World Cup 2006 Preview
Four long years have passed since Korea/Japan, and with them the events that took place. Now resigned to the history books are Ronaldo's redemption, Oliver Kahn's blunder, and South Korea's ref-aided march to the final four. As a United States supporter, the heroics of Brad Friedel and Tony Sanneh will be replaced by new memories which will be discussed for another four years, good or bad. It's time for new heroes and villains to arise.
If you're not up to speed on the players and teams, I highly recommend World Soccer's preview issue. It's pricey ($8) but worth it.
Before I get to the predictions, there's a few interesting things I'd like to discuss.
Facts & Figures
1) World Cup teams' performance vs the other 31 teams. Since the 2002 cup ended, how have teams played against their competition in 2006? I posted about this back on May 10, but there have been several friendlies since then, so here's an updated table:
vs the other 31 (2006 cycle)
Read here for more info on this. Since the last rankings, the Czech Republic has won three matches (S.Arabia, Costa Rica, Trinidad) to move up to #3. The other notable thing is that Switzerland had two more chances (I.Coast, Italy) to beat a World Cup team, but are still winless.
2) FIFA's World Cup site has had tremendous coverage, and yesterday they had an article with a really interesting stat: No team with an average age of 28 or higher has won the World Cup since 1962. This year, Brazil/Czech Republic/France/Italy all are in that category. If that holds true, then one of Argentina/England/Germany/Spain should be lifting the cup on July 9.
They say international football is a young man's game, so we'll see if Cafu and Roberto Carlos and the other "old guys" can keep up.
3) Voros McCracken, (sort of) famous for his DIPS statistical work in baseball, is a member on Bigsoccer and last week posted his World Cup simulation results. According to his formula, the team most likely to win the World Cup is France, slightly ahead of Brazil. The next three teams are Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain. Fascinating stuff. See this thread for more details.
4) 13 of 14 European teams are favored to advance according to the odds. In reality, at least 4-5 won't. Those teams get overrated in the media, and I posted about this issue right after the draw in December.
4. Costa Rica
Despite their struggles, Germany far outclasses the other three teams and is one of the best bets to win all three group matches. Their "struggles" really haven't been that bad, it's just that the public expects more from a 3-time world champion. Sort of like their situation four years ago, huh? The other three teams here don't have players with the quality of Michael Ballack, Jens Lehmann, or Miroslav Klose.
Not only that, but they all have struggled in recent friendlies. Poland lost to Lithuania and Colombia, while Costa Rica and Ecuador are a combined 0-6-1 since March 1st.
It seems to be a "who sucks less" type of deal. Ecuador famously struggles when not playing in the comforts of their home altitude. In qualifying, they were unbeaten at home and 1-6-2 away, the only victory coming in the equally high Bolivia. Also, most of their players play in Ecuador, not known for being a strong league. Although LDU (which 7 players on the squad play for) are in the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores, the first Ecuador team in 8 years to achieve that.
Costa Rica also uses mainly domestic players. They have some talented guys, but the team is nowhere near the incredible form that the 2002 edition was displaying. They couldn't get of the group then, so it seems foolish to expect advancement now.
I also read yesterday that in the opening game, Klose will be marked by Galaxy failure Michael Umana. Uh, yeah.
Poland has some decent players in good European leagues, so they seem to be the choice by default.
4. Trinidad & Tobago
England's top players are all in or around their primes, so it's now or never for Sven's men. The group shouldn't pose any troubles.
Sweden and Paraguay are both mid-level World Cup teams, just outside the top contenders. It's a toss up for second place. Sweden seems to be favored slightly due to the attacking exploits of Zlatan Ibrahimovich and Henrik Larsson. Paraguay has a decent attack too, but are more known for their defense. Given that the tournament's in Europe, and the quality of the Swedish forwards, they should advance.
Trinidad will be lucky to get a point, and are in line to finish 32nd. I thought that the discipline of coach Beenhaker could keep the games close, but it seems that the athleticism and youth of Angola and Togo probably give those teams a better shot. The draw doesn't help either. But along with most other US soccer fans, they're my #2 team.
3. Serbia & Montenegro
4. Cote d'Ivoire
The group of death should not claim either of the favorites. Their meeting on the third match day could prove meaningless.
Jose Pekerman, Argentina's coach, has brought in mostly players who played under him in his tenure as the (highly successful) U-20 coach. It should be a really good team ready to challenge for the title. I actually think they're a better team overall than the Netherlands, but somehow I don't think they match up well.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands are the biggest mystery in Germany. Marco van Basten has brought in younger players while dropping some veterans, and I could see them crashing out early or winning the entire thing. I do think that they're more likely to not advance than Argentina.
Cote d'Ivoire is highly talented, but play the two big teams first and are unlikely to win either match. Like Cameroon last time, expectations are too high.
I placed Serbia third because they seem more likely to grind out a 0-0 draw against the better teams. Good defensively, but scoring goals will be tough (just 12 in 15 games vs. the other 31, see above).
No contest here. I see Mexico and Portugal drawing in the third meaningless game, and Mexico finishing first on goal difference. That's because the Angola opener against their former colony will be tougher than anticipated for the Portuguese.
Angola seems more likely to shock someone than Togo, at the very least. They don't have as many Euro players as Senegal four years ago, but a decent number play or have played in Portugal. They also seem to have better unity, and no huge star like Togo's Adebayor.
Iran has some highly regarded players, but they won't be able to score goals as easily against Mexico and Portugal as they do against Asian teams.
2. United States
3. Czech Republic
Italy are the favorites, and rightly so. Their talent speaks for itself.
