A for Abidance

So, we are all set to embrace the mother of all tournaments, the World Cup 2014, to be held in its spiritual home, Brazil. Goalden Times is bringing you group wise preview, analysis and prediction. Starting off with Group A is Riddhi Roy Chaudhuri.

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Brazil

The Holy Grail returns to Brazil for the first time since 1950. Generally anything less than a final appearance in World Cup is considered a failure for the Selecao by the football crazy nation. One can understand how much expectation from the national team will be there this time as World Cup is held in Brazil itself. After the embarrassing second half capitulation against the Dutch in quarter-final in 2010, manager Dunga had to face the axe. Mano Menezes replaced him and he tried to make a radical change to the national team setup. Menezes envisaged a free-flowing football with more technical, skillful and particularly young players. He brought in the likes of Neymar, Lucas Moura, Alexandre Pato and tried to build the team around them. However, Menezes never succeeded to fully achieve what he tried. The team showed glimpses of brilliance in going forward but they lacked the killer instinct. Another hindrance for Menezes was the lack of competitive games. Friendlies never provided a true measure of the progress made under him. Then came the Copa America in 2011 where Menezes and his team bowed out in the quarters.

In November 2012, Menezes left with mutual consent and Luiz Felipe Scolari returned after 10 years of winning the World Cup. Felipao set out to mend the things and preferred substance over style. Initially things did not work properly and in his first five games, Brazil failed to secure any win. However in the Confederation Cup 2013, Brazil found their rhythm and went on to win the tournament. Throughout the tournament, Brazil was ruthless and clinical which was highlighted by the 3-0 demolition of world champion Spain. Thereby Felipao succeeded in installing a proper system for the team that can perform well at the World Cup.

As Scolari has mentioned before, his roster for the World Cup consists of majority of the players who won the Confederation Cup for him. This time around Brazil will be based on solid defence and a functional midfield. Thiago Silva, Dante and David Luiz will be at the helm of the central defence while Dani Alves and Marcelo will be providing width as full-backs. The Luiz Gustavo-Paulinho combination has worked wonders for Scolari and they will form the midfield lynch pin. However, after a fantastic season at Manchester City, Fernandinho has forced himself into Scolari’s plan and do not be surprised if you see his name in the first XI. Neymar will be the talisman for Brazill going forward supported by Oscar, Fred and Hulk. Ironically, this time the centre-forward is the position where Brazil is devoid of quality names. Scolari will try to overcome it by setting up his strategy to get goals from all across the team.

Brazil has always been the box office nation at the World Cup and as the host nation, expectation to win the tournament on them will be sky high. If things work out properly, progress to knockout stage should not be a big problem. But there awaits the bigger test for Scolari and his Selecao. Whether a sixth World Cup glory or an anti-climax in the form of early elimination from the tournament awaits them – time can only tell that.

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Cameroon will be participating for the seventh time in the World Cup in Brazil. Cameroon is still remembered for their exploits in the 1990 World Cup held in Italy.  They never reached the same height and have been a story of more misses than hits in the following editions of the showpiece tournament. Brazil 2014 will present them a chance to change that but it will be a tough job to say the least.

Cameroon’s performance in the last few international tournaments have been below par. Their endeavour in both the World Cup 2010 and African Cup of Nations in 2010 fell below expectations. Failure to qualify for the 2013 African Cup of Nations saw sacking of manager Denis Lavagne. Jean-Paul Akono was in charge temporarily and later he was replaced by the German Volkar Finke. Qualification campaign for 2014 World Cup was comparatively easy sailing for Cameroon. They topped Group I in the second round ahead of Libya, Congo and Togo. Cameroon  rode their luck in the match away to Togo where they were awarded a 3-0 victory inspite of losing the match 2-0 as Togo fielded an ineligible player. In the play-off round they met Tunisia. A resounding 4-1 victory at home after a stalemate in first leg ensured their qualification. Although their performance was nothing spectacular but effective nonetheless and also helped by the fact that they didn’t have to face tougher opponents.

