Dustin George-Miller is a musician, father, husband and Goshen College staffer. A life-long soccer fan, he grew up playing footy in the Elkhart YMCA youth leagues, but didn't let a lack of things like "talent" or "ability" impact his love for the beautiful game.
In his spare time he writes about the successes and failures (mostly failures) of his beloved Tottenham Hotspur Football Club at Cartilage Free Captain [http://cartilagefreecaptain.sbnation.com], part of the SB Nation family of sports blogs.
In the first stage of the World Cup, the 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four teams. Each team plays the other teams in its group once, accumulating three points for a win and one point for a draw. Once the round-robin is complete, the top two teams from each group advance to a knock-out tournament. We’ll continue our World Cup preview by taking a look at each group and briefly examining the teams.
Group E Switzerland • Ecuador • France • Honduras
If there’s a word for Group E, it’s balance. Or maybe mystery. Or quite possibly inconsistency. So let’s go with all three and coin a new word: inbalysterency. It’s not the strongest group in the tournament and there are a lot of questions surrounding the teams, but these matches should at minimum provide a high degree of entertainment. You might say, to torture the English language even more, that it has the potential to be one of the most inbalysterencaining groups in the World Cup. Someone throw a hashtag on that and make it trending, please.
Switzerland (FIFA World Ranking - 7) World Cup titles - 0. Last qualified: 2010 (group stage)
Switzerland blazed through qualification, but in an extraordinarily easy qualifying group. The Swiss are a young team with up and coming talent seeking to make names for themselves, but the team is still pretty much an unknown quantity. With manager Omar Hitzfeld retiring after the tournament, the Swiss are hoping to send their manager off with a deep cup run. Solid defensively, Switzerland has problems in attack: Josip Drmich looks to be a solid prospect, but the whole of the Swiss front line has a lot to prove if the team is going to live up to their World Cup seeding.
Player to watch: Switzerland is loaded with young talent, and the gem of the group is midfielder Xherdan Shaquiri. Already established at Bayern Munich, he should be a force for the Swiss on the wing. The aforementioned Drmich will have a lot on his shoulders, having only played 88 minutes for Switzerland in qualifying, but he looks to be the starting striker in the World Cup.
France (FIFA World Ranking - 21) World Cup titles - 1 (1998). Last qualified: 2010 (group stage)
This France team is an puzzle, wrapped in an enigma, served with a side of fois gras. In 2010, a highly-regarded France team suffered through one of the most spectacularly embarrassing meltdowns in World Cup history, with internal and external bickering contributing to an uncharacteristic group stage exit for Les Bleus. With most of the troublemakers now gone, it’s left room for a new generation of French talent to come through, though it remains to be seen whether the newcomers can translate their ability to World Cup success. France, after all, just barely made it into the tournament, having to come from behind to beat Ukraine in the second leg of a playoff. And now, the worst has happened: talismanic midfielder Franck Ribery was injured in training and will miss the World Cup. So while it’s tempting to pencil France into the second round, nobody really has any idea how good it actually is. The soundtrack to France’s campaign could be La Marseillaise… or it could be Yakity Sax.
Players to watch: The loss of Franck Ribery is a huge blow to France. As one of the only returning players from the team that won the 2006 World Cup, Ribery provided experience and leadership. France needed him to be the man if they want a deep run in the World Cup. The cupboard isn’t bare, though – Paul Pogba (Juventus) is a monster midfield talent in the Yaya Toure mold who is capable of some absolutely astounding moments.
Ecuador (FIFA World Ranking - 22). World Cup titles - 0. Last qualified: 2006 (Round of 16)
Ecuador qualified for the World Cup by finishing fourth in the South American federation and did so after enduring the untimely death of Christian Benitez, their star striker who passed away nearly a year ago from heart failure. Reinaldo Rueda’s men pulled together and rebounded, but are understandably a bit inconsistent (you’ve picked up on the theme here, right?). Ecuador played valiantly at home, going undefeated in qualifying matches, but was woeful on the road. If the World Cup could be played in the high altitude of Quito, they’d be golden. As it is, this Ecuador side plays fast and explosive, favoring attacks from the wings, but is weak at the back and not well suited to a slower-tempo possession-based game.
