May 22, 2006
Times Qualified: 14
Best Finish: Winners (1978, 1986)
YouTube Goal: Instead of showing a typical Diego Maradona goal, I went a different route. In this 1998 clip, Gabriel Batistuta slots home with a cool finish for the only goal against Japan in the group stage.
Top Political Issue in Argentina: President Néstor Kirchner came out this week against the United States trade policy in South America. Kirchner is part of a new trend of leftist leaders in the region.
Football in Argentina: Since the World Cup was created, Argentina has been a dominant side capable of winning. It 1978 they finally broke through with a side that featured Ozzie Ardiles. Eight years later, Diego Maradona and Jorge Valdano could not stop scoring as they lifted the trophy again.
The Argentine Primera División is home to high quality play and some of the best clubs in South America. Boca Juniors and River Plate are the two most well known clubs with numerous league and continental titles attesting to their dominance. However, the league does not supply many players to the national team with most electing to go to Spain or Italy to earn more money.
Players to Watch: Carlos Tevez (Corinthians) and Leo Messi (Barcelona) are two of the most exciting young players in the world. Their talent alone may take them far in the tournament. But they are weak in defense as seen in the shock callup of Lionel Scaloni (Deportivo).
Chances: This team is filled with plenty of talent and they will likely cruise through the group quite easily. The later rounds will finally see them face a challenge of some sort.
Prediction: A disappointing semifinal finish.
Times Qualified: 8
Best Finish: 2nd (1974, 1978)
YouTube Goal: Dennis Bergkamp takes a 60 yard ball from Frank de Boer and works his magic to take the Dutch through to the semifinals in 1998.
Top Dutch Political Issue: The Dutch government has cracked down on immigration and is doing everything it can to make it harder to live there. Part of this is exposure to images that may be offensive in a video entitled "Coming to the Netherlands" that is shown to prospective immigrants.
Football in the Netherlands: The national team has been competitive only since the early 1970s. Legendary manager Rinus Michels developed a tactic known as "Total Football" which changed the way the game was played as it made positions no longer concrete. The Dutch team of the 70s contained many legends, and this quality was maintained through the late 90s. The last few years have been poor for players coming through the youth ranks.
The Dutch Eredivisie recently experimented with a playoff system for various European spots. AZ finished second while Ajax, who finished 4th, claimed the Champions League spot. The league is in a period of transition with PSV becoming a superpower ahead of Ajax, Feyenoord and recently AZ. The quality of play outside of the top four is relatively bad.
Players to Watch: Rafael van der Vaart (Hamburg) had a fantastic season culminating in his club's unexpected qualification for the Champions League. Ruud van Nistelrooy (Manchester United) is going to be counted on for goals, but rumors continue to circulate regarding his future after the World Cup.
Chances: Manager Marco van Basten called up a mix of experienced and young players for the World Cup. On paper, this team does not look very strong and they may struggle for goals in the group stage.
Prediction: The Dutch will fail to make an impact. Fourth in the group.
May 17, 2006
Times Qualified: 2
Best Finish: 2nd Round (1998 as Yugoslavia)
Top Political Issue: Montenegro goes to the polls this weekend to vote on its independence from Belgrade. The European Union has said that it needs 55 percent of the vote in favor of independence to gain official recognition.
Football in Serbia: Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia has struggled in comparison to Croatia. Seemingly constant war has taken a toll on the sport that has only just begun to recover. The current team relies on its miserly defense to grind out results. The fact that they only conceded one goal in qualifying is a testament to their defensive skill.
The Serbian Superliga is not considered an elite league by any measure. The two dominant sides, Red Star and Partizan Belgrade, dominate over the rest of the league. With more lucrative options available in the rest of Europe, many players choose to play abroad.
Players to Watch: Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United) is suspended for the first match, but the giant defender will be important in keeping opponents off the board. Savo Milosevic (Osasuna) is captaining the team, and as Serbia's record goalscorer may have to be called upon to bring them back from deficits.
Chances: Serbia will be hoping to pull off performances like Greece did two years ago. However, they will not be facing sides with the attacking quality of Lithuania and San Marino in this tournament. Instead, all three of their opponents are capable of scoring for fun.
Prediction: I just don't see them making much of an impact here. Fourth place in the group.
Times Qualified: 3
Best Finish: 2nd Round (2002)
YouTube Goal: Takayuki Suzuki scores an equaliser against Belgium in the 2002 Group Stage.
