Countdown to South Africa: Group B

 

 

Michael LeClair and Jaime Heilbron

Group B presents an odd collection of teams, all laden with expectations and history. In Argentina and Nigeria, the group boasts two fallen giants, Argentina having lost their perch atop the South American food chain, and Nigeria no longer among the dominant African sides. South Korea is an Asian giant who has only been able to transfer their success to the global game once, and Greece, despite their illustrious name and Euro 2004 title, are making just their second appearance in a World Cup. Group B is one of the more wide open groups in this edition of the World Cup, and will certainly provide some

interesting football for the world.

Argentina

The Argentine national football team had a tougher road to South Africa than anyone would have thought, and it should not have been that difficult. In CONMEBOL qualifying, Argentina finished fourth, the last automatic bid out of South America. Going into the last two matches of the qualifying round, Argentina sat in fifth place. Those two matches proved to be crucial. In the first of the two, Le Albiceleste defeated last-place Peru, 2-1. In the second, they faced Uruguay in what ended up being a battle for the last automatic bid, in which Argentina prevailed, 1-0.

Even though Argentina advanced to the World Cup, they did so without playing well. This aspect of their qualification is worrisome not only to them, but fans and media too. Manager Diego Maradona has been facing critics since his tenure began. An embarrassing 3-1 defeat in Rosario at the hands of archrival Brazil on September was preceded in April by a humiliating 6-1 massacre in La Paz against Bolivia, their worst performance in over a decade. In the months prior to securing the tournament berth, the media speculated on the possibility of Maradona being let go. Since they advanced, Maradona’s job has been secured until next summer comes around, something that could prove damaging for the Argentines, as Maradona’s apparent incompetence continues to grow with every press conference.

Argentina won the 1978 and 1986 World Cups, the first at home and the second in Mexico. The Argentines also advanced to the final in Italy 1990. Since then, however, they have taken the role of an important player in the early rounds before finding creative ways to be eliminated from contention. In 2002, Argentina entered the tournament as the undisputed favorite, following an impeccable campaign throughout qualifying, but disappointed an entire nation by failing to advance past the group stage. In their defense, that group was the one labeled as the “Group of Death. Four years later, Le Albiceleste landed in Germany seeking vengeance and was dangerous throughout the group stage, taking care of a pesky Ivory Coast and destroying Serbia & Montenegro before drawing with the Netherlands to take first place in the group. In the Round of 16, Argentina defeated Mexico in extra time after partaking in one of the best contests of the tournament. In the quarterfinals, the host Germans defeated Argentina in penalty kicks after drawing 1-1 in regulation. For this upcoming World Cup, Argentina will still arrive considered as one of the favorites, but that is mostly out of respect for their history. The team is indebted to its fan base after two decades of failure in the tournament.

Player to watch: F.C. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi is considered one of the world’s premier football players. His country lauds him as Maradona’s heir. Messi, however, has failed to perform to his level of expectation with the Argentine national team. Messi will be the force driving his team throughout the World Cup. Critics claim that he is a great player for Barca because of his teammates, and not because of his own abilities. Messi will have the chance to prove them all wrong in South Africa if he leads his country to its third world title. Argentina’s fortunes lie, therefore, with Messi’s performance in Africa.

Greece

World Cup qualifying was essentially a formality for Greece, coming out of a group with Switzerland, Luxembourg, Israel, Latvia and Moldova. The Achaeans finished second in the group, one point behind leader Switzerland. In the UEFA Playoff Round, Greece faced Ukraine in a two-leg playoff for a spot in South Africa. After a scoreless draw at home, the Greeks took care of business in Donetsk, earning an impressive 1-0 victory to book passage to the World Cup. While Greece’s road to South Africa sounds and looks easy, it should have been even easier. In their qualifying group, they failed to take care of Switzerland, losing both home and away. One department in which Greece will have to improve if they want to be successful this coming summer is scoring. Of the 21 goals they scored in 12 qualifying matches, one player, Theofanis Gekas, scored ten. Every team in this group knows how to play defense, and if they know that all they need to do to beat the Greeks is neutralize one player, they will do it and thus earn three easy points. For that reason, the Hellenics will have to spread their scoring.

