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The 2006 FIFA World Cup revisited, part 1

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We’re approaching 10 years since the 2006 FIFA World Cup, a tournament remembered for entertaining matches, absurd goals, and Wayne Rooney stamping on a man’s bollocks. Given that the anniversary itself is being overshadowed both by anniversary nostalgia for another great tournament (Euro 96) and by an actual tournament happening, I thought I’d do a retrospective team-by-team guide to the World Cup, to see how much/little has changed in the decade since:

Group A

1. Germany – 9 (+6)
2. Ecuador – 6 (+2)
3. Poland – 3 (-2)
4. Costa Rica – 0 (-6)

Germany

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Squad:

1. Jens Lehmann (Arsenal)
12. Oliver Kahn (Bayern Munich)
23. Timo Hildebrand (Stuttgart)

2. Marcell Jansen (Borussia Monchengladbach)
3. Arne Friedrich (Hertha BSC)
4. Robert Huth (Chelsea)
6. Jens Nowotny (Bayer Leverkusen)
16. Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich)
17. Per Mertesacker (Hannover 96)
21. Christoph Metzelder (Borussia Dortmund)

5. Sebastian Kehl (Borussia Dortmund)
7. Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich)
8. Torsten Frings (Werder Bremen)
13. Michael Ballack (Bayern Munich)
15. Thomas Hitzlsperger (Stuttgart)
18. Tim Borowski (Werder Bremen)
19. Bernd Schneider (Bayer Leverkusen)
22. David Odonkor (Borussia Dortmund)

9. Mike Hanke (Wolfsburg)
10. Oliver Neuville (Borussia Monchengladbach)
11. Miroslav Klose (Werder Bremen)
14. Gerald Asamoah (Schalke 04)
20. Lukas Podolski (Cologne)

Captain: Michael Ballack
Head Coach: Jurgen Klinsmann

Never count out the Germans, etc. Germany entered their World Cup as many major tournaments hosts often do – in poor form, under enormous pressure and with expectations dropping. This reached the point where Jurgen Klinsmann, who had taken over as head coach following a disastrous showing at Euro 2004 under Rudi Voller, had seemingly already decided he was off at the end of the tournament regardless – maybe he realised that he would be found out as the massive fraud he is had he stayed on for another two years.

And yet you look at this side and think “not much was expected of THIS team?” I suppose hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s true that numerous players here had been underestimated – probably due to the typical lack of knowledge English pundits have for players who don’t play in England. But even so, surely it was obvious there was some ability in this team.

The team was fairly stable throughout the tournament. The goalkeeping situation that provoked the most controversy. Lehmann and Kahn’s relationship had reportedly reached Dutch levels of animosity when the former was given the starting job and the latter was left to bench-warm with Timo Hildebrand, although it cooled as the tournament progressed and Lehmann had an outstanding tournament. Kahn got a farewell appearance in the third place play-off; Hildebrand didn’t. See what being a miserable bastard gets you?

As with numerous German teams past and present, the weakness is at full-back, since Philipp Lahm was and still is yet to be cloned. Lahm played on the left in 2006 (hence cutting inside onto his right foot for his wonder goal against Costa Rica), with Friedrich (typically a centre-back) filling in on the right. Metzelder was the stand-out centre-back, while the 21-year-old Mertesacker blossomed enough alongside him to earn a move to Werder Bremen after the tournament.

The experienced Schneider and inexperienced Schweinsteiger operated on the flanks, with Ballack and Frings inside. Odonkor, a surprise call-up whose career would be ruined by injuries, was a regular off the bench. Klose finished as the tournament’s top scorer doing what Klose did best: score lots of scrappy goals from close range. Strike partner Podolski was as inconsistent as ever.

The truth is, though Germany did actually play very well, they were a bit fortunate with their draw. They weren’t given a particularly tough group, and were lucky Sweden capitulated in the second round without offering much of a threat. Argentina should have beaten them; Italy eventually did. At no point did they ever look like the best team in the tournament, but they were the hosts which did count for something. And this was at least a fun team to watch.

Ecuador

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Squad:

1. Edwin Villafuerte (Deportivo Quito)
12. Cristian Mora (LDU Quito)
22. Damian Lanza (Aucas)

2. Jorge Guagua (El Nacional)
3. Ivan Hurtado (Al-Arabi)
4. Ulises de la Cruz (Aston Villa)
5. Jose Luis Perlaza (Olmedo)
13. Paul Ambrosi (LDU Quito)
16. Giovanny Espinoza (LDU Quito)
18. Neicer Reasco (LDU Quito)

6. Patricio Urrutia (LDU Quito)
7. Christian Lara (El Nacional)
8. Edison Mendez (LDU Quito)
14. Segundo Castillo (El Nacional)
15. Marlon Ayovi (Deportivo Quito)
16. Luis Antonio Valencia (Villarreal, on loan to Recreativo Huelva)
19. Luis Saritama (Deportivo Quito)
20. Edwin Tenorio (Barcelona SC)

9. Felix Borja (El Nacional)
10. Ivan Kaviedes (Argentinos Juniors)
11. Agustin Delgado (LDU Quito)
21. Carlos Tenorio (Al-Sadd)
23. Christian Benitez (El Nacional)

Captain: Ivan Hurtado
Head Coach: Luis Fernando Suarez

Ecuador were kind of a surprise, except they shouldn’t have been, given that this was such a weak group. Their progression was essentially sealed when they beat Poland, the only team likely to challenge them for second place in the group, in their first game. Suarez, later manager of Honduras in the 2014 World Cup, got them well-organised enough to concede few goals (2 clean sheets out of 4 is reasonable), and they were good enough going forward to score some goals.

At the heart of the defence was Hurtado, who by the start of the tournament had accumulated 130 of his eventual 168 caps and was playing in Qatar (only another seven transfers to come, Ivan). He is now a left-wing politician. Alongside him at right-back was English-based De la Cruz, who is also now a left-wing politician. He is one of six of this squad to have played in England, the others being Kaviedes, Delgado, Castillo, Valencia and the late Chucho Benitez. As you can see, there were varying degrees of success.

The wingers Valencia and Mendez were perhaps the most talented attackers in the team, the latter being one of the most underrated South American players of the decade and the only player to feature in all three of Ecuador’s World Cup squads (thanks to Walter Ayovi’s omission here). Carlos Tenorio and former Southampton striker Delgado grabbed two goals apiece, while former Crystal Palace striker Kaviedes celebrated his late goal against Costa Rica with a Spiderman mask, a tribute to his late team mate Otilino Tenorio who had died in a car crash a year before.

Their eventual exit was rather predictable; they were taken apart by Germany in the final group game which set them against England in the second round, and not even Sven could fuck that one up. They probably weren’t in the top 16 best teams in the tournament, but the record books show they were. A feel-good story, which Germany and England killed.

Poland

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Squad:

1. Artur Boruc (Celtic)
12. Tomasz Kuszczak (West Bromwich Albion)
22. Lukasz Fabianski (Legia Warszawa)

2. Mariusz Jop (FC Moscow)
3. Seweryn Gancarczyk (Metalist Kharkiv)
4. Marcin Baszczynski (Wisla Krakow)
6. Jacek Bak (Al-Rayyan)
14. Michal Zewlakow (Anderlecht)
18. Mariusz Lewandowski (Shakhtar Donetsk)
19. Bartosz Bosacki (Lech Poznan)

5. Kamil Kosowski (Kaiserslautern, on loan to Southampton)
7. Radoslaw Sobolewski (Wisla Krakow)
8. Jacek Krzynowek (Bayer Leverkusen)
10. Miroslaw Szymkowiak (Trabzonspor)
13. Sebastian Mila (Austria Vienna)
16. Arkadiusz Radomski (Austria Vienna)
17. Dariusz Dudka (Wisla Krakow)
20. Piotr Giza (Cracovia)

9. Maciej Zurawski (Celtic)
11. Grzegorz Rasiak (Tottenham Hotspur, on loan to Southampton)
15. Euzebiusz Smolarek (Borussia Dortmund)
21. Ireneusz Jelen (Wisla Plock)
23. Pawel Brozek (Wisla Krakow)

Captain: Jacek Bak
Head Coach: Pawel Janas

Well, it was nice of Poland to turn up eventually – 2 games, 0 goals, 2 defeats, eliminated already, 1-0 down to Costa Rica, and then they suddenly realise they are a half-decent World Cup team and find 2 goals from a centre-back to win a game, to avoid the humiliation of finishing bottom of a group they were expected to qualify from. It wasn’t quite rescuing a bad situation but it was at least damage limitation – an upgrade from being pelted with rotten vegetables to just having a few bad headlines.