Players to watch: Ecuador’s veteran striker Felipe Caicedo has played for a number of clubs in his career but he’s been a focal point for Ecuador for a while now. He’ll be the tip of El Tri’s spear. Of late, winger Antonio Valencia has of late been played in more of a central role to mitigate the hole left behind by Christian Benitez. If Ecuador is going to be successful, the attacking impetus may need to go through him.
Honduras (FIFA World Ranking - 34) World Cup titles - 0. Last qualified: 2010 (group stage)
Honduras is another Central American team that draws much of its talent from domestic leagues or MLS. That’s not to say that Honduras isn’t a talented side — it finished third in the North/Central American region (CONCACAF) ahead of Mexico — but these players will be facing levels of competition in Brazil vastly beyond what they’re used to playing for their league sides. Honduras is unquestionably the weakest side in this group, and may not even get a point out of their opponents, but if you love a good underdog story, Honduras might just be your team.
Players to watch: At age 31, forward Carlo Costly no longer moves as well as he once did, but he proved himself invaluable to Honduras in qualifying, scoring five goals in “The Hex.” Also keep an eye on midfielders Wilson Palacios (Stoke City) and Andy Najar (late of Anderlecht but formerly a star at D.C. United).
FEARLESS PREDICTIONS: Whoof. All of these teams have talent, and all of them have major flaws or the potential for wacky hijinks. With the exception of Honduras, which unfortunately doesn’t look like it has the wherewithal to escape, any of these teams have an chance. Throw the rest in a hat, pick two. Dustin’s (tentative) picks: France and Ecuador
Group F Argentina • Bosnia-Herzegovina • Iran • Nigeria
Group F belongs to Argentina. This is a relatively easy group for the Argentines, and considering the defensive frailty or overall naïveté of the other teams in the group, it appears to be tailor made for Alejandro Sabella’s well balanced squad. No, the drama here will be with Bosnia, Iran, and Nigeria, all of whom (except Iran) are talented offensively and have the capacity to surprise their opponents. If Group F is an aquarium, Argentina is the killer whale, Bosnia and Nigeria are itty-bitty piranhas, and Iran, well, it’s the definition of a minnow. But there will be goals, my friends. Oh yes, there will be goals.
Argentina (FIFA World Ranking - 3) World Cup titles - 2 (1978, 1986). Last qualified: 2010 (quarterfinals)
Argentina always puts out a powerful side in the World Cup, but this year’s team looks utterly fantastic. Its attack features the best player in world football, Lionel Messi, and a host of attacking and midfield talent. Argentina’s bench will be the envy of many World Cup starting sides, and it is certainly among the favorites to win the World Cup this summer. If Argentina has a weakness, it’s in the defensive end, and it could be vulnerable to attacks from the flanks, but truthfully, it’s not much of a weakness, at least not in the group stages. Argentina should advance easily.
Players to watch: Argentina’s team reads like a Who’s Who of soccer talent: Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano, Ever Banega, Pablo Zabaleta… the list just keeps going. But truthfully, we’re all hoping to see Leo Messi put on a show, aren’t we? And who can blame us? While he’s only scored one World Cup goal in his career, he’s hands-down the best footballer in the world. He has lethal speed and with the ball at his feet he... well, just do yourself a favor and watch this. (All screams made by iconic English commentator Ray Hudson.)
The other team to make the tournament from the region formerly known as Yugoslavia along with Croatia, this is Bonsnia-Herzegovina’s first trip to the World Cup. If you managed to catch the USA’s 4-3 win over Bosnia in Sarajevo last summer, you’ll know that this is a team that likes to attack. Bosnia will try and go straight at their opponents (like Argentina), attempting to knock them on their heels and out-shoot them. It might not work against Argentina, but it may very well be a successful strategy against the other two teams in the group, and it’ll be a heck of a lot of fun to watch.
