It’s World Cup Preview Time!

2 years ago, 204 countries around the world began the long, arduous trek to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. 32 countries have qualified and it’s time to put that old Fire Starkey spin on the greatest sporting event in the universe. Be prepared CGBians, it’s time for my World Cup prognostication extravaganza!

Group A

South Africa: Host nation South Africa is only here because FIFA says they have to be. If we’re being completely honest, these guys have almost no chance of advancing out of group play. Their only hope is the odd bit of food poisoning that might hit the Mexican, Froggy or Uruguayan camps. Steven Pienaar is a good player and Aaron Mokoena and Bernard Parker could add a bit but look for the Bafana Bafana to become the first host team not to qualify from the group stage.

Mexico: Historically, the Mexicans tend to do quite well in the group stages before getting bombed in the round of 16. An interesting team that will be leaning on young forwards Carlos Vela and Giovanni Dos Santos, the Mexicans look poised to erase the memory of Sven Goran Ericksson’s disastrous tenure as coach during qualifying that almost cost them a trip to the World Cup. One note of concern is that although the team has played well in recent friendlies, Dos Santos did not take the news well that his younger brother Jonathan, a burgeoning star in Barcelona’s youth ranks, was cut from the team. Hmmmm.

Uruguay: Boasting a pair of strikers that all but a small handful of teams would drool over, Uruguay could make some waves in Group A. Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan will provide plenty of offense but their defensive backline is older than one (any) of Twist’s jokes. In addition, the South Americans lack a proven playmaker in midfield to provide service to their star duo up top. This looks like a team that could finish in any of the 4 positions in the group.

France: Cheating scum coached by the only man who might be a worse manager than Diego Maradona, Raymond Domenech’s Frogs boast the most talent by far in Group A. An excellent GK in Hugo Lloris may be offset by a lack of quality depth in the center of defense and questions at defensive midfielder. And exactly how Sami Nasri and Karim Benzema were left off the squad is a mystery to a good portion of the world. The Froggys will depend on aging strike duo Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry as well as winger supreme Franck Ribery to provide some pop, if they don’t, France will be headed home early.

Fire Starkey says: 1. Mexico 2. Uruguay 3. France 4. South Africa

Group B

Argentina: Diego Maradona, perhaps the greatest player in the history of the sport, has proven to be completely inept as a manager. Puzzling player selections and a constant shift in tactics have led to a number of mediocre results. Blessed with the best attacking talent in the world (Higuain, Aguero, Tevez, Messi, Di Maria, Milito, etc.), the Argies seem likely to progress through a weak Group B and could go reasonably far but Lionel Messi will have to prove his so-so international performances under Maradona are a fluke. Oh yeah, did I mention Maradona has decided to use 4 center backs as his defensive back line? That will work well. Not. I think the Argies could crash out in the early knockout stages if they meet a Mexico, for example.

Nigeria: A former continental superpower, Nigeria has fallen on some hard times. Lacking a playmaker of any great ability, the news that John Obi Mikel is out of the tournament with an injury means the Super Eagles will struggle badly in midfield. Defender Joseph Yobo is class but the team’s best striker is Yakubu, who has recently struggled with form and injuries in league play in England. Nigeria should be 3 and out.

South Korea: A weak group should mean qualification to the knockout stages for the Koreans, the only unbeaten team in Asian qualifying. Man Ewe winger Park Ji-Sung headlines a nice list of attacking talent (particularly Park Chu-Young) but the backline looks vulnerable to international attacks. Recently inconsistent, the Koreans lost badly to a crap Chinese team in a friendly, then came back and beat the potentially powerful Ivory Coast. We’ll see if they can do any damage in the knockout stages. I’m dubious.

Greece: The Greeks are known for packing 9 men behind the ball and attempting to counterattack, a formula that shockingly won them the European Championship in 2004. Although they scored a lot of goals in qualifying, their group had Luxembourg, Moldavia and Latvia, hardly Euro powers. Georgios Samaras and Theofanis Gekis are nice attacking options but look for a lot of 0-0 and 1-0 results from the Greeks.

Fire Starkey says: 1. Argentina 2. South Korea 3. Greece 4. Nigeria

Group C

England: The clear favorites in Group C and one of the top 4 favorites in the tournament, England has flattered to deceive in their World Cup history. Just 1 title (on home soil) and a consistent record of underachievement at the international level means that the Brits have a lot to prove. Blessed with one of the top 3 strikers in the world in Wayne Rooney, the English appear to have some issues at the back. Their goalkeeping has been suspect for the last 10 years or so and David “Calamity” James has done little to improve their image. Defender and team captain Rio Ferdinand is out of the tourney injured and his replacement, Ledley King, is usually unable to train because his knee might explode at any second. Add in the questionable availability due to injury of holding midfielder Gareth Barry and the absence of Wayne Bridge (whose wife was nailing fellow defender and supposed best friend John Terry) and the English could struggle defensively. Still, the midfield boasts Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Aaron Lennon which should be enough to see them through to the knockout rounds on maximum points.