Poland had qualified as the best runners-up in UEFA, finishing only a point behind England after the English had decided to somehow lose to Northern Ireland and make it look closer than it actually was. It’s a strange one because the other teams in the group shouldn’t have been terrible – a Wales team that nearly qualified for Euro 2004, a Northern Ireland team that would nearly qualify for Euro 2008, and a solid Austria team that did OK at Euro 2008. The squad is theoretically alright too.

But there’s no magic there – aside from Magic Zurawski, anyway. It’s not at all inspiring. The only Lewandowski there is a defender. The only good performance was a defensive one: the stand against Germany, eventually with 10 men, that was cracked in stoppage time by Oliver Neuville.

I’d have hated to have been Polish watching this team, with memories of 1974 and 1982, of Deyna, Lato and Boniek. Why didn’t they beat Ecuador? Because Ecuador presumably interesting-ed them to death. Good on them. Shame Costa Rica didn’t hang on too.

Costa Rica

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Squad:

1. Alvaro Mesen (Herediano)
18. Jose Porras (Saprissa)
23. Wardy Alfaro (Alajuelense)

2. Jervis Drummond (Saprissa)
3. Luis Marin (Alajuelense)
4. Michael Umana (Brujas)
5. Gilberto Martinez (Brescia)
12. Leonardo Gonzalez (Herediano)
15. Harold Wallace (Alajuelense)
22. Michael Rodriguez (Alajuelense)

6. Danny Fonseca (Cartagines)
7. Christian Bolanos (Saprissa)
8. Mauricio Solis (CSD Comunicaciones)
10. Walter Centeno (Saprissa)
14. Randall Azofeifa (Saprissa)
17. Carlos Hernandez (Alajuelense)
20. Douglas Sequeira (Real Salt Lake)

9. Paulo Wanchope (Herediano)
11. Ronald Gomez (Saprissa)
13. Kurt Bernard (Puntarenas)
19. Alvaro Saborio (Saprissa)
21. Victor Nunez (Cartagines)

Captain: Luis Marin
Head Coach: Alexandre Guimaraes

The first game was a false dawn: in scoring two against Germany, they had given them and the rest of us false hope that this Costa Rica team, spearheaded by a Premier League hero of the past back for one final flourish, could win one or two thrillers and somehow progress by sheer will power.

Unfortunately they just weren’t very good. It probably says more about Germany (and their hilariously bad defending that day) that they were able to score 2 in that first match. Granted, a couple of these guys were a part of the true giant-killers of 2006, and Wanchope and Solis had been good enough to work their way into the Premier League in the 1990s, but this wasn’t a particularly talented team. The three players who played outside Costa Rica in 2006 played in Italian Serie B, Guatemala, and MLS. Only Saborio made a name for himself after this.

Maybe it’s just me being judgemental towards Central American teams that aren’t Mexico, which I know little about and never really do much at World Cups, but this was a pretty shit team by World Cup standards. They had at least won a game in 2002, when they beat China, then held Turkey to a draw, and even put 2 past Brazil (albeit conceding 5). But four years on, they had regressed somewhat – their best players were the wrong side of 30 and it probably made the difference. It was a real shame after that first game.

Group B

1. England – 7 (+3)
2. Sweden – 5 (+1)
3. Paraguay – 3 (0)
4. Trinidad and Tobago – 1 (-4)

England

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Squad:

1. Paul Robinson (Tottenham Hotspur)
13. David James (Manchester City)
22. Scott Carson (Liverpool, on loan to Sheffield Wednesday)

2. Gary Neville (Manchester United)
3. Ashley Cole (Arsenal)
5. Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United)
6. John Terry (Chelsea)
12. Sol Campbell (Arsenal)
14. Wayne Bridge (Chelsea, on loan to Fulham)
15. Jamie Carragher (Liverpool)

4. Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
7. David Beckham (Real Madrid)
8. Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
11. Joe Cole (Chelsea)
16. Owen Hargreaves (Bayern Munich)
17. Jermaine Jenas (Tottenham Hotspur)
18. Michael Carrick (Tottenham Hotspur)
19. Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur)
20. Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough)

9. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
10. Michael Owen (Newcastle United)
21. Peter Crouch (Liverpool)
23. Theo Walcott (Arsenal)

Captain: David Beckham
Head Coach: Sven-Goran Eriksson

Ah England. Specialists in failure, as Jose might say. This was supposed to be the Big One. “Our Moment”. In the last World Cup, England had scraped out of the groups primarily because of a smash-and-grab win over a vastly superior Argentina side, before getting dumped out by Brazil. That being said, this was an England team which had lost two key players (Gary Neville and Steven Gerrard) to injury, so we’ll let them off; it was an overachievement to get as far as they did. By Euro 2004, things were looking a bit brighter: they should have beaten France, they did beat Switzerland and Croatia, and were unfortunate to lose to Portugal on penalties.

However, in hindsight, it’s at this point that things start to unravel. This was already an unbalanced team, stacked in some positions, but with a reluctance to compromise: yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am of course referring to Lampard and Gerrard. It’s impossible to avoid this when talking about mid-2000s England. At this point, we’re talking Beckham and Scholes too, and then Joe Cole as well after Scholes decided he wanted no further part of this rabble, allowing him to retreat with his reputation in tact. It was utterly daft to play them all together. But of course it made sense too: they were high profile players with large personal/club followings and large sponsorship deals. There would have been massive uproar if either Gerrard or Lampard had been dropped for Owen Hargreaves, who should have been key, but he was laughed off until the end of the tournament, when everyone collectively realised he was actually good. Of course, after that his knee, sensing it was a part of the England setup, realised that it needed to give in, and England lost perhaps its most vital midfield cog of that generation of players.

The line-up for 2006 that always springs to mind is Robinson; Neville, Terry, Ferdinand, Ashley Cole; Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Joe Cole; Rooney, Owen. But actually that XI never played in the tournament. Rooney of course started the tournament on the sidelines injured, so Crouch got the nod for the first two games; Wayne came on after an hour for Owen against Trinidad and Tobago. Then Neville got injured and missed the next three games, with Carragher starting the next two and Hargreaves against Ecuador. Hargreaves also started the Sweden game in place of Gerrard, which was the only game where Owen and Rooney started together; as we all know, Owen then busted his knee after four minutes, being replaced by Crouch. After this, England played 4-5-1 in the remaining games with Rooney as the lone striker, Carrick as the holding midfielder against Ecuador, and Hargreaves in that role against Portugal.

Herein lies the problem: even with this supposedly more progressive formation, while they kept two clean sheets, England scored only one goal, from a Beckham free kick; in fact, Beckham also supplied the only goal against Paraguay, and the crucial first goal against Trinidad and Tobago too, while the rest came from moments of magic from Gerrard and Joe Cole. For all the attacking talent, Sven had somehow managed to neuter all the creativity. While playing Rooney and Owen together didn’t work (which often gets overlooked), Rooney was young and unfit, so it was stupid to play him up front alone. Even if England had won the shootout, he’d have been suspended for the semi-final, meaning it would have been Crouch up front alone, given that Sven had seemingly decided he wasn’t going to risk Walcott. It was never going to work out. This one is all on the manager.

Hindsight is 20/20. What England should have done is play 4-2-3-1, with Gerrard in behind Rooney, and Hargreaves and AN Other (Carrick maybe, or even Jenas; Scholes in an ideal world) sitting deep. This would have accommodated Gerrard and Beckham (who was always under-utilised by Eriksson) far better and given the side a stronger core. But that would have meant dropping Owen (fans’ favourite) and Lampard (in form for Chelsea, even if he never showed it for his country), which demonstrates that you couldn’t have pleased everyone. And obviously Defoe should have been taken ahead of Walcott. Obviously.

