So I finally filled out my brackets for the World Cup - with only moments to spare...!
While I am a Student of the Game, and have been involved with the game professionally since 2005, I am in no way a deep-throat kind of expert. What I intend on doing in this post is just sharing some general insights based on my past experiences attending, studying and following past World Cups. For what it is worth, that includes an in-depth analysis of past World Cup games, following the World Cup since 1994 and including attending the 2002 and 2006 editions. I worked for FC Dallas of Major League Soccer from 2005 until 2012 and am currently writing for MLSSoccer.com and the Dallas Morning News soccer blog, 3rd Degree.
First, let's talk generalities. The strongest of European sides will advance, surely, but the home-field advantage of being on the home continent - or at least, the same hemisphere - will likely still have some impact. Do not underestimate the impact of the larger number of fans who will be able to travel to Brazil from Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia, and even Ecuador and Chile, and the passion they will bring to the stadiums. That is the one thing that I absolutely miss every time I am not in-country for the World Cup....
I like Mexico to advance out of their group for a few reasons. First, Mexico has traditionally played Brazil well - styles matter in football, and sometimes you run into a team that is your kryptonite. Well, Brazil doesn't really have a kryptonite, but just like the US usually gives Mexico fits, same for Mexico to Brazil. Second, Croatia is a good but not great European side - the travel will hit them. Cameroon is a wild card, but between the transition from Africa over and the fact that they aren't the strongest of African sides at the moment makes me think that this isn't their year to advance. Then again, the weather similarity may work to their advantage. But I still have Mexico advancing.
Here is the first real test of my Home-Hemisphere Advantage. Chile is a wonderful team, with attacking flair should make Brazil blush at times. Playing well, and in front of a lot of home fans, I think they push both Holland and Spain. Do they advance? It depends on Spain-Holland. If those teams draw on Friday, then I think Chile will have their work cut out for them. If one of those two were to get the full three points, I think Chile will take the second spot at the expense of the loser.
Some call this a group of death and I find that doubtful. Simply put, Australia are not as strong as either the US or Ghana.
Another strong South American country, I see Colombia doing well, certainly winning the group. The rest of Group C is quite the enigma. Greece? Mid-level Euro side half a world away, without a lot of attacking power. Japan - lots of athleticism and some playmaking ability, but again, half the world away without some of the quality seen on other teams in the group. Ivory Coast? One of the strongest African sides, this is my pick to advance, but it is a tenuous one as their tour in the US was not as successful as they might have wanted it to be.
Group D - England v. Italy and Uruguay in control
On the Home Hemisphere theory, I see Uruguay making it out of the group. I fear for my England friends that they will be left back at the expense of Italy just because I sense more cohesion and committment - and confidence - from the Azzurri than the Three Lions.
Group E - France, Switzerland and Ecuador
Because of Honduras, this isn't really a group of death, but certainly, you have three quality teams in this group and I have no real idea who will emerge. Ecuador is not as strong as some South American sides, and with France losing Ribery, it is hard to really say that one of the three is going to dominate, leaving us to decide between the other two.
What a walk-through group this appears to be for Leonel's side. Iran will be a competitive side, but only to the extent that they won't be Saudi Arabia circa 2002. Nigeria is not at its best. Bosnia-Herzegovina, on the other hand, will be a very dangerous side at the group stage level, but Argentina has the class to draw with them, and do better on goal differential in their wins over the other group teams to come out on top of this group.
(Skipping Group G - saving the best for last)
This is Belguim's group to win, leaving Russia to likely hold off South Korea, but when you travel halfway around the world, who knows which team will do better. Cappello will likely get more out of Russia than Bo will out of Korea, hence my lean in that direction.
The Group of Death - Group G
In many ways, this could be its own article, and probably will be. For now, though, know that like Chile in Group B, for Ghana and the US, what happens in the other game will define their ability to advance. If there is a tie between Germany and Portugal, both European juggernauts will make it very difficult for either the African or North American sides to advance. If Germany or Portugal wins, though, and there is a winner out of the Ghana-US match, then they have a chance. Draws all around on Monday is very possible and that would throw things wide open. I do see Germany as the class of the group, with Portugal a clear second and Ghana and the US very hungry right behind that.
Someone always comes out flat. France in 2002 ring a bell? Who knows who it will be this time, but that will be something to watch for. I think I have highlighted the possible sleepers and surprises, although to be fair, mostly I am leaning on the usual advantage playing close to home has on teams. Either way, it should be fascinating to see, especially with the groups that have three teams with legitimate resumes to advance (A, B, D, E and G).
Put on your big boy pants and get in line now - it is going to be quite a ride!