Finke is known as one of the architects of the present free-flowing style that has swept across the entire footballing strata in Germany. He is best remembered for his 16-year spell at SC Freiburg. However with Cameroon, Finke has a different task at his disposal. A pragmatic approach rather than style is probably what Finke will try to look into for Cameroon. The national team is not particularly blessed with plethora of creative talents. They boast good defenders like Joel Matip, Nicolas Nkoulou, Aurélien Chedjou, Benoit Assou-Ekotto who are known faces in the top European leagues. Similarly Alexandre Song, Jean II Makoun, Stephane Mbia can provide a combative midfield. But lack of proper creative outlets may come to affect them. Samuel Eto’o, the skipper, in spite of being in and out of the team, still remains the potent source of goal but his performance with Chelsea has shown he has past his prime.

It won’t be correct to write off the ‘Indomitable Lions’ for this World Cup. In Group A, Brazil is probably too strong opposition for them but against Mexico and Croatia, they will get their chances. However to achieve anything significant, Cameroon players have to overcome their cynical nature that has hurt them in the previous tournaments. Finke needs to get the best out of his players otherwise another group stage exit might be in store for them.

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After their stunning World Cup debut in 1998, Croatia has never enjoyed same fortune in the next tournaments. Their last appearance in World Cup was in 2006 when they went out in the group stage.In Euro 2012, they again went out of the group stage after being paired with heavyweights and eventual finalists Spain and Italy. This was followed by resignation of Slaven Bilic, the longest standing Croatian manager till date. With Davor Suker coming in as the new Croatian Federation(HNS) president, they chose former defender Igor Stimac as the new manager. His first task was to gain qualification for World Cup 2014.

Croatia was placed in Group A with Belgium, Serbia, Scotland, Wales and Macedonia. Croatia started their journey in 2014 World Cup qualifiers with a narrow 1-0 win against Macedonia. Croatia was undefeated in the first six games of the campaign and won five of them to top the table at that stage. But the next four games saw a slump in form and they could only manage a point. As a result, Croatia finished second behind Belgium and had to face a play-off against Iceland. Under pressure coach Stimac was removed and charges were given to former captain from their golden generation and then U-21 national team manager Niko Kovac. Kovac guided Croatia successfully against Iceland in the second round of the qualifiers thus securing a berth in the summer showdown.

Under Kovac, Croatia are yet to find their footing. To be fair, he has not been able to spend sufficient time with his team to stamp his mark. He managed to navigate the immediate job of qualifying for the World Cup overcoming Iceland although they had to fight hard. Croatia could not break stubborn Iceland in the first leg despite having a man advantage for most of the first half. This Croatian team doesn’t have an abundance of talent to pick from. Without doubt, they boast one of the most in-form and talented midfielder of the present time in Luka Modric. He will be ably supported by Ivan Rakitic who is enjoying a fine season with Sevilla. In Mateo Kovacic, they have a potential superstar who will be valuable to Kovac’s plan. Midfield can be the source of inspiration for Croatia but Kovachave to design a strategy that can harness the best out his talented midfeld. Southampton’s Dejan Lovren will be the leader at the back alongside Vedran Corluka. Ever-present and captain Dario Srna will take up his position as the right-back. It is the forward line where Croatia lacks real quality and they will be further affected by absence of Mario Mandzukic in the opening game against Brazil due to a one-game ban. In his absence, either of Eduardo Silva or Nikica Jelavic will step in but how much threat they can be remains a doubt.  Ivan Perisic and veteran IvicaOlic will be playing supporting roles as wide forwards. Beyond the first XI, lack of suitable quality will be another bit of concern for the manager.  So all in all, it is the midfield where lies the key to success for Croatia.

The pint sized Balkan nation with a population of four million will be at the centre of global audience come 12th June. They will lock horn with the host and favourites Brazil.  Niko Kovac has made it clear that his team won’t be there in Brazil just as tourists. He stated: “You only get a shot at the World Cup every four years, so we want to leave behind a lasting impression.”  Qualifying for the knockout stage remains the primary agenda for Kovac and his team. They need to back themselves and produce their best to get results especially against the likes of Mexico and Cameroon. Following their absence in 2010 World Cup, the Vatreni will look to arouse the spirit of 1998 to make this World Cup special.