Also a reminder at this point that Aaron Lennon was frequently used off the bench and impressed with his pacy running and those other things he does/did. Stewart Downing also appeared in the first two games, then disappeared, which seems like an apt summary of his career. Jenas, Bridge and Walcott were the only outfield players who didn’t play.

Paraguay

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Squad:

1. Justo Villar (Newell’s Old Boys)
12. Derlis Gomez (Sportivo Luqueno)
22. Aldo Bobadilla (Libertad)

2. Jorge Nunez (Estudiantes LP)
3. Delio Toledo (Real Zaragoza)
4. Carlos Gamarra (Palmeiras)
5. Julio Cesar Caceres (River Plate)
14. Paulo da Silva (Toluca)
15. Julio Cesar Manzur (Santos)
21. Denis Caniza (Cruz Azul)

6. Carlos Bonet (Libertad)
8. Edgar Barreto (NEC)
10. Roberto Acuna (Deportivo La Coruna)
11. Diego Gavilan (Newell’s Old Boys)
13. Carlos Paredes (Reggina)
16. Cristian Riveros (Libertad)
17. Jose Montiel (Olimpia)
19. Julio dos Santos (Bayern Munich)

7. Salvador Cabanas (Jaguares)
9. Roque Santa Cruz (Bayern Munich)
18. Nelson Haedo Valdez (Werder Bremen)
20. Dante Lopez (Genoa)
23. Nelson Cuevas (Pachuca)

Captain: Carlos Gamarra
Head Coach: Anibal Ruiz

After second-round berths in the previous two World Cups, Paraguay were perhaps a bit unfortunate to get such a tough draw, and certainly unlucky in the manner of their departure. But this was perhaps a balancing out of the luck they had had in the previous two tournaments. It was also representative of a midfield that was devoid of top-level creativity, but it wouldn’t be a Paraguay side if it was solid, unspectacular and pretty dull.

Either way, they were still unlucky. They went behind after just three minutes of their opener against England after captain Gamarra accidentally diverted a Beckham free kick into his own net. They then lost first-choice goalkeeper Villar (later responsible for Copa America penalty shootout heroics) five minutes later with an injury that would keep him out of the rest of the tournament, though Bobadilla hardly disgraced himself in the remaining games, conceding only one goal. And then in the next game, they succumbed to an 89th minute Ljungberg winner that knocked them out of the competition, albeit after being totally dominated by the Swedes. They were out having done little wrong at the back, but little right going forward. They did at least get a consolation victory over Trinidad and Tobago, but even then one of their two goals was a Brent Sancho own goal. Nelson Cuevas, also a scorer in 2002, was the only Paraguayan to score at the right end.

Paraguay had finished 4th in South American qualification, three points above Uruguay who went into, and lost, a play-off against Australia. It’s not hard to think that a Uruguay team with Recoba, Forlan, Montero, Zalayeta et al might have been a more interesting participant in the main tournament than this Paraguay team, even if not a more effective one. However, we should also bear in mind that it was missing Jose Cardozo, the team’s top scorer in qualifying with seven goals, who was forced out with a late injury. It’s a shame a very good collection of strikers and a solid defence was playing with such an average midfield.

Sweden

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Squad:

1. Andreas Isaksson (Stade Rennais)
12. John Alvbage (Viborg)
23. Rami Shaaban (Fredrikstad)

2. Mikael Nilsson (Panathinaikos)
3. Olof Mellberg (Aston Villa)
4. Teddy Lucic (Hacken)
5. Erik Edman (Stade Rennais)
13. Petter Hansson (Heerenveen)
14. Frerik Stenman (Bayer Leverkusen)
15. Karl Svensson (Goteborg)

6. Tobias Linderoth (Copenhagen)
7. Niclas Alexandersson (Goteborg)
8. Anders Svensson (Elfsborg)
9. Fredrik Ljungberg (Arsenal)
16. Kim Kallstrom (Stade Rennais)
18. Mattias Jonsson (Djurgardens)
19. Daniel Andersson (Malmo)
21. Christian Wilhelmsson (Anderlecht)

10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Juventus)
11. Henrik Larsson (Barcelona)
17. Johan Elmander (Brondby)
20. Marcus Allback (Copenhagen)
22. Markus Rosenberg (Ajax)

Captain: Olof Mellberg
Head Coach: Lars Lagerback

Sweden continued their run of good-but-not-quite-good-enough tournaments here, a run which would eventually stretch from 2000 to 2008. As in 2002, they had enough quality progress, but rolled over far too easily when the going got tough in the second round; while losing to the Germans in Germany probably isn’t the most humiliating result, this one would have to go down as a disappointment.

The balance of the squad is quite nice: a good goalkeeper in Isaksson (though former Arsenal backup Shaaban played in the first game), a solid defence, a midfield with a mix of defensive and attacking individuals, two absolute stars in Ljungberg and Zlatan, and the vastly experienced Larsson in his final major tournament. And yet after the first round of games, they were perhaps the most embarrassed team in Germany, after failing to break down Trinidad and Tobago and slumping to a 0-0 draw. They struggled against Paraguay too, being rescued by a late goal from Ljungberg. With the under-performing Ibrahimovic dropped for the England game, they actually scored two, with Aston Villa flop Marcus Allback, who had been lively throughout the tournament, and Larsson getting the goals.

Then, in their final game, they left themselves with too much to do by going 2-0 down after 12 minutes, and this was compounded by Lucic’s harsh sending off (famed for referee Carlos Simon’s…unprofessional reaction) and Larsson blazing a second-half penalty into the crowd. For the third tournament in a row, this talented Sweden side had made it through the group stage, but no further. On the face of it, a shame. But I’m not sure they really deserved to go any further. It’s not overachievement or underachievement.

Trinidad and Tobago

Dwight Yorke,  Steve Gerrard

Squad:

1. Shaka Hislop (West Ham United)
21. Kelvin Jack (Dundee)
22. Clayton Ince (Coventry City)

2. Ian Cox (Gillingham)
3. Avery John (New England Revolution)
4. Marvin Andrews (Dundee)
5. Brent Sancho (Gillingham)
6. Dennis Lawrence (Wrexham)
8. Cyd Gray (San Juan Jabloteh)
17. David Atiba Charles (W Connection)

7. Chris Birchall (Port Vale)
9. Aurtis Whitley (San Juan Jabloteh)
10. Russell Latapy (Falkirk)
11. Carlos Edwards (Luton Town)
16. Evans Wise (Waldhof Mannheim)
18. Densill Theobald (Falkirk)
23. Anthony Wolfe (San Juan Jabloteh)

12. Collin Samuel (Dundee United)
13. Cornell Glen (Los Angeles Galaxy)
14. Stern John (Coventry City)
15. Kenwyne Jones (Southampton)
19. Dwight Yorke (Sydney FC)
20. Jason Scotland (St Johnstone)

Head Coach: Leo Beenhakker
Captain: Dwight Yorke

The Soca Warriors were the Caribbean’s encore after 1998’s Reggae Boyz. They were everyone’s second favourite team in this competition. They even came with their own fun song. It may be slightly disrespectful to compare them first and foremost to that great Jamaica team, but the parallels are there, particularly the many players from the English lower leagues. However, we should discuss the squad on its own merits. They, like Jamaica eight years before, were more than “the fun team”.

In goal, the squad had three goalkeepers who were well-known to fans of the English lower leagues. Kelvin Jack was initially meant to start the first game against Sweden, but was injured in the warm-up. Shaka Hislop, who had been called up by England for their friendly against Chile in 1998, was drafted in and produced a wonderful performance. He kept the starting spot for the game against the land of his birth, where he was again beaten from distance by Steven Gerrard, as he had been in the legendary FA Cup Final between Liverpool and West Ham a few weeks before. Jack started the third game against Paraguay.