The Czech Republic and the USA will have a tough match to open things, with the loser in tough shape. The Czechs may be full of talented players, but they really did not impress too much in qualifying. They led UEFA with 35 goals scored, but the majority came from beating up on the lesser teams. They only scored 8 goals in 6 games vs the top three teams in the group.
They also rely on older players, and have a few niggling injuries. That's similar to Portugal in 2002. The USA won't surprise anyone, but a victory over the Czechs would. But it shouldn't. The USA has some very good players, and if no one goes down with injury they can go toe to toe with the Czechs and Italy.
I thought Ghana was the best African team of the five. After the draw I wrote off their chances,
but now they seem to have gotten things together. They just beat South Korea and crushed Jamaica. Now they have Chelsea's Michael Essien, who missed the Nations Cup. With Addo, Appiah, and Kuffour, they have players who have played at the highest level. With those players, they should not leave pointless at the very least.
Despite facing three capable teams, Brazil is still hugely favored to get 9 points. The battle for second is where the real excitement lies. So is it better to face Brazil first or last?
Actually, Australia may be better off facing them in the middle. While they may already have qualified after two games, their reserves are still above Japan's level (just ask Costa Rica). I don't think the Japanese will win both of the first two games, and they'll probably need a result in the Brazil match.
Japan is so inconsistent, looking like a top team one moment and nobodies the next. Unfortunately they seem to be struggling at the wrong moment. It's often been said that Japan and the USA are the closest countries in terms of their soccer history, with both leagues starting in the 90s. They're also just starting to have an impact at the World Cup. So if Japan follows the USA's pattern like they have so far (90/98-three and out, 94/02-round of 16 as hosts), then they could be in for a USA 1998 style disappointment.
Croatia is always underrated, as they've been one of Europe's best since they became a team. But like so many others, I have to believe in Gus Hiddink's abilities and go with Australia to advance. The Aussies have a bunch of players in the top Euro leagues, and a better profile than South Korea in 2002. Qualifying was always a struggle for them, so things may actually be easier in the actual tournament.
2. South Korea
France, along with Spain, got the draw of a lifetime back in December. Both should have no problems reaching the quarterfinals, even if they struggle a bit to find their form. The French are probably the most underrated team in this year's tournament. People always seem to write off any big power who struggles at all, like Germany and Brazil in 2002. Yes, they didn't score a goal in 2002, but their talent is still almost unparalleled. They should have no problems finishing first here, as Henry could be on his way to the Golden Boot.
Togo appears to be the worst team in the entire tournament. Their captain plays in Cyprus, of all places. It's between Switzerland and South Korea for second place, and while I'm not too impressed with the Koreans, they have a good coach in Dick Advocaat and I'll pick them to advance.
Switzerland has a number of young and talented players, which gives them the potential to shock some people in Germany. But it's likely that they'll be more prepared to make an impact in 2010.
4. Saudi Arabia
Spain should not have a hard time, assuming they get off to a good start and beat the Ukraine. They may be the weakest of all the seeded teams, but even they couldn't screw up in this group.
Tunisia has played very well in every competition over the last four years. They won the 2004 African Nations Cup on home soil, and only lost this year on penalties. The Confederations Cup last year saw them beat Australia while playing tough against Argentina and Germany. While the "vs the other 31" table above may be flawed, I think it shows that Tunisia is underrated. They are coached by France's 2002 coach, Roger Lemerre.
So yes, I believe they are in position to beat out the Ukraine for the runners up spot. Andy Shevchenko is an amazing player, but it seems that mid-level teams overly reliant on one player don't succeed very often. Just look at Slovenia and Poland last time. Actually, I think Poland 2002 is the perfect comparison for this team (see here for my thoughts on that). As I mentioned earlier, like all of the lesser European teams, they are overrated.
Saudi Arabia are an unknown quantity for the most part, but it doesn't seem like they can do anything. They need to defeat Tunisia in the opener in what amounts to an elimination match.
Who Will Advance?
Here's a list of who is predicted to advance based on ten different factors. In order, they are:
3-vs other 31 (see above)
6-2002 World Cup performance
7-all time World Cup performance (PPG)
10-country's GDP (per capita)
Interesting stuff. IIRC, the FIFA rankings were a pretty good predictor last time around. Let's see if Costa Rica, Japan, South Korea, and Tunisia can prove them right.
Of course, 15 of the 16 odds makers favorites also are the best all time teams. Only Saudi Arabia isn't.
The only teams to advance in every category are Germany, Argentina, and France.
The only teams to not advance in any category are Ecuador, Trinidad, Serbia, Angola, Ghana, and Togo.
Round of 16
Germany over Sweden
Netherlands over Portugal
Italy over Australia
France over Tunisia
England over Poland
Argentina over Mexico
Brazil over United States
Spain over South Korea
Undoubtedly, two of the big teams will end up meeting here. The C/D matchups should be the most interesting here.
Germany over Netherlands
France over Italy
England over Argentina
Brazil over Spain
This is where the big tests start, especially for France and Spain. This is also where Germany will have to prove that they are really championship material.
Spain is really not that difficult of an opponent for Brazil. Italy are very good, but they'll likely play France here, and I just have a better feeling about France. It could go either way though. Argentina, I almost feel like I'm underrating them. But they're in line to meet Germany or England, both physical rivals who are up to the task.
France over Germany
Brazil over England
I think this is getting to the point where talent wins out over the home field advantage. No further for the Germans.
Germany over England
Brazil over France
As I said before, France 2006 = Germany 2002. They can emulate them by losing to Brazil in the final as well. How can you pick against Brazil? France's easy early games will give them the confidence to make it here, but I think we'll see Brazil's revenge for 1998.