World Cup Countdown: The Teams to Watch


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These final days before the World Cup starts can be the most exciting time to be a soccer fan. Our World Cup blogger is using this period of anticipation to highlight the big stories worth watching at this year's tournament. Today, he discusses the most promising teams:

Among soccer connoisseurs, Mexico 1970 is spoken about with reverence. There were many fine teams—even England was good—fine players, great games (Italy-West Germany was known as "the game of the century"), and appreciative fans. But most of all, it was about the team, still considered the best ever: Brazil, with Pele, Carlos Alberto, Rivelino, Jairzihno, Tostao, et al. The Brazilians of 1982 came into that tournament as heirs apparent to the 1970 squad, but were shocked by Italy in an epic 3 to 2 loss.

This year, a team comes into the tournament that could match—or even top—the magisterial Brazilians of 1970. That team is Spain. The Spanish are famous for underachievement at World Cups. It's shocking when you think about it, but they only finished in the top four once, in 1950. But this team will go in as the favorite, which is almost always reserved for Brazil. Spain delighted purists with their impeccable display at the European Championships in 2008, the best performance since France of 1984.

Spain's style is based on an intricate, short passing, possession game, largely developed out of the FC Barcelona school, where so many of the national team players came up from and still play. It requires great skill with the ball, patience, an improvisational spirit, a tactical awareness, and a sense of whimsy.

But it will not be easy for Spain. (It rarely is in World Cups.) They will likely win their first-round group but will be tested by a delightfully precocious Chilean team and their eccentric Argentine coach; the practical and professional Swiss (there's some truth in stereotypes); and the ebullient if reckless Hondurans, who qualified under the duress of a military coup. (Now that country, and much of Central America, is dealing with aftermath of floods and mudslides.)

Beyond the first round, it gets even more difficult for Spain, as either Brazil (the second favorite), Portugal (their Iberian rival), or Ivory Coast (Africa's best team), await in the next round. Italy, tactical and counter-attack masters who balance style with substance and until two years ago had always given Spain fits, may be the quarterfinal opposition. Argentina possibly in the semi-final. If Spain do make the final, they'll have a days less rest. And by the seventh game in 30 days, that could make a difference.

Brazil, the usual favorite, does not come in with as staggering a line-up as they have in the past, like 1998 or 2006. Dunga, their pragmatic coach who captained the unspectacular 1994 team to victory in the U.S., has left many of the glamour players at home--which makes them scarier, of course.

But to pick Brazil, the five-time champion (or this year, Spain), is like picking the Yankees: anyone could do it and it doesn't show much imagination. And even if Dunga's Brazil play down joga bonito in favor of tactical tedium (a betrayal of the 1970 ethos), they still have holes, the same ones that upended them that fateful day in Barcelona in 82 or in the 98 Final in Paris: defense.

Their South American rival Argentina surpasses Brazil in dynamic creative talent, but their coach is, simply put, a maniac. Diego Maradona was the best player in Argentine—and many say world—history. Since his operatic playing days--single-handedly winning the World Cup in 1986, delighting the paradoxical underdog city of Naples—he became addicted to drugs, and suffered from obesity and various health problems. He went to Cuba for rehab and became fast friends with Fidel Castro and later and Hugo Chavez. What a life.

But as a coach, he's been a disaster. He has the best player in the world in Lionel Messi (more on him tomorrow), and has no idea how to best utilize him. Some say he's jealous that Messi will outshine him. Who knows what's in Maradona's head? This was the man who deliberately used his hand to punch the ball into the goal (the famous "hand of God") during the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal and actually got away with it. As if racked with Catholic guilt, he went on to score the greatest goal in the tournament's history just four minutes later.

So who will win? Only seven countries have (in the 18 tournaments since 1930). Let's call them the G7: Brazil (5); Italy (4); Germany (3); Argentina (2); Uruguay (2); England (1); France (1). Even the two finalists end up being predictable: In the last 40 years since 1970 (10 tournaments) only six teams have even made the final.