Hislop, who had retired from international duty in 2004 but returned on hint of success, was one of several notable faces to come out of retirement for this time, which was largely welcomed. The other major additions were former Rangers midfielder Russell Latapy and his good friend Dwight Yorke, who had both quit in 2001 but returned in qualifying at the behest of Jack Warner (yes, that one). Yorke, who was quickly made captain of the team, was 34 and fresh from winning the very first A-League; to prepare for the World Cup, he had been training with his former club Manchester United. However, as is evident from the squad list, Trinidad and Tobago weren’t short of striking talent, and in the event, Yorke was moved back into central midfield, where he partnered Aurtis Whitley. He was so effective that Sunderland manager (and Yorke’s former team mate) Roy Keane hired him to perform this role for another three seasons. Both Yorke and Latapy, whose careers with the national side had begun in the late 1980s, played on for their country for another three years.

There were plenty of other English and Scottish Football League regulars. Dennis Lawrence, scorer of the winning goal in the play-off against Bahrain that qualified the Soca Warriors for the World Cup, had made over 200 appearances for Wrexham and soon moved to South Wales to join Swansea. Carlos Edwards had also made his name at Wrexham from 2000, and today plays for Millwall, his sixth English/Welsh club. Stern John had stints at nine English clubs in the Premier League or Championship. Ian Cox was born in Croydon and began his career at local club Crystal Palace, before long stints at Bournemouth, Burnley and Gillingham. Marvin Andrews, like Latapy, was a mainstay of the Scottish leagues including a stint at Rangers. Jason Scotland followed Lawrence to Swansea for a successful stint, later moving to Ipswich and Barnsley; today he plays for Stenhousemuir back in the country of his name. Kenwyne Jones would go on to be a well-known figure in the Premier League and Championship in the years to come, and is now Trinidad and Tobago captain, the only survivor of this team.

And then there’s Chris Birchall. In one of the most fascinating little stories of the 2006 World Cup, the Port Vale midfielder, born in Stafford, was eligible due to his mother’s birth in Port of Spain, and was asked to play for the team by Lawrence in the middle of a match. Birchall became the first white player to play for Trinidad and Tobago for sixty years; indeed, a BBC behind-the-scenes video suggested his nickname in the team was “Whitey”. Impressive performances led to a move to Coventry City, and eventually to MLS with Los Angeles Galaxy, playing with one of his more prestigious opponents from the World Cup. After a brief stint at Columbus Crew, he returned to Port Vale in 2013, the same year he retired from international duty.

The Soca Warriors acquitted themselves very well in their three matches, with a draw and two narrow defeats, albeit with no goals scored. As you might expect, they were defensively solid but limited. But they remain one of the more remarkable teams of recent major tournaments. With the retirements of their best players and their Central American rivals having improved in the years since, it’s unlikely we will see them in a World Cup again any time soon.

Written by James Bennett

June 7, 2016 at 12:00

2014 World Cup: Knockout round predictions

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The second round is often fairly straight-forward other than the odd shock or two – the heavyweights tend to find their way through, unless they are paired off with each other. I don’t see there being a Italy-South Korea tie in this round, particularly as in most cases there’s a fairly clear divide between the quality of the group winners and the quality of the runners-up.

If there is a shock coming, it is in the second tie of the round. Colombia are now fancied to do well, but there is always one team who blitz the group stage, start being talked of as genuine contenders, and then fall relatively quickly – Spain 2006 is a prime example, along with the last two Brazil teams. Uruguay now have the momentum and motivation to beat them. I’d not be surprised either way but I suspect Uruguay will come through it, due to them having a little mental edge in terms of experience and getting the result in a tournament. Having said that, I’d say Colombia have a slightly better chance of winning the tournament than Uruguay because Uruguay’s surge may lose its edge by the latter stages whereas Colombia are perhaps better-equipped to go further.

With France, Germany, and Argentina likely to win fairly comfortably, Brazil having just about enough to see off Chile, the Netherlands have a tough time against Mexico but probably just edging it, and Belgium grinding their way past a stubborn USA, the last remaining tie is between the two underdogs, Costa Rica and Greece. As I said in the previous article, I’m not convinced Costa Rica are as good as is being made out, and Greece have a habit of pulling off results like this, so I suspect they’ll sneak it again.

This would leave a quarter-final line-up of Brazil-Uruguay, France-Germany, Netherlands-Greece, and Argentina-Belgium.

Brazil-Uruguay would be the stand-out given the historical context. It could go either way. If Uruguay are psyched up after beating Colombia. they will prove very difficult opponents for Brazil, who will be reminded of the Maracanazo a thousand times that week (though this would take place in Fortaleza). That being said, I suspect Arevalo Rios will be running out legs in midfield and there are only so many feats you can pull off like this, so I’ll go for Brazil. Same goes if Colombia win, though it may be tighter.

France-Germany is also fascinating, a repeat of the 1982 and 1986s semi-final, both of which Germany won (as an additional footnote, Germany have beaten France only once in their last seven meetings, though that one win was last February). This will probably hinge on whether or not Schweinsteiger can make the difference in midfield for Germany, as they haven’t looked great there in his absence. Plus in Benzema France have a striker capable of bagging a couple off a dodgy defence, whereas Germany have lacked a central striker so far. I’m going for France, on the basis that a France-Brazil semi-final seems destined to happen.

France are of course Brazil’s bogey team in recent World Cups, having finished off the last relics of the great 1980s team in 1986, pounded Ronaldo and co in the 1998 final, and shocked them in 2006 courtesy of Zidane and Henry. I’d fancy them to do it again too. By this point, the pressure on Brazil would be immense, having seen off two South American rivals, while France will be able to sneak under the radar again despite having an attack that we know can expose this nervy Brazil defence.

In the other half, Netherlands-Greece is probably closer than you think. The Netherlands have based their attack around counter-attacking, but would meet a team who also do this, while also being slightly more defensively organised. The logical answer is to say the Netherlands have enough, but you also have to bear in mind that they will have played their previous game in Fortaleza, which may leave them tired, especially if Mexico perform well. However, Greece’s (or Costa Rica’s) will have been in Recife. I think Greece can do it, though – if they can get it to penalties, they are certainly in with a good chance, given the Dutch team’s record in shootouts.

Argentina-Belgium is another tough one to call, given that Argentina have looked great in attack but weak at the back and Belgium have looked great at the back but weak in attack, although both have found ways to win regardless. The location of the second round ties gives Argentina an advantage (Sao Paulo versus Salvador), but if Belgium can hitch onto Argentina’s flaws, they can stop them – of all the teams in this half of the draw, Belgium are probably the most likely to stop Argentina. Also Argentina haven’t gone past the quarter-finals since 1990, and have fallen there in three of the last four tournaments.

Of the four combinations for that semi-final, Netherlands-Argentina is the most appealing for the neutral (due to 1978 and 1998), so is probably the most unlikely to happen. Greece-Argentina would likely be very one-sided. Netherlands-Belgium would be a great local derby for this stage and another clash of styles. Greece-Belgium would be fucking terrible. Because things usually happen in the World Cup that I don’t want to happen, it makes Greece-Belgium the most likely outcome. Probably.

In any case, it’s virtually impossible to predict beyond the quarter-finals because the quarters are often very tight and between two teams capable of advancing – it’s where the great stories of the World Cup start to fit into place. But a France-Belgium final seems logical, even if it’s not expected – they are the two teams who have looked tight enough at the back and clinical enough going forward. The rest of the major contenders have only covered one of these aspects. However, both are young, inexperienced sides, which does count against them. Because of this, I’d make Argentina the favourites – I counted them out before the tournament started on the basis of their defence being poor, and their defence has been poor, but Messi is on another level at the moment and he’s going to be so difficult to stop. France-Argentina then? Argentina have won every single meeting between the two…

Either way, I don’t see this being the year of the Brazil-Argentina final as everyone is expecting. The knockout rounds, like the group stage, tend not to work as people expect. Off the top of my head, I have seen some great shocks: Croatia beating Germany in 1998; South Korea beating Italy and Spain in 2002; Greece beating France and the Czech Republic in Euro 2004 before winning the final; France beating Spain and Brazil in 2006 despite a dreadful group stage; Italy beating hosts Germany in the semi-finals of the same tournament; and the Netherlands coming from behind to stun Brazil in 2010.

