Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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The normal mixed bag for Europe's second tier

    There's a kind of numerical logic about which teams are the European powers, at this year's World Cup finals, and which countries make up Europe's "second tier". The teams that go into the top bracket are quite obvious - Italy, Germany, England, France and Spain. Of that group, Spain is the only one to have never tasted World Cup victory but, for a number of reasons, the Spaniards belong in the top bracket.

    So that's five that rank among the powerful. That leaves us ten countries - twice as many - in Europe's second tier. That is not to say that the five top tier teams are all necessarily better than the other ten (though in most cases they are). It is more a reflection on the football clout that those countries normally have.

    Of the ten European teams that are not among the rich and powerful, three still represent big nations - Russia, Turkey and Poland. Now Russia and Poland were closer to being powers in the 80s (remember, the old Soviet Union reached the Final of Euro 88 and Poland were World Cup semi-finalists 20 years ago). But, it seems, both have a long road ahead of them if they are to reach the top tier in the post-communist era. Turkey is definitely rising - both at club and international level - but the Turks also have some way to go if they are to achieve the status enjoyed by the big five.

    The seven remaining European countries are quite small. Slovenia (population about 2 million) is the least populous nation ever to reach the finals of the World Cup. The biggest in this group are Belgium and Portugal (around 10 million each). So there's quite a size gap between them and the big five, the smallest of which is Spain (around 40 million).

    The hardest European country to classify is the Netherlands. There are only 16 million people in the Netherlands yet so much about the Dutch makes them members of the top tier. They didn't qualify this time but if they had, they probably would have been rated a 10/1 chance to win the tournament. I will put the Netherlands in the top tier and, yes, that is meant to be a compliment.

    Now, why on earth does all this matter? Why am I pedantically classifying the European nations in this way?

    Well, the number of qualifying places allotted to UEFA means that Europe's second tier is always well represented at the World Cup. And the second tier countries can be quite interesting to follow. Usually, one or two of these teams will go a very long way. Since (and including) 1982 - the year of the first real expansion of the World Cup finals - an average of one semi-finalist per tournament has been a nation from this group. The aforementioned Poles made it to the last four in 1982; it was Belgium's turn in 1986. None of Europe's second tier made it to the last four at Italia '90 but Sweden and Bulgaria made up for that when they both reached the 1994 semis. And, last but not least, four years ago it was Croatia - a team that even had the temerity to take the lead in its semi-final.

    And there have been other notables making it as far as the quarter-finals. Most recently: Republic of Ireland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (1990); Romania (1994); and Denmark (1998).

    I would be over the moon if one of these second tier European teams won the World Cup. This is partly because I like a good upset, like to support underdogs, etc. But it is also because I'm tired of reading articles - no matter how rational they might be - about why the World Cup has only ever been won by the big and the powerful (and Uruguay) and why it's going to stay that way.

    I say NO. End the existing hegemony! If these second tier teams can win or reach the Final of the European Championship and if they can make the semis of the World Cup, then one of them can become world champions. You've just gotta believe...

    Of course, countries from Europe's second tier have their World Cup disasters as well so let's look at what we've had so far at Korea/Japan. Does this lot have a team that can go all the way? And who looks like booking the first available plane home?

Denmark (Group A)

    OK, I admit it - I love the Danes. There is a Danish style of play that has its roots in the dazzling 1986 team of Laudrup, Elkjaer-Larsen and co: fast, attacking and skilful. And it doesn't seem to matter who pulls on those red and white shirts as that trademark Danish style never seems too far away.

    Before the tournament commenced, I kept hearing how this Denmark team lacked stars (what are Sand, Tomasson, Grønkjaer and Helveg?) and that its best days were long gone. Even after the Danes' 2-1 win over Uruguay, one goose on World Cup Archive's discussion forum described Denmark as "boring". Were you watching the same game, pal? So far Denmark is one of the only teams to have me jumping out of my chair.

    Tomasson scored both of Denmark's goals against Uruguay and his combination with Sand provides plenty up front. And the Danish midfield is very impressive. Gravesen and Tøfting might be "hard men" but they have both shown that they know a thing or two about having the ball at their feet. Uruguay did not greatly threaten Denmark's defence so it remains to be seen how the Danes will cope when they face real attacking pressure. Still, I like their chances of advancing from this group.

Slovenia (Group B)

    The good news for the Slovenians is that they have played their hardest group match and, although they lost 3-1 to Spain, they must have been encouraged by what they saw from Paraguay and South Africa - neither look like world beaters.

