By: Justin Sullivan and Hunter McDowell, but mainly Justin Sullivan
Part: 2 of 10: Profiling each group, the second round /quarters, semis / finals. Part 1
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece
Going into the last game of the 1978 second group stage (the tournament was formatted differently at the time), Argentina, who were hosting, had to beat neighboring Peru by four goals to advance. Argentina won 6-0, an unheard of feat in football at that moment. It is said that Argentinean officials paid a major sum of grains and monetary items to the recessed Peru government to fix the match. Before the World Cup final, against a dominant, but Curyff-less Holland, the bus taking the Dutch to the match strategically took an unknown path through hordes of fans, who consequentially pounded on the windows until the bus arrived at the stadium, almost tipping it over in the process. Coming out of the tunnel and onto the field, Holland was accompanied by no one but the full capacity crowd, throwing, yelling, and humiliating the Dutch as they stood on the pitch without an opponent, waiting for the Argentinians who came out of the same tunnel ten minutes later. The Dutch, not the most mentally strong bunch, lost the cup before the match began. Full of controversy, this is Argentina.
In 1986, Argentina lifted again, but again, not without controversy. Maradona scored both the most famous goal of soccer’s history (controversy) as well as the best goal of soccer’s history. Diego Maradona ended his career as one of the two greatest players of all time amid storm of alcoholism and cocaine addiction, which still haunts him to this day. Full of controversy, this is Argentina
Despite his personal battles, Argentina sought a media-storm again in 2009 by hiring Maradona as their manager going into South Africa. Going through almost 100 players in qualifying and recent friendlies, this “former” alcoholic and “former” drug-addict has yet to find his best. There is no doubt; Maradona has the tools to do be successful. The most capped player during Maradona’s stint as manager has been, as it should be, current World Football Player of the Year, Lionel Messi. The dynamic shrimp is Maradona minus the controversy, and at age of 22, his whole career is in front of him. Showing his ignorance as a manager, Maradona has consistently used Messi as a striker in a 4-4-2 system, which his personnel clearly does not favor. Messi plays best as a winger in a 4-3-3, and a 4-3-3 would get the best out of the abilities of all attackers involved including two of the greatest passers this world has ever seen. Juan Sebastian Veron and Juan Riquelme are too similar in style to have on the field at the same time in a 4-4-2, but if in a 4-3-3, where both would be able to play together as long as their work rate defensively is somewhere near acceptable, would favor possession, attack, and aesthetics. Maradona favors the older Veron to Riquelme, and this negligence has seen Riquelme as a possible non-inclusion in the final World Cup roster (too bad he can’t play for the US. He would be the best player the Americans have ever had). By the end of group play, it won’t matter; Argentina will win this relatively weak group relatively little effort, the second round could be a different story, but they are the class of the group, and arguably, if not for the coach, the class of the tournament.
Despite the likes of Carlos Tevez (Manchester City), Gonzalo Higuain (Real Madrid), Diego Milito (Inter Milan), and Sergio AgueroArgentina hired Maradona as an excuse to underachieve in possibly there greatest chance since 1990 to win the trophy. Don’t be surprised if the drug-addict relapses sometime during the month-long tournament furthering the spectacle that is Diego Maradona. Full of controversy, this is Argentina. Good news here: Despite the controversy, Argentina should be favorites to win it in 2014. (Athletico Madrid), all world-class options on a forward line that will be the best in the world, Maradona will screw it up.
Argentine Player to Watch: Leo Messi
Final Group Standing: 1st
For such an inexperienced World Cup nation, Nigeria has done well for themselves. This will be their fourth trip to the World Cup and 66% of their trips thus far have led to the 2nd round. Nigeria will have the African backing, but can that carry them through once more?
The Nigerian football team is known across the world as the Super Eagles. The Super Eagles were super, they were high flying, and the world thought African football was here to stay, and in a way it was. The quality was average, but the overwhelming athleticism was apparent. Nigeria and Cameroon gave hope to Africa, and their successes led to the success of Africa hosting their first ever World Cup. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s best chance to make an impact on the world stage was four years ago, when they failed to make the World Cup. Now, all of the top players that were in their prime, and were playing for top sides in England, Spain, and Germany, are not. They will be hard pressed to find a group of eleven that are in form enough with their clubs to be successful at this level.