United States: The US got almost the best possible draw when Slovenia and Algeria were drawn into their group. The emergence of Edson Buddle, Hercules Gomez and Robbie Findlay at forward should lessen the blow of losing Charlie Davies to injury. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey wreaked havoc on the Australians in a recent friendly when they played on opposite sides of midfield from each other and should continue there if Coach Bob Bradley has a single brain cell active. The big problem (and I mean BIG) is the near disasterous defensive performances. Key defender Oguchi Onyewu has been injured and is just getting back to fitness while Jonathan Spector probably played his way out of a starting spot on the right. Captain Carlos Boganegra is capable on the left but lacks anything resembling speed and should get roasted by England’s blazing fast Aaron Lennon. Still, anything less than qualification out of the group stage will be a massive disappointment.

Algeria: No country has benefitted more from FIFA’s decision to change eligibility rules to allow players to switch countries if a player had not player played in a senior level “A” game than Algeria. Several excellent players joined the team despite having represented France at youth level and immediately vaulted the Algerians into the top levels of the African hierarchy. That said, some key injuries and a lack of playing time at the club level for many of its best players means the Algerians will likely struggle. Key player is Karim Ziani, an excellent winger for Wolfsburg.

Slovenia: Likely the USA’s main threat for the #2 spot in the group, Slovenia had an extremely stingy defense in qualification and boasts a top flight goalkeeper in Samir Handanovic. The problem is likely to come in attack as the Slovenians are not particularly well known for their goal scoring exploits. Robert Koren, a stalwart for West Bromwich Albion, will lead the attack from the midfield and the best option up front is Milevoje Novakovic. Not sure they have enough talent to eke out the US though.

Fire Starkey says: 1. England 2. Estatos Unitos 3. Slovenia 4. Algeria

Group D

Germany: One of the game’s true powerhouses, Germany always seems to do well in international competitions and expectations this time around are a minimum semi final appearance. This tournament though may be an exception as injuries have ravaged the defensive midfield and goalkeeping positions leaving the Germans vulnerable. Last year, presumed #1 GK Robert Enke committed suicide and current #1 GK Rene Adler is hurt. In addition, starting defensive midfielders Simon Rolfes and captain Michael Ballack are out injured. Adding to the gloom are the piss poor league seasons that starting strike duo Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski had. That said, recent German youth teams have dominated European and World tournaments and 7 members of the U21 team are now on the roster. Bastian Schweinsteiger (what’s a “pig riser” anyway?) will have to lead this team to the promised land. Hard to imagine the Germans getting past the quarterfinals though.

Australia: Expect the Australians to struggle in this toughest of Groups. Stingy in defense during qualification, the increased ability of World Cup attacks should punish them and in a recent friendly with the US, the Americans should have had 6 or 7 goals. Mark Schwartzer is a good goalkeeper and Tim Cahill provides some spark in attack but outside of the aerial ability of Josh “Jesus” Kennedy, I don’t see the Australians doing too much.

Serbia: Serbia gets my vote for the surprise team of the tourney. They managed to get by an inconsistent French team and pesky Austrian, Romania and Lithuanian teams to get the automatic spot from Euro Group 7. A top level defense includes Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic and the attack sports excellent players in Miloc Krasic and Milan Jovanovic. Expect their matchup with Germany to be one of the titanic battles of group play. I can see the Serbs going a long, long way.

Ghana: Aging and missing their world class midfielder and captain, Michael Essien, the Ghanians will struggle to break into the top 2 of this group. Although their U20 team did win the world championship last year, this tournament is likely one World Cup cycle too soon for that promising bunch of players led by Udinese’s Kwadwo Asomoah. Asomoah has been touted as having the potential to be the best West African playmaker since Jay Jay Okocha but I don’t see enough overall quality in this side for them to get past the formidable Serbs and Germans.

