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The Cup Running Over


May 14, 2010 9:09 AM

The World Cup Silly Season Continues: Surprise Selections (and other news) from Group B -- Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, and Greece

The same caveats as before: We're in the silly season, when pundits overanalyze everything pertaining to the World Cup. Still, let's join the throngs and look at the surprise developments (if any) with squad selection and other matters with Group B - Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, and Greece.

In the predicted order of finish:

    ARGENTINA

This World Cup's longest-running soap opera continues with the team selections from manager, former superstar, and a man who once claimed that the Pope disrespected him  - Diego Maradona. Maradona, of course, went through 78 players in qualification, bizarrely selecting players who hadn't appeared on the team sheet in years and dropping superstars like hotcakes. So, it's probably not a surprise at all that when the squad announcement was made earlier this week, Maradona had dropped two mainstays of both this squad and Champions League finalist Inter Milan - namely defender Javier Zanetti and midfielder Esteban Cambiasso - not to mention Marseille's Lucho "Commander" Gonzalez and Real Madrid's Fernando Gago. Meanwhile, it looks like the defenders at the back who will play are all central defenders, meaning some folks will be playing out of their usual position. Who made it? Well besides the obvious names (Messi, Mascherano, Tevez, etc.) there's Ariel Garce, the Colon defender who supposedly impressed Maradona against Haiti, not that it's that difficult to look good against the Haitians. Then there's midfielder Juan Mercier of Newell's Old Boys - another superstar when Haitians are the opposition - and the Lanus midfielder Sebastian Blanco. Not exactly household names, though Juan Sebastian Veron is, even though he's 35 and over the hill.

But as we've been saying all along, there's method in the madness. This is a soccer power that has miserably underperformed on the international stage ever since Maradona was in his prime - never getting past the quarterfinals in the last four Cups and never beating a western European side in open play (as opposed to penalty kicks) since 1986. Maradona is out to change the whole mindset of Argentinean soccer - what with its over-aggressive fouling and a scheme in which all the offensive play goes through a central playmaker. If the goal is a complete tactical restart, what better way to do it than getting rid of many of the central architects of the old guard and bringing in ten players who play at home?

Having said all that, Maradona's main task - now that he has his team - is to make it all mesh and find a tactical way to unleash Barcelona's Leo Messi, the greatest player in the world. Messi spent the last year at Barca wowing fans and opponents everywhere (he was "playing a kick-about with Jesus," said Maradona), but his play for the national team has been distinctly unimpressive. If that continues, Argentina isn't going much of anywhere in South Africa.

Maradona also has to hope that his decision to go with unknown keepers works out - the likely starter is the little-known Mariano Andujar of Catania. He's lucky that in this easy group, he likely has three games to experiment before the competition gets serious.



20090905--093208-sp_05.jpgMaradona Must Unleash Messi (credit -- Times of Malta)


     NIGERIA

It's tough figuring out who gets out of the group other than Argentina, given that the three remaining teams all have their flaws. We're going with Nigeria on home continent grounds - admittedly without much confidence given how the Nigerian campaign has gone so far.

Typically, it's been a mess. Let's just look at a few headlines over the last few months:

"Nigeria's Football Federation (NFF) Say They Will Play Paraguay In A Friendly In London - But Paraguay Say They Are Playing Athletic Bilbao Instead"

"Nigeria's Plans For A Base in South Africa Are In Doubt"

"Nigeria Will Play Colombia In A Pre-World Cup Friendly But A Venue For The Game Has Yet To Be Found"

"Nigeria Left With Bill For Hotel Switch"

And, of course, the perennial:

"Official - World Cup 2010:  . . . Is The New Nigeria Coach." (editing added)

Yes, if changing coaches and chaos won championships, Nigeria could retire undefeated. So it was that this winter - after having already qualified - Nigeria canned native Shaibu Amodo on his fourth stint coaching the team and hired the Swede Lars Lagerback. His qualification, according to Nigerian officials? He had beaten the Super Eagles as coach of Sweden in 2002.

That's hardly an exclusive club.

In truth, Nigeria likely went to Lagerback if only to try something 180 degrees different and get the Nigerians out of the headlines for a while so they could concentrate on their soccer. "If all the world were like Sweden," a reporter once complained, "there would be little news to report." Already the approach seems to be working. The only real surprise on the squad has been that Hull City's hulking midfielder Seyi Olofinjana was left home, hardly a shocker, with Lukman Haruna, the under-17 World Cup winning captain on the 2007 squad joining up. One twist: Nigeria will likely boast the oldest player at the tournament, at least unofficially, in former Arsenal star and midfielder Nwankwo Kanu. He's officially 37 but since Nigerian players are frequently known to "shade" their ages so they can qualify for under-17 and under-21 tourneys longer, the word on the street is that he's 42.

Then again, the problem with this team has never been the talent or their ages; it's getting everyone to work together. Fans of the Super Eagles know that if something can go wrong, it usually does. But no African team has an easier draw into the next round and Lagerback may be just what the doctor ordered.

    SOUTH KOREA

Asia's most successful side (which isn't saying all that much) values organization and hierarchy, so it's no surprise that its selections generated little controversy. In fact, the South Koreans are so organized that they announced their squad long before almost anyone else and included no surprises or uncapped players. What you've seen is what you'll get. And what you'll get is a team that runs its socks off in a style emblematic of the nation's "workaholic capitalism," but one that could run out of gas at altitude.

In truth, there is some new talent here to bolster national hero and Man U stalwart, midfielder Park-Ji Sung. The whole nation is excited about two 21-year-olds, formerly of FC Seoul and already playing in the UK - winger Lee Chung-yong  (Bolton) and midfielder Ki Sung-yeung (Celtic). It will be interesting to see how much the two are able to break into the starting lineup in South Africa on a squad traditionally built on seniority. If they emerge, this underrated side could progress farther than most expect.

    GREECE

The tournament's most boring team (yes, even more boring than Switzerland) stayed away from squad surprises, perhaps because the nation has enough on its plate, what with its economy collapsing and all. One might think that with Greeks in the streets protesting daily that they'd have little time left to care about soccer. But guess again: An estimated 5% of the nation's GDP is said to go to bookies to bet on matches, which is probably where a lot of that uncollected tax money went.

In any event, the Greeks may not adore their German bailout but they do love their German coach - "King" Otto Rehhagel, now 71, and the man who led the team to its shock upset championship at Euro 2004.

Many of the players from that team are still here, even slower than before if that's possible. To say the Greeks play deliberate soccer is an understatement: They seldom attack except on counters and free kicks. Playing such a methodical style requires players who know the system, which is why there aren't that many squad members who ply their trade overseas and there are nine (count 'em), who play at Greece's best known club team, Panathinaikos. We'd write the Greeks off as completely as their bankers have, except for the fact that at altitude, this is just the kind of team that could benefit. And, of course, this looks like the second-easiest group in South Africa.


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 will be analyzing the World Cup for Real Clear Sports.




 

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