With all the lack of form in Nigeria’s squad (Wolfsburg’s Obefemi Martins, Everton’s Yakubu and Joseph Yobo and Real Zaragoza’s Ikechukwu Uche), there is hope with two young and promising players who are in the thick of it for club and country. John Obi Mikel is the glue that holds the Chelsea midfield together. He is a hard-nosed central battler who makes his impact on the defensive side, making sure the opponent has no sniff at goal. How he plays during the tournament can very well dictate the success Nigeria in the World Cup. South Africa will also be a proving ground for a young Nigerian attacker. Victor Obinna, who torched the Americans in the 2008 Olympics, will undoubtedly be in the squad, the only thing holding him back will be his lack of experience at this level. Recently, Obinna has been used as a sub, but his pace can be a major threat against a defender with tired legs.
A lot of things have to go well for the Super Eagles to soar in this group; too many things actually. Nigeria opens up with Argentina, it will be a hard test; hard enough in fact that these Super Eagles will transform to headless chickens during the match. The passing of the South American side will be too much for the Nigerians to keep up with, and their disorganization will be easily apparent. In their remaining two matches, the Super Eagles will have to overcome two sides that will be super organized at the back and looking to counter attack, a tactic that is normally successful against African sides. Good luck Nigeria.
And one final note: The Nigerian Football Association wasn’t satisfied with the semi-final placing in the 2009 African Cup of Nations tournament (a continental tournament that has nothing to do with the World Cup), in which they were the fifth best team, so they fired their manager. A new one was hired last week. Lars Lagerback, a Swede, has the task for making this year’s spoof of out of form and past their prime eagles who struggled through qualification into a group of “Super Eagles” who will leave dreams dashed and much to be desired. Lagerback has 100 days to take this Nigerian side toward its destiny of a poor group finish. I’ll give him 130 days before his firing.
Nigerian Player to Watch: John Obi Mikel
Final Group Standing: 3rd
Every nation that has hosted a World Cup has made it past the initial group stage (that will end this year). That was the case eight years ago when South Korea got all of the way to the semi-finals with their home backing rooting them to upset after upset. The trouble being, the Koreans maximized their potential eight years ago.
Going into South Africa, the South Koreans will do what they always do: Work hard. You can always count on the South Koreans to outwork any opponent, have the best fitness out of any team in the tournament, and sit back and look to counter. With a little bit of luck, any team can be successful with that formula, but what will make the Koreans effective are the togetherness and the lack of egoism throughout the team. The Koreans are unselfish and want to win as a team, not to complete a storied career, or win the World Player of the Year Award. This is a perfect example of “the whole being far greater than the sum of the parts.”
The greatest of these parts is Park Ji-Sung. The Manchester United player is a high energy player for club, one who is used to neutralize good attacking wide players. With the Koreans, Park will be the player the South Koreans look initiate their successful counterattacks.
The semi-final finish from the South Koreans in 2002 was the best showing from an Asian country in any World Cup. It’s likely to be the best ever finish from an Asian country in my lifetime, but in this group with no clear second place finisher, South Korea will work their way there. A close opening win against Greece, and a hard-working draw against Nigeria will be enough to put the South Koreans through.
South Korean Player to Watch: Park Ji-Sung
Final Group Standing: 2nd
The Greeks had what it takes to make it through this group. They have a legend, and one of the best managers in the world, Otto Rehhagel. Rehhagel is a stubborn old man who rarely moves during matches. He is stoic in his mannerisms and stoic in his application of tactics for Greece. The Greek’s play resembles a World War II bunker more than the free-flowing beautiful game that most expect from European football. The Greeks do not have the players to play the beautiful game, Rehhagel’s application such a strategy has worked.
Greece, at 50-1 odds, won the 2004 European Championship using this catenaccio style of play. It’s been described as anti-futbol, and ancient in approach, and the Greeks have had success playing with five defenders and counter attacking for their goals. Unfortunately, the world knows their predictable style, and it will be up to Rehhagel to adapt for the success to come, which leads Greece and Rehhagel into a conundrum. The Greeks pack it in, the world knows, so Rehhagel must adapt, but Greece doesn’t have the players to play and succeed in a non-bunker style, so they must stick with it or lose embarrassingly, but losing remains inevitable.
Rehhagel’s style will work for a limited amount of time, while players are in their prime, and everyone buys into the style. This leaves Rehhagel to call up players he used during the 2004 Euro Championship, who are past their prime, retired from club competition, and graying. Because of all the before mentioned factors, Greece will lose embarrassingly, and all their unsuccessful counter attacks will be countered upon, leaving the Greeks vulnerable.
The Greeks do have one in-form, world-class player, Georgios Sameras. Sameras is a striker for Celtic, in the Scottish Premier League. He does well for club, but in Rehhagel’s system, he will not succeed, and be left working too hard defensively to apply full energy to an energy-less attack. The Greeks will wonder why the 2010 World Cup was such an unsuccessful experience, and should look to the aging roster and be simply content with qualification.
Greek Player to Watch: Georgios Sameras
Final Group Standing: 4th