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A World Cup Without Them

zlatanWe are now 164 days away from the opening ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and with almost every league hunkered down for a Christmas break (with the exception of the Barmy Brits… but that’s a discussion for another post), we can start to look towards June in what should be an epic tournament.

Why epic? When you look at the teams that have qualified for Brazil 2014, there isn’t a nation that makes you think, “They shouldn’t be there”.  Conversely, I can’t think of a team that, based on recent form, has been hard done by not qualifying.   That means that all the past champions will be going, all the heavy hitters and nearly men (Dutchies, I’m looking at you).

I was recently reminded that, despite appearing in three World Cups, the great Zico had never won the thing.  That’s gotta hurt, but he’s not alone.  In fact, the list of players who have never lifted the Jules Rimet trophy is extensive.  Think about it: Sindelar, Puskas, Di Stefano, Fontaine, Eusebio, Cruyff, Platini, Stoichkov, Baggio, Maldini, Figo… none of them have ever won the biggest tournament on the planet.   It’s probably as good as any argument that football is won and lost as a team, at least internationally.

But you can’t win the Coupe du Monde if you don’t get to go in the first place.  Some major marquee players won’t be appearing in Brazil because they and their compatriots couldn’t get it done.  Here are the top 10 players staying home in June:

Alaba: still only 21

Alaba: still only 21

10) David Alaba (AUT) — Is he a fullback? Is he a midfielder? All we know is that the Austrian wunderkind will be off the pitch, while  just about every other one of his Bayern Munich teammates will be in Brazil (except for Claudio Pizarro).  Austria actually held their own in qualifying , but were done in by double losses to Germany and then to Sweden on the penultimate match day.  No worries though, as Austria’s youngest-ever Player of the Year is only 21 years old, so he’ll have a few more shots at it.

Serbs have to sit out

Serbs have to sit out

9) Branislav Ivanovic (SER) — Speaking of fullbacks, pundits are calling Ivanovic the best right back in the world right now.   His is the first name on Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea team sheet, and he is a menace in attack and defence.  But after starting with a 1-1-3 record in qualifying, the Serbians were pretty much doomed, even though ultra-rivals Croatia finished with two losses.  The Croats went through, which has to sting more than a little.

Ta ra, Turan...

Ta ra, Turan…

8) Arda Turan (TUR) — There was a time when Turkey’s national football team was filled with German-born Bundesliga players who were considered too much Türken and not enough Deutsch.  The DFB has become far more progressive — look at Germany’s multicultural line-up now — and Turkish football has come into its own, with Turkish-born players staying in the Superlig.  The one notable exception is Arda Turan, the tough winger who has helped put Atlético Madrid in the running for its first Liga title in 18 years.  The good news for the Atleti?  Turan will be able to rest up this summer before they sell him off to a bigger club.  Hooray.

Trying to read the name on his kit…

7) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (GAB) — Like many African players, Aubameyang was born in France, but decided to represent the nation of his parents.   Too bad.  The young Gabonese had a high enough profile at St. Etienne, before lighting up the Bundesliga with Dortmund this season, to find a place on a troubled French squad.  Instead, he has become the African version of Dimitar Berbatov playing for Bulgaria, a great player on a team that will do nothing.   It’s just as well: that name is a nightmare for the kit makers.

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

6) Petr Cech (CZE) — Oh how the strong and steady goalkeeper must pine for the days of Koller, Baroš and Nedved, when his countrymen were qualifying for European semi-finals and actually appearing at the World Cup.  Alas, the veteran netminder (a 31-year-old who has looked 50 since he was 20) will have to settle for glory at Chelsea, where he and his club have won every major European and English title.

Hamsik

“Oh Mamma Mia, let me go!”

5) Marek Hamsik (SLO) — Slovakia did alright at South Africa 2010, their first major tournament since they split from the Czechs.  Hamsik captained his side to the Group of 16 by shocking the Italians 3-2, before losing to eventual finalists, Netherlands.  But when they tried to qualify for Brazil, they were outdone by a lack of adventure: only once did the Slovaks score more than one goal from open play.  Too bad… because Hamsik’s Mohawk/Kid n’ Play fade looks awesome streaking up the pitch.

