can the South Africans “pull a Greece”? The odds are not in their favor. Their defenders are below par (Mokoena has not been good this season in England) and they lack a speedy, consistent striker who can threaten the other team’s goal. What they do have is a couple of midfield players – Pienaar in particular – who may be able to create a chance off a set piece or an excellent through ball that could give the South Africans a goal.
Their most recent warm-up games have been successful. They beat Thailand 4-0, and while the Thai team is nothing to write home about, the fact that South Africa was able to actually score 4 times in one game is nothing short of miraculous (in the past two years they’ve only scored 32 goals in 34 matches).
Most odds makers believe South Africa will not make it out of the group stage. I’m not so sure I agree. Sometimes people forget the power of playing at home, and South Africa’s group, while tough on paper, is full of some teams with fragile psyches. I can see the Bafana Bafana pulling off a miracle. Of course, “pulling off a miracle” for this team is simply to win one game, not the tournament.
Key players: Diego Forlan (Atletico Madrid), Luis Suarez (Ajax), Nicolas Lodiero (Ajax), Diego Ludano (Fenerbache)
Every preview of Uruguay must begin with the past. This small South African nation was the world’s first soccer super power, winning the first world cup, and then winning another in Brazil in 1950 in one of the biggest upsets in world cup history. How did such a small nation (Uruguay’s population is the size of the Seattle metro area) become such a dominant force? Through the Branch Rickey method: they let the black players play.
You may find this hard to believe, but back in the day, descendants of Africans were treated rather harshly in many parts of the world, including South America. The darker skinned you were, the less chance you had of doing anything in life other than lifting something for someone else. The same was true in soccer. It was a game for elites, not street urchins.
Uruguay was instrumental in changing that. They allowed “black” players onto their teams and then played them. Once they did, they started winning. A lot. It took a couple world championships for the rest of the world to catch up to them and by the 1950s they had been passed by Brazil (and Hungary and others) as the leading team in the world. While they are still a regular participant in world cups, they have never again threatened to reach their previous heights.
This year’s team will likely be no exception. But they are not without talent and are a definite threat to make it out of this group. Led by Manchester United wash out but Atletico Madrid star Diego Forlan and Ajax striker Luis Suarez up front, as well as attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodiero in the middle, Uruguay have firepower. Sebastien Abreu will come off the bench to provide size if they go against bigger defenses. The key to their 4-3-3 attacking system is Lodiero, he is the creative player able to unlock defenses for Forlan and Suarez, sending them on runs into space with clever chips and through balls. But he’s only 20, and unproven in major top level tournaments. Without a good game from Lodiero, it’s hard to see Uruguay getting through.
The other problem will be the defense. Uruguay’s central defense is big and solid, led by Diego Ludano. However, they are not are not the quickest of men, and any small strikers with pace could give them trouble. This will test their midfield of Perez and Periera. Expect to see a lot of free kicks conceded as Uruguay’s defensive midfielders fight to prevent speedy players from running at their central defense. Uruguay will most likely take their chances against set pieces rather than open field runs.
The expectations are always high in Uruguay given their historic place as the first world champions. But, as the Chicago Cubs will tell you, just because you won a lot 100 years ago doesn’t mean much today. Uruguay is an attractive, attacking side that could threaten this group, but do not have the overall depth, team strength or defensive ability to make a deep run.
Key players: Guillermo Ochoa (Club America), Cuhatemoc Blanco (Veracruz), Giovanni dos Santos (Galatasary), Carlos Vela (Arsenal), Rafa Marquez (Barcelona)
Full disclosure on my part: my wife is Mexican. My daughter is half-Mexican. My in-laws and extended family are all Mexicans. I put hot sauce on everything. I enjoy a tortilla more than most. I even drink Sol on occasion. I love me some Mexico.
But I despise their soccer team. On my levels of hate (think Dante’s levels of hell…only stupider), Mexico’s soccer team is right up there with Ohio State, Duke and Sidney Crosby. They’re in the pantheon.
Any US soccer fan knows the chant well: dos a cero. That’s the scoreline from when the US beat Mexico in the 2002 World Cup and one of the greatest days in my sporting life. [Costanza] The streets of Mexico City were angry that day my friends! Like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli![/Costanza]. The US knocked Mexico out of the World Cup, and off its perch as the dominant team in North and Central America. It’s been that way ever since.
But why? Mexico has a long soccer tradition and is a large country that is obsessed with what is now it’s national game. They have the biggest and richest league in the region. They’ve hosted two world cups. They had one great player (Hugo Sanchez) and another very good player (Rafa Marquez) make it on the highest level of football. Mexico should dominate the US. But they don’t. And the key to why they don’t is why I dislike them so much.
Mexico is a bully. Like every bully, they have a chip on their shoulder and pretend to look down upon those around them, but when someone stands up to them, they crumble. Going back to that game in 2002, the US was winning the game late and started stalling for time. Mexico began to beat them up. Marquez almost decapitated Cobi Jones and got red carded for his trouble. Every US player on the ball was viciously chopped down. Blanco stood over fallen Americans and threatened them. After the game, they simply walked off the field, offering no congratulations or shirt exchanges. The bully had been humiliated.
And the sad part is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Mexico plays very attractive soccer most of the time. They are a ball possession team with skillful players connecting to each other through short passes and triangles, working their way down the field and keeping the other team off balance. They have a talismanic figure in Blanco; a creative attacking midfielder with the exceptional vision to play in strikers or curl in free kicks in a way most Americans associate with David Beckham. Mexico are talented, and when they play against any other team besides the US, they play that way. Against the US, they feel their manhood is threatened and they have to beat them up. And they lose.
