With the World Cup countdown into the hours now, it's time for me to put together my preview on the who's who and what's what in South Africa. I had originally hoped to write an in-depth analysis of each team, group, star player, referees dog and linesman's whistle. Unfortunately time isn’t my friend...plus I figure you've already read it all in some overpriced special edition magazine with a glossy cover and plastic sleeve. So instead I bring to you my whirlwind, cut-price World Cup preview. In other words, An Idiots Guide to the World Cup.
Without further ado...
Nickname: Bafana Bafana, which literally translates to 'The Boys'. I find this funny, as you'd think it would translate to 'Boys, Boys'. One of the cooler nicknames on the international scene...unlike the Socceroos.
Player to watch: Steven Pienaar. This is one hard Toffee. A strong forceful midfielder, his performances in an injury depleted Everton in the English Premier League will give the host nation great hope they can avoid becoming the first hosts to be eliminated from the first round.
Ride the lightning: South Africa has a high repository of natural metals underground. What does this have to do with football? Lightning, attracted to the metals in the earth, has often been known to strike a footballer or two e.g. http://www.whoateallthepies.tv/miscellaneous/1792/lightning_strik.html
History: Mexico has participated in 13 World Cups, a phenomenal record. It probably also explains why they hold the record for most total losses with 22 (11 wins and 12 draws). I've got a feeling they'll be adding to the 'L' column and keeping that record for a while yet.
Player to watch: Rafael Marquez. A strong and imposing defender, Marquez will have to draw on all of his skill and experience to ensure the Mexican backline isn't breached too often (you can take that any way you want).
Thirty years of hell: Not content with holding the record for most losses, the Burritos also hold the record for most consecutive loses (1930 - 1958), most consecutive matches conceding at least two goals (1930 - 1958) and most consecutive matches conceding at least three goals (1930 - 1950). Methinks Mexico went through a dark period from the 30's to the 50's.
Reputation: For a team that has won two World Cups (1930 & 1950), Uruguay very rarely enters the debate regarding footballing powerhouses. Perennial losers Holland, along with Spain, France and England are always mentioned before the South Americans.
Player to watch: Diego Forlan. As a Manchester United fan, it was painful watching him bust his gut for the Red Devils, yet squander chance after chance for most of his EPL career. Since moving to Spain though, he has become of the deadliest strikers on the continent, winning the European Golden Boot twice. Definitely worth a lazy tener for top scorer. Diego...woah ohh ohh. Diego...woah ohh ooh. He came from Uruguay, and made the Scousers cry
Chances: I rate Uruguay as a legitimate semi final dark horse. They've got a balanced outfit from the back to the forward line and are well known for their grit and determination - key when entering such a knock out tournament. But unlike teams from the past few Cups, they won't be afraid to come forward and play football.
To cheat or not to cheat: I don't think anyone, especially the Irish, has forgotten how Thierry Henry's handball helped 'Les Bleus' board the plane for South Africa. But that's history now. And Henry will have many more chances to poke the ball with his hand while he's sitting on bench watching football.
Player to watch: Despite France's issues in qualifying, they boast a world class array of talent throughout their squad. It's a shame that Coach Raymond Domenech seems to have no idea how to put a team together. While it's obvious and easy to pick a Nicholas Anelka, Franck Ribery or Henry, I'll put on my Man United colours and say that Patrice Evra is the man to watch. If he can get forward and create the overlap on the wing, it will create space for the attackers to potentially run amok.
Unpredictable: Let's face it; the French are a total mess. A collection of mercurial personalities together with a mad professor for a coach. However, there can be no denying their talent. If they can put it together quickly...watch out!
VERDICT: Definitely Uruguay and France through to the second round. No doubt about it
Hand of God: After years on under-achievement, Argentina's football federation bit the bullet and introduced the walking deity Diego Maradona as the new head coach. It is quite possible that no sportsman, in fact no man, is loved in his own country as much as Diego is adored. Despite all of his issues and indiscretions, he is idolised. However, he's not a great coach. Or even a good coach. The Argies struggled to qualify, even though they have arguably the best player in the world in Leo Messi, and a support cast that is the envy of almost every footballing nation. Maradona is fortunate that Argentina lie in a fairly easy group, with Nigeria, Greece and South Korea standing in their way. This should give his charges enough time to play themselves into form and scare the sh#t out of their second round opponents.