Wales v Scotland

Air guitar…

4) Aaron Ramsey (WAL) — This one will elicit the most groans as undeserving,  but the young Taffy has been a revelation this season.  Arsene Wenger has kept faith in his midfielder, who has had trouble keeping off the treatment table.  But he has been Arsenal’s best player since August and has overshadowed teammates who are offensive threats in their own right.

"Will not let you go!"

“Will not let you go!”

3) Robert Lewandowski (POL) — Poland’s failure to qualify for even the playoffs is a case of a team’s parts being better than the team itself.  The squad has some great talent (with tricky names): Blaszczykowski, Piszczek, Boruc, Szczesny, and Dortmund’s highest scorer over the last three seasons, Lewandowski.  Last year, he was a goal away from the Bundesliga scoring title, and two away from being the Champions League’s top marksman.  He is among the top 10 strikers in the world, but unfortunately he will not be able to play with his peers in Brazil.

Bale hearts Wales... which means no World Cup

Bale hearts Wales… which means no World Cup

2) Gareth Bale (WAL) — Surely the world’s biggest tournament should feature the world’s most expensive player.  When Gareth Bale went to Real Madrid for €100M, most people thought that the whole affair was ridiculous.  But the spectacle of the transaction should not take away from a player who is starting to reach the height of his powers.  Nine goals in fifteen games for Madrid: he’s no Ronaldo, but he doesn’t need to be.  Unfortunately, he plays for a nation that has never fully embraced association football and may not qualify for a major tournament for some time.

1) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (SWE) — You could hear the collective groans around the soccer world when Sweden was paired with Portugal in the qualifying play-offs.  We knew that either Christiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not be playing in this summer’s tournament.   That’s a shame because if there is ever a place for massive egos, it is the World Cup… and they don’t get much bigger than CR7 or Ibra.   In the end, it was a battle between two huge talents on otherwise mediocre teams.  After a tight first leg, it was left to the big striker to tie everything up on aggregate. Unfortunately for the Scandanavians, Ronaldo showed why he is better than everyone else… include Kung Fu Zlatan.  Still, we will miss the sound bites, the temper tantrums, and the awesome, awesome goals.  Ibra’s take on the loss: “One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch.”

Brent Lanthier

No Ibra means none of this...

No Ibra means none of this…

... or this...

… or this…

... or this.

… or this.

 

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Pint-sized punch powers England

Jermain Defoe

He’s only 5’7″, but little Jermain Defoe scored a very big goal for England in their 1-0 victory over Slovenia, sending the Three Lions through to the knockout round of the World Cup, a win that was lubricated by Don Fabio’s decision to let the lads have a beer the night before. Proper English, that.

All across Blighty today, the country watched with a mix of fear and fascination, with even court cases taking a break to catch the match. Proper English and all, innit?

England weren’t great in this one, but they were a world better than they had been in Friday’s dour draw with Algeria, with the introduction of James Milner and Defoe creating the pivotal goal, and the attack more incisive and urgent, although Wayne Rooney still seemed sluggish and unsure at times. John Terry/Captain Schtupping’s failed insurrection didn’t do anything to hinder his play, even with his third partner in three matches, Matthew Upson.

John Terry

So, it’s Germany on Sunday for England, who were pipped back to second in the group when Landon Donovan’s late strike gave the US a 1-0 victory over Algeria, a match in which the Americans were once again denied a goal by a questionable referee’s decision. Algeria become the fourth African nation to crash out, and unfortunately they left a bit of a bad taste.

Coming off a loss to Serbia, Germany were still on the brink in their late  match against Ghana, but Mesut Ozil’s second-half strike proved decisive in a 1-0 victory for Die Mannschaft. The Black Stars stayed alive despite the loss, surely thankful that the pounding that 10-man Australia absorbed from Germany in their opening game had significantly decreased the Socceroos’ chances of overturning their goal difference, despite ending the tournament on a high by beating Serbia 2-1 and knocking Dr. Z’s darkhorse to the bottom of Group D. So, who needs Michael Essien?

