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Group A – Borne like soldiers to the stage

June 7, 2010

So, where were we? I’ve found myself prevented from writing about the World Cup by…errr…writing about the World Cup (this Wednesday, all good news vendors) so a semi-conceived piece about hired-gun managers hasn’t really got off the ground. I could pen something moderately depressing about how all the ‘maybe, just maybe…’ countries seem to be losing their talismen at an impressive rate of knots, but have settled upon something even more unoriginal. Let’s get back into the swing by, over the next two or three days, having a look at each World Cup group in rapid-fire turn – starting, today, with this commentator’s take on Group A.

This group could finish up a little bit like the finale of a Shakespearian tragedy – let’s say Hamlet, although there’s scant chance of the Norwegians rocking along at the end to clean up this time. Each of these sides looks deliciously capable of self-destruction, even if everyone else is duly polished off in the process. Four sides, and footballing nations, each with an acute sense of its own mortality. To stretch the analogy further would be to risk mentioning ‘solipsism’ and ‘France’ in the same sentence, but you get the idea. When Group A was first drawn it looked a little bland, to these eyes – but it now looks the hardest in which to pick a winner (along with Group D, perhaps), and perhaps the quartet of most madcap potential.

That’s because I can’t see that any of them really appear comfortable in their own skin. For all the derision pointed their way, until the last few weeks at least, South Africa seem the most secure of this bunch in some ways even if we acknowledge their dearth of genuine quality. Their raison d’etre seems crystal clear and barely necessary to explain, while without Benni McCarthy around to provide a sideshow they tick a couple of interesting host-country boxes: exhaustive pre-tournament camp and generally successful schedule of friendlies, check; wily and well-travelled coach, check. There’s a small flavour of South Korea 2002 here – and we haven’t even mentioned the advantages of the vuvuzela yet.

It’s actually 12 unbeaten for Bafana Bafana, even if they’ve had to mix and match over that time with Europe-based players not always on the scene. But it’s what you have to do, as a smaller international footballing nation – build that cohesion, create a South Korea, create a Greece 2004 even, nurture a trust that’s understanding and sympathetic to the fact that as a team of individuals, you’d go nowhere. Rather this than Brazil of 2006 or France of Euro 2008, and in these days of increasingly underwhelmed international footballers you can travel further than ever in this way. Cameroon, are you watching?

South Africa’s case is a curious one because, despite this, there’s far more individual trickery and potential loose cannonism, particularly from the locally-based players, than we saw from the Koreans – check out Siphiwe Tshabalala and Teko Modise for two examples. If Parreira really has harnessed all this, while siphoning in characters like Aaron Mokoena, who became an unlikely Premier League star in adversity, then he might just have hit on something interesting.

And as I say, it’s a strikingly insecure group. France, Mexico and Uruguay all flirted with disaster in qualifying before redemptions of varying legality – and all have crosses to bear.

The French seem to be the mirror image of a coach whose insecurities were laid bare through that on-air proposal two years ago – tetchy, confused and without direction. In fairness to Domenech, he’s flirted with a more expansive 4-3-3 in recent friendlies that, initially at least, drew some grudging praise from an intensely critical national media that is despised by the squad it dissects. Perhaps that came in a late bid to make friends, banishing the joyless style that dominated their qualifying campaign and bearing in mind the tainted nature of their progression to the finals. Whether that’s true or not, the dawn was pretty much a false one – even if 1-1 in Tunisia is ok, France were painful, for all their possession, in defeat against China. Deckchairs on the Titanic, then?

Perhaps. All the more so if you believe tittle-tattle about senior players turning against the excellent Yoann Gourcuff. It’s hardly implausible – I’ve heard worse from members of the French squad in the past few years – and casts into sharp light the undoubtedly ego-led (but whose?) exclusion of Samir Nasri too. Abou Diaby, who may be preferred instead of both, is a lovely guy but nobody to rock the boat – or take anyone’s limelight.

