Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The World Cup and Me: An Introduction

You may have noticed that I'm a passionate follower of the World Cup. I'm sometimes asked by people in Europe how I, an American, became such a fan and know so much about the tournament and the sport in general as Americans are not generally known for being so passionate about the game of soccer/football/calcio. I don't know how it happened, I've just always loved the sport I guess. So since the World Cup is currently underway, I thought it might be interesting to do a blog series looking back at my own personal history of the World Cup through the years, maybe it will help explain why I go completely batshit crazy for a month every four years.

The first time I remember ever hearing about the World Cup was in 1982. I had just turned 11 and although I grew up playing several sports, soccer was always my favorite. Not surprisingly it was also the one I was best at. Around that time, one of our public tv stations, Channel 11, used to show a German League ("Bundesliga") match every Sunday morning and I was glued to the screen just mesmorized by what those guys could do with a soccer ball. I'd spend every Sunday watching teams with names like Bayer Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt and idolized players like Toni Schumacher and Rudi Voeller, often trying to mimic them in our Saturday morning games on dusty old Brickyard Field. Back then, Germany was all I knew about professional soccer because of channel 11 and also because my first coach, Bill Morris was a German guy and used to talk about them as the gold standard. In the summer of 1982 I was playing on a town traveling team and at one of our matches one of the fathers, Mike Kaberle, yelled across the field to another father the words that started it all for me:

"Italy just beat Germany to win the World Cup!"

I was shocked. I didn't really know what the World Cup was but I did know that there was some kind of big tournament going on because I'd heard Bill Morris talking about it. I had taken for granted that Germany would win of course because they were Germany after all. So the fact that there was a country out there who could actually beat them, wow, I couldn't believe it. There's a sizeable Italian population in Boston ("The North End") and I remember the nightly sportscast that night showing scenes of them dancing in the streets, waving flags, singing songs and just going nuts. We have a rich sports tradition in Boston and I grew up following the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins and had even seen the Celtics win a championship by that time but I'd never seen anything like that. At that moment, Italy, to me, became the magical land of soccer, a place where they ate pizza and spaghetti and played soccer day and night. I still liked Germany but in my mind, Italy had replaced them as king. It didn't matter that I knew none of their players or had never even seen them play; they'd beaten the powerful Germans.

Not long after, Channel 11 stopped showing Bundesliga matches. Back then there was no internet or cable which meant that places like Germany and Italy might as well have been on another planet. We had a "pro" league in the US, the NASL, but by the early 80's it was becoming a farce and was never shown on TV and anyway, the Boston team was so bad that I seem to remember them relocating to Jacksonville somewhere around that time. The US had not qualified for a World Cup since 1950 so there really was no national team to speak of. In fact the only US player I knew back then was Ricky Davis and that was only because he had been in a freaking soap commercial. Years later I would look back and wonder how different things would have been if I'd been born in a soccer-mad country and had world class players to grow up emulating. As it was I would have to wait 4 more years to be reminded that there was a whole different world of soccer outside of the Litchfield Youth Soccer League...

Up next: 1986.

Friday, June 11, 2010

World Cup Preview, Part III

Top 5 Golden Boot candidates (Top scorer): Luis Fabiano, David Villa, Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi

My pick: Luis Fabiano (Brazil)
Dark Horses: Diego Milito (Argentina), Robinho (Brazil)

Top 5 Golden Ball candidates (Top player): Lionel Messi, Xavi, Wesley Sneijder, Wayne Rooney, Christiano Ronaldo

My pick: Xavi
Dark Horses: Lucio (Brazil), Maicon (Brazil)

Top 5 Yashin candidates (Top GK): Iker Casillas, Julio Cesar, Gigi Buffon, Maartin Stekelenburg, Hugo Lloris

My Pick: Iker Casillas
Dark Horses: Mark Schwarzer (Australia), Tim Howard (USA)

