By Paul O'Donnell
With the opening kickoff coming on the weekend to the world's biggest sports extravaganza its only fitting that yet another rundown appear. Why? Most of them seem to rely too heavily on history, much like FIFA itself, and a politically correct sort of approach. That does us all, the fans, a disservice. One thing is almost always true about this competition; there are surprises each and every time. Who will be the “surprise” team or even Confederation in World Cup Germany? It starts with who gets out of the group stage.
Group A (Germany, Ecuador, Poland, Costa Rica)
The host team normally does well and here Germany has the added virtue of one of the weaker groups so the question is, who will join them in the knockout round. Since all three are what might be termed “under manned” sides Poland seems to have the inside track but they are an aging and slow team. Their defensive minded game is good for this competition but the question remains where will their goals come from? Look for Costa Rica to surprise here and they could be the only team from CONCACAF to make the round of 16. Ecuador is dangerous too but very thin.
Group B (England, Sweden, T&T, Paraguay)
At first glance this looks like a weak group too, but that would be wrong. England has a tough time with So. American teams and they can't beat Sweden either. England and Sweden should go thru but that will be entirely dependent on the opening match with England facing Paraguay. England's warmup matches went very well despite not having Rooney but look for the mistake by Sven naming Wolcott to the side to haunt him in the end. His naming Theo is simply inexplicable; a man (child) that has not played a single second in an EPL match over all the other UK born and bred midfielders or another forward (which he should have done in my opinion) will likely be a key to whether England has the success from a team so full of international stars. Truth is, England should challenge for the final. Will they?
Group C (Ivory Coast, Argentina, Netherlands, Serbia & Montenegro)
This group will be a real war and produce some outstanding games. The team I favor to be in the final match, the Netherlands, should make it out. Will the other reaching the round of 16 be Argentina or not? Ivory Coast has a good side and Serbia & Mont. is one of those east European sides that knows how the game is played and they make it very hard to score on them. Argentina should be the team to join Netherlands in the knockout stage but don't bet the house on it. If Drogba comes to play it could be Ivory Coast.
Group D (Mexico, Iran, Angola, Portugal)
Can Mexico play well in a tournament away from the friendly confines of CONCACAF? Will they make it out? Depends on whether Iran and Portugal come to play or not. The two going on from this bunch should be Mexico and Portugal but honestly this group could very well be the big surprise of the 2006 World Cup. I look for Portugal and Iran to be the two going on but I don't feel real comfortable with Portugal either for that matter. Watch this one closely as it could produce the shock of the tournament.
Group E (USA, Italy, Czech Republic, Ghana)
This one will see the two favored sides go on to the round of 16; Italy and Czech Republic. One win and two draws will not be good enough here. It would be wonderful to see the USA surprise here, but I don't think that will happen.
Group F (Brazil, Australia, Japan, Croatia)
Brazil surely goes on. This group should produce some great competition for that 2nd spot and look for Croatia to edge out Japan on a tie breaker. It could come down to whether or not any of them are able to score a goal against Brazil.
Group G (France, Switzerland, Togo, South Korea)
I'm hoping to see France continue to have real difficulty with the Swiss here and look for Switzerland and South Korea to advance. France has a wonderfully talented team, no doubt about that, but many of its stars are at the very end of their careers and others tend to choke in big games and I sincerely hope that trend continues. They were the worst performing team in the UEFA qualifying to win a group and look for that to continue to plague this star studded team.
Group H (Spain, Ukraine, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia)
With the history of Spain and their record of underachieving in recent decades look for Tunisia and Ukraine to emerge from this group. Whoever does, they'll be losers in the round of 16, but this group will produce a surprise and just might create two.
Who wins the World Cup? Frankly, it comes down to who can possibly defeat Brazil. If they don't win it, the Cup will go to a European team and the one I think is best prepared to claim it is the Netherlands. In fact, I'm cheering for them to stop Brazil from winning it and it would be terrific if that meeting came in the final match.
Ok, what about the 2nd most important aspect, one that most fans overlook? Its important because the formula FIFA uses to set the field for the next World Cup. What the heck are you talking about you say?
Well, the Confederations and how many teams will represent them in the next Cup is in large part determined by the success of each of them in this competition and that is itself determined in part by how many make the knockout round. For example, if CONCACAF puts only one team in the round of 16 they could lose one seeding into the final 32 next time. Mexico and Costa Rica seem to have the inside chance of making it out of the group stage but both are not what most fans would consider a “lock” in either case.
So which Confederation looks to gain a spot next time? Africa, with Asia right on their heals. Ivory Coast, Tunisia seem well positioned to succeed and from Asia there is Iran, Japan, South Korea that all could play themselves into the round of 16.
Keep that in mind as you watch and enjoy the best that soccer has to offer. The World Cup is a feast for any soccer fan. Enjoy it.