Matthew Monk


 
Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Can you still bet on the Golden Generation?



    We are all allowed to make mistakes, right?

    Six months ago I wrote a very controversial column, where I 'predicted' the outcomes of all the upcoming World Cup matches. Coming so soon after the World Cup draw, my 'predictions' were always likely to look pretty stupid by the time the actual contests came around. So I thought for my last column before the finals begin, I would look back and see what has changed, where I was wrong, and where I still expect to be right.

    I made two pretty bold predictions – no African team except Tunisia (!) to make the Second Round, and Portugal to win the whole thing. I am not totally convinced now that either of these predictions is going to come true. In fact I think only one of them has a chance at all. I am still backing Portugal to make the final, although whether they can win it is another matter. That I will come back to a little later.

    First I have to say that I have been guilty of misrepresenting African football somewhat over the past few months. Now I still believe what I have written is true: African teams employ old, weak, journeyman coaches that offer little hope of long term advancement; their players are tied to restrictive contracts that mean national team's will struggle to put out competitive teams for most of the year; and the perilous financial situation most African countries find themselves in means that nothing is going to get better anytime soon.

    I don't believe that African football has suddenly become better, or even that Cameroon or Senegal have become better teams. Instead I think that the situation they find themselves in has got better – on the whole that is, the opposite is probably true for Nigeria and Tunisia.

    Cameroon have been the recipients of the most 'luck' in the past few months. For instance, who could predict that Roy Keane would walk out on the Irish on the eve of the finals? And who would predict that on top of this desertion he would manage to decimate the one thing Ireland built their success on: team spirit. Ireland have also run into injury problems at the wrong time. Where once they could deservedly beat Holland, Russia, Denmark and the Czech Republic, today Ireland can barely beat the USA and certainly cannot beat the likes of crisis hit Nigeria.

    And if all this were not enough, the German comeback has run out of steam and hit an injury wall as big as any other. Losing players of the quality of Mehmet Schöll, Jens Nöwotny and Sebastian Deisler is numbing for Rudi Völler, who must be wondering what he has done to deserve such bad luck. So the are Germans out of it? Don't bet on it.

    In between losing to England and Argentina, Germany scored 14 goals in beating The Ukraine, Israel and the US. They have two very hot goalscorers – Michael Ballack and Miroslav Klose – and still have one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Oliver Khan. Moreover all Germans are big game, tournament players, and most importantly they have nothing to lose. German football cannot reach a lower point than being beaten 5:1 at home by England, and unless they are beaten by Saudi Arabia, few German fans will mind going home too early. Germany are building for 2006, and already they are showing improvement. The old stagers like Bierhoff and Matthaüs have finally been put out to grass, and Germany are not going to be in the position of having to throw on Olaf Marschall this time if they need a goal. And never, ever forget. German teams never give up, and when you least expect it they still know enough to beat you.

    Group E then is shaping up to be easily as tough as England's Group F, and in the end I think it could even come down to goal difference to decide the two qualifiers. Looking at all the evidence, you have to think Cameroon and Germany must now be the two teams fighting for the honour of not-meeting Spain in the Second Round. Ireland could still prove me wrong (or is that originally right?), but the African challenge is looking stronger now than it was six months ago.

    Who will join Germany and Cameroon in round two? Well the 'guaranteed' teams are France, Spain, Brazil, Turkey, Portugal, Argentina and Italy. After that it is far too close to call. Some teams have come on leaps and bounds – Japan, Korea, Senegal – and some have gone in reverse: one step backwards if you please Paraguay, Poland, Ireland and England.

    For the vast majority though things have stayed more or less the same, and there are still plenty of no-hopers around – USA, China, South Africa - but we are not really any closer to knowing who will win what than we were last December. So which predictions am I going to stand by, and which were wrong?

    Group A is as good a place to start as any I suppose. France still cannot be touched here, although without Pires and with Zidane and Henry walking a fitness tightrope, their team suddenly looks not quite as strong. Still, they have the best attack in the world, and in Viera have the strongest midfielder to match. Who comes second? In December I fully expected Denmark to finish second – albeit closely. Now I am not so sure, but if I had to make a call, I would just go for Senegal to sneak in. Uruguay and Denmark are still competent teams, and Alvaro Recoba would happily fit into any team in the competition, but El Hadji Diouf and his friends have had too good a run to stop now. It just seems right that they should get through.

    Slovenia should still get past the ever-weakening forces of Paraguay and South Africa, as should Croatia in Group G over Ecuador and Mexico.

    Much more interest can be found in Groups D and H – and just whether Korea and Japan will make it through to the last 16. Six months ago I was sure that both the co-hosts would limp embarrassingly out, but now you have to think that at least one of them will get through. Japan are still the more likely; being drawn in the weakest first round group ever must have generated a few Korean conspiracy theories.