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Oribe Peralta

Mexico has been the powerhouse nation in the CONCACAF group of North and Central America region over the years. They have not been spectacular but steady in the last five editions. Generally due to lack of competition, Mexico’s status has never been threatened in the region.

Courtesy of winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2011, Mexico got the chance to participate in last year’s Confederation Cup in Brazil. However, being paired with Brazil and Italy in the same group, they faced a difficult job to advance in the tournament. As expected, they lost both the games and were eliminated. Defeating Japan in the other group match was the only positive thing for them. Their next assignment was the Gold Cup 2013 hosted by USA. Things started to go downhill from this tournament. In the group stage, Mexico went down to minnows Panama and managed to qualify for quarter-final stage as runners-up. However, they again faced Panama in the semi-final and suffered the same fate. This was the first time Panama has defeated Mexico in Gold Cup and that too twice.

Mexico started their qualification journey for World Cup 2014 in the third round of CONCACAF qualifiers. They were clubbed with Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guyana. Under the guidance of Jose Manuel ‘Chepo’ de la Torre Menchacha, they breezed through the group by winning all the six matches. Next, came the fourth round, also known as the Hexagonal, consisting of six teams, the group champions and runners-ups, from third round. Mexico had to struggle from the beginning this time. They embarked on a poor run of seven games where they drew 5 games and winning just one. The lowest point came on 6th September, 2013 when Honduras defeated Mexico at their own Estadio Azteca. It was only the second defeat for the ‘EL Tri’ at their home, previous one was in 2001. Subsequently, Mexican Football Federation (FMF) sacked the under fire manager Chepo and gave the reins to Luis Fernando Tena Garduno. Tena, who guided Mexico U-23 to 2012 London Olympics gold medal, had a complex and difficult task in his hand. Mexico was lying fourth among the six teams. But Tena could not stem the rot and Mexico lost the following game against USA. FMF pressed the panic button and brought Victor Manuel Vucetich Rojas in charge for the last two games. Amongst this chaos, Mexico managed to hold on the fourth spot by winning their penultimate match and despite losing the final game, Panama’s loss to USA in the last round by conceding two goals in the injury time saved Mexico from suffering the ignominy of missing out the trip to World Cup finals. Again FMF changed the manager by bringing in interim manager Miguel Herrera – the fourth manager in less than a month – and Mexico defeated New Zealand in the intercontinental play-off on 9-3 aggregate to finally get their ticket as one of the last two nations.

After successfully negotiating the play-off hurdle, FMF decided to move forward with Miguel Herrera in charge of ‘El Tri’ for the Brazil showpiece tournament. The 46-year-old manager have his task cut out as he will be having very little time to shape up the Mexico squad. El Piojo has already mentioned that he will prefer to bring in players whom he has worked with beside the regular candidates. Generally deploying a 3-5-2 formation, veteran Rafael Marquez will be the leader at the back. Upfront Giovanidos Santos and Javier Hernandez will be vital for Mexico’s system. Jose Juan Vazquez and Juan Carlos Medina are Herrera’s choice in the midfield. Herrera will also be encouraged by the young guns like Oribe Peralta, Raul Jimenez, Carlos Pena who helped Mexico to win gold in 2012 London Olympics.

Miguel Herrera said a few days back that ’We are going to reach the final’. But it is easier said than done. Probably Herrera said the words to express his positive attitude which he wants his team to show on the field. But realistically it will be difficult for Mexico to move beyond the group stage overcoming Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon.

Predictions

Brazil remains the outright favourites to win the Group A. But it ends there as it is only prediction based on the Brazil’s pedigree.  Make no mistake Brazil will have to give their all to move to the next round. All the remaining three sides Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon have the capability to hurt Brazil on an odd occasion. For example, in recent games against Mexico, Brazil have found it tougher to get to overcome them(in last eight games between them, Mexico and Brazil have seen an equal share of spoils). Between Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon, it is very difficult to select the strongest candidate as they all have their fair share of strengths as well as weaknesses.  The two teams that will manage to advance to the next round will probably face one of the finalists from 2010 World Cup, either Spain or Netherlands, which itself will be a daunting task indeed.

Passing Shot

Brazil and Mexico have faced each other 38 times so far, one of the most common fixtures in the region.