Top 5 Candidates for Best Young Player: Mezut Ozil, Javier Hernandez, Yoann Gourcuff, Angel DiMaria, Jesus Navas

My Pick: Ozil (Germany)
Dark Horses: Dominic Adiyiah (Ghana), Alexis Sanchez (Chile)

My Top 5 Picks to Win It All: Brazil, The Netherlands, Spain, Argentina, Germany

My Pick: Brazil
My Dark Horse Pick: The Netherlands

Top 5 candidates for Most Entertaining Team: Spain, Brazil, The Netherlands, Argentina, Portugal

My Pick: The Netherlands
Dark Horse: Chile

African country I pick to go the furthest: Nigeria & Cameroon (Quarterfinals)

Number of African countries I’m picking to make the second round: 3

Number of African countries I’d be picking to make the second round if the tournament were not being held in Africa: 0

Best Nickname: Jong Tae-se, North Korea. The prolific goal scorer with the slightly plump figure is known in Asia as “The People’s Rooney”.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

World Cup Preview, Part II


Netherlands are the story here. I was almost prepared to pick them to win it all until the injury to Arjen Robben this past weekend which will keep him out at least for the first match, maybe more. With a healthy Robben, I personally think Holland are the strongest side in Europe, even better than Spain. They still enough to make a run at the prize but it’s hard to see them winning it without him, he is that much of a difference maker. It’s likely that at least one of their strikers - Kuyt, Van Persie, Huntelaar or star-in-waiting Eljerio Elia will challenge for the Golden Boot and they have possibly the world’s best playmaker in Wesley Sneijder directing the attack. The key for the Dutch will be how airtight their defense plays as they are breaking in a new goalkeeper in Maartin Stekelenburg after Edwin Van Der Saar’s international retirement. Watch out for defenseman Gregory Van Der Wiel who is on the verge of becoming the next big Dutch export. Holland are a solid team all around with enough in reserve to overcome the loss of Robben. They still remain my official darkhorse pick to left the Jules Rimet when all is said and done. A Quarterfinal matchup with the Brazilians looms which could well be the match of the tournament.

Denmark was quickly entering darkhorse territory themselves after an impressive qualifying campaign in which they easily topped a tough group that included Sweden and 2006 semifinalist Portugal. The Danes usually play solid ball but they might also be missing some key players due to injury. Simon Kjaer (who I know well as he plays in Serie A for Palermo) looks to be out for the opening match against the Netherlands. On offense they will go as far as Nicklas Bendtner takes them. They’ve had a poor run of form since qualifying and my guess is that they peaked too soon. With a good young nucleus of players like Bendtner, Kjaer and Daniel Agger, Denmark should in the hunt for the next WC again but I think they go home early from this one.

Cameroon are in a very tenuous position going into this tournament. Tabbed by most prognosticators as the most talented African team and the one that should go furthest, they currently have problems with the “spirit of the team”. Their all-everything striker Samuel Eto’o is unhappy about recent critical comments made by Cameroonian legend Roger Milla towards him and even threatened to quit the team over them. It’s no secret that Eto’o pretty much IS Cameroon so if he is unhappy or unmotivated, Cameroon will go home early. I’m betting on manager Paul LeGuen’s ability to keep the peace though and do just enough to finish second behind the Dutch. If the Indomitable Lions falter in their opening match to the Japanese, look for the team to fall apart and for the Danes to easily slide in second in this group.

Speaking of Japan, they’ve had a decent record of qualifying for the WC lately but have never won a match outside of their own country (2002). Don’t look for that streak to end here either, I think the best they can hope for in South Africa is picking up a draw or two. However, they have vowed to play an attacking style and indeed, they are coached by Brazilian legend Zico so they should at least be fun to watch.

