A monthly column about the State of Soccer, from the world game to Team America to pro soccer in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A , all cooked up with a healthy dose of cynicism.
This month, the Armchair Midfielder will take a stab at dissecting the 2002 World Cup Draw, group-by- group.
The opinions expressed below do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Soccer Federation, especially those of the Communications Department, their significant others, their pets and their extended families. The following comments and predictions represent initial reactions to the draw and absolutely cannot be held up for scrutiny upon the actual playing of the 2002 World Cup. Attempts to do so will be categorically denied.
Group A (France, Denmark, Uruguay, Senegal) — The defending champs have to be happy about being placed in this softie group. Although their star has faded a bit this year with some lackluster results, let's not forget that they are the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world (the first country to simultaneously hold the world and European titles in more than 25 years). With the uphill road facing Argentina (more on that disaster later), France looks to be back in the pole position for Korea/Japan. As for the rest of Group A, look for scrappy South American side Uruguay to prove why they deserved to get that last of 32 berths just a week before the draw.
Group B (Spain, Slovenia, Paraguay, South Africa) — Lots of talent and little to show for it. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. This would describe Spain, in a nutshell. Only quarter-finalists at Euro 2000 and having dropped the gold medal match at the 2000 Olympics to Cameroon, Spain hasn't won a major championship since they won the ‘92 Olympics in their backyard. While Spain has qualified for 11 World Cups, their best finish is just fourth place in 1950. This relatively soft group should ease concerns in Espana, but watch for Paraguay to be a tough opponent (although they'll be missing dynamic goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert who is suspended for their opening two games). After all, they did finish fourth in CONMEBOL qualifying right behind Brazil. No offense to first-timer Slovenia and second-timer South Africa, but they're just happy to be here.
Group C (Brazil, Turkey, China, Costa Rica) — Group C is one of the most interesting groups of the eight that make up the 32-team field. Traditional world power and four-time champ Brazil has fallen on remarkably hard times over the past two years and may be at its most susceptible in this World Cup. Even with the six months ahead to prepare and "right the ship" for Korea/Japan, few (including myself) would predict Brazil to reach the final, as they did at France ‘98. If they don't get things together, they'll be lucky to make the quarter-finals. Although Bora has again worked his magic and led China to the promised land, expect CONCACAF winner Costa Rica and solid European side Turkey to battle for the second spot.
Group D (South Korea, Portugal, Poland, United States) — At first glance, this looked like a pretty favorable draw for us Americans. But now that the dust has settled, it could be one of the toughest groups out there. Consider that Portugal could have easily been a top seed, add in a tournament co-host / six-time World Cup veteran that will undoubtedly be buoyed by massive home crowds, and then top things off with a Polish team led by a dynamic Nigerian striker and wanting to prove that they belong at the World Cup after a 16-year wait. The sequence of games doesn't do the U.S. any favors either and eerily resembles that of the disappointing France ‘98 performance. Think about it. The U.S. opens against one of the Top 10 teams in the world (then Germany, now Portugal), then takes on an emotionally charged Asian team (then Iran, now South Korea) and finishes against a surprising Eastern European team (then Yugoslavia, now Poland). But at the end of the day, I think the U.S. will slip in behind Portugal.
Group E (Germany, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Cameroon) — Possibly the biggest question in this group is "Which Cameroon team will show up?" Will it be the disorganized team that disappointed in 1994 and ‘98, or the spirited, over-achieving squad that finished seventh at the 1990 World Cup and upended Brazil and Spain on the way to a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Germany is also a question mark. Even with the rich World Cup tradition that Deutschland enjoys, it's hard to imagine this version getting past the quarter-finals. But with late playoff qualifier Ireland and Asian minnow (Editor's note: I love that word/term) Saudi Arabia as the only roadblocks on the way to the second round, the Germans and the always entertaining Cameroonians should be through with ease.
Group F (Argentina, England, Sweden, Nigeria) — Wow. That's really all I can say. "Wow." That and "Sucks to be England." First, the tragedy of another beloved Beatle passing away, now this. BBC spokesmen insist that when a radio recording of the draw from Korea is played backwards, it repeatedly says, "England, Go Home." Makes you wonder. Long-story-short, nothing will go as expected here, as pre-Draw tourney favorite Argentina (not so much now with this group ahead) and borderline top seed England have little room for error in order to advance. Both red-hot teams could be cooled off by the always dangerous and unpredictable Nigerians come June. Which leaves Sweden, a safe bet to claim the second spot in most any other group, that may end up the odd one out.
Group G (Italy, Croatia, Ecuador, Mexico) — Another lively group, Group G should produce some great matches. There's really not a weak team here, even with first-time entrant Ecuador, who finished behind only Argentina in South American qualifying. A sluggish starter in past World Cups, Italy must be careful not to overlook any of its three opponents, especially a Croatia team that finished a surprising third at France ‘98. After a shaky start in the final round of qualifying, it appears Mexico is back in top form after going unbeaten in their last five CONCACAF qualifying matches and falling by a narrow 1-0 margin in Spain) and ready to head back to the Round of 16.
Group H (Japan, Belgium, Russia, Tunisia) — Maybe the easiest group, and definitely the most wide open. Without a top seed or a real favorite, Japan has to be happy about the chance to graduate from a youth national team power to a country that can compete on the most difficult world soccer stage. With French coach Phillip Troussier, superstar Hidetoshi Nakata and a passionate home crowd behind them, Japan is a dark horse to reach the quarter-finals. Belgium and Russia had strong European qualifying campaigns and the second spot is theirs to fight over. Belgium is competing in an impressive sixth consecutive World Cup, while Russia won a group that also included past ‘98 Cup invitees Yugoslavia and Switzerland. Tunisia should present little problems for any of the three other teams.
Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (Dissecting the 2002 World Cup Final Draw)
2) All I Want for Christmas... (w/ U.S. National Teams staff and players)
3) At the Movies (w/ U-21 WNT midfielder Aly Wagner)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ MNT midfielder Chris Armas)
5) Making it to the Show (w/ U-17 MNT forward Ed Johnson)
6) Superstar!!! (w/ WNT forward Cindy Parlow)
7) Mark That Calendar (MNT vs. South Korea -- Dec. 9)
8) Point-Counterpoint (w/ coaches Bruce Arena and Bob Gansler)
9) From the Bleachers (w/ U.S. Soccer fan Dave Brett Wasser)
10) "You Don't Know Jack (Marshall)" (College Soccer Trivia)
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