Ronaldinho: For the defending team, a player who smiles that much on the ball is just plain scary
Premilinary Thoughts on the World Cup Draw
There’s Brazil, and then there are the rest. I recently had a look at the squads of the 16 finalists of the European Champion’s League competition for this year (uncontestably the strongest club tournament in the world). I counted 44 Brazilian players among them (only Chelsea, Liverpool and Rangers don’t have any in their senior squads). Players like Jefferson Farfan and Alex at PSV or Benfica’s Nelson would walk into most national teams, but they’re unlikely to make the final 22 for Brazil, let alone start. Brazil could bring two full squads to the tournament, and if the draw allowed, they might meet in the final.
Peter Tosh was right: Poland’s pride, Emmanuel Olisadebe
Group A: Not much to say, a safe passage for hosts Germany who will face Poland (easy favorites for the second qualifying place), and minnows Costa Rica and Ecuador. I have a soft spot for Poland, not just because their keeper is our very own Jerzy Dudek, nor just because they play open, attractive soccer. And certainly not as the homeland of my grandparents , where I therefore qualify for citizenship under EU rules. What I love about Poland is their star striker, Emmanuel Olisadebe. Back in my weed-puffing student youth, I remember cracking up with laughter every time I listened to that Peter Tosh song “No Matter Where You Come From (As Long as You’re a Black Man) You’re an African”, when he sang the line “And if you come from Poland, lord, as long as you’re a black man…” Turns out Peter Tosh was a prophet in more ways than one. Besides, Nigeria didn’t qualify, so Olisadebe – a Nigerian, naturalized in a hurry before the 1998 world cup, but who now earns his wages in Greece – will carry their hopes, too.
Ronaldinho’s glorious free kick sails over England’s hapless ‘keeper Seaman for Brazil’s first, last time around. Look for him to repeat the feat if England get as far as the semis
Group B: England, Sweden, Paraguay and Trinidad. England will win this group, but they will not win the World Cup. (Not for the foreseeable future, much as they like to tell themselves they will.) Sweden will challenge for the top spot, and the outcome of the game between the two of them will likely settle it. Of course England’s coach, Sven Goran Eriksonn is Swedish, but more to the point, he’s also crap. (They win the group, get past Poland in the round of 16, then if they can get past Portugal in the quarters they are humiliated by Brazil in the semi.) I’d love for Trinidad, the land of CLR James and Brian Lara and The Mighty Sparrow, to inflict an upset on England, just for the prospect of the week-long celebration it would provoke in Port of Spain. But it won’t happen, I watched the Soca warriors against Bahrain, and as much as I love Trinidad, they’re the Cinderallest of all the Cinderella teams. Still, fairytales have been known to come true at the finals.
Pasarella punches out Neeskens. Will the Dutch avenge the travesty of ’78?
Group C: Now this is the closest we have to a group of death, with some great old grudges to be settled and some very talented footballers. I love the idea of Holland taking revenge for the travesty of 1978, when they outplayed the Argentinians for most of the match but were kicked off the park by sheer thuggery, the team playing rather a lot like the brutal junta it represented at that time. Today’s Argentina, of course, are a different entity, playing beautiful but fast and tough football, and on paper should be considered one of the favorites to win the whole thing. But somehow, they always choke.
My favorite ever World Cup result: Roger Milla celebrates Cameroon’s victory over Argentina in 1990. Are Drogba & co. going to repeat that feat for Cote d’Ivoire?
The wild card, of course, is Cote d’Ivoire – Drogba, Dindane, Kolo Toure, Kallon… They’re a classy team, and I expect them to be this tournament’s Senegal. They’ve played together for years and have knit into a well-disciplined and exciting unit that almost upset Italy in a recent friendly. I fantasize about them pulling off a repeat of one of my all-time favorite World Cup games, from 1990: Argentina 0 – Cameroon 1. Also an opportunity for Didier Drogba to make a point about his rival for the Chelsea “Big Number 9” role, Hernan Crespo who’ll lead Argentina’s line. And, of course, the importance of their presence here can’t be underestated in terms of the crisis back home: civil war remains a distinct possibility in Cote d’Ivoire, which is divided in half by an armed rebellion. The players come from both sides of the frontline, and at least the country will stay together through next summer…
The Elephants could even snatch the points from Holland, depending on which Dutch team shows up. If they’re in the right state of mind, I’d rank them favorites to win the whole thing – they should have won in Germany in 74; they were the best team there. And if you have the likes of Robben, Kuijt, Van Persie, Van der Vaart, (I won’t say Nistelrooy, I can’t stand him), playing at the top of their game, with the likes of Cocu, Davids, Van Bommel and Bronckhorst (whose aunt I met on a train from Montauk!) providing the experience, they’re a tough team. But they so seldom turn up in the right frame of mind. (That said, Germany is the closest they’re ever going to get to playing at home, so it ought to raise their game). And if their traditional pschye problems are in effect, they could even struggle to beat Serbia. So this is a wide-open group, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that Cote d’Ivoire will claim the second spot from Holland. (Of course I’d have loved Cote d’Ivoire to be in the same group as France, to get some revenge for all that mischief France has wrought – and continues to promote – on them. But it was not to be.)
