The favorites: Argentina and Nigeria
June 12 South Korea v. Greece
June 12 Argentina v. Nigeria
June 17 Argentina v. South Korea
June 17 Greece v. Nigeria
June 22 Nigeria v. South Korea
June 22 Greece v. Argentina
Key players: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Juan Sebastian Veron (Estudiantes), Diego Milito (Inter Milan), Javier Mascherano (Liverpool), Walter Samuel (Inter Milan)
It must be hard to be a genius. I certainly wouldn’t know. But it seems that geniuses have a difficult time living their lives after their days of genius are over. Even tougher is the genius who dares to become a soccer manager. Whereas the most successful managers were water carriers or average players, the genius just can’t seem to get his viewpoint across to his players; can’t seem to make them play the way he played. While there are exceptions to every rule, for every Johann Cruyff there seem to be three Marco van Bastens…or Ruud Gullits…or Roy Keanes….
Or Diego Maradona.
In November 2008, Argentina decided to place its most famous citizen in charge of its most recognizable export when it named Diego Maradona the head coach of its national soccer team. Maradona came to the job with an ego the size of his belly, but without any significant coaching experience. With other successful coaches available, it was a big gamble by the Argentinean football association, placing their trust in a man who has been in and out of drug rehab for most of his life, and walked away from his last, brief stint as a coach as soon as things got a little shaky.
The results have been mixed. Argentina started brightly under Diego, winning its first three matches. Then things went south in a hurry. A 6-1 drubbing to unfancied Bolivia. Losing 2-0 in Ecuador. Being run off the park 3-1 by Brazil…AT HOME! Finally, a stunning 1-0 loss to Paraguay left Argentina on the brink of failing to qualify for the tournament altogether.
Diego was prickly. The press were baying like hounds for the blood of the now-fallen hero. And it was all falling into place for disaster. Argentina – a team with more striking talent than any nation on earth – could not score at home to Peru in the middle of a torrential downpour. The unthinkable was about to happen. And then…Martin Palermo came from nowhere to stick the ball in the back of the net in the 90th+ minute and Argentina had qualified. Palermo, a Maradona favorite and late substitution in the game, had saved the savior. The genius was back.
Or is it? Argentina boasts the best collection of attacking players in the world: Messi, Higuain, Tevez, Milito, Aguero. Lionel Messi is the undisputed greatest player on the planet and the heir to Maradona’s throne as the greatest player in Argentina’s history. Milito scored the two goals that gave Inter Milan the Champions League title and is probably the most in-form striker in the world. Tevez just completed a remarkable season at Manchester City. But with so many great players, why does Argentina find it so difficult to score?
The answer may lie with Maradona. He is determined to build the team around Messi. And why not? He’s the greatest player of his generation. But the way he shines at Barcelona is due as much to the team around him as it is to the player itself, and Argentina do not seem to have figured out how to replicate the situation. At Barca, he has Iniesta and Xavi controlling the midfield with sharp passes, giving Messi space to work. He is also surrounded by fullbacks who maraud down the flanks to open up space for the little genius to move freely.
For the national team he has none of that. Maradona has surrounded him with speedy wingers in Gutierrez and di Maria and relied almost exclusively on one man to get him the ball: Juan Sebastian Veron. Unlike Xavi or Iniesta, Veron will sit deep and try to hit Messi – or the wingers – with long diagonal passes to open up space. Javier Mascherano will play the traditional role of Argentinean hatchet man, but passing the ball is not his forte, and finding Messi is not his priority. Whether this works remains to be seen, but it hasn’t set the world on fire during the qualification phase.
Another problem is in defense. Maradona inherited a team without any great fullbacks and tried to solve the problem by leaving the one great player he had who could play the position off the team (Javier Zanetti). Instead, he decides to play four center backs. Four large, lumbering, slow center backs. Teams with speed on the outside will be licking their chops. Argentina is solid in the middle, but weak in goal and on the flanks.
The last hurdle they must overcome is the man himself. Maradona’s team selection raised eyebrows all over the globe. Martin Palermo is by all accounts a nice person, and he did save Diego’s bacon against Peru, but there is no way he should be included in a squad loaded with talent up front at the expense of a player like Zanetti (or even Cambiasso) who could help at the back and to defend the wings. Apparently Zanetti isn’t Maradona’s favorite person, so he gets left off the squad for much less useful players like Maxi Rodriguez, who take orders better.