Top Political Issue in Japan: Japan continues to be pressured by its neighbors to express enough remorse and regret for its militant past. This comes in the face of territorial disputes with South Korea and China over resource rich areas.
Football in Japan: The Japanese national team has only had success in the last 15 years, when the game became professional. Japan has claimed three of the last four Asian Cups and had their best World Cup performance as joint hosts four years ago.
The J-League has been an important in increasing the level of play for the national team. The league has put an important emphasis on style of play with most teams using their allocation of foreign players on Brazilians. In fact what this has done is make good defenders a valuable commodity in the league and they are paid wages comparable to a mid-level European side.
The national team has evolved over the past two decades. Before, it was largely made up of naturalized Brazilians who could hardly compete at the global stage. Now, there is only one foreign born player in the squad. Attacking players generally go abroad to increase their chances of playing for the national team, while defenders stay in the J-League because they are too expensive to sign, and the effect is obvious in the makeup of the squad.
Players to Watch: Brazilian born Alex (Urawa Reds) has been a part of the Japan setup for many years and he will have to play well to stop play down the wing. Naohiro Takahara (Hamburg) has had trouble scoring goals like every other Japanese forward in the squad, but he will likely feature as a lone striker.
Chances: Zico may pull a page out of the book of Steve Sampson by deploying a 3-6-1 formation. We know how that worked out last time.
Prediction: Japan will struggle to score at all. Fourth in the group looks most likely.
May 16, 2006
Times Qualified: 12
Best Finish: Winners (1998)
Top French Political Issue: The French Parliament is debating a bill this week that will make it illegal to deny the existence of the Armenian genocide. With 450,000 Turks living in France, the bill can be seen as a crackdown on the immigrant communities that were at the center of rioting last year.
Football in France: France has not always been a power in world football that it is today. A dry spell in the 1960s and 70s of competitive success was ended in the early 1980s with the emergence of players like Michel Platini. It was then that they won the 1984 European championship and made two consecutive World Cup semifinal appearances. Another bad spell followed which ended with the failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Then came a six year run of dominance with a semifinal appearance at Euro 96, a World Cup win as hosts in 1998 and the European Championship in 2000.
Ligue 1, the French top division, is in the second tear of European leagues. Olympique Lyon have established themselves as the dominant club in the league having won their fifth consecutive title this season. The league is also one of the most defensively oriented in the world with little over two goals being scored on average each match. It is not uncommon to see several 0-0 results in a given week.
The French squad for this World Cup has about half of its players domestically based and most of the rest based in England or Italy.
Players to Watch: Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid) was a key part of France's dominance in the late 90s, and has announced that he will retire from the sport after the tournament. In defense, France's weakness is shown by the fact that Jean-Alain Boumsong (Newcastle United) continues to be in the squad. Gregory Coupet (Lyon) has an opportunity to shine between the posts with talent like this video illustrates.
Chances: France will be challenged by strong Swiss and South Korean teams, but should have no problems with Togo. Manager Raymond Domenech's looked tactically outclassed at times during qualifying, and it may happen to him again.
Prediction: France falls at the first hurdle again as they finish 3rd in their group.
Times Qualified: 3
Best Finish: 3rd (1998)
Top Political Issue in Croatia: There really is not much happening in Croatian politics at the moment. Other than a planned visit by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the World Cup seems to be the biggest news.
Football in Croatia: Since becoming independent in 1991, Croatia has qualified for every World Cup it has been permitted to qualify for. Croatia was the most competitive of the nations of the former Yugoslavia, but performances have become worse recently.
The Croatian First League is a weak league dominated by two clubs, Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split. These two clubs are the contributers of the four domestic based players in the World Cup squad. The rest of the squad is divided all around Europe from Scotland to the Ukraine.
Players to Watch: Croatia has plenty of talented players at its disposal. Ivan Klasnic (Werder Bremen) is a striker who excels not only at scoring goals, but setting up his teammates as well. Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk) is a dangerous player who can play at right back or the right side of midfield. He can be deadly on set pieces.
Chances: Croatia are the only team in their group likely to take a point off of Brazil. Japan and Australia may pose problems in their own way.
Prediction: Second Round
May 15, 2006
Times Qualified: 1
YouTube Goal: Bonaventure Kalou scores from distance in a friendly against Spain in early March.
Top Political Issue in the Ivory Coast: The threat of not participating in the World Cup has appeared to bring both sides in a long civil war to the negotiating table. Disarmament appears to be a real possibility with election scheduling already taking place for later in the year.
