Group C: Anybody's Guess
Every World Cup has its "Group of Death" and Group C is clearly just that in 2006. Make no mistake about it. If you're in a pool, Group C could make or break a lot of brackets. Argentina and Holland are the traditonal favorites, but if Ivory Coast and Serbia & Montenegro sail into the knockout stages, it won't be all that surprising.
Argentina, who, much like Italy, is known for it's penchant for bitching, began complaining the moment Pele pulled the Argentina lottery ball at the World Cup draw in December. Apparently, Pele also pulled Argentina's ball into the Group of Death back in 2002 and those crazy Argentinians, who loathe Brazil, think that Pele is bad luck, or failing that, that the draw was flat-out fixed. In other words, they're not happy. And why should they be? Despite being a perennial favorite, Argentina failed to advance in 2002 and, surely, that must be weighing on the minds of the team and fans alike.
Offensively, Argentina is as stacked as anyone except perhaps Brazil. The names of the forwards and midfielders roll off the tongue and draw wonder much the way the one-word names of the Brazilians do. Riquelme. Messi. Crespo. Tevez. Hell, coach Jose Pekerman has some hard decisions to make in order to get them all satisfactory minutes. Riqelme would appear to be the only one guaranteed to be in there at all times.
Crespo will surely start, but he's no longer young, and if both youngsters, Messi and Tevez, are in form, it will be hard not to have them on the field.
Messi is the boy wonder at the moment, not only in Argentina but worldwide, but he's only 18 and coming off an injury, which may not be that surprising. The guy is small. It's one thing to be short, but Messi is also a lightweight. Very frail. It remains to be seen if his small stature can withstand the at times brutish play of big time soccer. The World Cup is a long grind.
Personally, I think Tevez is the key. Like Messi, he's short. But like Argentinian god Maradona, he's built like a bulldog. Whether Pekerman puts Tevez in the starting lineup or not is uncertain, but I think it would be a crime not to.
Holland is in a weird position at the moment. Coach Marco van Basten, who was one of the all-time great players, has ditched several of the older Dutch stars in favor of younger, new blood. The immediate result is an alarming lack of big names, which the Dutch squad is normally loaded with. Where once names like Kluivert, Seedorf, Bergkamp, and Staam immediately brought to mind grand possibilities, there is only Ruud Van Nistelroy. The Manchester United forward is the only name on the roster that instantly screams star power these days, though the aging Philip Cocu may beg to differ. Oh, there are several youngsters on the verge of such status, but they have yet to accomplish much on the internaional stage and will suddenly be expected to in the coming weeks.
The route Van Basten has chosen could work one of two ways. Perhaps the young Dutch players will provide and excitement and hunger that the departed vets may have come to lack, or perhaps their inexperience will come back to haunt them in such a dangerous group. We shall see.
Ont thing we know for sure is that if Holland finds itself in a penalty kicks situation, more than likely they will lose. (Think of their semifinal loss to Italy at EURO 2004, which was downright painful to watch.) Nobody chokes under pressure like the Dutch, who have suffered some horribly crushing and unlikely defeats in their history, which only goes to strengthen their long-held reputation of being the most neurotic team in soccer. And what an apt description that is. As usual, they may crumble in the first round. Or perhaps their pure talent, which always rivals that of any team in the world, may carry them deep into the tourney. Who knows? It's a crapshoot, really.
Another team that raises all sorts of question marks is Serbia & Montenegro, if only because they're so anonymous. The old Yugoslavia teams, which Serbia supplied many players to before the breakup in the Balkans, used to be a star-studded outfit full of recognizable names and faces that would ultimately disappointment, most likely because the Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, etc. couldn't get along. Those Yugoslavian teams were also famous for their offensive prowess, often being dubbed the "Brazil of Europe."
This Serb team, however, is the exact opposite. Other than Mateja Kezman there really isn't anyone who sticks out, yet they play with a defensive togetherness that surrendered only one goal in ten qualifying games. That's a filthy record. If they remain that stingy in Germany, there is no reason to believe they couldn't squeeze out a few goals of their own and sneak through to the second round.
Finally, there is Ivory Coast, who I have adopted as my secondary team to root for following the United States. It's hard not to pull for a county that is making its World Cup debut, an accomplishment so big and important that the nation, which is currently in a bloody civil war, has temporily put its hostility aside in an effore to provide united support for their heroes. Well, theoretically, at least. It's stories like this that make soccer the greatest sport on earth.
Although the Elephants, as their known, are debutants, overlooking them would be foolish. Nearly their entire roster plays club ball in the biggest leagues of Europe, and Didier Drogba has become a superstar at Chelsea. To say that they're equal to their more etstablished group opponents purely on talent would not be a brash statement. Combine that with the fact that they will be eager to make a mark on the world stage and this may be your horse if you're looking for an African team who can pull off a Cinderella story similar to Senegal in 2002.
On to the second round: Argentina and Ivory Coast