Portugal’s greatest player, Eusebio, was Mozambican. This time, another former colony, Angola, plays for its own honor against the former colonizers
Group D: The god of colonial vengeance was in effect here, of course, putting Angola in the same group as Portugal. Portugal’s plunder of footballing talent from its colonies was the source of probably its greatest ever World Cup team, the 1966 outfit which was carried singlehandedly by the legendary Mozambican Eusebio. A fairytale victory then for Angola, a nation drenched in oil and blood and sadness (a combination that seems common, somehow) where there are whole soccer leagues for amputees playing on crutches and where about half of the national team are amateurs? My heart is with Angola, given the appalling failure of Bafana Bafana to qualify (the first of many appalling failures I expect from our national team for the next few years). But my head says they don’t have a prayer. Still, as Gramsci would have it, pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the spirit. The seeded team here is Mexico, a position the U.S. would swear was stolen from them much as California was stolen from Mexico. Perhaps; perhaps not. But Portugal are the strongest team in the group. I have a feeling that freed from the expectations of the home crowd they faced in Euro 2004, they may even do better. Looking forward to seeing Christiano Ronaldo run at defenses; he seems like an awful character, but a marvelous footballer. But the team I’m rooting for here is Iran – simply because when they win, it brings the youth of Tehran and other cities out onto the streets, emboldened to challenge the Basiji and all other repressors in order to have a little fun. (When they beat the US in 98, you’d have thought the Mullahs would be pleased: Quite the contrary, the resulting all night street party freaked them out!) Probably Portugal followed by Mexico.
Czech mates: Nedved and Baros celebrate a goal
Group E: This is the real reason the U.S. will be grumbling about not being seeded. They’re going to face a tremendous battle to best Italy and the Czech Republic for a place in the last 16, and even Ghana could give them a tough examination – particularly if thug of the week Michael Essien decides to let his studs do the talking on Damarcus Beazleys knees. Italy are a shadow of squadras past, but they should still qualify, although I’m backing the Czechs to win the group, and go all the way to a glorious semi-final showdown with Holland. Nedved will come out of international retirement, no doubt, to orchestrate along with Galasek, Rosicky, Poborsky, feeding big man Koller (Peter Crouch with chest hair) to knock down for Baros. (Plus they have possibly the world’s best keeper in Cech.) Predictions? Well, if the US was going to cause an upset, I’d bet on it happening against Italy. Ghana are going to struggle – they got here over the bodies of Bafana Bafana, but that was no great feat. They have two great midfielders in Essien and Steven Appiah, but for the rest they’re pretty ordinary.
Socceroos great hope: Liverpool’s Harry Kewell
Group F: Well, Brazil won’t break a sweat here. Interestingly enough, the group gives the Aussie their best possible shot at second spot. Croatia are always a power, and will be favorites for second, but they’re not at their best. Japan, actually, are more dangerous. Coached by my man Zico, they’re no longer a novelty side, and could give all the others bar Brazil a real game. You’d have to fancy Brazil for the title, their coach’s biggest dilemma being that he has far too many brilliant forwards and attacking midfielders – Ronaldinho, Kaka, Adriano, Robinho, never mind aging dough-boy Ronaldo – and far too many brilliant attacking defenders — does Cafu still get a game? Ze Roberto? And so on.
Indian Diaspora’s first World Cup star? France’s midfield anchor Vikash Dhorasoo
Group G: France made such heavy weather of qualifying that they needed an easy group, and they got it. Togo are going to be a punchbag, the question is will South Korea be able to claim the second spot from Switzerland. I’ll wager they will. Les Bleus, however, are simply no longer a power. Sure, Henry is magnificent, but he seldom delivers for his country. Trezeguet is a scrappy gem, Stroller Pires is past it, much of the rest have a rather brittle look to them. Patrick Vieira has never been the player for France that he was for his club, and the same may be said for Makelele. What I do love, however, is the fact that their midfield is anchored by the first ethnic Indian, I think, to make the World Cup – Vikash Dhorasoo, who comes from the Indian Diaspora outpost of Mauritius, if I’m not mistaken.
I’d like to teach, the world to pass… The inimitable Xabi Alonso
Group H: Spain got lucky. Ukraine are going to turn a few heads, and will easily claim second, if not actually win, depending on their outcome against Spain (I fancy Shevchenko to score more against Saudi Arabia and Tunisia than Raul or Fernando Torres or David Villa or Morientes). But I think Spain will go further in this World Cup than in most recent tournaments. Just a feeling. Maybe it’s that Xabi Alonso is the best midfield orchestrator in Europe right now. They won’t win it, of course, but I think they’ll have one of their best campaigns, ever.
This will change a few times before the tournament, I’m sure, but right now I have the following quarter finals:
Germany vs. Holland, won, of course, by Holland
Czech Republic vs. France, won by the Czechs
England vs. Portugal, won by England
Brazil vs. Spain, won by Brazil.
That gives as a glorious Czech vs. Holland semi, won by the Dutch, and another Ronaldinho lesson on the joys of football at the expense of England, setting up a Holland – Brazil final, and yet another Brazilian triumph. That’s for now. Will the geopolitical system handle it? Yes, I think so… But I could be wrong.