Tuesday, July 21, 2009

If I Got to Choose the World Cup Teams, Part 1

We get the World Cup ... and then we think about the World Cup we could have gotten.

Every four years, several fun or entertaining or tradition-rich soccer nations don't make the Big Event. Bad luck, a bad draw, one or two bad days ... and there they go, put on hold for four years while some less interesting team/country gets in ... and the rest of the world shrugs in disinterest.

I'm going to go over the nations I would like to see in the World Cup. Some already are out. Others are in trouble, in qualifying. Some will make it. A few already are in.

Keep in mind these are the nations I would like to see in the 2010 World Cup. The list will not be the same as it would have been four years ago -- and won't be the same four years hence. This is my favorite 32 right now.

Since 32 is a fairly unwieldy number, I'm going to divide my wish list into two posts.

Part 1, today: Africa, Asia, North America, Oceania, South America.

Part 2, tomorrow: Europe.

AFRICA (5 places, 55 nations)

Likely qualifiers: Cote d'Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana, Tunisia, Algeria.

Preferred qualifiers: Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Nigeria.

Comments: Remember, Africa will have six entrants in the World Cup; host South Africa is guaranteed a berth. And I like having South Africa around, anyway. The only sub-Saharan country with a significant European population, and a supremely interesting ongoing social experiment. ... The likely qualifiers I listed are those currently leading the standings in the five African qualifying groups. Winner of each group advances. The preferred qualifiers are based on reality; that is, none of those five are in the same group with each other. ... Cote d'Ivoire (a.k.a. Ivory Coast) is a real African giant, at the moment. Its stars include Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Salomon Kalou (Chelsea) and Kolo Toure (Arsenal). The Elephants (what a perverse name for a soccer team) got to the 2006 World Cup and made some noise before being beaten in group play by The Netherlands and Argentina. ... With three matches to play, Egypt trails Algeria 7-4 in Group C. The good news is that North Africa is going to get a team into the tournament; the bad news is it isn't Egypt, which has a far bigger population, is the two-time defending African champion and showed great spirit in playing Brazil to a 3-3 standstill for 90 minutes in the Confederations Cup. ... Gabon is the Official Darkhorse of African qualifying, and the World Cup needs a few Out of Nowhere stories. Gabon may as well be it, and it definitely fits the definition. Gabon never has played in the World Cup, never has finished even in the top four of the African championship and has a team made up of guys playing mostly for second-tier clubs in Europe. Goalkeeper Didier Ovone, who plays for Ligue 1 also-ran LeMans in France appears to be the most prominent guy on the roster. Togo has a real star in Emmanuel Adebayor, the Manchester City forward and reigning African Footballer of the Year, and is in second place in the group and still could win it. But I prefer Gabon's Nobodies, thank you. ... Ghana is another serious African side; the U.S. could tell you about it, having lost to the big and physical Black Stars, 2-1, in the 2006 World Cup. Stephen Appiah, Michael Essien (Chelsea) and Sulley Ali Muntari (Inter Milan) are the big-name players here, and we say "bring them on." ... Nigeria is a personal preference I have based on memories of their reckless commitment to the attack at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups -- and the country's status as the most populous in Africa. (When in doubt, why not make the most fans happy?) Their best-known player is veteran forward Nwankwo Kanu (Portsmouth), African Footballer of the Year in 1999.

Finally: African soccer slays me. It is the most random, lures perhaps the most passionate fans, seems to be the most unpredictable and, by far, the most exotic. One of my unrealized dreams is to cover an African Nations Cup tournament and watch as many matches as possible in, like, Gabon. ... Consider these names: Abuja, Bamako, Blantyre, Blida, Chililibombwe, Conakry, Cotonou, Kumasi, Rades. Know what they are? Cities that have played host to World Cup qualifiers, in Africa, this year. And I'd never heard of most of them. As opposed to these other "well-known" sites: Accra, Kigali, Libreville, Maputo, Rabat and Yaounde. ... 2010 is a great year for an African team to make the World Cup, since it's on their continent for the first time. I'm going to predict right here and now that one of them makes the quarterfinals.

