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The Cup Running Over


June 9, 2010 4:42 PM

Brazil Is The Team to Beat: Ranking the Teams From 1-32

Please note: This is not a prediction of how teams will finish but an assessment of their chances of winning the Cup. That's because two strong teams may meet in an earlier round and some teams have to get out of much tougher groups than others. Moreover some teams such as South Africa, Argentina, France. Mexico, and Italy could completely flame out but if they don't and get out of their group, the potential to go far is there.
   
So with that caveat in mind, the envelope please:


    THE TEAM TO BEAT

1. Brazil. This improved team has got the presence, the pedigree, and the personnel, plus a new tactical approach that will make it very difficult to break down on defense. Sure it's not invincible, but it's also the only team ever to win the Cup outside its own continent - save Argentina that won in a Mexico that wasn't much different culturally. Brazil is also in the easier half of the draw so if it wins its group, it likely avoids Argentina, Spain, or Germany until the final. Its first round group isn't easy but if this team can't get by Portugal and Ivory Coast, it likely will have trouble winning the Cup anyway.

   
    THE OTHER REAL CONTENDERS

2. Argentina. Is Maradona a mad genius or just mad? We obviously incline towards the former. Skeptics will point to a weak qualification campaign, but every time Argentina has won the tournament it has struggled to qualify. This time around, a ridiculously easy first round group and a probable weak second round opponent means this team can take its time getting its act together before facing a serious quarterfinal opponent. If things have gone right up until then, it will be formidable. Of course, with Maradona at the helm, nothing is ever that simple so this team could also self-destruct long before that too. But we don't expect it.

3. Spain. This is the best team on paper, playing the best soccer. But it's Spain, meaning that in the past something has always gone wrong. This nation has never gone past the quarterfinals. Supporters point to the team's Euro 2008 victory as a sign that things are changing but the World Cup is on another level entirely. Will we be surprised if Spain wins it all? Of course not. But the expectation here is that it stumbles some time before the finish line because it always does. In the lead, Spain is the best team in the tournament; if the opponent scores first, it can struggle.

4. Germany. Everyone sees weaknesses in this squad, especially with Ballack injured and the team on its third-string keeper from a year ago. But in the last two Cups it has finished second and third and there's enough young talent and bench strength that Germany is poised for its usual run to at least the quarterfinals. The Group of Death is tough but if Germany can win it, a likely game with the U.S. beckons and, American enthusiasm aside, the Germans should win that one. The problem is that if things go according to the seedings, the next three games will be against, respectively, Argentina, Spain, and Brazil. That's too high a mountain to climb for almost any team, including this one.


   
    THE LONG SHOTS

5. Italy. The defending champion doesn't seem nearly as good this time - it's essentially the same ancient 2006 team only four years older -- and it often doesn't play well away from Europe. But the easiest draw among the contenders means that Italy can do its usual stumble job through the early qualifiers and initial knockout round and still get to the quarters against likely opponent Spain. Yes, the Spanish are better but at Euro 2008, Italy tied them in knots, losing on penalty kicks. Don't write this team off just yet.

6. Netherlands. Holland almost always underperforms but this year an easy group and a prospective round of 16 match with Paraguay means that this team is looking at a likely quarterfinal game with Brazil and losing to the favorite would hardly be underperforming. Don't automatically write Holland off in that prospective match  - - the Dutch can score with the best of them - but it would be out of character for this team to win the big one. Though, on second thought, it would be more like the Netherlands to beat Brazil and then blow the next one against easier competition. An outside shot at glory.

    luis-fabiano-239.jpg
  Brazil is our choice as the favorite. (Courtesy world2010cup.com)
   

   
      TRIP TO THE SEMIS UNLIKELY BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE

7. France. It's our hunch that an out of sync France may well not get out its group in a repeat of the 2002 debacle. But if it can win its group, it should have an easy round of 16 game, followed by eminently beatable England or a less so Germany or Ghana. Such a run would put the French into the semis against Brazil and for some reason, France has Brazil's number. It's not impossible, especially if Henry feels "touchy feely" again.