Italy are the defending champions—worthy ones, it should be said, despite the vitriol they sometimes have to endure—but this team is one in transition. Coach Marcello Lippi (no relation to Filippo) has chosen too many players past their prime, and has shown a reluctance in using younger talent, a problem in all facets of Italian society. If Italy wants to remain the dynamic, stylish soccer culture they've been, they'll have be more adaptable. Or maybe Lampedusa said it best in "The Leopard": "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

France, the second-place team four years ago, have, like Argentina, a maniac as coach— a man named Raymond Domenech who's not even particularly liked or respected by his players. Many feel that the French shouldn't be here after Thierry Henry clearly used his hand before assisting on the winning goal against Ireland in the final qualifier. It's now known as "the hand of Gaul." Considering soccer is as unjust as life, I can see the French going on to win the tournament.

The Dutch, always innovative, always the noble losers, are their own worst enemy. The megalomaniacal players are often at war with one another and with the coach. Even this team, which seemed calm, are now dealing with a clashing ego or two. How a country of only 16.5 million can be so good is still hard to explain, but David Winner's book Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football does a wonderful job in trying to do so. If they don't peak too soon, the Netherlands, a favorite of the Left, may finally win it—over Argentina—in a reverse of the 1978 final, the last World Cup to be held in the winter of the southern hemisphere.

Germany is usually in the mix, but appear low on experienced players, though they have youthful quality. Their towering, influential captain Michael Ballack was eliminated from the tournament in May when he sustaining an injury after an ugly foul from a half-German, half-Ghanaian player, who plays on the Ghana squad—and Ghana play Germany in the first round! (Speaking of conspiracy theories.) Plus, there has been uncharacteristic disharmony between coach Joachim Low and the German Federation. Mark it down now, the Germans win the European Championships, second in prestige after the World Cup, in two years.

England has its best team in at least 20 years—maybe 44 years—and a great coach finally in Fabio Capello, an Italian. But the English find ways to lose. And for some reason, they still don't have a world-class goalkeeper, even if this has been a problem area for years. Now their captain, Rio Ferdinand, has been ruled out for the tournament because of an injury. (The first choice captain, John Terry, was stripped of the title earlier this year after it was revealed he had an affair with a teammate's girlfriend.) Holes in central defense and goalkeeper usually come back to cause nightmares.

Among the African teams, Ivory Coast is the best, with Ghana just a shade behind (sadly, South Africa is one of the weakest) and both could match or surpass the quarterfinals, which is the farthest any African team has progressed (Cameroon, the traditional power in Africa, in 1990, and Senegal in 2002). Ivory Coast would be a worthy bet, but just a few days ago, Didier Drogba, one of the top-five players in the world, the team captain, Vanity Fair cover man, had his arm broken after an outrageous challenge by a Japanese defender and now looks as if he'll be out for at least some of the tournament. Ghana has to deal with the impossible loss of their best player, too: Michael Essien, Drogba's Chelsea teammate. What bad luck; what a pity. Cameroon would be the next best African hope to make a deep run—as long as their best player, Samuel Eto'o, stays on the field. Two weeks ago, he threatened to walk out.

The United States has a good team and have adapted well to their own share of injuries. They should beat out Algeria and Slovenia for the second spot in Group C behind England. (Check in here Monday, to read about that anticipated match.) There are often tactical breakdowns in the American defense, which leads to gaping holes. And there's no proven goal-scoring talent at this level. But with Germany or Ghana—missing their team leaders—as the possible second-round opponent, it wouldn't be a shock if the Americans matched their best-ever 2002 quarterfinal run.

If you're looking for a dark horse, you don't have to look far: Mexico. Often enigmatic, especially away from the altitude of Estadio Azteca, they are, at the moment, the team playing the best soccer. (They made Italy look like amateurs last week.) Of course, pre-tournament friendlies mean nothing. But this is a very good team, better than four years ago when they forced Argentina to extra time, and they should adapt well to the altitude cities in South Africa.