June 14 Netherlands vs. Denmark
June 14 Japan vs. Cameroon
June 19 Netherlands vs. Japan
June 19 Cameroon vs. Denmark
June 24 Denmark vs. Japan
June 24 Cameroon vs. Netherlands
Favorites: Netherlands and Denmark
Key players: Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan), Robbie van Persie (Arsenal), Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich), Mark van Bommel (Bayern Munich), Nigel de Jong (Manchester City)
One of the most interesting things about international soccer is that each country’s national narrative is often played out on the field. Individual players are often subsumed into the collective national tale: Mexican insecurity against the United States; French reluctance against Germany; African timidity against Europe.
Into this national storytelling meme come the Dutch, a nation of merchants and technocrats whose soccer team resembles not only the qualities that make the Netherlands great (education, organization, and wealth) but what troubles their souls (the insecurity of a small country that happens to reside in the same neighborhood as Germany, France and England).
What makes them great is their skill and knowledge. They revere tactics. They pray to the Gods of technical soccer managers. While others worship a Maradona run or a Eusebio strike, the Dutch build temples to Rinus Michels and Guus Hiddink. They practically invented the 4-3-3; they definitely invented “total football.” An average Dutch fan cares more about the subtle positional switch of a fullback to negate a marauding winger than they do about goals.
Some claim they care about those switches more than they do about winning. History bears them out. If the Dutch aren’t winning with tactical domination, they often seem to quit. If they are tactically dominating and losing, they seem satisfied in noble defeat. Contrast them with the Germans and Italians, who care about nothing other than the final score and you see why history loves to watch the Dutch but never bets on them.
This year’s Dutch team is no exception. Talent and skill abound. Robbie van Persie leads the line. Arsenal’s young marksman could be a great bet to win the Golden Boot. Two of the most in-form offensive players in the world support him: Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneidjer. Robben will play the wing, taking the ball on the right and cutting in toward the middle. There he will find Sneidjer, supplying beautiful balls for van Persie and others breaking into open space. The Dutch offense may be the best in the world outside of Spain.
Their defense is not nearly as dynamic but is still functional. Central defense lacks a little pace, the fullbacks are converted midfielders who lack muscle and tackling ability, especially van Bronkhorst. But they are buttressed by a strong pair of defensive midfielders in Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, both hard men and tackling machines. If the opponents wish to exploit the Dutch, they will likely have to go over the top of de Jong and van Bommel to do so. Look for lots of long balls from the back to wingers racing right at van Bronkhorst.
The Dutch are everyone’s “dark horse” pick. They have the attacking power of Spain and the technical skill of Argentina. They have two of the most in-form players in the world leading their attack and two of the most in-form defensive midfielders stifling the other team’s advances. The Dutch seem to be built to win.
But the Dutch never win. They were the best team of the 1970s and never won. They were the best team at USA 94 and did not win. They were the best team at the last European Championship and bowed out to the Russians. They always looked like they should be winning, but never were. Given that this team will likely face Brazil in the quarterfinals, it’s a good bet they won’t be winning anything this year either.
Key players: Christian Poulsen (Juventus), Nicklas Bendtner (Arsenal), Thomas Sorenson (Stoke City), Jon Dahl Tomasson (Feyenord)
The greatest moment in Danish soccer history came at a place they weren’t even supposed to be. In 1992 the world was changing rapidly, with many of those changes reflected in that year’s European championships. Germany was competing as a unified country for the first time since before WWII. The Russian empire started out the competition as the Soviet Union, and finished it as the Commonwealth of Independent States. Yugoslavia did them one better: finding itself banned from the competition for its internal violence even though it won its qualifying group.
UEFA put its collective foot down on Yugoslavia: no competition for you. Instead, the second place team from that group would go (only 8 teams participated back then): Denmark. Back from the beaches of Spain trudged the suddenly “not on holiday anymore” Danes. Quite unfancied, they took the field and promptly battled England to a 0-0 draw and lost to Sweden before beating heavily favored France to advance into the knockout rounds.
