Looking ahead to Brazil – The Edge Review

THEREVIEW-LOGO\

Previewing how the 2014 World Cup could go, from an Asian perspective

Burmese supporters cheer their team's goal v Thailand on Dec. 15 2013 (Photo - Simon Roughneen)

Burmese supporters cheer their team’s goal v Thailand on Dec. 15 2013 (Photo – Simon Roughneen)

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YANGON – While no Asian country is likely to match South Korea’s run to the semi-finals on home soil in 2002, Japan and South Korea have a good chance at repeating their 2010 achievements by qualifying for the knockout rounds in the 2014 World Cup. For Iran and Australia, Asia’s other contenders, escaping the initial pool stages looks less likely, with the Australians drawn in an inescapable-looking cliff-face group.

Iran might be the top team in Asia according to FIFA’s clunky ranking system, but football watchers regard Japan as the region’s best. The 2002 World Cup co-hosts have players lining out for some of Europe’s top clubs, such as Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United and AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda. Placed in Group C, to play Colombia, Greece and Ivory Coast, Japan will go into the tournament as viable contenders to make the knockout round of 16.

While the Colombians are the likeliest pool-toppers, centre-forward Radamel Falcao has been ruled out: a January cruciate ligament tear coming too close to the finals. With one of the best players in the world hobbled, the South American team will hardly dominate to the extent they might otherwise have done. As for the others, Greece is a dour, defensive unit – lacking in flair and quality, and set up to frustrate more fluid opponents. The Ivorians have a list of star names such as Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba, but most of the African team’s key players are now all well into their thirties. Group C could be closely fought, with all four teams capable of beating each other, but it is a pool that Japan – with half of its team playing in Germany’s Bundesliga – can make it out of, probably behind Colombia.

South Korea – to date the only country outside Europe and the Americas to get to a World Cup semi-final – is not as good a team as Japan this time around. But it is to the advantage of the Koreans that they are drawn in a less-intense Group H, a pool completed by Algeria, Belgium and Russia. The Belgians have an array of emerging talent, such as Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Manchester United prodigy Adnan Janujaz, as well as arguably the world’s best defender in Vincent Kompany. But second place is wide open and South Korea, with 10 Europe-based players in the 23-man squad, has a real chance of edging the inconsistent Russians for a place in the last 16 of the World Cup.

Iran is in another of those groups that feature one sure-fire winner. Lionel Messi’s Argentina will go to neighbouring Brazil, expecting not only to win Group F, but with hopes of going all the way to the final. Bosnia-Hercegovina, Iran and Nigeria will contest for second place in the group. The West African country’s mid-to-late 1990’s vintage team were one of the world’s top 10 international teams. With a huge population and a veritable conveyor belt of talent breaking into many of Europe’s top teams, Nigeria looked set to be the first African nation to challenge for international honours. But Nigeria has fallen fast from those heady heights, and has barely made a mark at World Cups since then. Bosnia-Hercegovina are first-time qualifiers, one of the remnant countries of the former Yugoslavia, a part of the world that always produced world-class footballers. Another former Yugoslav republic, Croatia, made it to the semi-finals in 1998 in its first World Cup appearance. That Croatian team featured some of Europe’s top footballers and it was barely a surprise when they thrashed Germany 3-0 in the 1998 quarterfinals. Bosnia-Hercogovina’s 2014 team is more workmanlike, showing their mettle by coming through a tough European qualifier section and are likely second-place finishers behind Argentina.

As for Asia’s other qualifiers, Australia, making the last 16 looks unlikely, given that the Socceroos will face beaten 2010 finalists, The Netherlands, as well as a strong Chilean team backed by a large travelling support base and led by Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez. Australia qualified for the last 16 in 2006 – only being eliminated by a late, dubious penalty awarded to eventual champions Italy. In South Africa in 2010, Australia lost out to Ghana in the fight for second place behind Germany, and last 16 qualification. This time around, Australia look likely to be wooden spoon candidates. Group B – one of two “Groups of Death” at the competition, the other featuring Germany, Ghana, Portugal and the USA – is completed by a great Spanish team. The defending champions are hoping to make football history by adding the 2014 World Cup to the 2008 and 2012 European Championships, wins that came either side of Spain’s first-ever World Cup triumph in 2010 in South Africa.

And then come the last 16, the knockout stages – four matches from what, for a professional footballer, is the ultimate triumph. Should Japan and South Korea qualify second in their respective groups, as projected, those outcomes will mean daunting second round winner-takes-all clashes with other group winners.

For Japan, it’ll be a last 16 contest with any one of England, Italy or Uruguay – three evenly-matched former world champions who will play each other in Group D and any of whom could finish first or second. If South Korea makes it through Group H in second place behind Belgium, the reward will be a likely last 16 tussle with Germany. That contest would, if it came about, mean a repeat of the history-making 2002 World Cup semi-final, but would pit the Koreans against possibly the best team in the world now. It would be a shock – epic in football terms – if South Korea took out Germany, and while Japan might have a better chance against its likely opponents, it would be more than a surprise if either of the three former world champions fell to Alberto Zaccharoni’s team.

And with Asia’s representatives looking set to be eliminated before the World Cup reaches the quarterfinal stage, the region’s huge football audience will nonetheless retain a keen interest in the proceedings. South Korea’s would-be conquerors, Germany, are regarded as one of the four leading contenders to win the tournament – the others being Spain, Argentina and host country Brazil. Home advantage means Brazil start as bookmakers’ favourites, even if Germany and Spain can clearly boast better player rosters.

And while World Cups often produce surprises – such as South Korea’s semi-final run or one-offs like Saudi Arabia’s 1-0 win over Belgium in 1994 – the World Cup itself has never been won by a dark horse, much less an outsider. Only one World Cup final – the 2010 one between Spain and The Netherlands – has failed to feature Argentina, Brazil, Germany or Italy. Altogether, only eight countries have ever won the World Cup – Brazil 5 times, Italy 4, Germany 3, Argentina and Uruguay twice apiece, and England, France and Spain, all once. It will be a major surprise if there is a new name on the pantheon come July 13.

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