Players to watch: Bosnia’s attack will be headed (literally, more often than not) by towering Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko, who is coming off an unexpectedly impressive season for the champions of England. Also watch Miralem Pjanic, a very good central midfielder for Roma who has been linked to bigger clubs for years now. Asmir Begovic is one of the better keepers in the Premier League and he’ll need to be good, as the Bosnian defense isn’t that well put together. The rest of the team is made of mostly squad players with more consonants than vowels in their names.
Iran (FIFA World Ranking - 49) World Cup titles - 0. Last qualified: 2010 (group stage)
Crack open Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s fantastic book Soccernomics (and you really should) and you’ll notice that Iran’s national soccer team is listed as fourth highest on the list of Most Overachieving Soccer Teams, after factoring in size, population, political and cultural stability, and economic factors. That is to say, if you’re surprised that Iran is even in this World Cup, you shouldn’t be — they’re a good team that is over-performing compared to other teams comparable to them. Iran knows how to play football. The problem is that while they’ve done well in the matches they’ve played, they haven’t played the very best teams… which is, of course, what the World Cup is all about. While manager Carlos Queiroz, who has previously managed Portugal, South Africa, UAE, and even Real Madrid, has done wonderful things with this underrated Iranian squad, they had the misfortune to be placed in a group with Argentina, and that will probably be their undoing. But if you’re looking for a deep (deep, DEEP) sleeper to root for, Iran’s the team to watch.
Players to watch: Let’s face it. You’re just not going to find world-renowned names on this Iranian squad, so instead let’s look to experience. Captain and midfielder Javad Nakounam has 137 caps for Iran, scoring 37 goals, four more than his age. He’s been here before and can provide invaluable leadership. I rail against the current trend in soccer media of calling young players the “next [insert-great-player-here]” as I feel it’s a cop-out and does a disservice to young footballing talent, but do keep an eye on 19 year old Iranian striker Sardar Azmoun, dubbed the “Iranian Messi” and reportedly on the radar of English clubs Liverpool, Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur.
Nigeria (FIFA World Ranking - 33) World Cup titles - 0. Last qualified: 2010 (group stage)
Nigera is a team that is is experiencing a youth movement at the moment. The winners of last year’s African Cup of Nations, the Super Eagles are loaded with young talent. Nigeria’s younger players won the Under-17 World Cup earlier this year, and while youth league success is never a guarantee of senior team success, it does bode well for the future of the Nigerian national team. This is a team that will try and counter-attack against teams bigger and badder than they are (read: Argentina), and kick in the teeth of the rest of the group’s teams. If Nigeria defends capably and gets a fair amount of luck, they could shoot themselves into the second round, but I’m not sure it will this time around. The Super Eagles are on an upward trajectory, but they may not be quite there yet.
Players to watch: Jon Obi Mikel (Chelsea) is a defensive midfielder who will need to be a rock in front of Nigeria’s center backs if they hope to contain the other teams in the group. Victor Moses, a winger of late on loan with Liverpool, and speedy striker Victor Enyeama provide the bulk of the offensive threat. The cupboard’s not exactly bare here, but there’s a dearth of world class talent on this Nigerian team… presently.
FEARLESS PREDICTIONS: Considering the defensive frailty of all three of the other teams in the group, Argentina should comfortably win all three of their group stage matches. There’s an argument to be made for Nigeria slipping into second since they play Argentina last (who presumably will have already clinched progression by that point and will rest their starters) and could nick a point from the Argentines, but Bosnia just looks like a team that should — on paper, at least — have enough offensive acumen to make it through. Sorry, Iran, I’m just not seeing it. Dustin’s predictions: Argentina & Bosnia-Herzegovina
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