A Year On: 5 African Finalists of World Cup 2010

The FIFA World Cup kicked off in Africa on June 11th, 2010 and the razzmatazz that followed was a historic one. It all started when FIFA announced South Africa as hosts of the tournament on 15May 2004, beating off competition from Morocco. While the tournament wasn’t due to kick off until some years’ time, South Africa and Africa as a whole was already reaping benefits evident in tourism boom and infrastructure improvement. Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa graced the competition as Africa’s representatives. Before the tourney began, consulting firm Grant Thornton estimated that the event will contribute at least R51.1-billion to South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP). Sani Lulu, then head of the Nigeria Football Federation had this to say before the start of the tournament: “Nigeria, which is competing at the World Cup, plans to open an exhibition on the sidelines of the tournament to promote investment in the oil-rich nation. We wish to showcase Nigeria and its enormous potentials via a Nigeria village at the World Cup.” Such was the anticipation of the various African participants to utilize the opportunities that the first World Cup in Africa would bring. More focus would have been on South Africa, the hosts.

Nigeria

I can safely say Nigeria didn’t gain much from partaking in the competition. Only notable increments were the US$1 million FIFA rewarded all participating teams for preparation costs and the US$8 million given to them for exiting the competition after the group stage. The Competition only served as a podium to highlight the numerous problems of the football nation. After a dismal display by the Nigerians, they returned home to meet a bombshell as the Nigerian president was utterly disappointed. “Mr. President has directed that Nigeria will withdraw from all international football competition for the next two years to enable Nigeria to reorganise its football.” Those were the words of Ima Niboro, Jonathan’s (The Nigerian President) senior communications adviser. The decision came a day after the executive committee of the NFF met to recap the country’s performance in which they picked up a single point and finished bottom of a group also containing South Korea, Greece and Argentina. Ultimately, Jonathan was forced to lift the ban after FIFA intervened. Barely anything has improved since then. This is manifested in the FIFA rankings. Nigeria was ranked 30th in the world and 4th in Africa after the World Cup. Now they occupy the 43rd and 6th positions, both globally and in Africa respectively.

Algeria

Algeria left South Africa with a point from three matches. In the eyes of some it was a complete success seeing that participation in the competition ended a 24-year absence. Players like Djamel Mesbah and Hassan Yebda earned worldwide recognition as a result. FIFA’s decision to allow players over the age of 21 who have turned out for countries in junior football, to switch loyalties if they qualify for another senior international team has really helped in revitalizing Algerian football. This has allowed many quality players with French heritage to join the Algerian squad. Though Algeria has plummeted in the FIFA rankings since participating in the 2010 World Cup moving from 33rd position to its current 46th in the world, considerable developments in their football can’t be discounted. They too have moved two places down in the continental ranking since then, moving from 5th place to 7th place. But they have had some movement in the table being Africa’s biggest movers in the rankings in the month of April this year moving up 15 places to 40th position in the world.

Cote d’Ivoire

After being placed alongside Brazil, Portugal and North Korea in the so called “Group of Death”, not much was expected from Les Éléphants. Africa’s strongest footballing nation went out of the tournament prematurely with their heads held high even though they couldn’t make it past the group stage. That did not take anything from a Cote d’Ivoire team that has been slowly ramping up its football over the years. They have since maintained momentum, establishing themselves as Africa’s best footballing nation. They have held on to the number one slot in Africa in the FIFA rankings, moving from 26th in the world to 16th so far. The country’s success in football though has done little to quell the perpetual Ivorian political crisis as the economy is still in a mess.

Cameroon

World Cup 2010 was Cameroon’s sixth appearance in this event – an African record. Much was expected from the highest ranked African team, but their hopes were shattered after they failed to qualify from a tough group. The Lions were the first team to be eliminated from the World Cup after a 2-1 loss to Denmark. Cameroon’s poor outing in the World Cup meant they went down 21 places in the FIFA rankings as well as to 7th position from their previous table topping position in Africa. Ongoing leadership disputes on and off the field have led to their steady downfall in recent years. They are now languishing in 8th position in Africa.