Fire Starkey says: 1. Serbia 2. Germany 3. Ghana 4. Australia

Group E:

Holland: Long viewed as the best footballing nation to never win a World Cup, this could be the year for the Dutch. Blessed with quality at almost every position, Holland sole weakness is probably in goal although the untested fullbacks might argue they should be considered a weakness as well. Still, there is plenty of grit in the central defense with leg breaker Nigel De Jong and tough Mark von Bommel to keep the goals out. The Dutch also boast plenty of attacking talent with the talented but fragile Robin van Persie up top with Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt behind him. Holland’s title hopes may be on life support however as Arjen Robben, possibly the best winger in the world, has a pulled hamstring and will miss most or all of the tournament. Rafael van der Vaert will probably replace him in the starting lineup and is a decent replacement but is almost better known for having one of the hottest WAGs in the universe (wife Sylvie). That said, without Robben, Holland will be very good but not good enough to win it all.

Denmark: Denmark cruised through a very challenging qualification group but looks to struggle as injuries and some internal squabbles have disrupted their team chemistry. The team is old in attack with Jorgensen, Rommedahl and Gronkjaer and seems to rely heavily on Nicolas Bentner for goals. Defensively solid, an injury to Simon Kjaer means Liverpool starlet Daniel Agger may have to lead the defense on his own. The Danes will be tricky to defeat but shouldn’t pose too many problems for any of the World’s superpowers.

Cameroon: Once the world’s best striker, Samuel Eto’o now seems more likely to throw hissy fits over criticisms from former Cameroonian great Roger Milla than leading his team to glory. The Indomitable Lions struggled to qualify and look short on overall talent and squad depth. An interesting player is young center back Nicolas N’Koulou who should partner long time stalwart Rigobert Song in defense. Another Song of note, Alexandre, is a bright prospect in midfield. There is a chance they can pip Denmark for #2 in the group and match a weak Group F winner in the round of 16 but I’m not expecting much.

Japan: That toilet flushing noise you hear when Japan takes the field is the hopes of a nation circling the drain. One of the earliest qualifiers out of Asia, Japan has lost form in recent months and will struggle to produce anything of note in this tournament. Lacking any punch up front, Japan will rely on Shunsuke Nakamura in midfield and fullbacks Keisuke Honda and Atsuto Uchida to provide some (any?) creativity. Japanese fans should learn the phrase “three and out” pretty quickly.

Fire Starkey says: 1. Holland 2. Denmark 3. Cameroon 4. Japan

Group F

Italy: It’s a good thing the rest of Group F is such complete dogshit because the Italians look like they will really struggle. There is no Totti, Del Piero, Balotelli, Rossi or Cassano on the roster leaving the attack in the hands of pedestrian strikers Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alberto Gilardino. Add in the calf injury that may force midfield leader and dead ball savant Andrea Pirlo out of the tournament and Italy looks like they will struggle to score. Add into that that the age of the team… yikes. Good thing Gianluigi Buffon is still one of the best 3 or 4 goalkeepers in the world. That said, their draw looks extremely favorable for a run to the quarterfinals. Anything beyond that would be a miracle.

Paraguay: Time will tell if an ancient back line will offset the skillful strikers that Paraguay has up top. All 4 defenders are over 30 years old and are pedestrian at best. Lacking much creativity in midfield, Paraguay does have a trio of excellent forwards in Oscar Cardozo, Nelson Valdez and wily veteran Roque Santa Cruz. The potential of some high scoring games involving the Paraguayans looks high.

Slovakia: The Slovaks look like they could surprisingly advance out of the group stages due to the incredibly lame group they have been drawn in. They cruised through qualification and look to have a couple of exceedingly dangerous players in Marek Hamsik and Vladimir Weiss Jr. (son of the coach). Martin Skrtel provides some steel at the back.

New Zealand: Here’s what I wrote when analyzing New Zealand’s chances in last year’s Confederations Cup “The majority of their team plays in Australia’s A-League, a league considered at best to be third tier. A couple of their players do play overseas and the best of them is probably Chris Killen, a reserve forward for Celtic in Scotland. Shane Smeltz did get 12 goals in the A-League last season so could be a threat if he gets any service and 17 year old Chris Wood looks to be the hope for the future as he has played in the English Premiership for West Bromwich Albion. Still, there isn’t much hope for the All Whites as a recent 2-1 friendly loss to African non-entity Tanzania proved. 4th place in Group A looms.” Yup, nothing’s changed.

Fire Starkey says: 1. Italy 2. Slovakia 3. Paraguay 4. New Zealand

Group G

Brazil: One of the prohibitive tourney favorites, the mighty Brazilian juggernaut continues to steamroll the opposition. Under Dunga, the Brazilians have changed their style to a rough and tumble, defensively sound and generally powerful side who relies less on flair and more on sheer strength and counter attacking opportunities. Blessed with abundant talent at every position, Brazil has no weaknesses and could probably field 3 full teams that would advance out of the group stages. A recent injury to the world’s best goalkeeper, Julio Cesar, is worrisome but Gomes is a capable backup if required. Lucio is the best Brazilian defender of his generation with fellow Inter Milan defender, Maicon, being world class as well. Kaka, sold for $93 million to Real Madrid last season is a brilliant counter attacking midfielder while Luis Fabiano absolutely shredded opposing defenses in the Confed Cup last year. Look for Brazil to go all the way and win their 6th title.