    Slovenia seemed to struggle to hold possession in midfield but the performance against Spain might really reflect the strength of the Spaniards who seem determined to avoid another World Cup flop. And there were some encouraging signs, especially the well worked goal which briefly raised Slovenian hopes of pinching a point. Miran Pavlin - who helped set up the goal - and Aleksander Knavs both impressed. So did Sebastjan Cimirotic who scored after coming on as a substitute.

    Slovenia is a well-drilled side under Srecko Katanec and the tournament experience of Euro 2000 might come in handy now. They can get through to the Second Round if they play well enough.

Turkey (Group C)

    Turkey also has its toughest group match out of the way and the Turks can feel very hard done by. They were within minutes of getting a point against Brazil and they would have deserved it. Unfortunately they copped the tournament's worst referee to date.

    Not only was Mr Kim Young Yoo of Korea incapable of determining where the lines of the penalty area were, he seemed to relish booking Turkish players for offences that were, apparently, less severe when they were committed by Brazilians. The referee also didn't seem to know that it isn't enough just to set defenders ten metres behind the ball before a free kick is taken, they actually have to stay that far away until the ball is struck. He should be thrown out of the World Cup but, as a local referee, the chances of that are close to nil.

    Anyway, back to the Turks whose football has improved rapidly over the last decade. There is plenty of ability in this team and it is well organised with a fine midfield (especially Bastürk - what a player!) and solid defence. And how good is the goalkeeper, Rustu? He impressed me greatly at Euro 2000 and he was on song again against Brazil. It's a pity that his poor kick led to the Brazilian attack which led to the "penalty".

    Although there is no denying the talent of Hakan Sukur, Turkey doesn't quite convince me up forward. But I have little doubt that the Turks are good enough to advance from this group and, better still, they have already proved that they can provide stiff opposition to the top teams. They certainly won't be underestimated.

Poland (Group D)

    I've always been a strong believer in home ground advantage so, before the tournament started, I picked Korea to advance from this group ahead of Poland. Still, I was very surprised by how inept the Poles were in their 2-0 loss to the co-hosts.

    Sure, it would have been difficult playing against such fanatical support for the home team but, I'm afraid, most of Poland's problems were on the pitch. I can't find any winners in this Polish combination. Jerzy Dudek may be a top goalkeeper but if the team is under constant pressure at the back, it will concede goals. And Olisadebe may be a fine striker but he simply couldn't get into the game.

    The Poles were utterly dominated by the home team and their UEFA qualifying group is starting to look like one of the easiest in recent history. Maybe I'm being harsh on them - Korea might be the real deal at home - but Poland will next be facing a Portugal team which should be nice and angry after its dismal performance against the United States. That might mean a swift exit for Jerzy Engel's team.

Portugal (Group D)

    Well, what happened there? Is this a genuine contender for the title or one highly overrated team? It might be too early to jump to conclusions but the Portuguese must be concerned after their loss to the United States. Indeed, the final score of 3-2 probably flattered Portugal. If the unfortunately named Jeff Agoos (good job there isn't an "e" on the end of that surname) hadn't put the ball into his own net in the second half, I reckon the US would have still been two goals up if the game had continued until midnight.

    It is easy to say that Portugal may have had an off day and that its much heralded midfield just wasn't switched on. But the United States, who should have nothing taken away from their fine performance, exposed something that other teams will have, doubtless, taken note of - Portugal's defence is rubbish. I have lost sleep wondering whether Vitor Baia dropped his goalkeeping gloves in olive oil before the match. And was that the same Fernando Couto who makes his living as a defender in Serie A? When Tony Sanneh's superb cross came in for McBride to score the USA's third, Couto appeared to be looking for a friend of his in the crowd. The Portuguese captain - and a lot of his team mates - spent most of the rest of the match whingeing about the officials' decisions and/or playacting. Fortunately, the referee, one of the best so far, stood for none of it.

    Antonio Oliveira must have been tearing his hair out (though surely he should have introduced Nuno Gomes sooner) and he will be praying that Figo, Pinto, Rui Costa, Conceicao, etc couldn't collectively play so badly again. I suspect they will bounce back but the final group fixture against Korea now looks a lot trickier.

Ireland (Group E)

    We've seen the Irish twice now and they've impressed me greatly on both occasions. Their late equaliser against Germany was well deserved and it gives them a great opportunity to advance. Though I'd give honourable mentions to Steve Finnan and Matt Holland, the way the entire team has functioned as a unit has been its strength. It has shown character and skill to force two draws against tough opponents - coming from behind both times. (Incidentally, Ireland has now drawn 7 of its 11 matches at the finals of the World Cup.)