   
    TRIP TO THE QUARTERS UNLIKELY BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE

8. Serbia. Before Essien got hurt for Ghana, we would have said this team would have trouble getting out of the group. Now, its chances are much better and its round of 16 game, likely against the USA or England, is winnable. This team s underrated, but the "Wall of Iron" will have to be impregnable for the Serbs to progress any farther than that, however, and remember, this team fell apart at the last World Cup.

9. England. As usual, England isn't as good as its fans think. But it drew a very easy group that should see it through to the next round. It's the round of 16 game that poses a problem, probably against Germany or Ghana - either of which could well beat England. If the English somehow win that, their quarterfinal against the likely Group A winner is doable, as long as it's not France. So England does have a possible road to the semis. Note that's possible, not probable, which is what happens when you don't have a decent goalie, second striker, and only half a defense.

10. Mexico. With young players in key positions, this team showed during the qualifiers that it is capable of very high highs and very low lows. There's a decent chance it gets freaked out in its opening match against host South Africa but this team has the talent to beat both France and Uruguay on its good days. The guess here is that it gets out of the group but it's only the favorite in the next round if it wins the group. Otherwise Argentina likely beckons and it has the better team -- even though Mexico played the Argentines well in 2006, albeit in a loss. Keep in mind, however, that this team is also erratic enough to self-destruct and go home early.

11. Denmark. This is a team that traditionally performs well on the world stage and though it's unlikely to beat Holland in the group, it could get by Cameroon. That leaves it with likely Italy followed by Spain. Denmark tends to play over its head but not by that much. One upset is possible. Not two.

12. South Africa. Talent-wise the South Africans are not that good. But playing at home is a tremendous advantage and they luckily drew three other teams in their group that have been known to get psyched out. Given that, they could well surpass expectations and go into the second round, but if they don't win the group, Argentina likely lurks in the next round. Beating that team is too much to ask but if Bafana Bafana wins its round of 16 game too, anything will seem possible as the host nation goes nuts.

13. Cameroon. Not the best team in Africa but it could get out of the group if it can find a way to get past a tougher-than-they-look Denmark team. (Cameroon is not going to beat Holland short of a Dutch collapse.) If it can finish 2nd, Cameroon will likely draw Italy - beatable on its bad days but then Spain looks like it could be next. An exit beckons at some point before the semis; it's just a question of when.

14. Portugal. Traditional underperformer Portugal has had a good decade for a change (Euro 2004 - 2nd; World Cup 2006 - semis). But a terrible group draw with the best team in South America (Brazil) and what many think is the best team in Africa  (Ivory Coast) will make it harder than it might have been for this more-defensive-than-people-think team to get to the next round. Assuming it does, Iberian rival Spain will likely be waiting if it can't win the group. Goodbye Ronaldo.

15. Ghana. We had this team headed to the semis before the Essien injury. Now it will struggle to get out of the "group of death." Ghana is still in the upper echelons because it proved last time that its midfield is so strong that it can overpower most international teams, and it's better at the back than its African rivals. But without Essien, it's too inexperienced to go too far.

    CAN GET OUT OF THE GROUP BUT ANYTHING ELSE IS VERY UNLIKELY

16. USA. Unlike last time, an easy first round draw should see the team through to the next round if it's any good at all  - though Slovenia and Algeria shouldn't be underestimated (nor England overestimated). The problem is the next round, where either Serbia or Germany likely lurks - even if the Americans win their group. Beating either is a lot to ask, as would defeating a power like Argentina should the team get to the next round.   

17. Nigeria. A hard team to figure. Personnel-wise it has a lot going for it but it typically underperformed in the qualifiers, barely getting to South Africa.  Should the Nigerians finish second, they have a winnable game in the next round against the winner of Group A. But will they get by Greece and South Korea in the group, two organized teams that can frustrate disorganized ones? Probably, but an upset shouldn't shock anyone, sending the Nigerians home early.