ASIA (4.5 places, 43 nations)

Qualifiers: Australia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea.

Likely qualifier: Saudi Arabia.

Preferred qualifiers: Australia, Bahrain, Iran, Japan, North Korea.

Comments: This section is pretty much moot, because Asian qualifying is over, aside from a home-and-home between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to determine who finishes fifth -- and does another home-and-home (with Oceania champion New Zealand) to advance to South Africa. I prefer Bahrain over the Saudis just for the sake of adding a new minnow to the World Cup mix; Bahrain, with 700,000 people, would become the smallest nation ever to appear in the World Cup. Not that it's likely, considering that Saudi Arabia generally handles Bahrain. I'm a little tired of the Saudis, who tend to show up and do nothing. But I prefer both of them over New Zealand (sorry, Kiwis) -- because The Gulf needs a team to back. ... I like Australia here, and I applaud their gutsy decision to jump from Oceania to Asia, where the competition is far tougher (but berths in the World Cup are more numerous, yes). The Aussies are coming on. Good that they will be in South Africa, and we wonder if being from the Southern Hemisphere will help them in any way, shape or form. Can't hurt, can it? ... Japan? Sure. Bring 'em on. The best pro league in Asia, sophisticated citizens, becoming a good soccer country. The Japanese won't last, but they will play hard. ... North Korea? You bet. This is a geopolitical preference because anything that engages these freaks on the international stage has to crack a window into sanity for a nuclear-armed, xenophobic country run for 50 years by a couple of mad men. South Korea? They're in, as usual, but somebody has to go to give space to North Korea and Iran, and I'm picking on South Korea because their players wouldn't be tortured or starved for not being there. ... I'd prefer Iran because, again, the international exposure would be good for a country that appears to have a chance to be a solid world citizen, but could go either way ... and being in the World Cup would help. ... Where are China and India, you ask? If I like countries with big populations getting in, why not them? Well, India can't play soccer. The End. It's not like they ever had a ghost of a slim shot of a chance. As for China, it has managed to screw up its soccer situation so royally (the federation is shot through with corruption and incompetence) that it didn't even reach the final phase of qualifying, which included Qatar, Uzbekistan and the United Arab Emirates. That's pathetic. When you get your stuff together, China, then we'll talk, and maybe you can get on our 2014 wish list.

Finally: Asia remains the underachiever of world soccer. So many people, so few competent teams. I think South Africa is going to be hard on them; I predict none of their five teams survives the first round.

NORTH AMERICA (3.5 places, 35 countries)

Likely qualifiers: Costa Rica, Mexico, United States.

Preferred qualifiers: Costa Rica, Mexico, United States, Honduras.

Comment: Probably the feeblest region, in terms of Serious Soccer Nations vs. Places Available. At the moment, the Yanks, Mexicans, Ticos and Hondurans are the only sides in Concacaf (Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football) that could play a middling team from Europe, Africa or South America -- at a neutral site -- and not get blown out. Maybe Canada will join the group some day, and maybe Jamaica can get back, but for now .. Costa Rica and the U.S. are all but in, halfway through qualifying. Mexico is in a spot of trouble, sitting fourth in final qualifying behind Honduras, but Mexico has three of its final five qualifiers in Estadio Azteca, where it practically never loses, and nine points from those three would give them 15 points and probably lift them over Honduras and into third place and a guaranteed berth. But if Mexico ties or loses to the hated Yanqis on Aug. 12, look out. ... Honduras also has three of its final five at home, but "home" is something of a mess right now, with political turmoil and the threat of violence ... so it may lose some of those matches to neutral sites, which is too bad. One potential break for Honduras is that its gets the U.S. in its second-to-last game, and there is a fairly strong chance the Americans already will have qualified and might send a "B" team to Tegucigalpa (or wherever). If Honduras can win its final three at home (vs. Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago and the U.S.), it has a shot to finish third. ... Actually, Honduras finishing third would be best for Concacaf because its fourth-place team goes into a home-and-home playoff with the fifth-place team from South America, and Mexico would have a better chance of coming out of that. Either way, as annoying as El Tri is, it isn't quite a World Cup without Mexico running around, overachieving into the final 16.

