The Cup Running Over

June 3, 2010 6:00 AM

Surprise Selections (and other news) from Group H -- the Spanish Speakers (Plus Switzerland)

This is the Spanish-speaking group plus Switzerland, or the offensive-minded group, plus Switzerland, but no matter how you slice it or dice it, it's Spain with everybody else fighting for second. The latest news, in the approximate order of finish:


On paper, Spain is the favorite to win the whole tournament but Cup aficionados know that something always goes wrong for the Spanish and that subsequently they've never gone past the quarters. Historians tend to attribute the team's lack of good fortune to its traditional lack of unity, which reflects the nation's atomized regions. (Hence the European joke, "Three Spaniards, four opinions.")

The talk beforehand was that with a side dominated by Catalans, this wouldn't be as much of an issue this time. Think again: Pedro (Barcelona) is unhappy because he had to draw lots with Javi Martinez (Athletic Bilbao) as to who would get stuck with the unwanted Number 2 jersey and lost - not that anyone on the Spanish team is superstitious of course. Then coach Vincente Del Bosque cracked the whip and banned his players from Twitter and Facebook during the Cup, which leaves much of the team wondering what to do with all the time it now has on its hands. Other than squabbling, of course.

Personnel-wise, Spain's worry is getting all its injured players back healthy, including striker Fernando Torres (Liverpool) - who probably won't see action until late in the first round, if then - as well as star midfielder Andres Iniesta (Barca), who missed the Confederations Cup last year, with awful ramifications for the team.

In recent days, Spain had its usual regional selection controversy as the Barcelona media pushed for its keeper, Victor Valdes, to be on the squad and the Madrid media militated for, well, anyone but the keeper from Barcelona. This was all about a third-string keeper, mind you, who will never see action.

Valdes is on the squad. Let the arguing begin, not that it's ever stopped.

andres-iniesta_921228.jpg Iniesta is healthy, which is good news for Spain. When it collapsed in last year's Confederations Cup, he was missing -- and it showed. (Courtesy Spain World Cup blog)


Switzerland has some of the best young talent in Europe but most of it hasn't been included this time around, meaning we'll have to wait until Euro 2012 to begin to see a real Swiss powerhouse emerge. (We can't believe we're even writing these words.) Yes, 18-year-old Xerdan Shaqri (Basle) is a shock addition to the squad, joining a striker force that includes Bayer Leverkusen's 21-year-old wonder kid Eren Derdiyok. But the players from the Swiss team that won the Under-17 trophy last fall are still a bit too young for action in South Africa.

That means the Swiss will be turning to old reliables such as Alexander Frei (Basel), the man famous for once adopting a llama to show contrition for a spitting incident, but also a man who will be well-rested for South Africa after suffering a broken arm during the season. The team's best asset may be 6-4 keeper Diego Benaglio, who has put together some outstanding seasons at Wolfsburg.

All this may be enough to get the Swiss out of the group. But that's about as far as it can go this time.


South America's surprise young team loves to play offense but, as would be expected, is weaker on the defensive end. Whatever chance it has it owes to ace coach, the Argentine Marcelo "Madman" Bielsa, famous for such eccentric methods as touring zoos for coaching ideas.

If you're a midfielder, it hasn't been a good time to be Chilean, as Bielsa axed five - count 'em - when he made the final squad cuts. The least surprising name on the list was midfielder Manuel Iturra (Universidad de Chile) who came off the bench in a recent friendly against Mexico and promptly received a red card within two minutes, with the resulting two-game ban.

The nation is behind the team, not only because it hasn't qualified in awhile but because since the devastating earthquake in late February, Chileans have been targeting their appearance in South Africa as a kind of unofficial end of the period of mourning. The team isn't good enough to really excel at the tournament but it will be one of the most entertaining teams on display - and the match with Spain could well produce the most goals of the proceedings.


The traditional role of the third team from the CONCACAF region is to play three games and go home, while the citizens at home party continuously in celebration of their good fortune even to be at the tournament. Barring the unexpected that will be Honduras's role too.

It's good that Honduras has made it to South Africa because its squad selection stories have been a headline writer's dream. Striker Carlos Costly (FC Vastlui in Romania) broke his foot late in the club campaign, hence the banner headline: "Honduras Rue Costly Absence." He was replaced by Georgie Welcome (Montagua), which even those not particularly clever should have been able to invoke as in "Honduras Lays Out the Welcome Mat," or "You're Welcome," or even the more pessimistic "Welcome Not Welcome." Whatever. Honduras is going home after three games and some great parties.

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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