These are the great games that define World Cups and yet they aren’t obvious before they take place. The games that will define this World Cup haven’t already happened, which is very exciting considering it has already been a very good tournament. However, it doesn’t become a great tournament until we have more great moments in the knockout rounds to savour. The number of goals may drop, but this is where a World Cup is made.

Teams most to least likely to win the World Cup (IMO):

1. Argentina – Pros: Messi, other great attackers, climate; Cons: defence

2. France – Pros: working well as a team, solid at the back; Cons: inexperienced at this level

3. Germany – Pros: deep squad, experience of going well into a tournament; Cons: lack of a striker, little wobbly at the back

4. Brazil – Pros: Neymar, home advantage, motivated, experienced manager; Cons: goalkeeper, defence

5. Netherlands – Pros: Van Persie, Robben, pace, options off the bench; Cons: defensive inexperience

6. Belgium – Pros: deep squad, difficult to beat; Cons: full-back positions, slow starters in games

7. Colombia – Pros: in great form, unheralded, climate; Cons: vulnerable defence not tested yet, inexperienced

8. Uruguay – Pros: experience, momentum, motivated, experienced manager; Cons: age, lacking their best player

9. Greece – Pros: well-organised, big game team, good draw; Cons: unreliable attack, prone to collapse

10. Chile – Pros: attack, pressing; Cons: unsuitable defence, tough draw

11. Mexico – Pros: in form, surprise package, balance of youth and experience; Cons: lack of overall quality

12. Costa Rica – Pros: attack, well-organised, climate; Cons: lack of overall quality

13. Switzerland – Pros: attack, experienced manager; Cons: defence, possible lack of depth, tough draw

14. Algeria – Pros: momentum, motivated (grudge matches); Cons: lack of overall quality, tough draw

15. Nigeria – Pros: exciting attack; Cons: defence, disruptive bonus dispute, tough draw

16. USA – Pros: well-organised; Cons: lack of overall quality

Written by James Bennett

June 27, 2014 at 02:05

2014 World Cup: Some quick thoughts on each team so far

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This may be completely incoherent. If so, I apologise. Also my track record in predicting this World Cup has been a complete disaster so feel free to ignore what I predict.

Group A

Brazil: They seem less than a sum of their parts, which is unusual for a Scolari team. It’s just not gelling – they look a shadow of the team of the Confederations Cup. Defensively they look very nervy (which isn’t particularly surprising considering they play two attacking wing-backs and David Luiz is one of their centre-backs), and Neymar is carrying them in attack, although the addition of Fernandinho helped against Cameroon.

Mexico: Although I predicted them to go through originally, I wasn’t sure if they could withstand the loss of Montes, who had been a key player for them. But they have done very well. Not sure they go much further, though. I don’t think they’ve quite got the ability.

Croatia: Disappointing at the World Cup again. Lacked bite in midfield, which was always going to be a concern with their choice of playmakers over holding midfielders. They threatened Brazil in the opener but that may say more about Brazil than themselves.

Cameroon: Just dire. Created very little in the crucial first game against Croatia. From there on, without Eto’o, it was always going to be tough. Played well against Brazil but again, it probably says more about Brazil than Cameroon.

Group B

Netherlands: Very sharp in attack, clearly, but questions over the midfield. De Guzman was mediocre at best in the first two games and Sneijder has been a passenger. Also that defence has at times demonstrated why it wasn’t particularly highly rated before the tournament started. They played well against Chile, especially considering Van Persie was suspended, but I still think they are slightly overrated and I can’t see them winning the tournament.

Chile: Not sure what to make of them. Clearly that defensive situation can’t hold forever – there’s no height or physical presence at the back, and they are mostly midfielders. Sampaoli is clearly doing a very good job with very little beyond their star attackers, who fortunately have been mostly good. However, it’s not just about losing to the Netherlands – they didn’t look great against Australia. Yes, they beat Spain, but it was a disorganised, rattled, downcast, under-pressure Spain – I’m not sure it says much.

Spain: Del Bosque messed this up, but he messed it up a long time ago by continuing to stick by the same players all the way through qualifying. Xavi and Alonso should have been gradually taken out of the side after Euro 2012 in the way Villa was, and continuing to trust Casillas, captain or not, was always going to be very risky. I think Del Bosque realised what he had done after the Netherlands game, which ironically looked worse than it actually was, and threw in some changes, but at that short notice, changing key players and the style of play was always likely to be a step too far. He should have mixed the team up two years ago, or even after the Confederations Cup Final disaster.

Australia: Well, they didn’t get tanked in every game, which was better than they expected. They gave the two teams that qualified for the group a good run. If there is one disappointment, it is that the performance against Spain was disappointing, which makes you wonder what’s going to happen to the team without Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano. They lacked presence up front without their captain.

Group C

Colombia: Ewing Theory in action! Before the start, I thought the loss of Falcao would hit them but they are playing wonderful football. Turns out the key man all along was James Rodriguez, who is this tournament’s new star. I do wonder if they can keep it up, though – many young teams like this start well but fall away when they come up against a tough, experienced heavyweight. Their next opponents? Uruguay, who could definitely be described as a tough, experienced heavyweight, even if they are without their best player.

Greece: As in Euro 2012, they were poor for two games and then won the last with an unconvincing display to somehow sneak through. And now they’ve got a plum draw too. Boo.

Ivory Coast: Very disappointing. Aside from a bright second half spell against a very average Japan team, inspired by the arrival of Didier Drogba, they never really looked like clicking. In particular Yaya Toure did not perform as we know he can, though in the circumstances that is certainly excusable. Even so, they could and perhaps should have made it out of the group, but for Samaras’ stoppage time dive.

Japan: Another disappointment. It just never came together going forward. Failing to score against the ten men of Greece pretty much summed up their tournament, and helped screw Ivory Coast over as well. They need a change of coach and a striker.

Group D

Costa Rica: The surprise package of the World Cup so far, although much of this seems to be based on their performance against Uruguay. In all three games, they were very solid and organised at the back, and they have utilised the talented Joel Campbell well on the break. However, I’d caution against saying they can go far because they never really threatened a flat England side with their leaky second choice defence in the last game, and didn’t even offer that much against Italy.

Uruguay: Poor in the first game, which ultimately came down to not having enough going forward due to the lack of Suarez. They threw players forward to compensate and got stung on the break. But after that, they solved their defensive issues with Lugano replaced by Gimenez, and Suarez’s return made them look threatening up front. However, they have now lost him, but what they have gained is a chip on their shoulder in response to his ban. I think they are still being underestimated and could yet go far.

Italy: They used the ball intelligently against England and defended well (Paletta aside), but when the onus was on them to attack and score goals, they didn’t do so. Their two goals in this tournament were a well-worked set piece and a handy bit of wing play (exposing the weak Baines) with a good header from Balotelli. Prandelli’s negative tactics against Costa Rica were bizarre, but they were outfought by Uruguay.

England: For all the talk of promising signs, they created very little across the three games, and what they did create was usually blown by Rooney, who was crap as usual. They carried two luxury players in the team who are both at least four years past their peak. If England are to progress, they have to ditch Rooney and Gerrard instead of pandering to them – a team is not made up of the best eleven individuals, hence why Costa Rica have seven points and England have one. Defensive organisation helps as well, and that includes the midfield – the England defence wasn’t great but it received no protection, which comes from Hodgson not picking a defensive midfielder. If there is anyone to blame, it is him.

Group E

France: Impressive. I still don’t understand how they flew under the radar – they have some great young players. They are even managing to get the best out of Mamadou Sakho. Benzema has generally looked like the great striker he can be instead of the average striker he often is. Cabaye has held the midfield together well. Even Moussa Sissoko has played well. The draw against Ecuador was slightly disappointing but Ecuador needed the win more than them so I doubt it’ll be a major issue with Nigeria ahead.

