World Cup 2006: A Preview

Originally published at on 6 June 2006.

The football World Cup is starting on 9 June. It is Germany’s turn to host the event, and there are 32 teams from six continents participating. After 63 matches, the final takes place in Berlin on 9 July.

The Favorites

It will be a surprise if Brazil do not win the competition. There are many good teams participating, but this year Brazil has a squad that will be hard to beat. An indication of this is that the brightest star of the Brazilian side is not Real Madrid’s Ronaldo, the two time World Cup winner and three time World Player of the Year. That distinction goes instead to Ronaldinho, an embodiment of the Brazilian football culture. Even if you do not even know the rules of the game, it is easy to recognize the talent of the Barcelona playmaker. It is not just his outstanding technical skill or his boundless imagination and creativity, but the joyful ease with which he controls the ball.

But to succeed in a tournament like this, one player, no matter how good, is not enough. Luckily for the Brazilians, they have plenty, and they know how to play together. But what about the defense? With the Milan goalkeeper Dida protecting the net, they do not have to worry about conceding easy goals. Two typically Brazilian issues, the clumsy central defenders and the full backs too eager to join the attack, may also have been solved. At least Cafu on the right and Roberto Carlos on the left cannot blame their mistakes on the inexperience of youth.

The Challengers

In the last decade, the only obstacle to Brazilian dominance has been France. The greatest achievements of this footballing generation—victories in the 1998 World Cup and the Euro 2000—are however already in the past. They will want everyone to forget their scandalously impotent performance in 2002, but unless the new generation is ready to take control, they will have difficulty. A lot depends on whether or not they can put to use the powers of a certain Thierry Henry, a perfect footballer.

Any team gets a boost from the cheers of the home crowd. In 2002, the supporters carried the South Korean team all the way to the bronze match. Germany, although now lacking the brightest kind of star in their squad, have regularly done well in the World Cup. They do not have any specific weaknesses, and the home tournament could prove to be just the thing Michael Ballack needs to achieve legendary status.

Personal favorites of the author, the Italians are only too familiar with the question they face: “But who will score the goals?” Traditionally relying on an ultra-defensive strategy, the Italians’ style of play is still somewhat conservative. But they will still be likely to create plenty of goalscoring opportunities for their strikers, and if the new kids Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino are able to deliver, Italy may go far.

Like in 2002, England is worried. Four years ago, the epitome of glamor in football, David Beckham, was injured just months before the tournament. Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney, the “new Pelé”, is now in a similar situation. Beckham did get to play in 2002, but Ronaldinho put an end to the British campaign with a famous free kick. England have a good team with or without Rooney, but they do need the inspiration of their young forward.

The main South American rival of Brazil is Argentina. Although always strong, this year the two-time winners of the competition seem to have few stars of the highest level. Still, Juan Román Riquelme with his teammates are obviously one of the favorites to win. The youngster Lionel Messi is one of the players to watch, even if at 18 his best games are still ahead.

The Netherlands, like always, have sent a solid group of players to the World Cup. With a little bit of luck they could win it: Ruud van Nistelrooy is one of the most feared forwards in today’s game, and he has behind him one of the most creative group of midfielders in the tournament. The Dutch team is a perfect combination of experience and youth.

In addition to the ones already mentioned, there are a few teams it would be surprising but not a shock to see win the tournament. In particular Portugal, Spain and the Czech Republic all have potential. None of these teams have ever won the World Cup. Personally one of the most important reason why I do not consider Spain a favorite is their miserable history in the competition. The Spanish league is one of the best in the world and they have never had a shortage of quality players. Still, the best result they have achieved is fourth place—in 1950.

The Surprise?

The World Cup always brings a surprise or two. Very few dared to suggest that both Turkey and South Korea would reach the semifinals in 2002. Greece were not exactly the favorites to win Euro 2004 either, and yet they did.

Both Korea and Japan gave strong performances in 2002. Still, this time away from home soil, it is an open question how far they will go.

Since Cameroon beat the reigning champions Argentina in the opening match of the 1990 World Cup and kept on going to play a wonderful tournament, everyone has been anticipating an African team to reach the final stages of the Cup. In 1994 and 1998 people watched Nigeria. In 2002, Senegal and Cameroon looked pretty strong. This time none of these countries qualified for the tournament. Of the African teams in Germany, Côte d’Ivoire in particular with Chelsea’s brilliant Didier Drogba appears to have some potential.

There have been some specific obstacles to African success in the past. Cameroon in 1990 would have done even better with a bit more disciplined team play. Many African teams have struggled trying to find good players for all areas of the game; for example, a strong midfield and dangerous strikers do not make up for a mediocre goalkeeper.

Ukraine have a few things going for them. Actually, two: Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov. Playing for Dynamo Kyiv in the 1990s, the two strikers were unstoppable. Shevchenko went on to build a glorious career in Milan and is considered perhaps the best forward in the game today. Things did not go so well for Rebrov, but he is enjoying a comeback in Kyiv. If they still remember how they did it for Dynamo, the opponents’ defenders are going to have their hands full with these two.

Sweden is the sole representative of Northern Europe, and favorites to qualify from their group alongside England. They have a tradition of playing well as a team, and with players like the Arsenal winger Freddie Ljungberg and Juventus forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden are not lacking in individual talent either.

Finally, the US have one of the teams whose matches I am personally anticipating the most. The only team playing soccer instead of football, their performances in the World Cup have been uneven, but when everything goes well, there are few teams they cannot beat. They also tend to play attractive football, occasionally resulting in high-scoring matches.

Games to Watch

Obviously, if you are only going to watch a single match, wait for the final. Still, the final is never the most entertaining match in the tournament. It is difficult to tell in advance what is going to be the match of the tournament. High-tension matches with two good teams can result equally well in lots of goals and excitement and in a goalless draw. A team with a spectator-friendly, attacking style of play can find all their efforts stifled by their opponents’ defensive tactics.

The favorites Brazil rarely disappoint. They are not just successful, they are also fun to watch. Germany, although not most famous for entertaining football, are likely to offer inspired performances in their own tournament. The style of Côte d’Ivoire and other teams from Africa leaves lots of room for individual creativity. Japan and Korea should not be overlooked either.

Although the best teams come face to face only after the group stage, there are a few matches with plenty of tension. Groups C and E are considered the “groups of death”, with no team having the luxury of an easy qualification. Netherlands-Argentina on 21 June and Czech Republic-Italy on 22 June promise to be exciting, particularly if no team has by then secured their place on the second round.

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