And yet, you can’t confidently predict a third early exit in five major tournaments – you never can, when you look at names like these. There’s an awfully sullen feel about this squad, though – to which end their final group match, against the hosts, might perfectly encapsulate the difference I mentioned a few paragraphs above and comment pointedly on what we perceive about international football today. It’ll be interesting to see which way wins out – and to see which Frenchman, if any, cracks a smile first.

(No Gourcuff link I put here seems to be rendered directly to video so I give up….karma for negativity to France maybe….but you’ve probably seen his goal v PSG anyway)

I’m not going to spend ages on Mexico or go into much depth – covered them at reasonably respectable length last time out and made clear that this team, and its style, are one of the tournament’s more pleasing. As Central America’s powerhouse they’ve always occupied a slightly uneasy interstitial space between North and South – qualifying with the former yet still getting to play with the latter every couple of years in the Copa America. They seem to be glancing over both shoulders more than ever right now, legitimately concerned about the strength of a progressive US outfit and alert to the possibility of Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay outstripping them this time around.

It’s a parochial concern, sure, but Mexico – largely for those geographical reasons – always seem like something of an enigma in world football and there’s nothing like a failed Sven-Goran Eriksson tenure to lay things uncomfortably bare. His failure to tap into the culture of Mexican footballers (whether an infuriating one or not) wasn’t really concealed by anyone close to events and led to near-disaster in qualifying – which is why his last-ditch appointment by Ivory Coast is this year’s biggest gamble by a pretender to the latter stages.

Now that Javier Aguirre’s dusted them down, perhaps Sven’s tenure will be seen as one that usefully exposed some long-standing fragilities. There’s a lovely mix between young and old in the side, anyway, and a current between defence and attack that’s matched only by Spain and Chile for fluidity. I think they’ll qualify from this group and will probably find that their toughest first-round match comes against the ruggedness and rather more direct attacking thrust of Uruguay in a harbinger of what will prove their undoing later in the tournament. Coming second would give them an intriguing opportunity to banish a few Maxi Rodriguez-induced ghosts from 2006, mind you.

Does mentioning Uruguay mean I have to say ‘enigma’ again? They’re the toughest side to talk about in this group – a South American Serbia, population-defying perennial dark horses who rarely end up justifying the tag and veer between the spectacular and the cynically dull.

So, what to expect from the class of 2010? Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez scored, at my count, 77 goals between them last season – surely more than any other pairing in a serious international team managed. Their dovetailing is, should be, a mouthwatering prospect – both like to shoot hard, shoot early, shoot from anywhere. Both work like trojans. I can’t conceive of a conventional strike duo that should be causing defenders more problems in this tournament, barring Villa and Torres, and perhaps you can’t either – so why such little noise about their team’s prospects?

If you have a longish memory, then the answer’s probably along seen-it-all-before lines. In 1990 an attractive-looking Francescoli, Sosa et al performed beguilingly in beating, among others, England before the party kicked off – before going on to more than play their part in the World Cup’s lowest-scoring edition, boring (in two meanings) their way to lucky-loser qualification for the last 16 before being ousted by the Italians. And all this before we mention their absurd 1986 campaign, which any Scot around you should have an opinion on.

Encouragingly, the current bunch were only outscored by Brazil and Chile in their slapdash South American qualifying campaign – that strike duo providing nearly half. Their defensive record was alright, too. There’s no trained assassin like Paolo Montero this time around, so recourse to kicking might be last-ditch. That said, a pretty workmanlike midfield will seek to clog up the likes of Mexico and France, probably succeeding against one of them. Then it’s down to someone like Suarez’s young mate from Ajax, Nicolas Lodeiro, to do something with the ball. At least he knows the two guys in front of him won’t need a great many chances to score.

I’m never sure whether predictions serve much purpose during a World Cup, although they can certainly ensure you fill a lot of column inches by leading yourself along false premises. I’ll stick my neck out for this most, frankly, confusing of groups though – Mexico, Uruguay, South Africa, France in that order. Pity the poor soul who gets to play Fortinbras with fallout like that.

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