    This Irish team has been far more patient in its play than its World Cup predecessors. Yes, Ireland's old long ball tactics were effective to a point and, yes, the equaliser against Germany came from a last, desperate long ball. But for a lot of the rest of the game, the Irish were playing to each other's feet. Don't discourage them!

    It would be a shame if this more cultured Irish approach didn't result in a Second Round appearance but I think they're going to make it now. At the time of writing, Cameroon-Saudi Arabia had not yet been played. I am assuming a Cameroonian victory but I wonder if this group might turn out like the Yugoslavia-Brazil-Scotland-Zaire group of 1974. The first-mentioned three teams all drew against each other and beat Zaire. So one team (Scotland) missed out on the next round despite having a win and two draws. The single determining factor for who finished first, second and third was how heavily they defeated Zaire. If this group goes the same way (i.e. Cameroon draws with Germany and everyone defeats Saudi Arabia), the same will happen. This could play into Ireland's hands because they'll know how many goals they need against the Saudis to guarantee a spot in the Second Round.

Sweden (Group F)

    After a slow start, the Swedes played some excellent football in the second half of their match against England and they very nearly won it. Sweden's only "stars" might be Freddie Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson (maybe Allbäck) but, on the other hand, there are no obvious weaknesses in the team.

    And it wasn't the stars that really fired against England anyway - the Everton connection of Alexandersson and Linderoth were more influential. The Swedes are also a group of very experienced international players and that probably made a difference as well. Just look at the stats on this site. While England started no less than four players who each have less than 10 caps, Sweden only used one player that had less than 20.

    The Swedes have realistic hopes of progressing and they will again need all their experience against Nigeria and Argentina. This is a tough group - you've read about it a thousand times - and I won't dwell on how difficult those matches will be.

Croatia (Group G)

    From a team with plenty of experience (Sweden) we come to Croatia, the team that has been nicknamed Dad's Army. It seemed unfair that the Croats had been typecast in this way but unfortunately Prosinecki, Boksic and Suker all looked like they were way past their best against Mexico. I know injuries are partly to blame but that's a bit of an occupational hazard for 30 something international football players.

    This was a match Croatia really needed to win or, at the very least, get a point from. But the Croats were a shadow of the team that performed so well four years ago. I never felt they could recover from the double blow of losing a man and going a goal down. And with Italy waiting for them, a place in the last 16 looks unlikely for the '98 semi-finalists. The Croats' midfield - which had already been spoken of as a problem area - looked bereft of creativity.

    It will be sad if this group of distinguished international players made a rather undistinguished First Round exit but it's difficult not to see that happening now.

Belgium (Group H)

    If there is a team which I'm not much the wiser about after seeing it, that team must be Belgium. What do you make of the Belgians' match against Japan? We had a dour first half; a thrilling second half; both teams going in front; and, yes Peter Goldstein, we got that bicycle kick!

    Perhaps Korea's domination of Poland is a gold star for Belgium. If the Poles got caught up in the "away game" syndrome, Belgium certainly didn't.

    We're used to the Belgians at the World Cup and they're the kind of team that you don't mind playing as when you've got a soccer computer game. They also have lots of excellent names (Verheyen, Van der Heijden, Vanderhaeghe, etc).

    But they can play a bit too and, once again, they appear to have a team which is, at the very least, competent at international level. Belgium could be a bit light at the back but the defenders won't be facing too many ace strikers in Group H which is completely wide open.

Russia (Group H)

    The Russians look quite evenly matched with the Belgians and I look forward to their meeting on June 14. Russia was quite patchy against Tunisia but emerged with a 2-0 victory. The three points, and even the +2 goal difference, could be very handy in this group's final standings. If the Japanese go through to the last 16 (I think they will), I would just give Russia the edge as the team that will join them - especially if Alexandr Mostovoi is back and firing.

    With Mostovoi absent against Tunisia, there was added pressure on Vladimir Beschastnykh and Valeri Karpin. The latter played particularly well and overall the Russians look good without looking great. It is little wonder that Group H is the "Group of Life" (or the "Group of Mediocrity" if you're a detractor).

    So there you have it - first impressions of Europe's not-so-powerful. As always, the second tier nations have been a bit of a mixed bag so far. Some will advance; some won't. Is there a potential winner among this group? Probably not. But I wouldn't mind being wrong about that.



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