My Picks:

1. The Netherlands
2. Cameroon
3. Denmark
4. Japan


As you know, I’ve lived in Italy for the past 10 years (minus a 2 year stint in Germany) and have followed the Azzurri religiously in that time. So it’s no small thing for me to say that this is probably the weakest version I can remember. Here in Italy most people are trying to keep the faith and trying to say the right things but the truth is, few really expect this team to go much further than the quarterfinals. Had they been drawn in a tougher group there’d be worries about them not even getting out of the first round. This is an old group but a proud group so they should never be counted out but there’s little to make me think that they can recapture the magic of 4 years ago when they came out of nowhere to lift their 4th World Cup trophy, second only to Brazil. Their only playmaker, Pirlo, will be out at least the first 2 matches and there’s nobody else on the roster who can create like he does. His absence puts more pressure on Ricardo Montolivo and Andrea Cossu, both making their WC debuts. Up front they will probably rely on Alberto Gilardino and Iaquinta, both decent finishers, but neither has done much in International play. Toto DiNatale is the most prolific goal scorer in Serie A but has never been able to replicate that for La Nazionale for some reason. There’s hope in Italy that he might be the Toto Schillaci of this WC. Without Pirlo, much will be expected of Daniele DeRossi who might just be the best player on the current roster. The defense is, in a word, old. Fabio Cannavaro won the best player award in 2006 but he’s 37 now and has lost a little more than just a step. Ditto Zambrotta. The strongest defender is Giorgio Chiellini; if Italy are to go far, they will need one of their young defenders – either Bonucci, Criscito or Maggio – to step up big time. Between the sticks they are set with Gigi Buffon, still regarded as one of the top 2 or 3 goalkeepers in the world. It’s fashionable to be down on the Azzurri these days as the current team has not looked very impressive lately. But they are still Italy and should not be overlooked. Last time that happened was 4 years ago and looked how that turned out…

Paraguay figures to be Italy’s main challenger for top spot in this group. I don’t know too much about them but I do know that they usually raise their game considerably when they play in the World Cup. They should also be helped by the altitude and southern hemisphere climate. I’ve also seen enough of them to know that they can definitely score goals.

Slovakia are playing in their first World Cup but it figures to be a short lived experience. Their best player by far is Marek Hamsik who stars for Napoli in Italy’s Serie A. Best known for his crazy spiked hairdo, he is a dynamic playmaker, deadly finisher and will most likely be on the move to a much bigger club before too long (Inter have been rumored to have strong interest in him). Slovakia should go as far as he can take them. They were decisive in qualifying but in a pretty weak group and they give up a lot of goals which will not bode well for them at this World Cup. Second place is not out of the realm of possibility for this team though given the competition.

New Zealand, along with North Korea, are widely seen as the worst team in the tournament. I don’t see it that way. I’ve watched them play a few times and they are full of pluck and fight. On any given day they are capable of a shock upset, especially considering the fact that they’ll be playing in a familiar climate. They will most likely finish bottom of the group but they are hardly going to go down without a fight. I recall watching them come within a whisker of upsetting Italy in a friendly about a year ago, giving the mall they could handle before losing 4-3 in a very entertaining match. If they can carry the spirit they displayed in that match into the World Cup, they should at least provide a good show.

My Picks:

1. Italy
2. Paraguay
3. Slovakia
4. New Zealand


The popular pick for the “Group of Death” but I disagree; no group that features North Korea can be considered a group of death in my eyes. Still, this should be a very entertaining group to watch. It all begins with Brazil of course. This should be a very different Brazil team than we’re used to seeing as they are built on a defense first mentality. And what a defense they have, maybe the best Brazilian defense I’ve ever seen. First you’ve got the twin pillars of Maicon and Lucio, both of whom anchored Inter’s historic Treble this past season. Lucio has been making a name for himself as perhaps the world’s best defender the past year or two but he is also dangerous carrying the ball forward. In addition, you’ve got Thiago Silva who was far and away AC Milan’s best defender this past season, plus Daniel Alves, Michael Bastos, Juan and Gilberto. This is a strong defense. Behind them is Julio Cesar, one of the top 2 or 3 keepers in the world and also a teammate of Lucio and Maicon at Inter.Dunga may have built this team on defense but they can still score a ton too. Up front they are lead by Luis Fabiano who is one of the most prolific Brazilian strikers ever (He is also my pick for the Golden Boot). He is joined by Robihno who is usually quickly dismissed by pundits as a bust for not living up to his enormous potential (and contract) in Europe but who saves his best performances for the Selecao. Their weakness is in the midfield though, which could prove costly. It may seem crazy to call any midfield that features Kaka a weak spot but he has been slowed by injuries the past year or so and has not looked himself for either Real Madrid or Brazil lately. He’s joined by Felipe Melo who has been in poor form for both club (Juventus) and country and who was somewhat of a surprise inclusion to the squad. If they end up against The Netherlands, poor midfield play could see them out of the tournament as players like Sneijder, Van Bommel and Van Der Vaart could eat them alive. Dunga took a huge gamble leaving both Ronaldinho and Pato at home this World Cup. If they don’t win it all, he will be crucified back home. I think he’ll be ok. Brazil are my pick to win the whole thing.

People seem to be forgetting that Portugal made the semifinals 4 years ago. They are a dangerous team who have more to offer than Christiano Ronaldo. Up front, they finally may have found a striker who can take some of the scoring pressure off Ronaldo in Liedson, a Brazilian born naturalized citizen. They should be lively in the midfield as well although midfield artiste Deco is getting up in age although Tiago may be ready to take over anyway. Carvalho anchors the defense as always and is one of the better ones and the inclusion of Pepe only strengthens the unit. Losing Nani to injury takes away another scoring option but it might not be a huge loss given his inconsistency and I think Simao is a better option hands down. My view is that Portugal’s best chance at WC glory was 4 years ago and they couldn’t quite get over the hump. They should finish second in this group which means a second round match up with arch rival Spain awaits.

So far the biggest story leading up to the World Cup has been the unbelievable amount of injuries to key players. And no team has been as unlucky as the Ivory Coast in this regard as they will probably be without Didier Drogba, the heart and soul of the team and the one African player who was supposed to shine brightest at this cup. He suffered a broken arm in a friendly against Japan and although there is still hope that he might see the field, perhaps with a cast, he won’t be the same and neither will the Ivory Coast. In a different group they’d still be able to scrape through but they were unfortunate to draw Brazil and Portugal who I think would beat them even with a healthy Drogba.

Nobody really knows much about North Korea. Here in Italy, the mere mention of the name makes people shake their heads as they still talk about NK’s shock 1-0 over Italy in the 66 WC that saw Italy go home early. They’ll face Brazil in their opener but there’s no chance they can hope for a repeat of 1966 I’m afraid. They go three and out and head home early.

My Picks:

1. Brazil
2. Portugal
3. Ivory Coast
4. North Korea


Spain are the odds on favorite to win World Cup 2010. It’s funny to think about that as, for most of their history, they were known as the biggest underachieving sides in every tournament they entered. I guess finally winning a major tournament (Euro 2008) changed people’s minds about Spain. I’m still not convinced though. Yes they are completely stacked. Yes, they have two of the world’s best strikers in Torres and Villa. Yes, they have one of the best midfields in the world with Iniesta, Xavi and Xabi Alonso. Yes, they have Iker Casillas in goal, one of the top keepers in the world. Despite all this, how far they go will depend on how well they defend. Puyol gets most of the press but Sergio Ramos was the star at Euro 2008 and Gerard Pique might just be their best defender these days. Nobody will be surprised if Spain win the World Cup this year but I don’t think they will. With all of their talent, they still suffer from mental lapses and tend to play down to the level of their competition at time (witness their loss to the US in last year’s Confederations Cup). They’ll win this group easily and should go very far, if not all the way, but in the end, they are still Spain and I think they will stumble, possibly against Argentina in the semifinal.