North Korea: I’m not sure if it was stupidity or naivety that led North Korea to list one of their better players, striker Kim Myong Won, as a goalkeeper. FIFA subsequently ruled that he can only play as a GK so plenty of jokes have been going around that Kim will “suffer a broken arm” for the good of the team. That said, little is known about the North Koreans except that the “Asian Wayne Rooney”, striker Jong Tae-Se, is a gifted and physical presence. Getting more than 0 points in the group should be considered an achievement.

Ivory Coast: The devastating news that Didier Drogba, probably the best pure striker in the world, broke his arm last week has killed a lot of the buzz surrounding the West Africans. With Drogba, the Ivory Coast was a dangerous team capable of beating any team in the world on a given day. Without him, they are likely going to struggle to advance unless Portugal’s craptasic form continues. There is still a slim hope that Drogba will play but if not, Arouna Dindane and Saloman Kalou will shoulder the burden up front. There are nice midfielders in Yaya Toure and Didier Zokora and capable defenders in Emmanuel Eboue and Kolo Toure but poor goalkeeping and a lack of creativity in midfield will kill off the Ivorians chances.

Portugal: The golden generation for Portugal has passed with Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Nuno Gomes now but a distant memory to Portuguese fans. The team struggled to qualify, finishing behind Denmark and being gifted a relatively easier playoff draw when FIFA controversially “seeded” Portugal, France, Russia and Ukraine. After dispatching Bosnia, Portugal has looked distinctly average (0-0 with Cape Verde Islands????) and their roster looks, well, average. Cristiano Ronaldo has never managed to convert his brilliant league form to the national team but he is definitely a threat on the wing. He’ll be helped by Simao and Nani but I don’t see a lot of quality on the rest of the roster. If they can grab the 2nd spot in the group, someone should send flowers to the player who broke Drogba’s arm.

Fire Starkey says: 1. Brazil 2. Portugal 3. Ivory Coast 4. North Korea

Group H

Spain: European champions in 2008, the Spanish finally realized their talent after decades of underachievement. The Spanish are blessed with two of the best finishers in the world in recent Barcelona purchase David Villa and the half fit Fernando Torres. Their midfield is loaded with Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta and their defense is capable with Carlos Puyol and his wacky hair in the middle. Considered by many to be one of the best goalkeepers in the world, I think Iker Casillas is vastly overrated and Pepe Reina might be a better choice. That said, Spain has every chance to win to win this tournament and has lost just once in its last 46 matches (USA! USA!).

Switzerland: Never the most exciting team to watch, the Swiss have managed to appear in the last several major tournaments through stodgy defense and the odd counter attacking goal here or there. The team is not blessed with any stars but Tranquilo Barnetta, Hakan Yakin and Alexander Frei provide enough quality to make the Swiss a threat for the #2 spot in the group if they can grind out results against Honduras and Chile.

Honduras: Honduras qualified for the World Cup for the first time in about a bazillion years and should be happy with that achievement. Sporting some of the best attacking talent in the CONCACAF region, the loss to injury of striker Carlos Costly was really bad news. Add in the injuries (allegedly minor) to David Suazo and Tottenham bruiser Wilson Palacios in a recent friendly and you have all the makings of a disaster on your hands for Los Catrachos. Still, an emerging star in Roger Espinoza and a quality defender in Maynor Figueroa give Honduras a small inkling of hope. Look for that to be crushed quickly.

Chile: Chile could again be on the ascendance after a couple of down cycles. Young stars in the making Humberto Suazo (who led South American qualifying with 10 goals), Matias Fernandez and Alexis Sanchez make Chile one of the most exciting and potent teams in the tournament. The question lies in if they can defend consistently. They should battle with Switzerland to see who gets 2nd place in the group and could knock off a team or two in the knockout rounds.

Fire Starkey says: 1. Spain 2. Chile 3. Switzerland 4. Honduras

Round of 16 Predictions:

Mexico d. South Korea; England d. Germany; Argentina d. Uruguay; Serbia d. USA; Holland d. Slovakia; Brazil d. Chile; Italy d. Denmark; Spain d. Portugal

Quarterfinal Predictions:

England d. Mexico; Serbia d. Argentina; Brazil d. Holland; Spain d. Italy

Semi-Final Predictions:

Brazil d. England; Spain d. Serbia

Final Prediction:

Brazil d. Spain

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