Switzerland: A mixed bag, because they have looked very good going forward and have scored some great goals, but defensively they have looked very vulnerable, especially after Von Bergen was replaced by Senderos and his partnership with Djourou was as bad as it gets. But they did at least limit the damage at the end, which suggests they have some character in the team, and battered Honduras, although they are only Honduras.

Ecuador: Probably the most impressive side not to get through. Considering they were coming back from tragically losing their best striker a year ago, and didn’t have an awful lot of major tournament experience in the side, they played admirably. Going out on four points is unfortunate, especially considering they only lost the Switzerland game in stoppage time – had they held on for a draw, they would have gone through.

Honduras: They entertained with their mindless thuggery, but that’s about it. At least they scored this time.

Group F

Argentina: Again hard to fathom. The games against Iran and Nigeria exposed their defensive frailties, and the games against Bosnia and Iran suggested how the attack could be stopped. Across the three games, they were made to look a beatable team. And yet they won all three, mainly courtesy of Messi. Maradona’s 1986 team was probably better than we remember but this must be quite close to it. It’s odd but I am more confident of their chances now than I was at the start, mainly because Messi is clearly now capable of carrying this team.

Nigeria: A lot of people were writing them off after the Iran game but it wasn’t until after Argentina were similarly stifled by them that people started to accept that the lack of goals was because Iran were so well-organised defensively rather than Nigeria being poor. They have a great attack with plenty of options, but they are fragile at the back, particularly without Elderson Echiejile.

Bosnia & Herzegovina Without wanting to sound too patronising, it was a great effort for a first appearance. In the first game, they genuinely looked like they might snatch a draw against Argentina. In the second, they should have led but for a legitimate goal being disallowed. And in the third, they found a way to break down Iran, something the other two teams in the group struggled to do. There is promise there but Spahic and Misimovic are probably done internationally, which is an issue.

Iran: Performed as well as they could considering the lack of ability in the squad, and I’m delighted they got a goal. It is at least a bright spot in a dreadful tournament for Asia.

Group G

Germany: A lot of people raved about the performance against Portugal but it wasn’t particularly exceptional – Portugal were just terrible. They then looked wobbly against Ghana but just about survived. We can’t really judge much from the USA game because it was turgid, but they were at least more solid defensively. The return of Schweinsteiger to the midfield will help as the tournament goes on. Still one of the favourites but they have a tough draw.

USA: It’s odd that the worst team can go through and yet that is what has happened here. The bus-parking against Ghana somehow worked even though they couldn’t hold on for 90 minutes, they also couldn’t hold on against Portugal, and they offered little in attack against a largely disinterested Germany today. And yet they are through. John Brooks’ goal was the difference between going through and finishing bottom of the group.

Portugal: As with the USA and Ghana, this all rested on the first game. The pounding they took after Pepe’s reckless red card killed their goal difference, otherwise they would have been firmly in contention to go through going into the last game instead of only having a slim chance, which would have helped psychologically if nothing else. Otherwise, they seem to have gone backwards since Carlos Queiroz’s reign, which is bizarre considering that itself was so limiting. And yet without Brooks’ winner against Ghana, they would have still qualified.

Ghana: Another team that has regressed in recent years. The “loss” of Kevin-Prince Boateng (well, he was there in body but not in mind) was important as he made such a difference to this team four years ago. Waris’ pre-tournament injury also made a big difference up front, although Andre Ayew had a good tournament. And yet despite all that has happened, but until Dauda’s haphazard attempts at collecting a cross at the end, they were only a goal away from qualifying. Fine margins.

Group H

Belgium: I’ve seen comparisons with England of the past (2006-era) and it makes sense. This is a team with so much attacking talent you’d have expected them to put multiple goals past every team in this group, and yet they won all three games by one goal with late winners. But they were never really threatened in any of those games – even against Algeria when they were behind it always felt like it was against the run of play. But they are defensively solid, which is a big bonus over some of the other contenders. They could grow into the tournament, or they could go out in the quarter-finals on penalties in order to continue the England comparisons.

Algeria: Clearly the second best team in this group, even if it was largely off the back of one performance against South Korea. But what a performance! So glad that the demons of 1982 have been laid to rest. Even if they are battered in the next round, they can be delighted with their performance and go into the 2015 Cup of Nations as serious contenders. They have already achieved more than Ivory Coast’s “golden generation”.

Russia: Of all the teams in the tournament, this lot were the worst. Yes, Cameroon got pounded by everyone, Iran and Honduras only scored one goal, and they didn’t even finish bottom of their group, but considering they have talented players, they have underachieved enormously and have been soul-destroying to watch in the process. Fabio Capello has sucked the life out of this side. And it’s not a young side either, which is a concern heading towards 2018.

South Korea: Barely any better than Russia, but at least they scored two goals against Algeria and at least made it look like they were putting the effort in. However, their tournament was ultimately summed up by the bland performance against a Belgium side reduced to ten men. They never really threatened and ended up losing despite Belgium having no real reason to win the game.

Written by James Bennett

June 27, 2014 at 01:16

Probably my final thoughts before the World Cup

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It’s funny that no matter how often football happens, and no matter how illogical a situation or outcome can appear, football decides to conform to narrative.

In 2006, France began the World Cup in terrible form. They drew with Switzerland and South Korea, and only went through by beating a Togo team derailed by a pay dispute. Spain, meanwhile, looked like the best team in the tournament, and even managed to win after putting their second team out in their last group game. And yet when France and Spain met in the second round, even after Spain took the lead, France found a way to win 3-1.

Theoretically, it was a totally illogical result: France’s team was made up of a bunch of ageing has-beens and was managed by a complete idiot; Spain’s team had some of the most exciting young players in the world and was in great form. And yet it made sense – Spain once again continued to conform to their reputation as bottlers in major tournaments (later dispelled, of course), while the arrival of Zinedine Zidane for France completely changed the tone of the team. And they went on to beat favourites Brazil in the next round for good measure – two massive upsets in the space of two rounds. But for Zidane’s temper, they may have won the tournament, an outcome that seemed totally implausible after two matches.

The point I’m making is that football, and World Cups in particular, rely little what should happen from a “logical” perspective. If logic suggests that Team X and Team Y will compete in an ideal final, do not expect this to happen, because something or someone will come from nowhere and spoil it, in the name of individual or team narrative, or just for the sake of being awkward. Bloggers and journalists will throw statistics and tactical analysis at you in the last week or so before the World Cup starts to try to convince you that you can accurately predict what will happen over the next month by thinking a bit harder and reading a bit more, but it’s a fallacy. The World Cup has a life of its own. Momentum, mentality, pressure and terrible refereeing decisions will all play their part in ensuring that what you expect to happen will not happen.

So the media and bloggers are telling you that we’re going to get the dream final – Brazil versus Argentina at the Maracana. You can guarantee this will not happen. Argentina theoretically have the best attack in the world, with Messi, Aguero, Di Maria, Higuain, Lavezzi and various others all capable of scoring plenty. But, aside from the matter of the defence, which remains unconvincing – and, to quote the Americans, defence wins championships – when was the last time such a star-studded attack clicked on this stage? You could argue a case for Brazil in 2002, but that was a team that had a great defensive line-up too, unlike Argentina. This sort of team usually gets found out. The teams that win major international tournaments these days usually have players like Luca Toni and Stephane Guivarc’h up front.

As for Brazil, there’s a collective will for them to win. Everyone wants this Brazil side to erase the memories of the Maracanazo of 1950…but maybe that’s the point. The pressure on host nations is always enormous, but it’s going to weigh particularly heavily on Brazil. Plus this isn’t a remarkable Brazil side. People are predicting them to win based solely on their performances at the Confederations Cup, a tournament no one has ever taken any notice of until this point. France won in 2001 and didn’t make it out of their group a year later. Swap Brazil for Mexico, Japan or Nigeria and no one would be mentioning it, because it would be dismissed as meaningless. Brazil’s performances outside this competition have been patchy at best, some of their first-choice players aren’t entirely convincing, and their main striker is out of form (although judging by the Guivarc’h Clause, that may not necessarily be a bad thing). They also have David Luiz as first choice centre-back, and in a big game in front of 90,000 screaming Brazilians in Rio, he’s not the man I would want to have the ball, £40 million valuation or not.

