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
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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
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
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
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
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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