Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Name that group

    Every four years there's a Group of Death. Fine, but aren't there seven other groups? With all the football writers in the world, not to mention all the people who find a way onto the Internet, you'd think we'd have good names for all the groups. Or even bad names. So I hereby call upon all soccer fans to Name That Group. Here's my attempt -- let's hear from you!

(France, Senegal, Uruguay, Denmark)

The Group of Clarity

    In no other group are the issues so clear. France is the obvious favorite, and unlike several other favorites (Brazil, Spain, Germany) they have no question marks, either physically or mentally. Robert Pires won't make the tournament, but the rest of the squad is healthy. They're also proven champions, and they're ready to try for an unprecedented third consecutive major tournament win.

    At the other end of the group, there's Senegal, the clear underdog. They're one of the smallest nations at the Cup, and they're here for the first time. No one gives them any chance to win the group, and everyone agrees they'll be fighting hard just to advance.

    That leaves Denmark and Uruguay fighting it out for the second spot. Both are pretty much known quantities: the Danes manage to be both workmanlike and entertaining, with that occasional flash of inspiration, and the Uruguayans are the hard men who might be able to play creatively but don't try. They'll meet on June 1 in the opener for both teams, and the result figures to determine the strategy for the rest of the group games.

(Spain, Slovenia, Paraguay, South Africa)

The Group of Doubt

    All four teams here come into the tournament with serious questions, with real doubt as to how far they can advance. Spain, of course, are the eternal underachievers, and every year the questions are the same: Will this be the time they break through? If not, why not? Look at the record, and you'll see that since 1950, Spain has never made it past the quarterfinals. Ask anyone if they can do it this year, and you'll get the same answer: who knows?

    Then there's Slovenia, the debutante. Unlike Senegal in Group A, they're a team lots of people think can advance. They've performed well in their last two tournaments, Euro 2000 and the qualifiers. But some of their performances in recent friendlies have been poor (0:0 with China, 1:5 to Honduras!), and doubt is starting to circulate over whether this team is really ready for the big time.

    Paraguay is very much in doubt right now. One of the revelations of France '98, they had an excellent qualifying season, and figured to be a strong contender in this group. But the federation fired the coach, Sergio Makarian, and replaced him with Cesare Maldini, who was so unpopular a choice that Paraguayan coaches united in an attempt to toss him out of the country on a visa violation. No one knows if the team will respond for him.

    Finally, there's South Africa, a team at the moment in disarray. Talent-wise, they seem to have what it takes to put up a creditable showing, but as always they're beset with internal squabbling. Coach Carlos Quieroz quit, leaving local man Jomo Sono to take over the team. Sono is an unknown quantity at this level, and results in his first friendlies have been bad. Throw in their consistently erratic performances at top level and South Africa is a perfect member of this group.

(Brazil, Turkey, China, Costa Rica)

The Group of Mystery

    Each of the teams in this group has an air of the unknown. Three of the four are either debutantes or long-time absentees. Start with Turkey: they performed well at Euro 2000, but they haven't been to the World Cup since 1954, and are completely untested at this level. Right now we just don't know what their potential is.

    The same can be said of Costa Rica. The ticos have been at the World Cup only once before, in 1990, and they surprised everyone this time by breezing in the CONCACAF qualifiers. Their players are largely unknown; only Paulo Wanchope has had consistent exposure in Europe, and he may miss the tournament. Their results suggest that they'll be a contender in this group, but again, we really don't know how good they can be.

    Then there's China, a complete mystery to everyone. Their players are almost entirely unknown outside Asia; ask the average football fan to name even one starter on the Chinese roster. Like Costa Rica, they breezed in their final qualifying group -- but are they any good? Don't ask me.

    At the top of the group is Brazil, the most visible of all footballing nations -- but they're the ultimate mystery this year. How could they have been so dreadful during the qualifiers? They got some stability when Felipe Scolari came along, but even now no one seems to know who will play or what tactics he'll try (will he stay so negative? would he dare?). Friendlies have been scheduled against the strangest teams, like Iceland and Malaysia. Brazilian football is always a bit bizarre, but this year, there's nothing solid at the core.

(South Korea, Poland, United States, Portugal)

The Group of Hope

    This is a group of teams, with one important exception, who have relatively low expectations. They hope they can advance, but are unsure of how far they can go. South Korea and the United States are very much alike here. Both are teams from lesser confederations with a history of poor performances. The USA has advanced only once in the last three cups, and even then only as a third-place team playing at home. Four years ago they finished dead last out of 32. South Korea has been at the last four cups, and although they usually manage a draw somewhere, they not only have yet to advance but have yet to win a game. Both have the hope they can finally break through.