Finally: I expect no more than one Concacaf squad will make it out of the first round. It probably will be the U.S., which has had a chance to spend a month in the country, during the Confederations Cup last month. But it could be Mexico. All depends on the draw. It won't be the Ticos; they can't really hang on the international stage.

OCEANIA (.5 places, 10 countries)

Likely qualifiers: None.

Preferred qualifiers: None.

Since Australia bolted the confederation for the Asian group, Oceania is something of a joke. New Zealand and nine coral reefs, basically. The Kiwis aren't truly awful, but they would bring nothing interesting to the World Cup aside from one more team that speaks English (for those of us who think about interviewing them).

Finally: I wouldn't mind the Kiwis beating Asia No. 5 (presumably Saudi Arabia) in the home-and-home for the World Cup slot, but Australia represents the region well enough, and the tournament needs a Gulf team.

SOUTH AMERICA (4.5 places, 10 countries)

Likely qualifiers: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Ecuador.

Preferred qualifiers: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay.

Comment: South America has the coolest qualifying system of all -- one gigantic, 10-nation tournament with 18 matches, one that inevitably turns into a Pier 6 brawl for the final 2-3 spots. Here are the standings, with 14 of 18 matches in the books, and the permutations are almost endless, as usual. ... Whatever the format, we have to have Brazil and Argentina in the World Cup. It's the law. End of story. I already have awarded the fifth-place playoff berth to Mexico or Honduras (continental solidarity, you see) ... so that leaves us looking at who finishes third and fourth. Paraguay and Argentina sit in those spots now, but I expect Argentina to move up -- despite being led by that idiot Diego Maradona and despite a fairly tough final four matches (Brazil, at Paraguay, Peru, at Uruguay). Chile actually is second, and I'm OK with them advancing because, well, they love their poets in Chile and they send us all our winter fruit. (Though a guy from Colombia told me recently that Chile is an extraordinarily dull place. Hmm. Compared to Colombia, anywhere else might seem dull, of course.) ... So now we have three teams in, and my choice for the fourth, Uruguay, is fairly random, I admit. It rests on two notions: Wanting the winner of two of the first three World Cups in the tournament ... and because Uruguay is known for some spectacularly dirty soccer. The world's cheapshot artists, historically. Not good sports, but good to have as the official Black Hat Team at South Africa. Uruguay also has a fairly tough final four (at Peru, Colombia, at Ecuador, Argentina), so making up six points on (currently third-place) Paraguay is probably not feasible. Actually, there could be a supremely interesting match on the final day of qualifying, when Argentina plays at Uruguay in what could be a Loser Stays Home sort of thing.

Finally: What makes South America particularly interesting (aside from lots of good soccer) is the immense diversity of playing sites. From the sea-level tropics (Recife, Brazil; Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela; Lima, Peru) to the oxygen-deprived elevations of La Paz, Bolivia (12,000 feet); Quito, Ecuador (9,900 feet); and Bogota, Colombia (8,660 feet). And the fact that everyone gets a fair shot. ... My greatest worry is that Maradona will somehow screw this up, and Argentina doesn't qualify. ... Also, South America is likely to get five teams, even though I don't want it to happen, because No. 5 likely will get Honduras in the home-and-home -- and probably will overpower the Hondurans.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. That's a lot of ground to cover in one trot.

    Africa: Look for Maghreb teams - Algeria and Tunisia - to surprise. They often do.

    Asia: FIFA needs to get a map out and put Russia back in Asia where it physically is. Turkey too. Europe gets too many slots as it is. Returning to geographic reality will make Asia more competitive and decrease Europe's favored status.

    Oceania: Another figment of FIFA's imagination, but fair play to them for giving everyone a chance.

    South America: These guys win the trophy 50 percent of the time even though they get less than 25 percent of the slots. Time to include more teams from this continent. They show up when it's tournament time.

    CONCACAF: FIFA's biggest geographical joke. The region includes at least three South American countries. They should be in CONMEBOL.

    Okay, this turned into a critique of FIFA's map reading skills. But there are still 322 days until the tournament starts.