I have had the distinct pleasure of spending time in four different countries involved in the World Cup (five, if you count El Paso, Texas as Mexico) and as a result I feel uniquely qualified to make some predictions. Besides just El Paso and America at large, I have also been to Argentina, Brazil, and England, so the odds are in my favor that one of “my” countries will actually win the whole thing. But each of those teams, like the entire field, have their Achilles’ heels.
This year’s World Cup is more wide-open than any in recent memory. The relatively neutral territory (this will be the first World Cup ever hosted by an African nation), mixed with the Old Guard getting old (of Italy’s 28 possible World Cup players, 10 are at least 30 years old), and some key injuries (namely Germany’s captain Michael Ballack) mean that every team can now be defined more by their weaknesses than their strengths. Logically, someone will win this tournament, but it is very easy to find reasons why each team won’t win it. And because I’m someone who takes the easy way out, I will be going group-by-group and telling you why every team can’t possibly win this tournament.
Over the last year my columns have garnered the full gamut of hate-related reactions. I have ranged from English fans hating me to MLS fans hating me. So before me lies a tremendous opportunity: I now have an excuse to anger 32 countries in just a matter of days. Rest assured, whoever you are: your team is not going to win the World Cup.
France- Les Bleus will not win the Cup, you can be sure of that. History will see to it.
Their success usually paves the way for failure immediately after. In ’58 they made it to 3rd place, and missed the next tournament. In ’86 they made 3rd place and missed the next tournament. In ’98 they won it all and got bounced in the first round of the next tournament. And in ’06 they were runners up and should have missed this tournament. However the Gods conspired to keep Ireland out and in their place they put the French.
But besides the history and the cheating, France won’t win because their coach is crazy (note: this will be a theme throughout the Tournament). Coach Raymond Domenech is known to consult astrology for his team lineup, and with Zidane gone to headbutt guys in his Sunday-league and with Thierry Henry a bit past his prime (but oh what a prime it was; swoon…) France is left to rely heavily on Franck Ribery--who looks like Napoleon and a gargoyle had a kid who was then beaten with an ugly stick. Ribery is France’s Lawrence Taylor in the most statutory of ways, which is just one of the scandals plaguing the team. Their talent suggests they could be contenders with one final run in them, but all history, logic, and karma suggest they won’t make it out of the group stage.
Uruguay- The fightin’ Urgs (I didn’t bother to look up their team name) haven’t had a good World Cup in 40 years, and in this one they are (at best) a dark horse just to survive this group. But in that actual long-shot sense, not the one where everybody jumps on the bandwagon and makes it seem like they’re taking a risk (I’m looking at you Boston Celtic fans); math nerd Nate Silver seems to be the only one openly saying Uruguay will make it out of their group, and even his endorsement is a bit lukewarm. Instead this team is much more likely to finish fourth.
If they were in an easier group, they might have a real shot (not to win it all mind you, no one on this list will win it all, but a real shot to make it out of Group.) But this group is a tough one (also a theme of the tourney), facing France, Mexico, and the host country South Africa, the fightin’ Urgs are a bit out of their league.
This team has no players you’ve ever heard of; in fact, I bet you’ve never heard of anyone from Uruguay. Which leads me to believe that no one is actually from Uruguay, that it's just a figment of our collective imagination, and that the Urgs might as well be the island from Lost. They won the Tournament in 1930 and 1950, which is like telling me they were a surgeon in Los Angeles, I’m not sure whether that’s real or not. Frankly, it seems pretty far-fetched that this team has won more World Cups than England, Russia, Spain, and the Netherlands combined.
They deserve some love for qualifying from South America but they did it by beating up on the weaker countries (a combined 11-nil in two wins over Bolivia and Peru) while avoiding blowouts against the powerhouses. They survived enough to beat Costa Rica for the last birth from the Americas. But a closer look at their qualifying efforts and you realize that those two big wins over Bolivia and Peru were both at home, and they didn’t beat either of those teams on the road. In fact they only won two games away from home throughout the two years of qualifying--which doesn’t bode well for their chances on a whole other continent. This team could sneak up on France but they don’t have the firepower to do much more than that.
Mexico- El Tri is on a remarkable streak of making it past the group stage for 5 straight World Cups. That level of consistency puts them on the level of the Brazils and Italys of the Tournament. However, they have the dubious distinction of then being eliminated in the 2nd round in each of those 5 Cups. In fact they have not won an elimination game in 24 years. That means that this year’s Mexico squad will have at least 6 guys that weren’t even alive for Mexico’s last elimination win. But they were all alive for 2002 when the US eliminated them (a game that I will reference approximately 74,000 times during the World Cup, 114,000 times if any of my El Tri-loving friends get mouthy).
This team has a lot going for it--not the least of which is that while Johannesburg is a mile above sea-level, Mexico City is 7,300 ft above sea level. They will come in having played a remarkable 12 warmup games this year alone (group-mate Uruguay will play 3). This could form a unit that knows each other well, or it could create tired legs (they will pay 8 games in the 5 weeks before the World Cup). And they are playing some top-class teams: England, Netherlands, and Italy in a 10-day stretch is nothing short of Brutal. T
They are fast, they control possession, and they can score. But they haven’t proven that they can beat top teams. And losing to tough competition doesn’t necessarily improve a team. Instead it creates a team that can beat up on the teams it should and loses to the rest. Mexico is the high school bully that stays away from the football team but beats up nerds. And like all bullies, Mexico is one lucky punch away from shriveling up and crying.
France and Uruguay are probably teams that Mexico could beat, but on a good day it’s possible that either of those teams could beat (or at least tie) El Tri. They play South Africa in the first game of the tournament, and Mexico has a history of being able to be intimidated. The opening game of the Cup, with the world watching? That’s pretty intimidating. If they shrink from the pressure in game 1 it will be an uphill battle just to make it to their usual Round 2 exit.
South Africa- They’ve got Charlize Theron going for them. Which is nice. But they don’t have much else. Actually they really only have one thing going for them: that they are the hosts. The biggest (and most valid) complaint about soccer is the officiating. Diving, dirty play, all the other complaints stem for that one big one; with one guy on the field, trying to watch 22 other guys, there’s no way to see everything, which is why some players exaggerate to get attention while others play rough expecting it to go unnoticed. I bring all this up simply to say that South Africa will make it to the elimination round. They will make it because they are the home team and the ref will know what’s good for him. They will make it to the next round, despite having no international-caliber players, because home teams always make it. They’ll do it with a win, a loss, and a draw, and they will do it and then proceed to lose in the next round. Because they won’t win the whole thing. No one will.
Come back Thursday to find out why it won't be a team from Group B that wins it all.