Led by the greatest goalkeeper of his generation in Peter Schmeichel, the Danes upset the tournament favorites the Netherlands in the semifinals on penalty kicks and then did the unthinkable: they beat the Germans in a tournament final, 2-0. The uninvited Danes had conquered Europe. It was the Vikings all over again.
This time around the Danes are definitely invited. They dispatched a poor Portugal side in qualifying and topped their group. An aging side with many of its best players on their last legs, the Danes built their team around a strong defense and an opportunistic counter-attacking offense.
That offense is led by the much maligned Nicklas Bendtner. A striker for Arsenal in England, young Mr. Bendtner has become a lightning rod for criticism thanks to his cocky attitude and less than stellar record of backing up his boasts. Wearing pink shoes doesn’t help either. If you’re going to wear pink in a football match, you better make damn sure you’re so good no one can make fun of you for it. Bendtner isn’t that good. Yet.
His Danish defense could all wear pink boots after their performance in qualifying. The Danish wall in front of veteran keeper Thomas Sorenstam was one of the best. Daniel Agger and Lars Jacobsen lead the Danish line, a tall group of experienced backs who are the epitome of organization. Sitting in front of them is Christian Poulsen, the Bill Laimbeer of the Italian league, needling, kicking, spitting, and flopping his way to aggravating the other team’s offense.
If the Danes are to advance, it will be because of that organization at the back and occasional forays from young Bendtner or ancient Jon Dahl Tomasson at the front. There is little else to get too excited about. The Danes have no star players, lack offensive flair, and don’t possess much in the way of team speed. If this Danish team gets past the round of 16, it won’t be the miracle of 1992, but it will again see them in a place they definitely were not supposed to be.
Key players: Makato Hasebe (Wolfsburg), Shunsuke Nakamura (Yokohama), Shinji Okazaki (Shimizu S-Pulse), Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow)
I have two favorite stories about the Japanese soccer team. The first is a story Jonathan Wilson likes to tell. Japan was coached in the first part of the decade by a Frenchman named Phillipe Troussier. In his bid to make Japan into a soccer power, Troussier saw their main weakness as a lack of individual flair. It was impossible to get them to take matters into their own hands, make a quick move, and go for goal. Troussier tried to solve his problem by forcing the players to do something on their own and hoping it would rub off on the pitch. He would get them to play individually by first making them eat individually. He forbid them from eating at the hotel restaurant in an attempt to force them out into the streets to fend for themselves. What did the team do? It simply refused to eat. No matter what he tried, Troussier could not get them to do anything on their own.
My second favorite is about how Japan came to discover soccer. Looking around, the Japanese noticed other nations playing the world’s game and wanted to participate. So what did they do? They set up a series of envoys who would travel the globe and report back on how soccer is best played. Based on that report, Japan would organize its own league (the J-League) and its national team (the Blue Samari). The formation and style of play that was prevalent at the time was the one Japan adopted. It is also the one Japan still plays
What does this say about Japan? It highlights its strengths and its weaknesses. It is organized. Japan plays as a cohesive unit that passes the ball extremely well in the center of the pitch. The defense knows where to be. The attackers know where to be. The midfield knows where to be.
They should know where to be, they’ve been playing the same formation for the last 20 years. And therein lays Japan’s weakness: the inability to change and adapt; the reluctance of any of its players to take matters into their own hands (feet?) and force the issue. Japan will pass you off the park, but will find it very difficult to score.
If this team is to score, it will come from a couple of little dynamos. The first is Shinji Okazaki. A little striker who still plies his trade at home, Okazaki has been mentioned as the striker who may be the first Japanese “flair” player. If there is a second, it is Keisuke Honda. Honda is a creative attacking midfielder who plays for Russia’s glamour team, CSKA Moscow. Both have individual ability and, unlike most Japanese players, have shown the desire to use it.
Japan’s superior organization usually provides it with a quality defense. This year, that may not be the case. In the friendlies leading up to the World Cup the Japanese defense looked almost comical, knocking in own goals for fun. Not to mention making dangerous tackles that knocked Didier Drogba almost out of the entire tournament. They are a small group that is susceptible to set plays and will be vulnerable to taller, more powerful strikers. If Japan is to make it out of this group, its defense will need to rediscover the art of not putting the ball into your own net.