Chile should be fun to watch as they are the classic “all or nothing” team. If Humberto Suarez is back from his injury and fit, they should score a lot of goals – he was the leading scorer in South American qualifying as Chile finished second behind Brazil. They give up a lot of goals too which should prevent them from getting too far but it should be a fun ride. They are another team that could benefit from the tournament being held in a similar climate/altitude. If they do finish second as I predict, it will set up a dynamic second round matchup with Brazil. What a match that should be.

The Swiss have a pretty good track record of making tournaments but once they get there they seldom impress. The young generation that was being groomed for Euro 2008 never lived up to their potential and their best goal scoring threat, Alexander Frei, left practice yesterday with an injury. The Swiss always rely on defense – amazingly, they were the first team to get knocked out of a WC without conceding a single goal in 2006 – but in a group with Spain and Chile, their defense probably won’t be good enough. They were very fortunate to draw Spain in their opening match and they can somehow escape with a draw, they could very well go through. I say it doesn’t happen.

Honduras are just happy to be here. They benefitted from a weak qualifying group in which they finished level on points with Costa Rica but went through on goal differential. They probably couldn’t have asked for a better draw but it shouldn’t matter, they have little chance of going through despite some talented players such as David Suazo (plays for Genoa in Italy) and Wilson Palacios (Tottenham Hotspur, England).

My Picks:

1. Spain
2. Chile
3. Switzerland
4. Honduras

(More thoughts later on…)

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

World Cup Preview, Part I

Decided to come back to the blog, at least during the World Cup. Here goes...


Strange group, very difficult to predict as all 4 teams are question marks. France would normally be heavy favorites here but they have been playing terrible lately and only qualified because of the infamous double hand ball by Thierry Henry. The injury to Diarra will hurt them more than most people realize and two of their more reliable strikers (Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri) will be watching the World Cup from home. They also have problems in defense as Eric Abidal and William Gallas have not clicked for some reason. I’ve never liked Gallas mainly because of his attitude and I can see that being a problem in a squad that seems on the verge of self destructing at any moment. They survived – and thrived – in 2006 mainly because of the leadership and midfield play of Zinedane Zidane. He won’t be there in 2010 and Yoann Gourcuff has yet to step up and fulfill the role as many (including me) predicted. France are a team that could just as easily make the semifinals as crash out of the first round.

Mexico are hard to get a handle on as they started out with a terrible qualifying campaign and were actually on the verge of not qualifying at all when they got smart and fired Sven-Goran Erikkson before it was too late and replaced him with Mexican coach extraordinaire Javier Aguire. Aguire turned things around quick and Mexico has been in fine form since the switch. Still, they have a young team without a lot of international experience and when your best player plies his trade in the MLS, well, let’s just say that doesn’t bode well for their chances.

Uruguay are the wild cards in this group. A lot of people are tabbing them to advance from this group mostly on the strength of their two world class strikers, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez. They should score some goals but their defense is swiss cheese. They were actually the last team to qualify from the South American federation (CONMEBOL). If they are to go through, they will probably have to score a lot of goals as they will probably give up their share. If the defense can hold out, they could easily go through though.

