The Summer in South Africa
By Erik Schulwolf '10, Senior Writer
A couple of weeks ago, I took a look at the prospects for the USA in the upcoming FIFA World Cup in South Africa. This week, I’ll take a stab at predicting how the group stage of the world’s biggest sporting event will play out.

Group A

1) Mexico: As a diehard USA fan, my antipathy toward the Mexican team is possibly my second strongest international soccer loyalty. El Tri is Team USA’s biggest rival, and one that has gotten an infuriating run of lucky draws in recent tournaments. Moreover, to paraphrase linebacker Jason Taylor, the fans of El Tri take the “cl” out of class. Mexican fans are well known for booing the Star-Spangled Banner during USA-Mexico matches, and in 2004 some of their number chanted Osama bin Laden’s name at the American team during an Olympic qualifying match. All this made me really excited to see Mexico actually get a relatively difficult draw this tournament. Which makes what I’m about to say all the more difficult: I think El Tri is going to win the group. They have an opening match against South Africa (which, despite being the host, is one of the weakest teams in the tournament), and they play a lot of international matches as a unit. If they get out of the gate strong with a win against the hosts, they could ride the momentum to wins over overrated French and Uruguayan sides.

2) Uruguay: Uruguay is a trendy pick to win Group A and go far in the elimination rounds. Between Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Sebastian Abreu, Uruguay has a potent strike force up front. They were suspect in South American qualifying, however, making the tournament only as a result of a playoff against the fourth place North American team. My picking them to advance is based more on a lack of respect for France than any confidence in Uruguay.

3) France: France got into the finals under the most suspect of circumstances — a blatant handball goal in extra time against an Irish side that had outplayed them for most of the second leg of their qualifying playoff. Aside from goalie Hugo Lloris and star midfielder Frank Ribery, most of the French team is either untested on the world stage or a bit over the hill. Under Raymond Domenech, the team also has locker room issues. France is my pick for this tournament’s European powerhouse World Cup flameout.

4) South Africa: Yeah, I know they’re the hosts. Sure, “Invictus” was a great movie. They also didn’t qualify for the African Nations Cup. South Africa won’t win a game. They may not score a goal.

Group B:

1) Argentina: Sometimes I get the sense that midfield genius Leo Messi could beat any of the other three teams in the group playing with an average high school varsity team. Argentina coasts — but should beware of a tough South American intramural test in the second round against Uruguay.

2) Nigeria: I had difficulty with this pick. The Super Eagles are like the Don McLean of international soccer — their reputation is based inordinately on their “one shining moment” of glory in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. They missed the 2006 World Cup, and struggled to make this edition. On the other hand, stars like Yakubu still give Nigeria a cutting edge up front, and the side has transitioned to a defensive tactical approach that served it well in the African Nations Cup. I think the “home continent boost” might put them over the top against equally underwhelming South Korean and Greek sides.

3) South Korea: This side works hard, and could get into the second round if its scorers step up. That’s a big “if,” however, against teams like Nigeria and Greece.

4) Greece: The Greek national team has consistently performed the astonishing feat of making Italian soccer aesthetically pleasing by comparison. In 2004, stout defense and counterattacking brought the Greeks a shock European Championship. With stars like midfielders Karagounis and Katsouranis, and strikers Gekas and Charisteas aging, it’s tough to imagine that Greece will have a lot going forward. That said, attacking sides should still fear the Greeks — because they don’t give up many gifts.

Group C:

1) England: The Three Lions are well coached by storied boss Fabio Capello, and breezed through UEFA qualifying. However, they have as many questions as answers. The goalie situation is a mess (how does a soccer-mad nation of 50 million souls fail to produce a single world-class netminder?), key defender and former captain John Terry has been in poor form of late, and who knows how fit star striker Wayne Rooney will be for the tournament. England should still win a weak Group C, but if these questions and others aren’t answered, it could crash early in the elimination rounds — or even finish second in the group if the Americans play well.

2) USA: I covered this pretty extensively in a previous article. Striker Charlie Davies looks like a “maybe,” while the rest of the injured Americans will probably be fit for South Africa. If Davies is still hurt, Team USA should put Clint Dempsey at striker with Jozy Altidore and try Stuart Holden at wing midfield. Despite injuries, the Americans ought to advance over weak competition in Algeria and Slovenia, and could overcome England if goalkeeper Tim Howard plays well and they get some cutting counterattacks. I think the odds are against that, though, and I see the United States getting a rematch against 2002 nemesis Germany in the second round.

3) Algeria: I’m picking them over Slovenia because of the African home field advantage factor. They shouldn’t trouble the English or Americans.

4)Slovenia: See “Algeria.”

Group D:

1) Germany: Many trash Germany’s chances this year, seeing the team as too old, too slow and lacking a top goalie. But Germany plays well in big tournaments. Look for midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger to play a big role, and for older stars Michael Ballack and Miroslav Klose to get the job done in the group stage.

2) Serbia: This is a team that could do some damage. The defense is rock solid, anchored by Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic. The offense has gotten better, and the midfield is anchored by Inter’s Dejan Stankovic. The Serbs should take care of the elderly Aussies and a potentially Michael Essien-less Ghana. 3) Ghana: Ghanaian defender Samuel Inkoom recently said that Ghana could win the Cup. I might have given him some credence — I think the Black Stars are one of Africa’s best and most tactically sound teams — before midfield star Michael Essien’s Cup participation was thrown into grave doubt by a setback in his recovery from a knee injury suffered while playing for Chelsea in December. Without Essien, Ghana isn’t a threat to advance. They’re only third because of the off-chance that Essien can play at a level even closely approximating his top form.

4) Australia: Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oy vey! The 2006 Australia side had a magical run to the second round, and nearly upset eventual champs Italy. This edition of the Socceroos has mostly the same players, just four years older. They won’t be able to repeat their performance in Germany.

Second Round:

Mexico-Nigeria: Despite winning their group, Mexico might turn out to be the one of the weakest second-round team. I think Nigeria may be the weakest, though. Mexico 2-1.

England-Serbia: Serbia stays at home and counterattacks, and England piles on the pressure. That’s a formula for a 1-0 Three Lions win, and 90 minutes of collective heart failure from London to Newcastle.

Argentina-Uruguay: In what will be, to that point, the toughest match of the tournament for Argentina, a shoot-out ends in a 3-2 victory for Messi and company.

Germany-USA: This may be irrational patriotism, but I don’t think the Germans are as fit as the American players. They certainly aren’t as young. I think Team USA hits the Germans on some early counterattacks, and holds off a furious rally to win 2-1.


Mexico-England: Don’t make me laugh. Even a Rooney-less Three Lions ought to be able to take care of El Tri. As it is, the English win 2-0. Cue irrational optimism and dangerous binge drinking back home.

Argentina-USA: Sorry, Yanks. It ends in the quarterfinals for the second time in three tries. Not too bad, considering where we were 20 years ago. Argentina breezes into the semifinals with a 3-1 win.

Issue 24, Submitted 2010-04-28 03:22:06