Putting it into the other team’s net has traditionally been Japan’s problem. 20 years ago the Japanese wanted to find out about soccer. They did so by learning about formations and how other teams played the game. They became good at mimicking style, but not creating their own. They will need a new generation of soccer players raised outside of Japan to bring home something other than playbooks: they need to bring home a creative soul. They’re not there yet, as should be obvious in this year’s tournament.
Key players: Samuel Eto’o (Inter Milan), Alexandre Song (Arsenal), Jean Makoun (Lyon), Benoit Assou-Ekotto (Tottenham)
Like the Danes, Cameroon’s greatest moment came in the early 90s. And like the Danes, it was greatly aided by someone who wasn’t supposed to be there.
Italia 90 is generally regarded as the worst World Cup of all-time (along with USA 94). Very little scoring took place, very little excitement. Except for a small African nation led by a 38 year old striker named Roger Milla who was only on the team because of a personal plea from the President of the country that he participate.
Cameroon opened the tournament by beating Diego Maradona and the defending champion Argentines. They followed that up by stunning Romania behind two Milla goals that qualified them for the round of 16. There, Milla struck again as he scored twice to defeat the favored Columbians 2-1 and making Cameroon the first – and only - African nation to make it to the quarterfinals. Once there they lost a memorable match the England in added time, but went home as the darlings of world football.
They haven’t made it back since. This current team is no plucky underdog. Unlike the Cameroon of the 90s, everyone knows about this Cameroon team. And unlike the Cameroon of the lovable old codger Roger Milla, this Cameroon team is led by the world class striker and internationally known sulk artist Samuel Eto’o.
Eto’o is one of the best players on the planet and has been for about 5 years. He is a silky smooth striker who may be the best player in the world in moving without the ball. He won the champions league with Barcelona last year. He won it again with Inter Milan this year. He is a fantastic soccer player who should be beloved by everyone.
But he’s not even that beloved in Cameroon. If you can’t see Eto’o on the pitch, look for the one player throwing a tantrum. If you don’t see him on the field, chances are he’s in the dressing room sulking because he’s been “dissed.” In fact, as I write this, he is threatening to skip the World Cup after the aforementioned Roger Milla said he didn’t think Eto’o was up to the job.
Fortunately for Cameroon he decided to come to the party. In an effort to keep him there, his manager Paul Le Guen decided to make him captain. This attempt to keep Eto’o emotionally invested has not led to success for Cameroon in the friendlies (Portugal beat them badly), but it has kept him from bolting the team altogether. A minor victory for Le Guen.
The rest of the team will be there, but maybe not for long. The problem with Cameroon is that they have no one to get Eto’o the ball. He will streak into open space only for the ball to go the other way. He will cut past a defender only to see his midfielder disposed before he can pass. A frustrated Eto’o is a sulky Eto’o, and a sulky Eto’o means a quick exit for Cameroon.
Which is not to say that they are devoid of talent outside of their talisman. Jean Makoun is an excellent player for Lyon, even though he was playing out of position for them last year. Assou-Ekotto plays a fine left back for Tottenham. They have an excellent tactician in Le Guen as head coach.
He’ll need to be to make up for Cameroon defensive deficiencies. Geremi and Rigobert Song are cast offs from England’s top league, exiled for their poor form and many mistakes. In front of them sit a quality defensive midfielder in Alexandre Song, and a good pair of fullbacks, but the weakness in the center may be hard to overcome.
If Eto’o can get the ball, he can score. Think of him as the Kobe Bryant of African soccer: more talented than anyone, but petulant enough to throw his team under the bus if he doesn’t get his way. Chances are that a frustrated Eto’o will have his team seeing the underside of that bus sooner rather than later.
June 14 Netherlands 3 vs. 1 Denmark
June 14 Japan 1 vs. 1 Cameroon
June 19 Netherlands 2 vs. 0 Japan
June 19 Cameroon 0 vs. 2 Denmark
June 24 Denmark 1 vs. 0 Japan
June 24 Cameroon 1 vs. 3 Netherlands
Netherlands and Denmark advance