Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Group F features Lionel Messi led Argentina. But will they not face any challenge in the Group stage? Read on to know more with Indranath Mukherjee
They say that there are no easy games in World Cup, or in any major tournament for that matter. While that may be a tad exaggerated, Group F in FIFA World Cup 2014 is indeed tricky with the unpredictable Argentina, debutant Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria – the exciting Super Eagles – and Iran, with the endangered Asiatic cheetah featuring in their away kits. Readers may note that all the four teams in the group had topped their respective groups in the World Cup qualifiers.
The winner of the group will face the runners-up from a relatively easy Group E but let us wait and watch how things unfold.
From Guillermo Stábile, Luis Monti to Juan Román Riquelme, Lionel Messi – with the plethora of talent that Argentina has, it is fair to say they haven’t played to their potential in over a decade in the FIFA World Cup. It was the genius of Diego Armando Maradona that took a not so great Argentina side to the final in 1990 World Cup when they were beaten 1-0 by the resilient Germans. Since then, Argentina has failed to go past the quarter final stage.
Argentina had a disastrous time in 2010 World Cup followed by 2011 Copa primarily because they didn’t seem to have any game plan. The men in charge, Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista, were both tactically poor. Alejandro Sabella, the current manager, looks more pragmatic and has the knack of grinding out results. La Albiceleste under Sabella had a good run in the qualifiers and finished top of the South American group ahead of Chile and Colombia scoring 35 goals and conceding only 15 in 16 matches. More importantly, Messi has been instrumental in the qualification and was the top scorer of the team with 10 goals. Fellow striker Gonzalo Higuaín scored 9. In Messi, Agüero and Higuaín, Argentina probably have the best front line. Forwards who will not make the first team like Rodrigo Palacio, Ezequiel Lavezzi are hunted by the top European clubs. Carlos Tevez has been in scintillating form with Juventus but expectedly not included in the final squad.
But as fellow author Gino had articulated nicely Attack Wins Games, Defence Wins Titles, Argentina’s defence is at best mediocre. Pablo Zabaleta is probably the best player among the back four but the Manchester City right back has not been the same player for the national team yet. Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernández will probably make up the center back pair and one of José María Basanta and Marcos Rojo will start in the left. The bigger worry for Argentina in the defence is actually the man behind these four. Sergio Romero, Sabella’s first choice goalkeeper has been warming the bench for a while at Monaco. A local strapline in January, “How can Sabella sleep at night?” highlighted the fact that after six weeks on the bench, Mariano Andújar started a game only to concede four goals.
Will the midfield help to hide the weak defence? Very unlikely. Ángel di María is in the form of his life lately with Real Madrid but he adds more to the attack than defence. Javier Mascherano will have to hold the fort if the Albicelestes want to go far in the tournament. Fernando Gago was a key member in Sabella’s midfield but his recent injury is a blow for the team. He has been selected in the final squad and also made an appearance in the starting XI in the friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. Lazio’s Lucas Biglia and veteran Maxi Rodriguez will probably be the two main backups for Sabella in the midfield.
At the least, Argentina are expected to top the group. However, the irony is, anything other than winning the title will be considered a failure for Messi and company.
Bosnia as an independent nation will play its first major tournament in Brazil and don’t be surprised if they indulge in their attacking brand of football. Bosnia made it to Brazil by being the UEFA Group G winners, finishing ahead of Greece on goal difference. Just look at their astonishing statistics in the qualifying: 8 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat. They scored 30 goals in those 10 games and conceded only 6.
The Manchester City man Edin Dzeko scored 10 goals in the qualifying stage for Bosnia and he is ably supported in front by the VfB Stuttgart striker Vedad Ibišević. Zvjezdan Misimović is the most capped Bosnian footballer and his partnership with the Roma attacking midfielder Miralem Pjanic adds flamboyance to Bosnia’s attacking football.
Coach Safet Sušić is likely to continue with his team’s attacking flair. In the national team’s official website he has been quoted saying: “We will play the way we have always played because it would be wrong to change our approach now, although we are aware that our style may be a tactical gamble.”
“When you have players like Pjanic, Misimovic, Dzeko and Ibisevic, it would be unfair to the game itself and the fans not to unleash all that talent.”
The Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic and the Leverkusen centre-back Emir Spahić lead the defensive set up and keep it rock solid.
Bosnia played Argentina in a friendly in November 2013 and lost 2 – 0 but when they start their World Cup campaign against them at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on June 15, expect them to be far more competitive. A very strong candidate for making it to the last 16.
Iran is a football loving country but for the Iranian fans none of the previous World Cups has really been a fairy tale. They have not gone past the group stages in any of their three earlier appearances. Iran’s world cup moment of glory was the 2-1 victory against USA in 1998. Ali Daei, Karim Bagheri, Mehdi Mahdavikia were the key players of the golden generation of Iran. The former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz is not that lucky to have got such a generation of gifted footballers, but he has managed his team reasonably well through the qualifying stage.
Iran had a fairly disappointing Asian Cup in 2011 where they were eliminated in the quarter-final after going down to South Korea. World Cup qualifying started really well for them though. With five wins and three draws and an average of nearly three goals per match till Round 3, Iran started struggling in Round 4 where they were grouped with South Korea, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Lebanon. They lost twice and drew once in the first five matches and qualification looked uncertain. But they came back to win their matches against Qatar, Lebanon and Korea Republic on the final day and booked their spot for Brazil.
Reza Ghoochannejhad, nicknamed “Gucci”, followed the path of Karim Bagheri to be the second Iranian to join Charlton Athletic in England in January 2014. He scored the winner against South Korea and has been tagged as Iran’s “golden boy” by FIFA. Javad Nekounam, nicknamed “Neku”, is the inspiring leader of the team providing the creative juice from the midfield with support from Andranik Teymourian, Ashkan Dejagah and Masoud Shojaei.
Qualifying from the group stage for the first time in the World Cup may be the right target for Iran this time, but it is not going to be an easy ride for them.
Nigeria had started their journey into the World Cup back in 1994 and they have been drawn with Argentina with unbelievable regularity since then. Even the current captains of the respective teams Lionel Messi and John Obi Mikel have been in a face off thrice in major competitions at different age levels: 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup final, 2008 Beijing Olympic Football final and World Cup 2010 group stage in South Africa. All these results have gone in favour of Argentina, but Nigeria had established themselves as one of the most exciting teams in world football from the very beginning. They topped their group in 1994 which had the tournament’s eventual semi-finalist Bulgaria, Greece and of course Argentina. Rashidi Yekini, Jay-Jay Okocha, Daniel Amokachi and Nwankwo Kanu became fairly familiar names amongst the football followers across the world. In 1998, coached by the prolific Bora Milutinović, they made it past the group stage again causing a major upset beating Spain 3-2. But in their next three World Cup appearances, they have gone out at the group stage with fairly poor performances.
The current Nigeria team under the coach Stephen Keshi is expected to do much better especially after they won the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Their performance in the qualifying was not earth shattering though. They were drawn in a relatively easy group with Malawi, Kenya and Namibia. With three 1-1 draws with each of the three opponents in the group and three wins they move to final play-off and faced the lowest-ranked team Ethiopia which they negotiated comfortably winning 1-2 away and 2-0 at home.
Victor Nsofor Obinna, now playing in Serie A with A.C. Chievo Verona (on loan from FC Lokomotiv Moscow), has scored 11 goals in 44 games so far for Nigeria but he has not been included in the final squad. So the Nigerian attack will have to depend on the likes of Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa and Emmanuel Emenike. The veteran keeper Vincent Enyeama and the captain John Obi Mikel will orchestrate the defence.
Nigeria starts their campaign in Brazil playing Iran in Curitiba on June 16th. If they get a good start, the next game against Bosnia will probably decide who joins Argentina to the last 16 from group F.
Even with Messi’s recent dip in form, Gago’s injury, Kun’s injury prone season, Argentina is likely to finish at the top of the group. The Bosnia versus Nigeria game will probably decide who else is joining them in the last 16. One huge advantage that the teams from this group will enjoy is that depending on how far they progress in the tournament, they will never have to play going any higher up the country than Brasilia.
Apart from Argentina-Nigeria match, all the other fixtures in the group will be between teams who have never played each other before, apart from a few meaningless friendlies. So be ready for some surprises and keen contests between different traditions and styles.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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