Player to watch: It has to be Leo Messi, who this season stamped his claim to being the world's best player. His form for Barcelona was beyond dynamic. If his season's form were to be translated to a computer game, he'd be set on 'Professional' level with his opponents listed as 'Amateurs'.
Send them off: Although the Latinos are well known for their flair and flamboyance, the Argy Bargies hold a few undesirable records in World Cup history including: only player sent off from the bench (the lovable Claudio Caniggia versus Sweden in 2002); most sending’s off in a final; most cautions all time for a team; most sending offs all time for a team and the longest player suspension (the aforementioned Maradona - 15 months for doping).
Ebony and Ivory: Nigeria's coach is Swedish!!! Try spotting him at the team meeting.
Player to watch: For the past two decades the Nigerians have been blessed with some very talented footballers. In my opinion the well is running dry. John Obi Mikel has withdrawn due to injury. I think his back is sore after carrying the sack full’s of cash that Roman A is paying him. So I'm going old school with this one and call out Nwankwo Kanu. Firstly because he's got to be about 53 years old now, and secondly, because I just love his first name.
What's in a name?: It's not just Kanu that has me in stitches...I'm also a big fan of Danny Shittu!!! Maybe he's an omen for how the team will perform.
I still can't believe: Greece won the European Championship in 2004. A team so limited in almost every element of football won a major championship. It defies belief, and proves that the Sporting God's do have a sense of humour. Look for the God's to ensure that order is restored in South Africa and the Slovakia's wrap it up and are taken away early.
Player to watch: Theofanis Gekas. 20 goals in 47 games for the national team, including 10 in their World Cup qualifying campaign. He knows how to find the back of the net.
Prediction: If Greece wins a game, watch for the daily news networks to show hilarious footage of a bunch of excitable Hellenic's in Brighton-La-Sands and Melbourne jumping up and down like a bunch of yahoos.
Perennial participants: This is now familiar territory for the South Koreans, who are competing at their eighth World Cup.
Player to watch: Definitely Kim. That could be Kim Young-Kwang, Kim Dong-Jin, Kim Hyung-Il, Kim Nam-Il, Kim Jung-Woo, Kim Jae-Sung, Kim Bo-Kyung. Safe bet that at least one Kim is going to have a good tournament.
Total football: After three consecutive Dutchmen (Advocaat, Hiddink and Verbeek) at the helm, South Korea has a local coach again in Huh Jung-Moo. It's safe to say he's learnt a few things from his Orange masters, losing only 5 matches in his 39 in charge.
VERDICT: Argentina to go through and I like South Korea to join them
Best known for: A totally delusional belief that they are a world class team who can actually win every tournament they qualify for. While England has some real talent, with 1.5 world class players (more on that shortly), they are a far cry from the likes of Brazil, Italy, Germany and Argentina in football's pecking order.
Player to watch: Most would say Wayne Rooney, especially after his emergence as a world beater for both club and country this season. However, I know what Rooney will offer. The X-factor for England is Steven Gerrard. He is the half a world class player I alluded to earlier. There is no questioning his talent. But his form this season has been patchy at best. If he can replicate his club form of a couple of seasons ago in this tournament, England could make the semi finals.
Safe bet: Whether they make the second round, quarter final, semi final or...dare I say it...the final, it's a safe bet that England will lose in a penalty shoot out. Even Fabio Capello can't coach against that one.
Surprise, surprise: Although football runs a distance fifth behind baseball, American football, basketball and ice hockey in the domestic pecking order, USA are currently ranked 12th in the FIFA rankings (albeit they are a joke), and are competing in their ninth Cup competition (including the last five in a row).
Player to watch: Landon Donovan. 123 caps. 42 goals. Immeasurable experience. Excellent form with Everton this season. If the Stars and Stripes are any hope of shaking things up, Donovan has to pull the strings.
Interesting fact: The youngest player to captain a team in the World Cup is America's Tony Meola (in 1990) at 21 years and 109 days old.
Struggling: The team isn't struggling. I'm struggling. Do I really know anything about Algeria as a footballing nation? Not really. I'll let you Google something.
Player to watch: Has to be Yazid Mansouri. He's their captain and most capped player with 67 caps. That's got to count for something. Right?