Fortunately for Argentina, Maradona isn’t very tall, so the hurdle may not be as great as it seems. They are in a weak group and should progress easily. Milito and Messi are in the form of their lives. The center of defense with Samuel and Mascherano is strong. The talent is there to overcome the weaknesses. And if they don’t make at least the semi-finals, the press in Argentina will be making the hurdle even smaller by cutting Diego down to size for the next four years.
Key players: Theofanis Gekas (Eintracht Frankfurt), Georgios Samaras (Celtic)
In the summer of 480 BCE, the Greek army was faced with a dilemma. The Persian army was approaching, threatening to overrun the small Greek city states. Outnumbered, outgunned (outspeared?), and threatened to be overrun, the Greeks made the decision to send a small division of soldiers out to meet them, find the most defensible position and hold it against all odds. It worked, as the story goes, the Greeks held off the Persian army at Thermopylae long enough for the full army to get its act together and regroup.
Fast forward a few thousand years to Portugal. A 150-1 underdog Greek team took to the fields of Lisbon against a horde of vastly superior European soccer teams determined to drive them off the pitch. Outgunned (outfooted?), out talented, and threatened to be overrun, the Greeks made the decision to defend at all costs, eschewing any attempt at offense.
It worked. The Greeks defeated the French, the Czechs, and the host Portuguese by refusing to let them score. In one of the greatest tournament upsets of all-time, the descendants of the defenders of Thermopylae were crowned winners of Euro 2004.
The Greeks bring a similar team to this year’s world cup. Otto Rehhagel is still the manager, seamlessly matching his German organization with his players’ Greek resolve. Many of the players are the same as well: Karagounis, Charisteas, and Kyrgiakos are still major players on this year’s squad, and still defending to the last. Rehhagel will pack the midfield defense, centered around Karagounis, and force teams to try to push their way through. If the other team gets sloppy, the Greeks will hoof the ball downfield and hope for a corner kick or a set piece in order to score. Rarely will they shoot the ball, content to defend and make the other team come to them.
It’s all so boring to watch. It’s not as if Greece is devoid of attacking talent, they just refuse to use it. Samaras is a decent player, Gekas has ability, and young Soritis Ninis is a fine prospect at attacking midfield, but he rarely plays. Rather than risk a defeat, the Greeks will play for a 0-0 draw every time. It is an effective strategy and, to be fair to Rehhagel, the only one that could produce a victory. It may not be pretty, but it works.
But will it work again? The Greeks advanced to the World Cup from the easiest of qualifying groups, and barely did so, having to beat Ukraine (1-0, of course) over two legs. In the run up to the tournament, Greece has been poor. It lost to non-qualifier Senegal 2-0, and then drew 2-2 with a very poor North Korea. A Greek team leaking two goals a piece to Senegal and North Korea is not a good sign.
At Thermopylae the Greeks famously sacrificed themselves to protect their way of life. For that, we in the West should be forever grateful. Now, 2000 years later, the Greeks are sacrificing attractive soccer in the name of victory. For that, we should all hope for their early exit.
Key players: Jon Mikel Obi (Chelsea), Taye Taiwo (Marseilles), Obafemi Martins (Wolfsburg), Joseph Yobo (Everton), Yakubu Aiyegbeni (Everton)
Nigerian soccer has a problem, one that is exemplified by its biggest successes. At FIFA youth tournaments, Nigerian teams are regularly champions. Nigeria has won 3 FIFA U-17 titles and been runner-up twice. While it has never won the FIFA U-20 title, it has made the finals twice. Despite its success at the youth level, it has never made a real impression in the world cup.
Why the success at the youth level but not the senior level? For one, Nigerian players are always suspected of being a little older than what their country claims them to be. Second, the players have raw talent, but no national program to mold that talent into a professional side capable of winning tournaments. Both are examples of the lack of national organization that holds Nigeria back and prevents them from amounting to anything more than a continental powerhouse.
Once again, Nigeria’s lack of a national plan has reared its head. Shortly after qualifying for the World Cup, they decided to sack their manager, displacing Nigerian Shaibu Amodu with Swede Lars Lagerback. That lack of organization spills onto the pitch, as Nigeria’s back four can be stable, but will slip up at inopportune times. Lagerback may help with that, or he may not, it’s too early to tell, which is not a good sign when the tournament starts in a week.