Everyone has written off South Africa before the tournament has even started…everyone except me that is. I may be the only person in the world crazy enough to predict it but I honestly think the Befana Befana have a good chance of making it out of Group A for a few different reasons. For one thing, you cannot discount the effect of being hosts. Granted, they are probably the weakest hosts in the history of the tournament but are they really that much worse than the US team that shocked the world in 1994 and made it out of a group that included Columbia and Romania? I don’t think they are. Strange things happen when a country hosts a World Cup. How else do you explain the South Koreans making it all the way to the semifinal in 2002? There are other factors at work here too. For one thing, FIFA are corrupt. I’ve followed this World Cup closely and from the moment South Africa were announced as shock hosts, FIFA chief Sepp Blatter has talked non-stop about how much Africa deserves to host a WC and how the continent has been plundered by the rest of the world for years so it’s time to give something back (yes, he actually said that). Not only that, but FIFA have tried to stack the deck in favor of the African teams, even making sure no two African teams were drawn in the same group, presumably increasing the chances that more of them would make the second round. Then there’s the team itself. They endured a rough stretch but Parreira (won the WC as coach of Brazil in 94) seems to have put things together recently and they have enjoyed a good run of form at the right time. The player everyone knows is Steven Pienaar as he plays in the English Premiership for Everton but I like Katlego Mphela and think he could be a player to watch at this WC. Add all this together and I’m picking South Africa to advance from this round.

My Picks:

1. France
2. South Africa
3. Uruguay
4. Mexico


Argentina are obviously the class of this group. There’s a lot to like about them, starting with the obvious – FIFA world player of the year Lionel Messi. Beyonf him, they also feature Sergio Aguera, Carlos Tevez, Diego Milito and Higuain so goals should not be a problem for them. Their defense, often overlooked, should be tough as well, led by Walter Samuel who played a big part in Inter winning the treble this past season. Some surprises in midfield however as stalwarts Javier Zanetti and Cambiasso were passed over in favor of Pastore and Maxi Rodriguez. That means it all could rely on Juan Sebastian Veron who has certainly seen better days. Argentina definitely has the talent to win the whole thing, especially since it’s being played outside Europe and in the southern hemisphere. They will win their group easily and go far but they won’t win it all for one reason: Diego Armando Maradona. More of a hindrance than anything, he’s been crap as a manager. He experimented way too much and tried too many different players and I just don’t think he has what it takes to guide a team to a WC title as a manager. I’m guessing he has at least one off the field episode before it’s all said and done.

Nigeria are my pick for the African team that goes the furthest in this WC. They were lucky to be drawn in a relatively easy group and should come second. Obafemi Martins has been one of the most consistent strikers over the past 10 years, never flashy but puts the bulge in the onion bag. They could sneak into the quarterfinals with an easy draw in the second round as well. On any other continent I wouldn’t give Nigeria much of a chance but they’ve been the more successful land competitive African teams over the past 20 years and I’m betting that playing on the continent will raise their game.

Greece are Greece. They’ll keep 10-11 players behind the ball and look to take advantage on the counter attack. If they have any chance of going through, they will have to win their first two matches. Their two biggest assets are coach Otto Rehagel who consistently gets his teams to overachieve and hitman Theo Gekas.

South Korea has probably been the most successful Asian team in World Cup history. They always seem to make the final stages but have only once advanced past the first round – and even that deserves an asterisk as it was at home and due mostly to some very questionable refereeing in their favor (Like I said, FIFA are corrupt). Win or lose, they are usually fun to watch as they feature a lot of movement and are never afraid to take chances. Sort of like the anti-Greece. They’re led by JS Park who stars for Manchester United but is currently suffering from a hamstring injury that could see him miss some if not all of the tournament. They don’t have much else going for them though and I’m predicting a last place finish for them in Group B.

My Picks:

1. Argentina
2. Nigeria
3. Greece
4. South Korea


All the focus is on England and the US but you would be wise not to overlook Slovenia or even Algeria, both of whom are capable of springing an upset. England should win this group but I don’t think it’s going to be the cakewalk that everyone is expecting. Losing Rio Ferdinand hurts them in the back and up front they need to pray that Rooney stays healthy. Seems like he picks up an injury at every major tournament England play in. They’re basically the same team that didn’t qualify for Euro 2008 with a couple differences, the biggest being Fabio Capello of course. Don’t overlook James Milner, he had a great season for Aston Villa and could be needed. England seem to be everyone’s fad pick to win it all for some reason but I still see weaknesses, not the least of which are in goal. Not only that but my feeling is that the altitude will affect them negatively. I’m always pulling for England and I’m hoping they go far. But I don’t see them winning it all. Regardless of whether they win the group or finish second, a tough draw will await them in the next round.

