The World Cup draw is highly enticing – so how about cutting through the lazy TV “punditry” and suggesting where the real dangers lie?
Group A – Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
As ever, the host country got a favourable draw. Croatia scrambled through in the easiest European play-off; Mexico was just awful in qualifying, almost missing out even on a play-off spot from North/Central America; and Cameroon is not what it was.
The biggest problem for Brazil will come in the next round, when it will likely face any of Spain, the Netherlands or Chile.
Out of interest Mexico, absolutely bizarrely, has reached but then gone out at the last 16 stage of every single World Cup for which it has qualified (progressing further only as host, when it didn’t need to qualify). Bad news for Croatia and Cameroon, but good news for those in Group B!
Group B – Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
This is the true “Group of Death”. Australia struggled a little in qualifying, but any Aussie sports team will cause problems.
Spain, of course, has won everything in sight since 2006; the Netherlands was the vanquished team in the most recent World Cup final; and Chile has consistently impressed globally (even if it flattered to deceive a little in qualifying).
Put simply, there are three teams in this group who could win the thing – yet one of them will be eliminated and another will face Brazil!
Group C – Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Yawn. How tedious. Next.
Group D – Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
The BBC “pundits” moaned long and hard about this group, yet it is nothing like as “bad” as it looks – or, at least, it wouldn’t be if England were any good!
Uruguay’s passage to the semi-final last time was a bit of a fairytale – the country is historically a serious footballing force, but in practice had not achieved anything in any tournament outside Uruguay for forty years. With a population similar to Wales, and an ageing team, it is a team which a proper England team should be confident of defeating, even in South America. A lot was made of the fact England has not beaten Uruguay in the World Cup – but the last meeting was in 1966, when Uruguay was a real force.
Also, Italy has a heritage of making hard work of the opening group phase – having crashed out in 2010 against the combined footballing might of Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand, none of whom has even qualified this time! So it is by no means certain that Italy will be at the level it was when it outplayed England at Euro 2012.
The further advantage for England is that it gets to face a team from the “Group of Tedium” in the next round – although admittedly the likes of Brazil and Spain await to dispose of Hodgson’s lot in the quarters if necessary.
Group E – Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Incroyable! The French have gone from all but eliminated in the play-offs to certain quarter-finallists in just one game! Honduras got through the easy North and Central American zone, Ecuador mustered only three points away from home in the whole South American qualifying programme, and Switzerland isn’t really very good despite its ranking. Nevertheless, Switzerland outplayed eventual finallist France in 2006 and of course defeated eventual winner Spain in 2010 – so this group is still more interesting than Group C (not that much more, mind – Switzerland and Honduras played out a dire scoreless draw in the final group game in South Africa and repeat that fixture in Brazil).
Group F – Argentina, Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria
Bosnia’s qualification was my favourite of the series, as a country seriously battered by civil war united in triumph. It had been coming too, with qualification for Euro 2012 only denied by Ronaldo’s Portugal at the play-off stage. The only first-time qualifier in Brazil, I fully expect the Bosnians to progress.
Argentina-Nigeria is a fixture with heritage – Maradona’s last World Cup game was against Nigeria (before the team without him suffered a thrashing at the hands of Bulgaria), and the teams will now have faced each other four times in the last six tournaments (the Argentines scrambled 1-0 wins in both subsequent games, so are 100% thus far and may expect to remain so).
Group G – Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States
From an objective point of view, this was my favourite group.
Germany and Ghana met last time, with a Boateng brother on each side; both sides qualified for the next round, where Ghana defeated the United States 2-1. The United States also lost to Germany in a knock-out game in 2002 (very unluckily in fact), but has happier memories of a group game against Portugal earlier in that tournament (leading 3-0 before winning 3-2). Portugal and Germany have also met each other frequently in major tournaments – Portugal became the first team to beat West Germany at all in a World Cup qualifier in 1985 and also sent the Germans crashing embarrassingly from Euro 2000 – but the Germans have evened up the score somewhat since, not least in an epic Euro 2008 quarter-final.
And then there’s the small matter that a certain Herr Klinsmann now manages the United States. This could be fun…
Group H – Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea
This looks like a boring group, not least because it has the word “Belgium” in it. But there is nothing boring about Belgium these days – good political wrangles, good chocolate, and a bloody good football team. Russia also qualified well, having also impressed early in Euro 2012 before being bored out of the tournament partly by Greece and partly by a dodgy means of separating teams who had finished even on points. The Koreans have never really capitalised on its remarkable run as host in 2012; and the Algerians are lucky to be here at all having scrambled past Burkina Faso on away goals in the qualifying play-off thanks to the scrappiest goal ever scored.
It would be laughable to call it this early – but if I were forced, I’d suggest Brazil, Spain, England, Italy, France, Argentina, Germany and Belgium are the likeliest quarter-finallists. That said, there are other good teams in there, and there is nearly always a shock team in the last eight (and even the last four). Don’t be surprised if it’s someone like Bosnia.