I still think the two best teams in the tournament at the moment are Spain and Germany. I’ve felt all along that this was again Spain’s tournament to lose. They have the talent and the experience to win it, and are so difficult to beat when they are on top in a game. Plus I don’t want them to win, and usually tournaments are won by teams I don’t want to win (I used up all my luck in 2002 and 2004, I think).

The only way I see Spain not winning this (yes, this is my get-out clause) is if Vicente del Bosque screws up. Which is possible. Del Bosque is a conservative manager who has his favourites and will keep picking them, hence why Fernando Torres is still in this squad despite being consistently terrible for several years, even at the expense of Jesus Navas who was an important option for them in 2010. What may ultimately undo Spain is if Del Bosque keeps picking the same ageing players, particularly in midfield. Xavi and Alonso will eventually be overrun if they remain the first choice midfield pair. They don’t need to be – Busquets, Martinez, Iniesta, Fabregas, Cazorla and Koke are all capable of playing there without the disadvantage of being slow and old. But will he pick any of those? Will he fuck. Xavi’s in there until he retires. It’s as not far off England’s obsession with Gerrard – Xavi might have been a better player at his peak but he’s close to being a liability now.

If Del Bosque keeps picking the same players, this has “France 2002 Repeat” written all over it. It’s a tough group – I’d not rule out the possibility of them failing to progress. But equally, if/when they do progress, in knockout football they are naturally the favourites, because once they get in front, it’s so difficult to get the ball off them. The draw is in their favour too – Mexico or Croatia are likely to await in Round Two, probably followed by Italy (who never beat this bunch of Spanish players).

Having said that, what would be interesting is if England top Group D, which isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. While Italy’s style of football probably plays into Spain’s hands, England’s pacy, direct counter-attacking style would be more of a threat. Added to that, Spain have only beaten England once in a competitive fixture, as long ago as 1950, while the last competitive and non-competitive meetings between the sides were both won by England. Don’t get me wrong, England aren’t as good as Spain, but if there’s one team Spain might face at that point in the tournament that they would rather avoid, it’s England.

Barring odd group stage results, Spain won’t face Germany until the final. These are the two most complete sides in the tournament. The difference is Germany have a mental block on winning tournaments at the moment. The Team You Can Never Count Out has become The Team That You Can Count Out Once We Reach The Important Rounds. Losing to Spain in 2008 and 2010 was perhaps understandable. Losing to Italy in 2012, a fourth defeat in the semis or final in the last four major tournaments, is beyond a coincidence. And there’s no reason to expect they will do anything different this time. Despite having a stronger first XI than Spain, you’d have to side with Spain every time, because Spain win the big matches and Germany don’t. Narrative.

There are a couple of teams who may throw a spanner into the works, though. Everyone seems to have written off France, which is rather curious as they have some of the most exciting young players in Europe at the moment and seem to have a complete package: a team with Lloris in goal; a centre-back pairing of Varane and Koscielny with the experienced Sagna and Evra flanking them; Matuidi, Pogba and Cabaye battling for centre-midfield roles; and Ribery and either Remy, Valbuena or Griezmann supporting Benzema up front. Theoretically great, if that’s what Deschamps goes for, but his favoured centre-back pairing of late has been Koscielny and Sakho, which looks decidedly more wobbly. Either way, there’s no less talent there than most of the other teams people are touting as contenders.

Belgium were virtually everyone’s dark horse a year or so ago, to the point where they were considered to be major contenders. It has cooled a bit of late, partly because people have realised that they have no natural full-backs and thus may be horribly exposed defensively at some point, but also because the hype was clearly going too far. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they went deep into the tournament, but I’d have them down for the classic “Spain 2006 role” – starting well in what is a straight-forward group for them, but then collapsing in the first match against stiff opposition, possibly as soon as the second round.

England are quietly being hyped up via stealth – the old “we’ll do better with low expectations” trick. But actually, despite all of this, they probably have a better team than most people would give them credit for. Questions have been raised over the Jagielka/Cahill partnership, but if you look around, there aren’t many teams with a better pairing. It’s a team that shouldn’t have any problems scoring either, despite the presence of Wayne Rooney, a man who is paid £300,000 a week but has less World Cup goals than Shane Smeltz, Mark Gonzalez and Radhi Jaidi. The only issue is whether the defence can be protected by a midfield without a natural defensive midfielder.

There’s a chance it could go horribly wrong, but the draw has favoured them despite superficially being tough – playing Italy in humid Manaus is ideal and almost certain to be a very low-scoring game, while Uruguay are no longer the force they were, especially with Cavani out of form and Suarez on one leg. Get through the group and they face a team from Group C, likely to be the weakest group in the World Cup now that Falcao is confirmed to be out. Another quarter-final exit on penalties beckons.

I’d also like to make a case for Portugal to do well. Yes, they have been poor in qualifying. But they have been poor in qualifying for years. That hasn’t stopped them from being very difficult to beat. It also hasn’t denied them Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite Group G seeming to be very tough, I suspect they will find a way to get through, probably in second place. That may give them a second round tie against Belgium, which would probably favour the Portuguese due to their experience and knack of getting a result – maybe even on penalties. After that, they would to face the winner of Argentina versus the runner-up of Group E, either France or Switzerland.

This is where I start to think back to narrative. Yes, you’d expect that to be Argentina-Switzerland, and so Argentina-Portugal, followed by Argentina-someone else in the semis. But I can see France starting slowly – a stumble against Honduras or Ecuador may hand a deceptively strong Switzerland side the group. Argentina-France is suddenly a tasty encounter, reminiscent of that Spain-France clash of 2006, and I’d fancy France to shock the world and win it.

France-Portugal in the quarters? No one is considering either of these teams for the semis at the moment. But I’m calling it. Either of these teams could win it but I fancy Portugal to grind one out and again make the semis, maybe even on penalties. Even though it seems entirely illogical, entirely illogical things happen in the World Cup. Portugal would then face whoever comes out of Spain’s part of the draw victorious…oh you can just imagine it, can’t you? England getting to the semis at last after defeating Spain, before being knocked out on penalties by Portugal again. I doubt it’ll happen, because of what it would take to get to that point, but the weight of the narrative is strong. If the tie happens, and it gets anywhere near 90 minutes level, it’ll go to penalties, and the inevitable will happen.

As it happens, though, I’ve predicted England to finish behind Italy in Group D, leaving them to beat the winners of Group C (probably Japan) and then face Brazil in the quarters. Despite my doubts about Brazil, you’d expect them to win that. In theory, that would set up a Brazil-Germany semi-final, a match in which one bottler is guaranteed to not bottle it. So I’ve gone for a Germany win, leaving them to lose to Spain in the final.

But despite my faith in my predictions, I suspect this won’t happen. It’s impossible to predict everything correctly in a major tournament. Who expected both of the 2006 finalists to fail to progress in 2010? Who expected South Korea and Turkey to make the semis in 2002? Who expected New Zealand to be the only team without a defeat last time out and come within an ace of going through? Who expected Croatia to finish third in 1998? Crazy shit happens in the World Cup – it’s the most irrational major event in world sport. Brazil-Germany and Spain-Argentina is the ideal, “logical” semi-final line-up, but it will not happen. Things will get in the way. At least one of those favourites will almost certainly crash out before that stage.

I made these predictions back in December after the draw was done. I largely ignored form and I didn’t have injuries to take into account. But I’m sticking by them. The reasons for me making these predictions haven’t changed. I didn’t want to take “rationality” and “objective” information into account – you can give me one hundred reasons why you think I’ll be wrong, based on meticulous research, but I’m sticking by these predictions. Sometimes we overthink football, and it’s worth taking a step back and just thinking about what will probably happen, rather than analysing shots-to-goal ratios or studying the intricacies of Argentina’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Sometimes things just happen in football which cannot be predictable or explained. And the World Cup as a long history of unpredictable, unexplainable events. That’s the beauty of it.