Still struggling: I guess I could let you know that their nickname is Les Fennecs (the Desert Foxes). It's still better than Socceroos!!!
Surprise package: Beat out Poland and the Czech Republic to finish second in their qualifying group, and then proceeded to outplay Russia over two legs in the knockout stage.
Player to watch: Milivoje Novakovic. 16 goals in 38 games in the drab green of the Slovene national team. And I'm not going to mention the fact that his name would indicate he should be representing another former Yugoslav republic that's present in the tournament.
Chances: In what has to be one of the easiest groups in the Cup, Slovenia has a legitimate chance to qualify for the second round. Assuming Slovenia and USA both lose to England and beat Algeria...it could amount to a showdown between the two teams for the second spot. And with Slovenia's impressive qualifying form, I rate them a good chance.
VERDICT: England must still be jumping with joy that they scored three crappy opponents. Slovenia through as well
Best known for: Being the dark horse. Not a single major tournament goes by without the footballing fraternity calling Serbia (formerly Serbia and Montenegro, formerly Yugoslavia) a dark horse for the tournament. No-one has ever questioned the quality of talent produced by this Balkan powerhouse. Names like Stojkovic, Sekularac, Dzajic, Petrovic, and Savicevic are well respected. The current crop, led by Nemanja Vidic and Dejan Stankovic, are no less talented. It's just a question of their mentality...which is more fragile than the Greek economy.
Player to watch: Vidic. The rock at the heart of Manchester United's defense is also the rock that the Serbs build their team around. Serbia entered the 2006 World Cup on the back of the best defensive record in qualifying. Vidic withdrew through injury, and the Serbs proceeded to capitulate (there's that mental frailty). Vidic is the key man to a confident Serb outfit.
First timers: Despite an impressive World Cup record (twice semi finalist and three time quarter finalist) under the guise of Yugoslavia, this is Serbia's first ever appearance as an independent nation. I'm hoping now that the millstones that are Brotherhood & Unity and Montenegro have been removed, Serbia is ready to strike. NAPRED SRBIJA!!!
Gary Lineker: The England great once famously said "Soccer is a game for 22 people that run around, play the ball...and in the end Germany always wins". That about sums it up.
Player to watch: Bastian Schweinsteiger. And not just because he's got 'pork' in his surname. A running machine with a powerful shot, he can be the key to creating the space needed for Miroslav Klose and Philipp Lahm to stamp their authority.
Penalties please: The Germans feature in 6 World Cup records featuring penalty shoot-outs, including: Most shoot-out wins and most successful penalty kicks all time for a team. The moral of the story is...don't take them to penalties. Unlike their English counterparts, these guys don't buckle under pressure.
Time for a change: I appreciate tradition, but also feel sometimes a change is a good thing. As far as the Socceroos name is concerned, I'm voting for the latter. What are the other options? Maybe p#ss off both Aussie Rules and the Rugby League and call them the Footyroos!!! Just kidding.
Player to watch: Harry Kewell or Tim Cahill? I can't separate them. Both are required to excel if Australia is to repeat their performance from 2006 and exit the group stage. However with Kewell underdone and Cahill under an injury cloud, the forecast is bleak.
He's no Guus: All credit to Pim Verbeek for leading the qualifying campaign and successfully taking Australia back to the World Cup. I just don't think he's got the tactical nuance to follow in Guus Hiddink's footsteps and get the team to the next round. Hiddink has no fear of switching tactics between games, or even mid-game when required. And he held no fear of telling the team to push forward and look for the win. While I appreciate Pim's perspective that our striking options are limited...there is plenty of attacking potency in Kewell, Cahill, Bresciano, Emerton etc. It's the World Cup Pim. Time to put your balls on the line.
Put a fork in them: I was legitimately scared of Ghana leading into the Cup. Then Michael Essien pulled out with injury. That's their campaign down the toilet. Game over, good night, thanks for coming, hope you enjoyed the show.
Player to watch: With Essien out, the burden will fall on the experienced shoulders of Stephen Appiah to lead the Black Stars.
Useless fact: Ghana is the youngest team in the World Cup at an average age of 24 years and 9 months.
VERDICT: Australia can't repeat 2006 success. Germany and Serbia to progress
Part 2 of the Idiot's Guide, featuring Group's E - H to follow shortly.