18. Ivory Coast. Talent-wise this team ranks higher; draw-wise it's a disaster as the Elephants drew Brazil and Portugal in their group, The squad needs to win the group to avoid Spain in the next round and that's asking a lot. This team is over-hyped -- especially in England -- as it can score but bleed goals like no other contender (thanks in part to an atrocious goalkeeper). Its games should be entertaining, though.
   
19. Australia. A decent team, tough on defense, but in the toughest group. Should it emerge, it could meet England - and with "colonial spirit" on its side -- win that game and make a run. But getting past either Germany or Ghana in the group, not to mention underrated Serbia, is the hard part.

20. Paraguay. This plucky team that is tough to play got lucky with an easy draw that will almost certainly see it into the second round. But the likely opponents then? Holland followed by Brazil. Even an overachiever can't overachieve that much.

21. Switzerland. Swiss soccer is on the way up but you won't know it from this tournament where the Swiss got drawn into a group with Spain and Chile.  Even if the Swiss emerge from the group in 2nd  place, they will likely have to face Brazil in the round of 16, counting on altitude and the cold to see them through. They could do better against the Brazilians than many think, but the place to watch this team begin to excel is at Euro 2012.   

22. South Korea. A favorable group draw gives this team -- that almost got out of its group last time after going to the semis in 2002 -- a chance to advance. But it will have to go through Nigeria to do it and any team that runs this much may face problems in the altitude.

  
 A VERY GOOD TOURNAMENT IF THE TEAM SIMPLY GETS OUT OF THE GROUP
       
23. Chile. An entertaining offense-minded team that will have trouble getting out of the group, what with the Swiss and Spain there too. Even if it does, Brazil has its number in the next round.

24. Uruguay. A good team on paper, a mediocre one on the pitch, in a mediocre group. That gives it a chance to go to the next round but we don't fancy this team's chances any time it takes the field. Hasn't gone to the second round since 1990 - a pattern likely to be repeated this time too.

   
    A GREAT TOURNAMENT IF THE TEAM GETS OUT OF THE GROUP

25. Slovenia. This squad has already upset one superpower - Russia. Now the Slovenians need to do it again to get out of a group that includes the US. (No, England is not a superpower.) No one wants to underestimate this team again but with its personnel, it seems to be doing it all with mirrors.

26. Greece. This team is boring, tactical, and defensive. It can give better teams fits, as we saw at Euro 2004, but at the World Cup, there's a difference between fits and victory. It has to get by South Korea and Nigeria to advance in a group that includes Argentina. Possible but unlikely.

27. Slovakia. The Slovakians were big scorers in winning their European group. But it would be a fairly large bolt from the blue if they could crank up the offense and get out of a group that includes defensive stalwarts Italy and Paraguay. Running up the score on New Zealand should be no problem, however.


    GETTING OUT OF THE GROUP WOULD BE A HIGHLY UNEXPECTED ACHIEVEMENT

28. Algeria. Algeria is better than some think, but likely not a strong enough offensive force to get out of a group that includes the U.S. and England. Anything other than three games and out will be a huge surprise.

29. Japan. This team has been heading steadily backwards since it co-hosted in 2002. It can't touch the Dutch and it will be surprising if it can stay on the field with Denmark or Cameroon either. Another disappointing first round exit beckons.

   
    JUST PLAIN MEDIOCRE
   
30. Honduras. Happy to be here but unlikely to do anything other than lose three games against superior opponents.   
   
   
    ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE

31. North Korea. Against powers Portugal, Brazil, and Ivory Coast, the North Koreans are threats to make the worst showing in World Cup history. More likely to declare war on their opponents after the tourney than beat them on the field. But yes, we think the North Koreans are a tad less awful than the team below.

32. New Zealand. How bad is this team? It drew the easiest group in South Africa and it's still better than even money never to find the net in three games. Drawing defense-minded Italy and Paraguay is its saving grace since they won't run up the score. Hopefully.
   
   
Steven and Harrison Stark are the co-authors of the recently published World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics, from which this post is adapted. They are analyzing the World Cup for Real Clear Sports.

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