Greece’s lone World Cup appearance was 16 years ago in USA 1994. On that occasion, the Greeks were paired up with Argentina and Nigeria, coincidentally two of their opponents this time around. The Hellenics, of whom great things were expected by their people, put forth one of the most embarrassing World Cup performances in the tournament’s history. They lost their World Cup debut, 4-0, to Argentina, then got obliterated by Bulgaria by the same score and in the final game lost to Nigeria, 2-0. Greece exited the tournament as quickly as it entered, failing to score a single goal. In order to be successful in South Africa, the Greeks will have to stop salivating over their 2004 European Championship and concentrate on the task at hand, which will be anything but easy.

Player to watch: The forementioned Theofanis Gekas is a no-brainer for this moniker. The Hertha Berlin striker has 20 goals in 45 appearances for the Greeks, and his ten goals in qualifying led UEFA. He has also lead the Greek and German leagues in scoring several times. An entire country will be relying on him to score Greece’s first goal ever in a World Cup.

Nigeria

The Super Eagles have the ability to shock the world in South Africa. After a silver medal in the Beijing Olympics and a third-place finish in the 2010 African Cup of Nations in Angola, Nigeria boasts a young and powerful side who will carry them throughout the World Cup.

Nigeria’s squad for the African Cup of Nations was composed entirely of European-based players, of whom only six play outside of the top five European leagues. The only over-30 player on that roster, forward and captain Nwankwo Kanu, provides a level of experience almost unprecedented in the international game, having represented Nigeria on the senior level since 1994. His club resume is equally impressive, as he has suited up for Ajax, Arsenal, Inter Milan, and others throughout the years. Though not the most prolific goalscorer, Kanu can always be relied on for steady leadership in times of trouble. In the center of midfield, Chelsea star John Obi Mikel will provide a destructive defensive presence, also capable of springing forward and unleashing a 35-yard screamer at the goal with even the slightest amount of space.

As this is the first African World Cup, many experts have commented on the potential of African sides to explode and make deeper runs than ever before. With a young and motivated side, Nigeria is most certainly capable of being one of these teams. Many of these same experts are prematurely writing off Nigeria’s chances in South Africa, and they will be embarrassed come mid-July.

Most interesting about Nigeria are the rumors about their new manager. With the Nigeria Football Federation deeming a third-place finish in Angola unsuitable, they let decorated manager Shaibu Amodu go. In his place, they have been linked with former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and current Russia coach Guus Hiddink, either of whom would be more than capable of carrying Nigeria deep into

the tournament.

Player to watch: Striker Obafemi Martins. The former Newcastle man is electric both on and off the ball. He has the moves and strength to beat any defender in the world. Against Greece, a match that will likely determine advancement from the group, and where space will be at a premium, Martins will need to shine for Nigeria to have

a chance.

Republic of Korea

The Republic of Korea brings an interesting team and history to South Africa. They are a dominant side in Asian qualifiers, having qualified for seven consecutive World Cups and five consecutive Asian Cups. When it comes time for the big tournament, however, they always fail. With the exception of the 2002 World Cup, which they co-hosted with Japan, the Taeguk Warriors have won just one World Cup match, having drawn five and lost 11. Even in Asia, where they make qualifying for tournaments a breeze, they have not won an Asian Cup since 1960.

On the field, despite their history, South Korea is capable of springing an upset on anyone. In 2002, wins over Portugal, Italy and Spain propelled the side all the way to the semifinals. A 2006 draw against France nearly cast the eventual runners-up from the tournament.

For the Koreans, the question in South Africa has to be: Where do the goals come from? Despite having four field players with over 80 caps, only one has 20+ goals, striker Lee Dong-Gook, who has scored just two goals for Korea since the last World Cup.

The Koreans bring an incredibly high level of international experience to South Africa. In defender Lee Young-Pyo, who earns his paycheck in Saudi Arabia for Al-Hilal, the Koreans boast a player with 110 international caps and an excess of club experience in the best European leagues. Seol Ki-Hyeon, formerly of Reading and Fulham fame, is one of a few players who give South Korea quite possibly the most experienced midfield heading into South Africa 2010. With 36 year-old goalkeeper Lee Woon-Jae between the posts, there will be no worries about World Cup jitters at the back of the Korean team.

Player to watch: Manchester United’s Park Ji-Sung. Park never runs out of energy, sprinting into 50-50 challenges well into stoppage time. As South Korea’s captain, his energy and leadership will spark the team in every game, and is critical for them to get out of the group stages.