The 2010 World Cup may be just months away (June 11 kick-off), but futbol fanatics in Latin America can hardly wait. Impatience is understandable. In Latin America, soccer is more than a sport; it is the sport.
The World Cup generates a nationalist soccer fervor that brews for four years and culminates in a month-long frenzy. Infused with a sense of national pride and collective culture, people rally around their country’s flag, setting aside differences to support their team. It is hard to believe a sports tournament could be a respite from some of the deep political and cultural rifts in Latin America, yet the World Cup always manages to unite people in a phenomenal way.
Unfortunately, not every Latin American country can watch their team participate; the qualification round eliminated all but seven nations from the competition. The seven qualified teams represent a broad spectrum of talent; Brazil, the region’s best team, ranks second in the world, while the weakest of the seven, Honduras, is number 34.
Both Uruguay and Mexico have solid squads and will face an interesting mix in Group A. The 2006 runner-up, France, barely qualified (remember Henry’s handball?) but are the favored team. On paper, South Africa is easily the weakest of the four but could prove to be a contender with their home field advantage; host teams are always forces to be reckoned with in group play, regardless of their raw talent. The Mexicans will be center stage when they face-off against the South Africans in the opening game of the tournament in Johannesburg. The Mexico/Uruguay match at the end of group play could have large implications in a potential down-to-the-wire fight for the two playoff berths. While the Uruguayans look promising, the Mexicans have made it out of group play in the last four World Cups. If either team places second in the group, they will likely meet Argentina in the quarterfinals for yet another Latin American showdown.
Group B: Argentina, South Korea, Nigeria, Greece.
Argentina is the sole Latin American team in Group B, which is a rather inexperienced foursome aside from the two-time champions. The Argentines face threats from the young Nigerians and the high-scoring Greeks, but they will likely pass through to the next round. There is one looming question: Will controversial Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona enjoy World Cup coaching success similar to his playing success? Critics warn that his impulsive coaching tactics could be the bane of his team’s tournament. On a different note, the logistics of this group schedule will benefit Argentina; they will spend little time traveling and won’t have to switch hotels during group play, an obvious convenience when it comes to game preparation.
Group F: Italy, New Zealand, Paraguay, Slovakia.
Paraguay is viewed as an unlikely contender, despite finishing one point behind Brazil in qualifying. In a relatively weak group, the Paraguayans shouldn’t have too many difficulties advancing out of the group stages. Unfortunately, daunting opponents will await them in the second and third rounds. Depending on group results, they could potentially run into the Netherlands, Brazil and England en route to the final. The Paraguayans are also entering the tournament in the midst of tragedy; their star striker Salvador Cabanas was shot at a Mexico City bar on January 25. He is in critical condition and out of the tournament. Expect the Paraguayans, with Cabanas on their mind, to play inspired soccer.
Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal.
Group G is easily the “Group of Death,” though some still vouch for the evenly balanced but less talented Group D. With two teams ranked in the top five in the world (Brazil and Portugal) and Ivory Coast ranked number 16, it is safe to expect extremely competitive, high-quality soccer. Five-time world champion Brazil is the team to beat; as the top South American team, they have the best shot at bringing a trophy back to the continent. Their starting eleven is embedded with world-class players, including Kaka in the midfield and Julio Cesar in goal. Tensions between sister countries Brazil and Portugal are already heating up, especially after the Brazilian coach referred to Portugal as his country’s B team. While Brazil’s all-time record against Portugal is in their favor at 12-4, the culture clash will be a highly contested match. Also, despite a disappointing showing at the Africa Cup of Nations, the Ivory Coast is still a formidable opponent.
Honduras and Chile play one another in the group’s opening match. This game will likely decide each team’s trajectory for the rest of the tournament. Honduras, the lone Central American country, is in its second World Cup; it last appeared 28 years ago. They enter the tournament with low expectations abroad but high hopes at home in their politically embroiled country. If Honduras can pull off an upset, the inexperienced squad would gain some confidence for their subsequent matches against Spain and Switzerland. Chile will need all the points it can get to survive the dog fight for the second playoff berth, because Spain, as the number one ranked team in the world and winners of Euro 2008, will easily take the first. The dynamics of this group could lead to a messy final table, with a tie-breaking goal differential determining the runners-up.
On a non-soccer related note, South Africa will serve as an example for Brazil as the Latin American nation prepares for two large-scale events in the near future: the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Both will be prime opportunities for Brazil to exhibit the vast economic and social development it has experienced in recent years. Brazilians will be looking to South Africa for more than just a World Cup trophy.
Yet Brazil won’t settle for anything less than that trophy; their consistent play and exceptional roster set them apart from the other Latin American teams and a championship is within their reach. Despite star power of their own, Argentina’s quality of play was erratic in qualifying; such inconsistency will be quickly exposed in the latter stages of the tournament. Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, and Paraguay hope to shake up the tournament with upsets over favored teams, and maybe one of them will squeeze through to the quarterfinals. A good showing for Honduras would lift the spirits of its beleaguered people, though tournament odds are stacked against them.
The next four months will be critical as teams prepare for the tournament. At this point, most predictions are premature because so much could happen in the short period of time. Players could get injured. Coaches could be fired. Controversy could spark. In pre-tournament friendly matches, underdogs could blossom while favorites stumble. It is a dramatic precession to the world’s biggest soccer showcase and Latin Americans will continue to wait impatiently.
*Megan Justus is guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org and is an intern at the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.
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