Written by James Bennett

June 3, 2014 at 01:36

Myths, Narratives and the England Job

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So much has been and will be written about the England manager’s job that it seems futile to even attempt to comment. However, on the other side of that, the mainstream media, particularly the tabloids and the likes of the BBC, want to dumb the debate down to extremes, framing the debate in a couple of different ways and turning it into a series of clichéd narratives, and as a result of that some important points are being missed, so I feel that it is worth posting my opinion on the whole farce, however small and insignificant it may be in the grand scheme of things.

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Written by James Bennett

February 9, 2012 at 18:01

2010 World Cup Squads Overview – Part 2

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Netherlands

Trump Card: Wesley Sneijder – as shown in the Champions League Final, he is the talented Dutch attacker whose ankles aren’t made of glass on the big occasion

Wild Card: Robin van Persie – it is almost as if he has been forgotten after his injury troubles, but he is still potentially a Golden Boot contender

Notable Absentee: Ruud van Nistelrooy – despite moving to the Bundesliga to try and persuade Bert van Marwijk to pick him, the experienced goal poacher is missing

Denmark

Trump Card: Christian Poulsen – the Juventus midfielder is now at his prime at just the right moment for the Danes

Wild Card: Christian Eriksen – the 18 year old Ajax midfielder is tipped as a star of the future, but what can he do now?

Notable Absentee: Morten Rasmussen – the Celtic striker is left out in favour of the likes of Bendtner and Tomasson

Japan

Trump Card: Shunsuke Nakamura – the former Celtic playmaker is now Japan’s biggest name and will spearhead their attack

Wild Card: Keisuke Honda – the CSKA Moscow attacker has been chased by several big clubs in recent months

Notable Absentee: Hidetoshi Nakata – not an omission as he retired after the last World Cup, but the loss of previous-generation players such as Nakata will hinder Japan’s progress

Cameroon

Trump Card: Samuel Eto’o – one of Africa’s greatest ever players, the Inter striker will lead out his country in his 3rd World Cup

Wild Card: Alexandre Song – the young Arsenal midfielder is one of a new generation of Indomitable Lions that is key to their success

Notable Absentee: None

Italy

Trump Card: Gianluigi Buffon – the legendary Juventus keeper was vital to the Azzuri’s success 4 years ago

Wild Card: None – Italy are a known quantity, so there’s no one who would necessarily come from nowhere and surprise really

Notable Absentee: Luca Toni – one of Italy’s leading strikers 4 years ago joins the likes of Fabio Grosso and Giuseppe Rossi on the sidelines this time

Paraguay

Trump Card: Roque Santa Cruz – the Manchester City striker is part of a deceptively dangerous Paraguayan attack

Wild Card: Lucas Barrios – scored 19 goals for Borussia Dortmund last year, but has only just begun to play for Paraguay after obtaining citizenship this year

Notable Absentee: Salvador Cabanas – an important part of their attack but continuing to recover after being shot earlier this year

New Zealand

Trump Card: Ryan Nelsen – it is fair to say that the Blackburn defender is probably one of the few New Zealander footballers you know, unless you are follow Antipodean football

Wild Card: Shane Smeltz – the Gold Coast United striker, formerly of AFC Wimbledon, will lead the All White attack

Notable Absentee: None

Slovakia

Trump Card: Marek Hamsik – the midfielder and national team captain plies his trade in Italy with Napoli

Wild Card: The whole team – as a combined effort, they are a potential surprise package in this group

Notable Absentee: Szilard Nemeth – I don’t know why he hasn’t been picked, but he is probably Slovakia’s best-known player in England due to his stint at Middlesbrough

Brazil

Trump Card: Kaka – names don’t get much bigger (or smaller!) in football

Wild Card: Luis Fabiano – the Sevilla striker is less well-known than he should be, but that may change this year

Notable Absentee: Ronaldinho – Dunga has stayed firm and left out the legendary midfielder

North Korea

Trump Card: Hong Yong-Jo – the captain plays his football in Russia with FC Rostov

Wild Card: Jong Tae-Se – nicknamed “the Asian Wayne Rooney”, the Kawasaki Frontale forward could cause the big teams some problems

Notable Absentee: None (although whoever the 3rd choice keeper was to be might feel a bit annoyed)

Ivory Coast

Trump Card: Didier Drogba – if he’s fit…

Wild Card: Gervinho – an addition from last time, the Lille striker will be responsible for the scoring if Drogba doesn’t play

Notable Absentee: Bakary Kone – scored a cracker 4 years ago but there’s no place for the striker this time

Portugal

Trump Card: Cristiano Ronaldo – the world’s most expensive player…need I say more?

Wild Card: Danny – the Venezuelan-born Zenit St Petersburg midfielder could be a surprise package in a team with many well-known stars

Notable Absentee: Nani – the Manchester United winger joined Jose Bosingwa on the Portuguese injury list just days before the start of the tournament

Spain

Trump Card: Xavi – the strikers might be more attractive, but it is the Barcelona midfielder who does all the hard work

Wild Card: Sergio Busquets – another of those Barcelona midfielders to watch, he was impressive in last year’s Champions League Final, and is still only 21

Notable Absentee: Marcos Senna – a key player in Euro 2008, but omitted due to poor form this time round

Switzerland

Trump Card: Alexandre Frei – when the star striker limped off in the opening minutes of Euro 2008, chances of a home success in the tournament pretty much ended, highlighting his importance to the team

Wild Card: Xherdan Shaqiri – the 18 year old Basel winger was a shock inclusion, so it’ll be interesting to see if Ottmar Hitzfeld risks him

Notable Absentee: Marco Streller – the tall striker headed home early due to injury

Honduras

Trump Card: Wilson Palacios – the Spurs midfielder will be key to the Central Americans’ chances of progression

Wild Card: The whole team – again, no stand out names that could surprise, but progression isn’t out of the question

Notable Absentee: Carlo Costly – an important striker in qualification but out due to injury

Chile

Trump Card: Humberto Suazo – the Zaragoza striker is both one of the most experience Chileans in the side and also a dangerous threat

Wild Card: Alexis Sanchez – the highly-rated 21 year old Udinese attacker could be the about to launch himself onto the world stage

Notable Absentee: None

Written by James Bennett

June 14, 2010 at 11:13

How to start a World Cup campaign

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After Adrian Chiles’ ridiculous assertion during ITV’s coverage of Germany vs Australia that it’s better to start off a World Cup poorly like England, I decided to check out the group stage records of the past few World Cup-winning teams:

2006 – Italy
Win 2-0 vs Ghana
Draw 1-1 vs USA
Win 2-0 vs Czech Republic

2002 – Brazil
Win 2-1 vs Turkey
Win 4-0 vs China
Win 5-2 vs Costa Rica

1998 – France
Win 3-0 vs South Africa
Win 4-0 vs Saudi Arabia
Win 2-1 vs Denmark

1994 – Brazil
Win 2-0 vs Russia
Win 3-0 vs Cameroon
Draw 1-1 vs Sweden

1990 – West Germany
Win 4-1 vs Yugoslavia
Win 5-1 vs UAE
Draw 1-1 vs Colombia

1986 – Argentina
Win 3-1 vs South Korea
Draw 1-1 vs Italy
Win 2-0 vs Bulgaria

1982 – Italy
Draw 0-0 vs Poland
Draw 1-1 vs Peru
Draw 1-1 vs Cameroon

So there we are – the last team that didn’t win their first match (or top their group, for that matter) but go on to win the World Cup was Italy 28 years ago. It is also worth noting that before them, Argentina, West Germany and Brazil all won their first games in the previous 3 tournaments as well – England, of course, didn’t in 1966, but neither did they win their first games in 1986, 1990 or 2002, so to cite this as evidence for a potential England win is silly. Meanwhile, Germany scored 4 in their first game the last time they won the tournament.

The fact is, you have to start well to win the World Cup. Not necessarily outstanding, but you have to win games, because you have to get through the first round. No point starting slowly and building momentum if you end up starting so slowly that you end up getting knocked out there and then.

Written by James Bennett

June 14, 2010 at 10:08