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The Cup Running Over


May 25, 2010 7:16 AM

Surprise Selections (and other news) from Group F, the Easiest Group in South Africa -- Italy, Paraguay, Slovakia, and New Zealand

Group F is, by far, the easiest group in South Africa, which means it's a godsend for defending champion Italy, which always starts slowly. The fight for second will be between Paraguay and Slovakia; New Zealand is in the running to be the worst team ever to go to a World Cup tournament.

    ITALY

This being Italy, there was enormous controversy surrounding the announcement of the squad, despite the fact that there were no real surprises. The Italian press has been militating for months for a squad place for Sampadoria's hot-tempered Antonio Cassano, but manager Marcello Lippi made clear months ago that he wasn't coming to South Africa. Yes, striker Luca Toni (Roma) was left off the squad but he looked too old even four years ago. Yes, there was no recall for the internationally retired Francesco Totti (Roma) but last-minute recalls are few and far between on World Cup squads. And yes, hero from last time Fabio Grosso was left off the squad, but anyone who has seen him play at Lyon and then Juventus over the past 18 months can understand why. He's lost it.

What returning manager Lippi has wisely done - even though it's hard on a championship team - is to jettison some of the veterans and replace them with younger talent, including the American-turned-Italian young star Giuseppe Rossi, who is the only player on the squad not to be play in the Italian league. (He's at Villarreal.) That means Lippi will be relying up front not only on Rossi but Sampadoria's top-form striker, Gianpoalo Pazzini and Alberto Gilardino (Fiorentina), who seems like he's been around forever but is only 27.

In the middle and at the back, Italy still has its 30+-year-old veterans, including 2006 MVP Andre Pirlo (Milan), not to mention Fabio Cannavaro (Juventus), Gianluca Zambrotta (Inter), and Gigi Buffon (Juventus), whom many think is still the best keeper in the world. Italy tends to play better when World Cups are played in Europe. But this is a team that should not be discounted - especially given its first-round draw.

    PARAGUAY

Paraguay is perpetually underrated (even though it's in the tourney for the fourth consecutive time) and in this group has a chance to advance. The squad selections were going to do little to alter the reality that for Paraguay to go to the next round, it needs a superlative tournament from striker Roque Santa Cruz (Man City) who is going away the team's major offensive threat but is often hurt.

The team was dependent on Santa Cruz before, but after the other starting striker, Salvador Cabanes, was shot in the head outside a Mexico City bar in January, his performance becomes even more key. To help Santa Cruz out, Paraguay called up Borussia Dortmund's Argentinean-born striker, Lucas Barrios, but, of course, Paraguay is also coached by an Argentine - Gerardo "El Tata" Martino.

The team is solid in midfield and decent at the back but things have gotten off to a bad start, what with news Monday that the team had $110,000 stolen from a hotel room in France. According to news reports, "A thief posed as a Paraguayan athlete and got a member of the hotel staff to let him into a room."

Is bad karma stalking the team? Paraguayan fans remember that last time, keeper Justo Villar (Real Valladolid), played all of seven minutes of the first match before going off with an injury. The team needs him to stay a little healthier this time and it needs a little better luck all around too.

    
    SLOVAKIA

Slovakia, a World Cup newcomer (at least in its present form), is probably the least expected team in South Africa and it got here with a powerful offense that carried it to the top of a group that included arch-rival the Czech Republic, as well as Poland and Slovenia. So, if we're talking surprises, put the whole squad on the list since even soccer aficionados don't know most of the players on this team, much less the local squads for whom they play. (Kamil Kopunek of Spartak Trnava?)

Credit should go to largely unknown coach Vladamir Weiss, whose son is on the squad. The "stars" are Marek Hamsik, the young midfielder for Napoli and frequently hurt defender Martin Skrtel, well known to Liverpool fans. The team scored 22 goals in qualification in only ten games but Paraguay and Italy are defense-oriented teams. How much this band of outsiders can crank it up against those squads will determine how far it goes.

The fervor this team inspires at home could well stoke the fires of nationalism, which have recently been rekindled by the passage of a controversial patriotism law, vetoed by the president, which required, among other things, that schools play the national anthem every Monday. President Ivan Gasparovic said that schools hadn't been given enough time to comply (not enough loudspeakers) and didn't have the money to pay for the flags, coats of arms, and other symbols of statehood which would be required to be displayed in every classroom.

For the moment, the exploits of the soccer team will have to do.

   
    NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand doesn't simply have the worst team in this group. It's very likely the worst team at the tournament and maybe, even, in the history of the World Cup. This is a team that lost to Fiji in qualification yet still managed to get here by winning the Oceania group and then defeating Bahrain 1-0 in a two-game playoff which consisted of 180 of the most boring minutes of soccer imaginable.

The team is composed mostly of players from the New Zealand pro league - not known for its prowess, frankly - as well as the MLS, the Australian league, and the lower regions of the English leagues. At one time the manager said he was thinking of bringing four goalies to South Africa but this team is so bad that it could play all four at once and still lose every game decisively.


NZU23_1_Chile_0_Olywhites_handsonhearts400.jpg
New Zealand is sending one of the worst teams in World Cup tournament history to South Africa. (Courtesy -- NZ Football)


The surprise call-ups to the squad were home-based Canterbury midfielder Aaron Clapham and young defender Winston Reid, who plays in Denmark for FC Midtjylland (which we're pretty sure we misspelled in some way).

A newspaper headline recently described keeper Mark Poston as "quietly confident." We're quietly confident that Mr. Poston is going to be spending a lot of his time in South Africa fishing the ball out of the back of his own net.



 Steven and Harrison Stark are the co-authors of World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics, recently published by Blue River Press. They are analyzing the World Cup for Real Clear Sports.

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