The 2010 Winter Olympics were a big deal for Canada, but for the rest of the world, only one international event really counts. For 32 of the world’s countries, only one event can truly unite their nation around a common goal.
Watched by millions every four years, that event is, of course, FIFA’s World Cup. For the first time in its 80-year history the competition will be held in Africa, specifically in South Africa.
Before we get to predictions, here’s a quick primer on who qualifies and how: countries have gone through multiple qualifying rounds to make the Final 32, and the teams that qualify are placed in eight groups of four teams each. The top two in each group advance to the qualifying round. Each country plays every country in their group just once, with the possibility of a tie. The teams are separated to try to make each group more competitive.
In this article you’ll find a short preview of each group, followed by my predictions of how the tournament could play out. (In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit I am a fan of Argentina, but I will offer unbiased predictions. Really.)
Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
South Africa received a prime location in Group A, due to the fact they’re hosting the tournament. They open the tournament with their toughest opponent, Mexico. With the whole continent, and most of the world’s viewing audience tuning in, an upset could provide them the momentum they need to get at least the second seed. Though not as strong as other “one-seeds” like Germany or the Netherlands, the home field advantage can help. This might be one of the more wide-open groups, and any two could advance without much surprise.
Prediction: Mexico, South Africa.
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece
Argentina is likely the most talented team in this group, and arguably one of the most talented in the whole tournament. With legendary former player Diego Maradona coaching, and arguably the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, on the field, anything could happen. Critics question whether Maradona, who promised to run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if his country wins, can have his players play as well as they do for their club teams, and reach their potential as a a team. Nigeria could prove to be a tough opponent for Argentina, and a Nigeria victory in that game would even further question Maradona’s coaching merit. South Korea is nothing to worry about, and Greece is a much weaker team than they were in 2004, when they surprised the world by winning the Euro Cup.
Prediction: Argentina, Nigeria.
Group C: England, United States, Algeria, Slovenia
Some might be quick to pencil in the two English-speaking countries to the next round. England routinely has one of the stronger teams in the tournament, but historically they have not performed well, with their last World Cup championship in 1966. The United States also hasn’t performed well historically, and with this essentially being the last chance for star Landon Donovan to prove himself, the pressure is on. Slovenia managed to squeak into the tournament by beating Russia on an away-goals tiebreaker, and Algeria barely slipped by Egypt, but both have the ability to upset the U.S. if they can open strong. England meanwhile, should breeze through easily.
Prediction: England, United States.
Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
Germany hasn’t missed the qualifying round since before the Second World War, and will likely advance yet again. In 2006 they had the advantage of playing at home, advancing all the way to the semi-finals before losing to Italy, who won the championship, and coming in third overall. Serbia, who is playing in the tournament for the first time since its separation from Montenegro, is another strong team that could be a Cinderella of sorts, while Ghana is one of the African teams that could ride the hometown momentum to tournament success.
Prediction: Germany, Serbia.
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
Though the Netherlands is likely the best team of the group, the other three are not going to simply lay down and let the Dutch breeze through. Denmark finished ahead of both Portugal and Sweden in qualifying, Cameroon is likely Africa’s best chance to go far in the tournament, and Japan will be looking to prove doubters wrong by winning their first World Cup game off Asian soil.
Prediction: Netherlands, Cameroon.
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Defending World Cup Champion Italy is a much different team than it was in 2006. An aging squad comes into the tournament as one of the most non-threatening returning champs of all time. Paraguay played extremely well in South American qualifying, and could ride that to the next round, but a strong Slovakian team could provide some problems. The Paraguay-Slovakia matchup will likely determine the second place winner, unless they can upset Italy as well.
Prediction: Italy, Slovakia.
Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Portugal, Ivory Coast
Brazil, the only country to have taken part in every edition of the World Cup, shocked many when they left star player Ronaldhino, highly regarded as one of the best players of the last few years, off the squad. Favouring a more defensive style, this decision could prove detrimental to their tournament hopes. Portugal comes into the tournament as one of the more talented teams, led by star Christiano Ronaldo. The tournament hopes of the Ivory Coast were dealt a crushing blow when star player Didier Drogba broke his arm in a recent match, leading to questions about whether or not he could play. Before the injury, they might have had a shot at upsetting Brazil and advancing, but that seems extremely unlikely now.
Prediction: Portugal, Brazil.
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile
And here come the tournament favorites: Spain should have no trouble sweeping this group, and any real trouble might only come with the championship game. The other three will have to fight each other for second place, but even then they’ll be running into a tough opponent, the winner of Group G. Switzerland’s captain and best player, Alexander Frei, was injured early this year, and his health will determine how far the Swiss can go.
Prediction: Spain, Switzerland.
The Concordian’s elimination round predictions
Once they get through qualifying, teams are matched up based on group. Group A with Group B, Group C with Group D, and so on. The winner of the group plays the second place team from the other, and members of the same group are separated so that they could potentially play each other in the finals.
Round of 16
Mexico &- Nigeria, England &- Serbia, Netherlands &- Slovakia, Portugal &- Switzlerand
Argentina &- South Africa, Germany &- United States, Italy &- Cameroon, Spain &- Brazil
Mexico &- England, Netherlands &- Portugal
Argentina &- Germany, Cameroon &- Spain
England &- Portugal, Argentina &- Spain
Argentina over England.
I remain adamant that I have stayed unbiased with my predictions. Argentina will of course have difficulty with the highly-talented Spain if that match-up surfaces, but I predict they have the ability to pull off the upset. Meanwhile, England has the skill and toughness needed to win the whole tournament as well, and would match up well with both Spain and Argentina.
But whoever you cheer for, it will no doubt prove to be an interesting tournament. And for the hundreds of millions of viewers set to watch the world’s biggest single sporting event, the cheering – and the heartache – can’t start soon enough.