Being overseas for the past 12 years means that I am not as familiar as I probably should be with the US national team. I am a big fan of Clint Dempsey and I think he’s the most talented and dangerous player on the team, even more so than Landon Donovan. The US are not the most tactfully gifted team but what they lack in skill and organization, they more than make up for in grit and determination. That could be enough to get them through to the next round with this draw but they will have trouble against teams who are organized in attack. Onyewu was showing signs of being a star in the Confederations Cup last year and then tore up a knee tendon and lost an entire season. He still doesn’t look entirely healthy and the layoff seems to have left him rusty. That could really hurt the US. Fortunately they have Tim Howard in goal and he is the kind of keeper who could get hot and carry a team (similar to Kasey Keller in 02). I’m picking the US to advance in second place but I’m not entirely convinced that Slovenia will go through in their place.

Slovenia are a team devoid of stars but they are at least as good as the US tactically and they play in a much tougher qualifying region, having beaten a very strong Russia team to make the WC. They are the classic team that everyone overlooks and then springs a shock upset. Plus, they are from the Balkans and in case you’re not familiar with my “Balkans Principle”, it goes something like this – in every WC or European championships, there is almost always at least 1 team from the Balkans that surprises people and goes further than anyone predicted. Past examples are Romania and Bulgaria (1994), Croatia (1998), Turkey (2002), Greece (2004) and both Turkey and Croatia again (2008). The smart money is on Serbia for the Balkans Principle this year but don’t overlook Slovenia.

Algeria are best known for causing one the biggest upsets in WC history when they beat West Germany in 1982. On paper they don’t have much but they easily handled African champions Egypt in qualifying so they should not be taken lightly.

My Picks:

1. England
2. US
3. Slovenia
4. Algeria


This is my pick for the real “Group of Death”. Germany are always Germany, Serbia are a very popular dark horse pick, Ghana have been the best team in Africa the past few years and the one who went the furthest 4 years ago and Australia have been coming on strong lately, making the knockout stages in 2006 before losing a heartbreaker to eventual champion Italy. All 4 teams have a realistic chance of going through here. Germany should win the group, even without Ballack, their midfield general. Schweinsteiger will step up and look for another youngster to make his mark, probably Mesut Ozil. Low needs to resist the temptation to stick with Miroslav Klose who is obviously past his prime. Podolski is their best option at striker now. He hasn’t had a good domestic season but always raises his game for the Mannschaft.

Serbia dominated their qualifying group, a group which included France. Since then they’ve looked disorganized and uninspired. Serbia are a defensive team and that’s what is expected to carry them far in this WC but I’m not convinced. While everyone seems to picking them as a darkhorse, I’m picking them as a darkhorse disappointment to crash out early.

Australia are a much better team than people give them credit for. They played out of their skulls in 2006 and bring back a similar team this year. I REALLY want to pick them second in this group for the simple fact that the tournament is in the southern hemisphere which might give them a slight edge. But I just can’t do it as I can’t see them recreating the same magic of the 06 team that took Italy to the wire.

Ghana suffered a major blow when Michael Essien was lost with injury. He’s the engine that makes them go. I am picking them to go through this group for 3 reasons. First, they have some young, dynamic talent such as Dominic Adiyiah who can really pressure defenses. Second, even without Essien, they came one or two bad calls from upsetting Brazil four years ago and can hang with almost any team in the world. And Third, they are from Africa. Not only does that mean they will get a mental boost by playing a WC in Africa but it also means that they could benefit from FIFA wanting very badly for African teams to have a good showing. Hint hint.

My Picks:

1. Germany
2. Ghana
3. Australia
4. Serbia