I would have loved to see an England-Ghana matchup, but the Germany game will still be very tasty, while the Ghanians will attempt to eliminate the Americans for the second straight World Cup in the other round of 16 encounter.

Ian Harrison

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Go Time for Groups C & D

All the teams in Groups C & D are still in play, including a certain team in white…

Wayne Rooney's unreliable England team-mates bring out the worst in striker

Group C
Slovenia: 4 pts., +1 GD, 3 GS
U.S.A.: 2 pts., 0 GD, 3 GS
England: 2 pts., 0 GD, 1 GS
Algeria: 1 pt., -1 GD, 0 GS

Little, lowly Slovenia goes through with a win or a draw. They can still go through on a loss if the U.S. ties or loses.

The U.S. goes through if they win, or if they draw and England draws — without scoring too many goals — or loses.

England needs to win. If they draw, they need to score a lot of goals, and hope the Americans draw 0-0… or better yet, lose.

Algeria will go through on a win and an England loss.

Prediction: Slovenia-England draw England hang on for a win, U.S. beat Algeria. The U.S. wins the group on goals, with the Three Lions coming second. I might regret this one after the game but…

Germany's Lukas Podolski reacts after missing a chance on goal during a 2010 World Cup Group D match at Nelson Mandela Bay stadium in Port Elizabeth.

Group D:
Ghana: 4 pts., +1 GD, 2 GS
Germany: 3 pts., +3 GD, 4 GS
Serbia: 3 pts., 0 GD, 1 GS
Australia: 1 pt., -4 GD, 1 GS

Ghana can go through with a win. A draw will get them through if Serbia loses or draws. Ghana can still get through on a loss if Serbia loses in a game that keeps Australia’s goal difference less than the Africans.

Germany goes through on a win, or a draw and a Serbian loss. A loss knocks them out. Achtung!

Serbia goes through on a win. They can go through on a draw if Ghana wins, or if Germany wins but Serbia scores more goals than Ghana.

Australia need to win and hope the Germans lose. If they Germany wins or draws, then Australia has to make up the massive goal difference. Good luck with that.

Prediction: Germany beats Ghana. Serbia beats Australia. Germany goes first on goal difference.

Sunday’s games: U.S.A vs. Serbia, Germany vs. England.

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European Curse?


A dejected German fan ponders his team’s fate

Call it Vuvuzela’s Revenge: Europe’s traditional soccer powers have certainly been stinking up the pitch.  After they ran roughshod over the Aussies, Germany missed a penalty and lost to Serbia (although some would say there is no shame in that). European champions Spain threw the kitchen sink at Switzerland but couldn’t break them down, losing 1-0. Yesterday, it was the Italians’ turn.

Italy? Defending World Cup champions. New Zealand? Ranked 78th. But on a free kick in the seventh minute, the ball went off Che Capitano Cannavaro and into the path of Shane Smeltz; 1-0 to New Zealand on their only shot on net.  The Italians would eventually tie the game on a penalty.  But the Azzurri have yet to win a match, and now need at least a draw against Slovakia to go through.

Which leads us to The Three Lions. After Saturday’s lacklustre display, Captain Schtupping — who really isn’t captain — decided to hold a captain’s conference, saying the players shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the manager. Fortunately, the players wanted no part of it.  They reminded John Terry that: a) he is no longer their leader, and b) they aren’t going to speak out against Capello. I think they were afraid Don Fabio would have them all whacked…

Of course, the British press are spewing theories on why England have been terrible. Some say fatigue after a long Premier League season, others say a lack of preparation,  yet others say the players are afraid of making a Robert Green-esque error.  Meanwhile, England fans just want them to get on with it.

BTW, best cheeky bit we’ve read so far:

The England football team visited an orphanage in Soweto today. “It was great to be able to put a smile on the faces of people without hope,” said Mbutto, aged six.