Nigeria is not without talent; however, that talent is confined mostly to the defensive positions and up front, leaving the Super Eagles short of midfield creativity that could leave it short on goals. Taye Taiwo is an excellent fullback, one of the best in the world. Jon Mikel Obi is a world class holding midfielder, he will sit in front of the back four, protecting Nigeria’s big, lumbering center backs from a direct attack.
But how will Nigeria attack? They have talent up front in Anichebe, Yakubu, and Martins, but no one to get them the ball. Nigeria lacks a world class attacking midfield presence. Mikel and the defense may be able to stop players going forward, but they have no one to pass the ball to and lead the counter-attack. Instead, Nigeria will look to play the ball wide to its wingers (and Taiwo bombing forward from fullback) who will then try to get the ball to its strikers from the outside in. How successful this strategy will be remains to be seen, a recent 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia does not leave me convinced.
Nigeria are a big, physical team, which could serve them well in this group ad their main competition to advance looks to be South Korea, an organized but small squad. Argentina are a bridge too far for the entire group. If Nigeria can physically dominate the South Koreans, they are likely to emerge to the next round.
Key players: Park Ji-Sung (Manchester United), Ki Sung-Yong (Celtic), Park Chu-Young (Monaco), Lee Chung-Yong (Bolton)
One of the wonderful things about football is that national teams often take on the characteristics of the nation they represent. French style, German organization, English toughness, Spanish flair. Nations come to expect their teams not only to win, but to win in a certain fashion. When a Brazilian team wins without style, the victory is seen in many parts as incomplete. When a Dutch team wins without tactically outmaneuvering the other squad, the manager is pilloried in the press despite the success.
All of which brings us to the South Koreans. The Korean team embodies many of the national traits we have come to associate with the country. They play hard. They are organized. They work well together. Their whole is more than the sum of their parts. They’re short.
Short in stature, but not in achievement. South Korea is the most decorated Asian team, having made it to the semi-finals (due in no small part to a number of dubious refereeing decisions) on home soil in 2002. While that is their biggest success, it is not the only one as the South Koreans have made every world cup since 1986 and steamrolled through Asian qualifying this year. They are the dominant team in Asian soccer.
They do so with an organized, ball possession style. Once the South Koreans get the ball, they keep it, connecting on short, accurate passes to move the ball down the field and keep it away from their physically bigger opponents. They lack dynamic playmakers at the main offensive positions, but get by with workmanlike performances from a number of players. Key to their possession style are their midfield dynamos Park Ji-Sung and Ki Sung-Yong. Both are adequate offensively while being tireless workers defensively, dogging their opponents into turnovers that help the South Koreans regain possession while keeping the other team from taking advantage of their small defense.
Ah, but that defense IS small. Cho Yong-Hyung and Lee Jung-Soo start at center back for South Korea and, while capable defenders, they are short. This leaves South Korea vulnerable to bigger teams with tall strikers who can take advantage of Cho and Lee on set pieces or corner kicks. The South Koreans will try to counter this by shutting down the wings to prevent crosses, and not fouling players in the middle of the pitch. Their impressive organization and work rate combines to keep many other teams off-balance, and often without the ball.
The strategy has worked in the run-up to the tournament. Since qualifying, they have beaten the Ivory Coast, Ecuador and Japan all by the same 2-0 score. Both the Ivory Coast and Ecuador are teams that traditionally give South Korea trouble (i.e.: big), but they were dispatched with relative ease. This bodes well for their matches against Greek and Nigerian sides who are both very physical.
The question for the South Koreans will be can they score. They have no proven, world class striker adept at knocking in goals. What they do have is a team approach, working together to overcome their deficiencies through teamwork and hard work. In many respects, the South Koreans have many admirable qualities; however, those qualities do not always win soccer matches. What they have in hard work, they lack in guile and style. What they have in organization, they lack in strength and power. All told, it might be enough to get them through this uneven group, but not much farther.
Group B predictions surely to go wrong:
South Korea 1 v. Greece 0
Argentina 4 v. Nigeria 2
Argentina 2 v. South Korea 1
Greece 1 v. Nigeria 1
Nigeria 1 v. South Korea 2
Greece 0 v. Argentina 1
South Korea 6
Argentina and South Korea advance