Football in the Ivory Coast: In a war torn nation like the Ivory Coast it is not surprising that the entirety of the squad plays in Europe. The national team is young, and as runner up in the African Nations, they can play well under pressure.
Players to Watch: The main striking threat is Didier Drogba (Chelsea), who admitted earlier in the season that he sometimes dived, then claimed he didn't. He has scored enough goals to be worthy of a YouTube goal compilation.
Chances: A win against Serbia is a must for the Ivory Coast, but matches against Argentina and the Netherlands might prove too difficult.
Prediction: I can see this team being this World Cup's Senegal, so I'm going to say quarterfinals for the debutants.
Times Qualified: 13
Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1970 , 1986)
Top YouTube Mexican World Cup Goal: Playing in front of the home fans, Manuel Negrete pulls off an amazing shot for the first goal in a 2-0 win over Bulgaria in 1986.
Top Mexican Political Issue: Conflict with the United States on immigration continues to dominate the headlines. President Vicente Fox has shown concern about a "militarization of the border" on the part of the Americans.
Football in Mexico: Once the sole superpower in its region, Mexico has had to deal with an ever strengthening American side, whom they have been unable to beat away from home soil. The current Mexican team is aging, and the national team as a whole may struggle in the next few years. However, the future looks bright as their Under-17 team won their World Cup last year in Peru.
The Mexican league is one of the strongest leagues in the Western Hemisphere. Mexican clubs continue to show their strength in continental competition with Chivas in the quarterfinals of this year's Copa Libertadores. América won the CONCACAF Champions Cup, and will play in the FIFA World Club Championship this coming December.
Salaries for players in Mexico are generally high for the region. As a result, most of their national team plays in domestically. There will be four players in their World Cup squad who play abroad.
Players to Watch: Captain Rafael Márquez (Barcelona) has a tendency to disappear at times, and the team suffers for it. Antonio Naelson (Toluca) showed in the Confederations Cup two years ago that he is capable of scoring great goals.
Chances: Mexico is the seeded team in their group and their chances of advancing out of the group will probably come down to their first match against Iran. They should be able to get a result, but tiebreakers may come into play at the end of the day.
Prediction: Second Round
May 14, 2006
Times Qualified: 8
Best Result: Quarterfinals (1934, 1938, 1954)
Top Swiss Political Issue: Switzerland ranks among the slowest nations in the naturalization of immigrants. With increasing unemployment among the foreign population (in many cases second and third generation immigrants), there are concerns that there may be unrest similar to France last year.
Football in Switzerland: Switzerland has had to constantly take a back seat to their much more successful neighbors. Those neighbors are also the places where a majority of the national team plies its trade. Switzerland is also in the process of preparing for its role as joint host of Euro 2008 along with Austria.
Players to Watch: The current Swiss team is young and full of talent. Philippe Senderos (Arsenal) had a fantastic season in the English Premier League. However, he is definitely lacking in pace. Johan Vonlanthen (NAC Breda, on loan from PSV) may also play a vital role in Switzerland's campaign.
Chances: The Swiss showed they were capable of playing at the same level as France in qualifiers. Their key match in the group will come against South Korea, however. The Koreans rely on pace at all positions and the Swiss defenders may have some difficult.
Prediction: Another quarterfinal finish seems likely considering the draw.
Times Qualified: 1
The Czech Republic's Top Current Political Issue: The Czech Republic was also inducted into the UN's Human Rights Council this past week, and they have a much better human rights record. The government recently took in fifteen political refugees from Uzbekistan.
The Sport in the Czech Republic: Since the breakup of Czechoslovakia, both nations have struggled to capture their former glory. Czechoslovakia was indeed a power in world football as they finished second in the World Cup on two occassions. The Gambrinus Liga, the Czech top division, is consistently a one horse race with Sparta Prague seemingly perennial winners of the competition. EU membership has contributed to a state where almost all of the national teams players play abroad.
Players to Watch: The Czechs real chance to win a major competition was two years ago in Portugal. The national team continues to rely on the performances of an aging core of players like Pavel Nedved (Juventus) and Jan Koller (Borussia Dortmund). The younger players on the team have not shown that they can flourish at a high level.
Chances: The Czechs landed in the Group of Death and they will probably have to beat Ghana convincingly to get out of the group.
Prediction: Eliminated in the Group Stage (3rd)