Wednesday, July 22, 2009

If I Got to Choose the World Cup Teams, Part 2

The final half (or 13/32nds, to get the fraction correct) of my look at the nations likely to make the 2010 World Cup, and those I prefer actually did make it.

Yesterday we handled the whole world, aside from Europe.

Today, we take on Europe. The home of soccer and of its most successful professional leagues.

EUROPE (13 places, 53 countries)

Qualified: Netherlands.

Likely qualifiers: Denmark, Greece, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, England, Serbia, Italy, France, Russia, Hungary, Croatia.

Preferred qualifiers: Denmark, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Serbia, Turkey.

Comments: This is a very fluid situation because Europe is qualifying 13 nations from nine groups. How does that work, you ask. (Here are the standings, if you care to look.) The nine group winners get in, and the best eight of the nine second-place teams conduct four home-and-home playoffs to win the final four slots. The "best eight" are determined by points earned in group qualifying. ... So, for "likely qualifiers," above, we went with the eight group leaders (Netherlands has clinched Group 9) and the four teams that have the best prospects for 1) finishing second and 2) winning a home-and-home. ... For starters, no World Cup seems complete without these six: England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Spain. They have the history, or the great professional leagues, or both, and soccer fans would miss any of them. Luckily, Netherlands is in, England and Spain are in great shape to win their groups, and Germany and Italy lead their groups, albeit narrowly. France trails Serbia in its group, 18-12, and even with two games in hand against the Faroe Islands, France seems unlikely to finish ahead of the Serbs, and will need to win that home-and-home with whomever. Hope they do, because the French are fun to have around thinking their deep soccer thoughts. ... After those six, we go for teams that are fun or represent interesting socio-political situations. Denmark leads its group and gives the World Cup one Scandinavian team. Always need one Scandinavian team, if for nothing else than shots of the blonde girls in the stands. ... Ireland isn't really very good, but it is so much fun to have tens of thousands hard-partying Ireland fans following around their team and drunkenly slurring the words to "Danny Boy," or whatever, in the stands, so we want them to get in, too, as a second-place team (unless Ireland beats out Italy, which is unlikely). ... Israel would be fun because we are looking for provocative story lines, and Israel always is one of those. Israel has been in only one World Cup, in 1970, and is considered a "European" side because its Arab neighbors (in the Asia group, where Israel belongs, really) won't play the Israelis. They probably are not going to make it; they sit fourth in Group 2 with four matches left, but they have a shot: Three of their final four matches are in Israel; two matches are quite winnable (home vs. Moldova and Luxembourg); and the other two are against nations just ahead of them in the standings (Latvia, at Switzerland). Since I have neither Greece of Switzerland listed among my "preferred," that means Israel needs to win the group. Weirder things have happened. ... I want Portugal to make it, though its chances are slim, as well, because the Portuguese can play quite entertaining soccer and because they have Cristiano Ronaldo, probably the best player in the world at the moment. What's a World Cup without the world's best player? However, Portugal has to make up four points, in four matches, to catch second-place Hungary, so don't hold your breath. ... Russia? Want them just because the once (and future?) Evil Empire is a good story, too, and actually a pretty solid soccer nation. Russia could win Group 4, actually, by defeating Germany at home, Oct. 14. Vladimir Putin would be proud. ... We "want" Serbia only barely, because Serbia leads its group, so what the heck, and because the Balkans has at least three pretty good soccer sides (Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina being the others), and one of them needs to get in -- even if the other Balkans folks absolutely will not root for them. ... Turkey makes our list because of that generic "bring a shaky nation to the World Cup" thing. It is teetering with religious fundamentalism again, and a secular global success would be good for the secularists. Also, Turkey can play, and has a nice domestic league. Turkey trails Bosnia-Herzegovina by four points with four matches, but has a shot of catching BH because it gets them head to head (in BH) and because BH still has to play Spain, while the Turks are finished with the Spaniards. (And have been, since Lepanto. Random historical reference.) Besides, if the Turks can't get up to second, that puts BH in one of the four home-and-home playoffs for a slot, and if they and Serbia get in, that's one too many Balkan teams.

Finally: European teams will be top-seeded in at least five of the eight World Cup groups and as many as seven, if Argentina doesn't qualify and France does. What will be supremely interesting to see is how well the Euros do in South Africa. Keep in mind this remarkable World Cup stat: No Euro side has won the World Cup when it was played outside Europe. None. Europe is 9-for-10 in European-staged World Cups, but 0-for-8, outside Europe. That's four in South America, two in Mexico, one in the U.S. and one in Japan/South Korea. ... Will Africa prove any more hospitable to the Euros? The time difference isn't as pronounced; there's that. Only an hour or two. It will be mid-winter in South Africa, and a cool and rainy climate should remind the Euros of home. But South Africa is a big country, and moving around will seem like a big deal for the Euros, who usually can take a train or a bus to all their club matches. And Africa is going to seem particularly exotic to the Euros. Moreso than the teams from Asia or the Americas, I think. ... I am going to predict, now, that even with the benefit of all those seeded teams, Europe isn't going to win this non-Euro World Cup, either.

1 comment:

  1. The single most under-reported fact about what will make this World Cup different than most is the weather. You hit on it in your final notes and a few did earlier during the Confed Cup - when it's summer in Europe it's winter in South Africa.

    How many times in the past 40 years have quality European sides wilted in the summer heat?

    At the very least, the heat should not be an excuse for sorry showings this time around.

    No predictions here.