Mais oh la la la la la. England and Italy don’t have it as bad as La France.  Nicolas “The Incredible Sulk” Anelka was sent home after directing some swears at French coach Raymond Domenech.  Then the French players showed up for practice but wouldn’t get off the bus.  Then they did.  Then captain Patrice Evra had a bust-up with the team’s fitness coach.  Then Domenech had to read a statement saying the players wouldn’t practice because Anelka was sent home… because Domenech had told the FFF about the swears.  The French are kings of irony but this is a bit much.  If you listen carefully, you can hear Irish laughter…

So what’s their problem? According to one journalist, it’s the economy, stupid. But it’s looking more and more likely that once again, a European team will not win on a foreign continent.

Oh yeah, Brazil qualified yeseterday, with Luis Fabiano scoring two lovely goals against the Ivory Coast. Too bad the game was overshadowed by Kaka being sent off because of Kader Keita’s Rivaldo-like performance.

Brent Lanthier

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I was saying ‘Boo-urns’


If they haven’t already drowned themselves at the bottom of a swimming pool filled with Stella, I’m hoping Brent and Kevin can add some analysis on England’s thoroughly lacklustre 0-0 draw with Algeria today that leaves the Three Lions teetering on the brink of failing to advance out of what was generally considered to be an easy Group C.

Wayne Rooney, whose first touch was dreadful all game and hasn’t been behaving himself all week, took umbrage at the boos directed at the team as they trudged off to think about facing group leaders Slovenia, who were fortunate to hold on for a 2-2 draw with the Sash-and-burners of Team USA when the referee inexplicably disallowed a goal by former Toronto FC player Maurice Edu. As for England, even Algeria were surprised at how crap they played, which was poorly enough that one fan felt compelled to break into the dressing room and have a go at the players. Not sure whether it was Prince Harry or William.

About the only good thing to happen all day was Serbia’s 1-0 victory over Germany, in which Miroslav Klose was sent off for a second bookable offence and Lukas Podolski had a penalty saved. Turns out not every opponent is as old and rubbish as Australia’s Socceroos. The result is a big break for injury-wracked Ghana, who face Australia on Saturday, while the Group E lads get it on with the Netherlands playing Japan and Cameroon facing Denmark.

Ian Harrison

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Dr. Z’s World Cup Predictions: Group D

Dentist by day, football prognosticator by night, our own Dr. Hadi Zogheib is scouting out each group at World Cup 2010 and predicting first round scores and standings. Even the good doctor can’t fix the injury concerns plaguing teams in Group D:

Germany: As ususal, Die Mannschaft will be a force in the tournament, although, on paper at least, this may be one of the weaker German squads to play in the finals. Already without their captain and leader Michael Ballack, coach Loew has been given further bad news that defender Heiko Westermann of Schalke will most likely miss the tournament due to injury as well. The good news is that Ballack’s potential replacement, Sami Khedira of Stuttgart, had a wonderful game against Hungary in last week’s friendly. The Germans will be hoping that Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger can continue their good form, or Bavaria will be drowning their sorrowsat the bottom of a stein very soon.

Australia: Once the punching bags of the world game, the Socceroos have become a model for the Canadian national team. Skilled and physical, the Aussies will be no pushover (just ask the Italians of 2006). Prem league fans will get a taste of déjà vu when they spot Harry Kewell on the pitch, but it will be Tim Cahill and Mark Schwarzer who will really be the ones carrying the load.

Serbia: The most maddeningly inconsistent team in Europe, the Serbs can play better than Brazil one day and then worse than New Zealand the next (as their result in last weekend’s friendly showed). If this team plays to its potential, they’ll cause an upset or two.

Ghana: With power, speed, and technique, Ghana was regarded as one of the teams with the potential to represent Africa in the semifinals or even the final…until they lost Michael Essien to injury. Now the West Africans will be hard pressed to make it out of this tough group.

Results:

Serbia 1-1 Ghana
Germany 2-0 Australia

Germany 2-2 Serbia
Australia 0-1 Ghana

Ghana 1-1 Germany
Australia 1-2 Serbia

Group Standings:

Germany 5 pts
Serbia 5 pts
Ghana 5 pts
Australia 0 pts

Related: Dr. Z doubts the host’s chances in Group A, expects Greece’s defence-first philsophy will pay off in Group B, and predicts an opening-round sweep for England in Group C.

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