    Poland is a team of a different kind. They're returning to the World Cup for the first time since 1986 -- in effect, it's a new beginning for their side. No real expectations, since this team hasn't been tested at top level. Fresh faces, a new approach, and the hope they can make an impact on the competition.

    Portugal's expectations are much higher, and theirs is a different kind of hope. In a way they're like Spain, in that they've never gone as far as many thought they would. But Spain has the soul-crushing history of failure at World Cup level; Portugal is here for the first time since 1986, and for only the third time overall. Nor, like Germany in group E (see below), does Portugal have to live up to the past -- Eusebio was a long time ago. They're in the middle somewhere; now that they finally have the chance, they hope they can show the world what they think they're capable of.

(Germany, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, Cameroon)

The Group of Expectations

    Three out of the four teams in this group carry the heavy burden of high expectations -- they have to live up to their prior World Cup successes, and haven't been finding it easy lately. Germany is the obvious leader here. In both 1994 and 1998 they were knocked out at the quarterfinals, which wouldn't be so bad, except compared to their incredible prior run of success: 1966 finalist, 1970 semifinalist, 1974 champion, 1982 finalist, 1986 finalist, 1990 champion. Now they may be just another good team, and although their legendary resilience occasionally makes an appearance (rallying against Yugoslavia and Mexico at France '98), they no longer have that special aura. They're in the weaker half of the draw here, and another quarterfinal loss would be devastating to their reputation.

    Cameroon and Saudi Arabia have the same problem on a smaller scale. No one in Africa will ever forget the Indomitable Lions' run at Italia '90, where they were only 8 minutes away from the semifinals. They've qualified for every tournament since, but haven't achieved anything close to their prior success, failing spectacularly in 1994, more prosaically in 1998. They're football crazy in Cameroon, and whatever they do is compared to 1990; unless they duplicate or surpass that success, they're a disappointment. And they know it, too: this time around they've announced they won't be satisfied with anything less than the quarterfinals.

    The Saudis, also football crazy and with lots of money to spend to boot, had a mini-success at USA '94, when they reached the second round. That may not seem like much, but they remain the only Asian team besides North Korea 1966 to do so. Hungry for more, for France '98 they hired no less than Carlos Alberto Parreira, the man who had won the World Cup with Brazil four years earlier. They flopped badly, and Parreira was actually fired during the tournament. So now they're back, and like Cameroon will always be compared to their one success until they get another.

    On the surface, Ireland would seem to fit the pattern perfectly. Jackie Charlton took them to the quarterfinals in 1990 and the second round in 1994; so like Cameroon and Saudi Arabia, there's a brief, surprising success to live up to. But you don't sense the same sort of desperation with the Irish. Football doesn't always hold a central place in their sporting consciousness, and they seem happy to get whatever success they can. (Good for them, too.) So it's not a perfect fit. Still, 3 (or 3) out of 4 isn't bad.

(Argentina, Nigeria, England, Sweden)

The Group of Whatever You Consider To Be Significantly Worse Than Death

    Group of Death? That doesn't even begin to describe it. Judging by pre-tournament reputation, this is the toughest group since the tournament was expanded in 1982. You've got a superb Argentina, one of the two clear tournament favorites; Nigeria, on their day one of the best teams in the world; England, probably one of the top three or four teams in Europe; and Sweden, a useful side who'd be a natural pick to advance in any group except this one.

    How does this group stack up against groups of the past? We've got a choice: we can measure by pre-tournament reputation or by what the teams in the group actually achieved. I prefer pre-tournament reputation, mainly because teams' ultimate achievements often have little to do with how they performed in the group stage. Take a group from 1982 as an example: Poland, Italy, Peru, Cameroon. Italy won the cup, Poland made the semifinals. One of the great groups, right? Well, no. In fact, it was a dreary group with dreary play in almost every game. None of the teams gave any indication that they would go as far as they did. Italy barely edged out Cameroon for the second spot, and I don't think anyone would say Cameroon was good enough to get to the Final that year. So I'm going to go with pre-tournament reputation, which is in any case all we have on Group F right now.