Fortunately for Mexico and the soccer watching public, they are not playing the US in the group stages. Instead, we will likely see the Mexico that plays creatively. Dos Santos and Vela are young, fast strikers with worlds of potential. Andres Guardado is a great offensive midfielder and Blanco is excellent “in the hole” as the player sitting right behind the striker and making cutting passes.
On defense Mexico have some issues. While their goalkeeper is solid, he is young. And while their key defensive player is also solid, he is old. Rafa Marquez has been a rock in front of the Mexican back four for the last decade, but he was terrible at Barcelona this year and is not going back to Europe next season. In fact, he’s been used as a central defender more often than not in order to save his old legs. If his form continues to be poor in South Africa, look for the Mexicans to be giving up a lot of free kicks near their own goal. And that is the biggest weakness of this team: its inability to stop the other side’s free kicks. Their defense is too small against the big European clubs to match their strength and power without an in-form Marquez.
Mexico almost always make it out of the group stages. For one because they’re talented but also because they often find themselves in easy groups. That is not the case this year. They open with the host in the opening game of the tournament. The local team is going to be very emotional and Mexico could get caught. If they lose that game, it will be difficult for them to get through.
As much tradition as Mexico has, it’s not difficult to see them getting out of this group with a poor South African team, an unbalanced Uruguay, and an ambivalent France. However, their opening game against South Africa is scary, as is their defense against a big, powerful team like the French. This may be the year Mexico goes home early.
Key players: Hugo Lloris (Lyon), Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich), Thierry Henry (Barcelona), Nicolas Anelka (Chelsea), Youann Gourcouff (Bordeaux)
I love France. I love French cities and culture. I love French food and wine. I love French football and the French league. I love the French language and history. I love French women and French films starring French women speaking French and sitting in French cities surrounded by French culture and history. Give me a one way ticket to anywhere and I’m going to Paris and not coming back. In short, I am a Francophile.
But I hate this French team.
A lot of what goes into a country’s national soccer team happens off the field; in boardrooms and the back rooms of smoky bars where the politics of those in charge take precedence over the results on the pitch. Exhibit A is the French head coach Raymond Domenech.
Domenech is a weird person. He uses astrology to help him pick his team and proposed to his longtime girlfriend on television after France lost a match (she said no). Despite his weirdness, up until recently he was a successful coach. Then Zinedine Zidane retired and it was discovered that perhaps the emperor had no clothes.
The Emperor in this case is a very defensive soccer coach. Too defensive minded for most Frenchmen’s liking, where style is king and losing is acceptable as long as it’s done with a certain joie de vivre. Domenech has no joie in his vivre, only steady as a rock defensemen who are never caught out of position. He likes to play with two defensive midfielders no matter who France is playing. In a recent match, his team was losing and needed to score when one of his defenders was sent off with a red card. Domenech responded to this urgent need for goals by taking off a striker and replacing him with a defensive midfielder. France did not score.
Ever since Zidane struck a blow for his sister’s virtue in the middle of Marco Matterazzi’s chest, France has not been the same. With Zizou (Zidane’s nickname), it had one of the greatest players in soccer history; a creative maestro who could change a game by himself. This allowed Domenech to play his ultra-conservative style but still win games. Zizou would bail him out with a great pass, a free kick, or a well taken strike and France would win. With him gone, there is no one left to score, only to defend.
And the sad part about this team is that their defense is its weak link. Patrice Evra is an excellent attacking fullback for Manchester United, but he’s not much of a defender, neither are Gael Clichy or Bacary Sagna. William Gallas used to be excellent in the middle, now he’s 32. Their best defensive midfielder will miss the competition with stomach issues. Their best defending fullback will be forced to play centerback because there is no one else to play the position. Fortunately for France, Hugo Lloris is one of the best goalkeepers on the planet. He might be very busy.
The flip side is that the French are very talented offensively….they just have trouble scoring. Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda are excellent at Chelsea, not so much for France. Franck Ribery is a quick, creative winger. Youann Gorcouff is an excellent playmaker for Bordeaux. And, of course, they still have Thierry Henry. But, like Gallas, he is old and well past his sell-by date. As a unified creative force, they rarely click. As the Ireland debacle made clear, France may need a helping hand in order to score when the other team parks the bus.
The squad chosen by Domenech to go to South Africa is not a cohesive unit. 23 players, 23 Renaults as the saying goes. A bunch of disaffected superstars who dislike each other. The older generation (in particular Henry) reportedly do not get along with the younger generation. And no one likes William Gallas except for maybe his mom. In fact, the most unpopular person on the team other than Gallas is Domenech, who is so hated in France that he would probably lose an election to the Duke of Wellington.
But coaches are not selected through general elections. No democracy here, it is the back room dealings of the French Football Federation where Domenech has his supporters (and those who tacitly support him in order to see him fail and then move on their political opponents when he does). Laurent Blanc has already been named as Domenech’s successor. Blanc is a young coach who preaches an attacking style of soccer which is the exact opposite of Domenech’s vision of a world of 0-0 scorelines. But unless he replaces Domenech before June 11, France is unlikely to make much of a dent in this year’s competition.
Group A predictions surely to go wrong:
South Africa 2 vs. Mexico 1
Uruguay 3 vs. France 1
South Africa 0 vs. Uruguay 2
France 2 vs. Mexico 2
Mexico 2 vs. Uruguay 1
France 1 vs. South Africa 0
South Africa 3
Uruguay wins the group. Mexico advances on goal difference.