Ghana

A quarter final exit in only their second appearance meant Ghana went away with prize money of US$14 million. A very young Ghanaian team made the continent proud. Rebranding of the national team and worldwide cognizance resulted in its players becoming hot property. Notable moves after the World Cup were Asamoah Gyan’s move from Rennes to Sunderland and Kevin Prince Boateng’s move from Portsmouth to Milan via Genoa. Ghana has become the proverbial honey where bees feed on. There are football clinics where children are brought together, some well-known local and international football idols and administrators to inspire the youth to greater heights. Club sides in Europe now want partnerships with local clubs or academies in Ghana. A good example is the pact between Holland’s Feyenoord and Feyenoord academy in Ghana. Such is the growth of Ghanaian football that the dictum now is “catch the next Asamoah Gyan from the cradle.” This has led to various football talent hunts in Ghana. 

A Football Clinic in Ghana

South Africa

Though the Bafana Bafana were eliminated at the group stage, hosting the World Cup had a gargantuan impact on their economy. There was amelioration of infrastructure since a lot of money was pumped into the sector prior to the World Cup. An estimated 130,000 jobs were created in the construction, hospitality and transport industry. According to Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk, 309,000 tourists visited the country for the World Cup and spent over R3.6 billion (0.5 bn $) on the economy. President Jacob Zuma confirmed that the security demands of the tournament now meant the country had an additional 40,000 police officers. A monolithic rise in reputation amongst other countries of the world can’t be left out. “World Cup may be over but we’re still revelling in the profound positive effects this one event has brought to our country,” said Sthu Zungu, President, South African Tourism, North America. The tourism industry was one of the biggest gainers. According to Grant Thornton, 96% of visitors to the World Cup confirmed that they would visit South Africa again, while 92% said they would recommend it to friends and relatives. With the World Cup a total success, South Africa has made a bold statement in security to the world at a time when terrorism has become the order of the day and violence lacerating the peace of Africa nay the world.

Urban road system around Cape Town

This speaks volumes of its credentials as a peaceful nation and a friendly clime for those with business interests. The launch of latest James Bond novel in Cape Town is evidence to the increasing awareness. On a football sense, the World Cup served as a rostrum for players from the national team to showcase their skills to the world. The flourish of the South African Premier League was one that was discernible before the World Cup and now its worldwide awareness has heightened. The various stadia used during the World Cup are now being used by club sides as the domestic league is operating at the highest standards. The availability of quality facilities which is a boon to the young aspiring footballers will mean more quality players in the nation’s national pool in the long run. Kaizer Chief’s Knowledge Musona was sold for over 1 million £ to Germany’s Hoffenheim on July 28, 2011. Such transfer fee is a feature of quality leagues. The South African Premier League is not short of partnerships with European sides – Ajax Cape Town and AFC Ajax of Holland, Supersport United and Tottenham Hotspur of England are good examples. Bongani Khumalo became the first offspring of the union between Supersport United and Tottenham on October 26, 2010 when it was announced that Khumalo would be joining Tottenham Hotspur in January 2011 from partner club Supersport United after a successful trial in September, subject to a work permit for a fee of £1.5 million.

Bongani Khumalo, product of the South African Premier League

More examples of tiptop moves from the South African premier League to Europe include Bidvest Wits’ goalkeeper Darren Keet to Belgian club KV Kortrijk in June 2011 and Ajax Cape Town’s Thulani Serero to AFC Ajax. Only a vibrant league can churn out such quality players and only quality facilities like those from the World Cup can be substrate for a vibrant league. The fact that the South African Premier League is the seventh biggest earner of sponsorship revenue among football leagues worldwide has shown that South African football is refusing to look back. They have risen from 66th to 51st so far in the FIFA rankings since hosting the World Cup. Even an Olympic bid is being mooted. In a recent development, S. Africa will replace Libya as 2013 Nations Cup hosts as the latter nation has been torn apart by violence.

Tout ensemble, South Africa and Ghana were the biggest donees amassing developments in various sectors of the country including football. The other African countries that took part were far less successful as developments have been restricted. Truth is that the 2010 World Cup has gone a long way in extricating Africa from a quandary that has seen other parts of the world view it mediocrely.

                                                                                                                                                                   

Obasa Olalekan is an ardent lover of AC Milan. He can be contacted via twitter @obsylakeside