Arise my Group of Death
So I’m on the phone discussing seriously important soccer matters with a seriously important soccer celebrity. I’m looking for a job but all I’m getting is congratulations for being a great volunteer. “Youth soccer needs more people like you,” the celeb says. “That’s great,” says I, like Jerry Seinfeld only without the millions of dollars. Suite 101 statistics for soccer are on my desk. I’m expecting an e-mail from Chief Editor Jason soon. The World Cup is kick-off minus 65 days and counting. Can I paint a bleak picture or what? I’ve got to do something tangible.
Well, consider Group D and the picture brightens marginally. Consider no-hopers Paraguay and shock-possibilities Nigeria and the picture brightens further. Then think Euro-toughies Spain and Bulgaria and the prospects of one or other not advancing to the second round. Now the picture resonates with all that’s good in the game. The questions are no different to any other Group, and no less insipid at this point. Which team might get no points from three games? Which shock result will affect the second round draw? Which teams will go through? The no-brainers that everybody likes to “predict” but can’t all be guessed correctly.
There’s always a Group of Death in the World Cup. A Group where people think all four teams should go through, or they just can’t tell which is the really weak team and which team is pretending to be weak. Welcome to the Group of Death, 1998 version. It will be a drawn out, arduous slog. But guess what, the system will take care of things and two will be eliminated. Now there’s a solid prediction I can stand over.
So the celeb says, “What do think of Spain’s chances this time?” I’m thinking . . . the guy knows they flatter to deceive in World Cups . . . but nice odds for an outsider bet. I says, “If you’re Spanish, go for it.” “Ole, Ole, Ole.” “Otherwise drop them like a hot potato.” Covering my bets, you see. More like Kramer this time than Jerry. The celeb says “Yeah, you’re probably right, Joe, but I don’t know . . . ”
Spain make their sixth consecutive appearance in the World Cup finals. Basque coach Javier Clemente has a very impressive record since taking over in 1992 They have hardly been beaten by anybody since. All right, they did lose a couple but not much, especially if you don’t count penalty shoot outs as defeats, exactly. They play a beautifully fluid version of the sport and will be a pleasure to watch, assuming you are not Spanish and frustrated. If they win their opener against Nigeria, I expect them to go through before kicking off their third game and threaten to go far in the “real” rounds later on.
The Bulgars topped their qualifying group but were not awe-inspiring winners. They will not frighten anybody and the aging squad is very beatable. We all know by now that you should never confidently predict the result of any 90 minutes soccer but this more or less becomes part of what we’re trying to do here so I have to state my feelings. The Bulgars missed the boat in USA 94. They just might have a pointless trip to France if you get my drift. Extra points for yourself however, if you correctly spotted the pun on missing the boat. Don’t let yourself get a “sinking” feeling if you missed it. It’s easy to let these things “slip” by. (Get it?)
USA 94 also saw Nigeria compete for the first time in the World Cup finals. They finished ahead of Bulgaria and Argentina in group play, before going out to Italy. They have since proved to be no fluke by winning gold in the Atlanta 96 Olympics. In doing so, they beat both Brazil and Argentina, no mean feat in itself. The truth is, they possess awesome potential for “shocking” the world this June and lifting the trophy outright. I’ll be right there cheering them on, if they do, although my Nigerian could use a brush up.
“Any ideas on Paraguay?” asks the man. Now I admit to my readers that I can hardly spell Paraguay without Microsoft spellchecker installed, but I can’t just let him think that. After all, he values my opinion. And he’s a celebrity. “Oh Yeah!” says I, only this time more like George with Elaine watching me closely. “They’re 30th in the world, you know, and you can rely on Chilavert to make their games interesting.” This guy will finish the tournament as the leading goalscorer among goalkeepers. The money’s on Smeichel for second.
However, you can research all you like but when it comes to soccer, you won’t find out a great deal about Paraguay. Nobody gives them any chance at all, which of course worries me. That probably makes them twice as strong as I thought they were before nobody gave them a chance. Now who is this nobody, anyway, and what does he know about soccer? Paraguay will be 11 strong men, fit men, skilled men plying their trade against 11 other men. (before sendings off) and that’s unpredictable in the cauldron of the World Cup. They are the spoilers in the Group I give them the same no hope as nobody.