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The Cup Running Over


June 1, 2010 7:05 AM

Surprise Selections (and other news) from Group G, the Mini Group of Death With One Pariah -- Brazil, Ivory Coast, Portugal, and North Korea

This is a mini-group of death since one very good team among Brazil, Ivory Coast, and Portugal will be eliminated. Then there's North Korea, which, as we all know, is unpredictable in a multitude of ways. In the predicted order of finish, more or less:

    
    BRAZIL

Once again, the cliché holds true: Brazil is so loaded that a team composed of the players who didn't make the squad could make a Cup run. It's old news that coach Dunga (Portuguese for Dopey, after one of the Seven Dwarfs) has Brazil playing very defensively - at least for Brazil - and chose to drop many of the senior "bohemian" members of the squad who performed poorly last time in favor of younger players. Thus, the squad features no Ronaldhino, no Ronaldo, no Adriano, and no Roberto Carlos. Dunga also left at home Neymar - the brilliant 18-year-old striker (watch for him next time) - not to mention future stars under-20 midfielder and captain Sandro (Internacional - Brazil) and 20-year-old striker Alexander Pato (AC Milan).

The only surprise, really, was the inclusion of Wolfsburg striker Grafite, who's shown in the Bundesliga that he can handle a more rough and tumble style.

Other than that, the only other question has been getting the team fit, as key midfielder Kaka (Real Madrid) is recovering from hamstring problems.

As almost always, this is the team to beat.

   
    IVORY COAST

Much of Africa has pinned its hopes on Ivory Coast. The team is enormously talented offensively but much weaker defensively. Plus, it drew this impossible group, with the prize for finishing second a likely Round of 16 game with Spain. This team will have to be very lucky to progress very far.

Chelsea striker Didier Drogba is Africa's best-known player but he's suffering from an abdominal hernia that could slow him down in South Africa. The other star attraction up front is Lille's emerging striker, Gervinho, 23, who had an outstanding Africa Cup of Nations last winter.

But as always, the real stories surrounding Ivory Coast have been coming off the field. The nation is in a perpetual political crisis. At the end of February, the country's soccer federation fired coach Vahid Halilhodzic - who had done a creditable job - finally replacing him a month later with the infamous Swede, Sven-Goran Eriksson, former England and Mexico coach.

Eriksson has his work cut out for him. The rap on the team - other than the porous defense - has always been that squad divisions prevent the players from working well together. "The team has great players but is not a great team," complained former coach Halilhodzic. The other problem is that in a country split apart by civil war, the national team is the single most important unifying force in the country. That's a large burden for any one team to carry.

Last Cup, Ivory Coast drew a Group of Death too, winning one game of three while scoring five goals. Unfortunately it conceded six. That's the Elephants in a nutshell. Still, if they're ever going to shine, one would assume it would be on their home continent.

drogba_15541t.jpg
Didier Drogba is Africa's best-known player and a continental hero. (Courtesy -- UK Independent)

   
     PORTUGAL


Admittedly it's a subjective assessment but no team of the 32 in South Africa has generated less news over the past few months than Portugal - last time's semifinalist. That's probably good news in itself. Occasionally a headline announces that its  injured players are slowly returning to form - Atletico Madrid's forward Simao and club teammate midfielder Tiago; Chelsea defender Paulo Ferreira, even, perhaps Real Madrid defender Pepe, out for most of the past season. That's also good news, if you're a fan.

All eyes in South Africa will be on Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, the superstar who failed to score in the qualifiers. But that's the problem with this team: Its reputation as an offensive force is about a generation out of date. Instead it is a brilliant defensive team - maybe the second-best in South Africa (behind Brazil, of course). But it can't seem to score much.

The opening match is against Ivory Coast. Whoever wins that will likely move on. Lose it - and the tournament may be over almost before it started.

   
    NORTH KOREA

There always seems to be one international pariah at the World Cup (it was Iran last time), and no one can accuse the totalitarian North Koreans of not living up to their reputation over the last few months. When they haven't been sinking South Korean ships, they've been alienating environmentalists  everywhere by accepting a gift of a "Noah's Ark" of animals from Zimbabwe - which many think will be unable to survive in North Korea's climate.

In fact, Zimbabwe and North Korea have made news together in another way. North Korea's plans to train there drew waves of protests because the North Koreans had helped Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe train his troops at home in the 1980's, teaching them how to quell local dissent North Korea-style. (Up to 40,000 were massacred.)

The truth is that no one knows a whole lot about this team because most of its players stay at home to play and train almost as a military unit and the team ventures less often into the outside world to play than almost any other nation in the world. Or, as midfielder Ahn Young-Hak has put it, "The opposition [in the group] consists of teams from South America, Africa, and Europe. Unfortunately North Korea hasn't had many opportunities to play teams from these continents." In the last several months, one match was canceled because the players got food poisoning (a frequent North Korean complaint by the way); one got called off because of the Chilean earthquake, and in the third in Venezuela, the match had to finish early because of darkness. At least the North Koreans will be well-rested.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the North Koreans play super-defensively, sometimes playing five at the back. Barring a miracle, the only question surrounding their first appearance in the tournament in 44 years - a record in itself - is how "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il will take it when the team goes back behind the North Korean curtain after three games.

From our vantage point, the team announcement highlight was two players named Pak Nam-Cho, also a World Cup first (one is a defender, one a holding midfielder). And, since few, if any, North Koreans are expected to make the trip to South Africa to cheer their team on, it's been revealed that the North Korean Beijing office has given out around 1,000 tickets to Chinese actors and musicians who will head to Africa to take their place.

They'll have to be exceptional talents to seem excited about this team. There is a North Korean saying, "Over the mountains, there are mountains."  We're not sure exactly what it means but getting out of this group is too high a mountain for almost any team to climb, especially this one.



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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