June 8, 2006
Times Qualified: 3
Best Finish: Second Round (1990)
YouTube Clip: A clip of Paulo Wanchope scoring plenty of goals.
Football in Costa Rica: The Costa Rican league is the strongest league in Central America. With surprisingly high salaries, the league has managed to prevent its stars from moving abroad as only three in this year's squad or foreign based. That is not to say that the standard of play is very high with Deportivo Saprissa looking well out of its depth at the FIFA World Club Championship in December.
Players to Watch: The Ticos will need goals from Wanchope (Herediano) and Ronald Gómez (Saprissa) if they are to survive in this tough group.
Chances: It does not look good for Costa Rica in Group A. Germany and Poland look much stronger on paper, and even Ecuador might be able to have their way.
Prediction: 4th in Group A
Times Qualified: 12
Best Finish: Winners (1966)
YouTube Clip: A collection of England highlights from a Spurs fan.
Football in England: The English Premier League is often billed as the Best League in the World. With players from all across the globe, the standard of play is undoubtedly high and fast paced. The pace has led to questions over the tactical awareness of players in the league, particularly those English players with almost no experience of playing abroad. There are two foreign based players in the squad for the World Cup with the rest of the squad a mix of veterans of Premiership action and promising young players.
Players to Watch: Peter Crouch (Liverpool) It is cliche to say that he has good touch for a big man. The 6'7" striker is the only forward in the squad without fitness concerns and more top division appearances than me, although his dance moves leave plenty to be desired.
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) has fitness concerns of his own over a back injury. Two years of almost continuous action have taken a toll on the talismanic midfielder. And there's also this Wayne Rooney (Manchester United) guy who I've heard is quite good.
Chances: England look like contenders to win this on the quality of their first eleven. With little depth at any position, England are more likely than any of the other top teams to fall apart.
Prediction: They advance quite easily from the group, but they fall in the quarterfinals.
Times Qualified: 1
YouTube Clip: Although he never played in a World Cup finals, Tony Yeboah was still a quite brilliant player as can be seen in this goal.
Football in Ghana: Ghana has put together several youth international sides that have flourished at high levels of competition with two Under-17 world championships and a second place at the U-20 World Youth Championship. However, the allure of the big payday in Europe and club managers there wanting to keep their players healthy have made it difficult to field a competitive senior side. This year's World Cup squad includes four domestically based players with the rest scattered across Europe from Israel to England.
Players to Watch: Michael Essien (Chelsea) is probably the best player on the team, and this hard tackling midfielder will have to do plenty of ball winning to help his side. Stephen Appiah (Fenerbahce) is capable of scoring wondergoals as seen by his goal that was named best goal of the Champions League Group Stage by UEFA.
Chances: Ghana lack depth at several positions and much of this squad is very inexperienced at the international level. They may have to make due trying to get draws against the Czechs and the United States.
Prediction: 4th in the group, but with at least a point.
June 2, 2006
Times Qualified: 2
Best Finish: First Round (2002)
YouTube Clip: Carlos Tenorio clinches the Qatari league title for Al Sadd.
Football in Ecuador: The Ecuadorian league is currently dominated by LDU Quito and El Nacional. The two have combined for some strong performances in the Copa Libertadores with LDU Quito looking at a likely semifinal berth when play resumes after the World Cup. The league has not always been the strongest as the national team did little of note before qualifying in 2002.
Unlike Paraguay, most of the Ecuadorian squad is domestically based which is not surprising considering Ecuador's reputation on the international stage. This could potentially be a strength since the players will be familiar with what the others on the team can do.
Players to Watch: Agustin Delgado (LDU Quito) was the most important piece of the teams that qualified for the two World Cups. Ulises de la Cruz (Aston Villa) is not considered to be a good player at all by the fans at Villa Park, and yet, he may play an important role in Paraguay's chances of advancing.
Chances: Ecuador will need to beat Costa Rica and hope for a draw or win against either Poland or hosts Germany. I do not see either happening with this weak of a squad.
Prediction: 4th in Group A
Times Qualified: 7
Best Finish: Second Round (1986, 1998, 2002)
YouTube Clip: A compilation of retired goalkeeper José Luis Chilavert who made 74 appearances and scored eight goals for Paraguay
Football in Paraguay: The Liga Paraguaya is like most leagues in that it is dominated by a small group of clubs. Olimpia and Cerro Porteño have combined for 65 league titles in the 95 year history of the league. Recently though, Olimpia's place at the top has been taken by Libertad, who are currently in the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores.
These clubs, like almost every club in South America, have difficulty holding onto their elite players when clubs from Europe and even Argentina and Mexico come in offering higher wages. As a result, only five of this year's squad play in Paraguay.
Players to Watch: Roque Santa Cruz (Bayern Munich) is certainly to most well known name on the team, but their are some concerns about his health going into the early group matches. Nelson Cuevas (Pachuca) made a name for himself as a supersub four years ago and can score when in form.
Chances: Paraguay will certainly need to get a win against either England or Sweden to have a chance of advancing. It does not look like they have the talent to advance to the second round for the third successive World Cup.
Prediction: 3rd place in Group B
June 1, 2006
Times Qualified: 1
YouTube Clip: Almost ten minutes of Andriy Shevchenko at his best
Football in the Ukraine: All but four of Ukraine's players ply their trade in their home nation. This is not so much a reflection of the quality of the league as it is of the huge amounts of money being thrown around by the likes of the two top clubs, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Kiev. The two teams finished off a thrilling campaign which ultimately saw Shakhtar triumph in a playoff for the championship.
Players to Watch: Andriy Shevchenko (Chelsea) just finished off his British record transfer from AC Milan to the Premiership champions. This world-class striker has the ability to score from nothing. Anatoliy Tymoschuk (Shakhtar) is a midfielder with the ability to control a match.
Chances: Group H is not the most difficult group to predict. Ukraine should easily have the strength to see off Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.
Prediction: 2nd Round
Times Qualified: 15
Best Finish: Winners (1934, 1938, 1982)
YouTube Clip: Highlights from Italy's 3-1 triumph over West Germany in the final of the 1982 World Cup
Football in Italy: Italy is one of two nations at the tournament consisting entirely of domestic based players (Saudi Arabia is the other). Italy's top division, Serie A, is arguably the best league in the world. However, a match-fixing, gambling, referee arranging scandal has threatened the status of clubs like Juventus, AC Milan and Fiorentina among others. With possible relegation looming and with action not being taken until after the World Cup, a delay to the start of the new season seems likely.
Players to Watch: Luca Toni (Fiorentina) is an obvious choice as top domestic goalscorer in all of Europe last season, howeve, no winner of the European Golden Boot has scored in the following World Cup since 1974. Francesco Totti (Roma) is recovering from a broken leg, and his fitness may very well determine Italy's fate.
Chances: Italy are a common pick to win this World Cup, but their defense is in bad shape. They may struggle against in physical battles against Ghana and the United States. That said, I still believe they will win their group.