    By that standard, I can't find any group in recent history to match it. The Group of Death in 1998 was Spain, Nigeria, Paraguay, and Bulgaria. By reputation, fairly tough, but it lacked the towering team at the top. Judging again by pre-tournament reputation, in 1994 the toughest group was probably Brazil-Cameroon-Sweden-Russia. But the European teams didn't look quite as strong as these do here (although Sweden surprised by going to the semi-final). In 1990, and 1982 as well, there was no true group of death; every group had at least one clear outsider. In 1986 the all-star group was Denmark-West Germany-Uruguay-Scotland. If the Germans had had one of their great teams, we might have a rival for group F, but although they eventually reached the Final, they weren't all that highly regarded. I'd put 1986 in the class with 1998, not 2002. So this is it, folks, the toughest group we're likely to see for a long long time. So enjoy, especially if you're neutral.

(Italy, Ecuador, Croatia, Mexico)

The Group of Ugliness

    Don't let the kids watch this one. Here we have four teams who are likely to produce some of the direst football in World Cup history -- and that's saying something. I predict right now that this group will score the fewest goals. Even worse, the play will be ugly throughout. Ugly, Ugly, Ugly. I hope I'm wrong, but...

    First, Mexico. The Tricolores have a history of exciting, enterprising teams, who know how to attack with style. Not this time. Coach Javier Aguirre is a guts-and-grit type, who prefers warriors to artists, and he's filled the roster with tough, technically limited players. They play hard, but they definitely don't play pretty. And Mexico's most creative midfielder, Jesus Arellano, will almost certainly have to miss the first two games due to a red card, and thus may not make the trip at all.

    Then there's Ecuador, the team that finished second in the South American all-in qualifying group. They managed a mere 23 goals in 18 games, only fourth best in the region. Agustin Delgado, by far their top scorer in the qualifiers, may miss the tournament due to injury. And they're a team largely devoid of creative players: Alex Aguinaga, the veteran midfielder, and Ivan Kaviedes, the young striker, are just about the only ones who play attractive football, and they can't do it all by themselves. The usual Ecuador game produces few goals, no style, and lots and lots of fouls. They're Uruguay without the potential.

    Move now to Croatia. Four years ago, despite their success, they weren't particularly exciting: a counterattacking team with occasional flair and scoring punch. Now they've gone even more defensive, and the stats show it. They allowed only 2 goals in 8 qualifying games, the best average in Europe. At the same time, they scored only 2 goals in their 4 matches against their qualifying rivals, Belgium and Scotland. They may be more skilled overall than Mexico and Ecuador, but they've shown little inclination to attack in numbers.

    Finally, Italy. I confess it: I'm an Italy fan. They produce marvelous footballers, players like Franco Causio, Bruno Conti, Roberto Baggio, true artists of remarkable skill and elegance. When they want to, they can play some of the most beautiful football on the planet. Except they almost never want to. To say why would require a deeper insight into the Italian soul than I can offer. But we all know that they only play the beautiful game when they can't avoid it. Four years ago they found themselves in a group with flair-type teams Chile and Cameroon, and showed some artistry in spite of themselves. But here, with three grind-it-out teams, they'll undoubtedly revert to type. They have by far the best players of the four, but they'll play the same ugly football. Like I said, don't let the kids watch.

(Japan, Belgium, Russia, Tunisia)

The Group of Mediocrity

    The photographic negative of Group F. This may not be the weakest group in the history of the World Cup, but it's pretty close. Japan has shown some strength in friendlies, but it's hard to see them going beyond the second round. Russia is OK, and so is Belgium, but neither really makes you tremble. And Tunisia right now looks simply terrible.

    Is this the weakest group in history? Weak groups turn up when the host team is an outsider; since the host team is seeded, there's no first-rank team at the top of the group. In 1994, the USA was the host, but they got matched with a very highly regarded Colombia (they flopped, but again we're going by pre-tournament reputation) and a solid Romania. In 1970, Mexico hosted, and drew a weak El Salvador, but also drew championship contender USSR and a well-regarded Belgium. If we're talking pre-tournament reputation, the group I'd rank about equal to ours comes from 1986. Mexico again was the host, and they were joined by Paraguay, Belgium, and Iraq. None of these teams were particularly well-thought-of before the tournament began, although Mexico and Belgium both did quite well.

    Measurements of this sort are always rough, but group H certainly looks like one of the all-time weakest. But hey -- what counts is the football. Japan can be fun to watch, and maybe Russia will be too. And as in 1986, a seemingly weak group can produce some surprises. Let's hope so, anyway.



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