Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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All to play for in the Group of Life

    Most of the media focus on the current World Cup is on Group F the so-called "Group of Death" containing Argentina, Nigeria, Sweden and my own very fragile England. All of the various newspaper pull-outs and magazine specials seem to be united in the opinion that all of the other seven groups are cut and dried, most of the second round line-up already decided, and only in Group F is there any uncertainty over who will go through. Well, look again. For a start, all of these various media predictions seem to bank on the fact that all teams will be playing to form in every game. As anyone who has followed the tournament over the years will know, this is a ridiculous assumption. Every tournament is punctuated by those minor eruptions we call upsets. Months of calculated planning can go out of the window due to one bad performance, or one freak result – just ask a Spaniard. This is, after all, cup football.

    Overlooking the fact that around 90% of the first round will go as predicted bar the odd shock (Turkey stun Brazil? USA upset Portugal?), there has been a surprising lack of interest in Group H in the media. Surprising, because this will probably be the most evenly contested group in the first round. And why is this? Because it contains four teams roughly punching at the same weight – Japan, Belgium, Russia, and Tunisia. In world football terms, this is roughly the welterweight division.

    Let us get the obvious out of the way – this is the weakest group ever in World Cup history. How did this happen? There are roughly eight teams at best who have any chance of winning the World Cup. France, Argentina and Italy are clear favourites; Brazil if they can somehow raise their game have a punchers chance; Germany, Spain, England and Portugal are outside bets. So with eight groups to fill up, you’d expect these nations to be seeded, right? Wrong. France, Italy, Brazil, Spain, Portugal and Germany all went into groups where they are clear favourites. Argentina and England were lumped into Group F together (along with the far from easy Sweden and Nigeria), which then paved the way for the Group of Life. Whether this has anything to do with the hosts Japan being seeded in this group, and the vital commercial need for at least one of the co-hosts to progress, I will leave that entirely up to you.

    Japan, who failed to earn a single point at their first World Cup in France (in a group that included Jamaica), have every chance to progress now. They have home advantage, often a double-edged sword but always likely to work for you than against you in the long run. Often quite pessimistic about their chances, this year they fully expect to make the second round. This is probably true of all four nations bar Tunisia, who qualified with ease but have since slipped alarmingly out of form, to the point where they failed to score a single goal at the recent African Cup of Nations. Even so, if they throw all their faith in grinding out results via defending, they could frustrate the other teams in the group. Remember, this is as good a chance as they may have to make any sort of impact at a World Cup, and they will have less trouble acclimatizing to the humidity, a factor of which no-one is sure what the full effects could be until the tournament is actually underway.

    Ultimately it is the two European nations in the group, Russia and Belgium, who pose the greater threat to Japan. Belgium knows only too well from recent experience what it is like to flop as the co-host of a tournament, after their lame efforts at Euro 2000. They should be underestimated at anyone’s peril however, having knocked out the Czech Republic (Koller, Nedved et al) in the play-offs, and the Czechs are probably better than at least twelve of the nations at the World Cup. Little over a week ago they went boldly into Paris and overturned the world champions, who were minus Zidane and maybe it was only a friendly, but this is still an impressive feat.

    How Russia will fare could really be anybody’s guess. Some think they won an easy qualifying group and their aging squad will be found out this summer, others make them clear favourites to win their group – their media is demanding nothing less. In the past they have enough tales of World Cup despair to outdo even a Scotsman, yet they look a much tougher nut to crack these days, unlikely to wilt under the first signs of pressure. Also in Ruslan Nigmatullin they possess possibly the best kept secret of the World Cup, an outstanding goalkeeper. In a group as tight as this, that could make all the difference.

    Even though this is the weakest group, we could conceivably be viewing the final group games of the tournament in Osaka and Shizuoka with all four teams still in with a chance of the second round. Japan will face Tunisia, and must be banking on winning this having already taken something of either Russia or Belgium, who face off in the other game. This already has the look of a winner takes all, loser goes home fixture about it. My gut instinct is that Belgium will narrowly edge out Japan to top the group, Russia will fade and Tunisia will come in a long way fourth. However, I say that with no great conviction.

    You’d normally think that just qualifying out of the group would be considered good enough for any of those teams, but there is a great incentive to finish top of the group. The qualifiers from the Group of Life face the qualifiers from group C. It seems that Brazil merely have to get out of bed to win that group which if my prediction is correct could set up a second round clash between Brazil and Japan, every FIFA executive’s private fantasy. Therefore, whoever tops group H will face one of China, Costa Rica or, and this is most probable, Turkey.

    It’s time to call it how you see it – there has never been an easier route to the last eight in the world. No disrespect to Turkey at all, I admire their football and their clubs and international players have improved dramatically in the last 10 years thanks to their increased participation in the Champions League, but who in the group of life wouldn’t fancy that game in the second round? For Japan it’s a home game anyway, and historically Belgium and Russia have far more World Cup experience than newcomers Turkey. It is fair to say that any one of the three stands at the least a 50/50 chance. If the Turks fall apart and fail to make the knockout stages the next most likely is Costa Rica, who were outstanding in making the second round in 1990 but nowhere near the same force today.

    After that it gets harder – well it has to at some point. Lying in wait in the quarter-finals should be Argentina, having won Group F (a task looking ever easier for them as metatarsals keep cracking in the England camp), and there the run will end – or will it? Although I wouldn’t bet so much as two pounds on it, on some field in Japan or Korea this summer, a result will happen that will send shockwaves through the tournament. If it is not here, then at least the nation who wins the group of life had been in the company of the big guns, albeit for ninety minutes only. This is far more than any of them could have expected prior to the draw.

    So the path to the quarterfinals has opened up invitingly for the winners of the much-maligned Group of Life. Japan versus Belgium in Saitama on June 4th will begin the race to the gate.



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