    But Japan have also developed into a sound, mobile team, well capable of holding their own in this limited company. Since the draw was made Tunisia have crashed out of the African Cup of Nations without troubling the scorers, taking both their World Cup chances and Henri Michel's career with them. Russia and Belgium have also been up and down since the draw. Belgium looked strong and surprisingly cultured in holding France in Paris, but Russia looked anything but group favourites when out fought by Ireland. All this pales into significance next to Japan's amazing away win in Poland. This was no fluke, and Poland cannot claim they were unlucky. Japan fully deserved the victory, looking the match of the Poles almost all over the pitch. Can they make it to Kobe to play Brazil in the Second Round though?

    This group will go right down to the wire, as will Korea's. Korea are arguably the most improved team of the past six months, capable of pushing France all the way today as opposed to losing humiliatingly 5:0 in the Confederations Cup last year. That they have achieved this under Guus Hiddink, who has never inspired much admiration in Holland or Korea, is even more amazing. But although Korea may have come a long way in a short time, whether they can get past Portugal and Poland (experienced tournament players all) is another matter. Portugal are too good to fail to qualify here. A lot was made of the performance of Ronaldo and Brazil in Lisbon recently, as was Portugal's loss to Finland. But both those games were friendlies that meant an awful lot more to their opponents than they did to Portugal. Finland were desperate to show that they were a top European team in preparation for their attempt to reach Euro 2004, and Brazil of course have masses to prove to the whole world. And Portugal still managed to make chance after chance in those games, Sergio Conceiçao scoring in both games. Portugal were easily the match of Brazil – regardless of how well Ronaldo played – and can be expected to match almost everyone in the next month.

    After Portugal the second spot is a straight battle between Korea and Poland, two increasingly well matched teams. Nonetheless, there is a difference between the two teams – The Dude, Jerzy Dudek. Poland have few world class players, but Dudek is definitely one. Since he joined Liverpool, Dudek has enhanced his reputation with a string of high profile clean sheets – just three coming against Roma, Manchester United and Barcelona – and is arguably the top 'keeper in Europe (and the world) today. Almost single-handedly Dudek kept Poland in the game against Japan, and when he is at his dominant best he wins games. Korea do not have the type of armoury to really worry him, and that is going to cost them. Of the two co-hosts Korea deserve to progress the further. They won't.

    Quarter-finalists? France, Brazil, Portugal, Italy and Argentina pick themselves. Here's my controversial bit. The last three are going to be Germany (victorious over another imploding Spanish team), Cameroon and Turkey. The Turks are an able, mobile team full of trickery and finesse. They have been advancing steadily since 1992, and this summer will reach their zenith. I would still not be shocked to see them defeat Brazil in Ulsan on the fourth day of the finals, but eventually they have to run into Argentina or France, and that will be that. It has been an immense climb for a team once regarded as a European laughing stock. Turkey have even gone ahead of England in the UEFA seedings, and while it is probably the last chance for this team to reach its potential, their rise has meant that Turkey will never again be taken lightly or laughed about.

    Does this change in fortune tell us more about Turkey or England? Well much of this happened while England laboured under Kevin Keegan, and although the advance under Sven Goran Eriksson has been pleasing for England fans to watch, too much hype has built up around the team. Without Gerrard, and with Beckham, Seaman, Dyer, Butt and Fowler in various stages of fitness, England can only put out a shadow of the team they fielded in Germany. I still think England will qualify for the last 16, but once they meet France they are out. Unless of course the world flips around again.

    So to the bit that makes me look silly on July 1. The final will still be between France and Portugal, but now I think France will win to become arguably the most successful team in football history. France would become the first team to win four major tournaments in a row (as long as you count the Confederations Cup as a major tournament) and would go on to Euro 2004 with Djibril Cissé spearheading a whole new generation of superstars.

    Portugal can of course still spring a surprise, as could Italy or even Germany or Spain. And being in the weaker, less taxing, Korean side of the draw they should have less injury risk and more rest – including a whole day extra after the Semi Final. That is why I am still betting on Portugal. British bookmakers are offering 14/1 on them to win, and even better, an each-way 7/1 to be in the final. That is an excellent price for a team containing Abel Xavier, Fernando Couto, Sergio Conceiçao, Rui Costa, Nuno Gomes, Pauleta and Luis Figo. A golden generation indeed.

    And with that I think that all I can do is sit back and wait for the whole thing to start. It does so on Tuesday with the most anticipated FIFA Congress for a long time. And if you don't want to bet on Portugal, here is a safer bet – Sepp Blatter to win the Presidential election over Issa Hayatou, and easily. Some things never change do they?


 

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