Just in time for some-but-not-all of the first qualifiers to be determined, here’s part two. The oopsie I made in your slippers on Tuesday here.

Group E

Netherlands (World Cup: Final), Sweden (UEFA qualifiers Group 1: 3/6), Finland (Qualifiers Group 4: 3/6), Hungary (Qualifiers Group 1: 4/6), Moldova (Qualifiers Group 2: 6/6), San Marino (Literally the worst team ever)

Sheila, circa 1978. Yes, my mother did used to be Martin Lawrence.

This year, and quite unexpectedly, the Dutch reached the World Cup Final for the first time since my mother danced to the Bee Gees. (I can only assume.) They did this with an unfancied team, after the most faltering of starts, etc etc… It’s big, is what I’m trying to say. Only a year ago the Netherlands’ stars, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, were being unceremoniously dumped onto the transfer market by Real Madrid, a little taste of humble pie that culminated in a facefull of it for Madrid as the ex-galacticos showed what they could do for their new teams, both Champions League finalists, at Real’s home stadium. I guess there’s a reason the whole Spain squad comes from Barcelona.

Now that the World Cup is through they’re going to lose some people, most especially Van Bronckhorst. (Incidentally, does anyone know the convention for Dutch last names?  I know in French you drop the ‘de’ if the name is longer than a syllable – so ‘de Gaulle’ by ‘Lafayette’ – while in German ‘von’ indicates nobility so you’re always supposed to use it.) Hatchet man Mark van Bommel has been named their new captain, though, and everybody else is still on form. They have enough talent to overcome almost any degree of shakiness and the real danger is that, weighed down by scorn over their performance in Johannesburg, they pull back on their physicality too much. Like it or lump it, that’s how they got to the Final in the first place, and as the team reshapes around Robben and Sneijder it’s a useful stopgap.

Unlike some groups they’ll have stout competition. Sweden are under new management and they secured the instant coup of the return of petulant journeyman striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Not only is he a top class player, he’s a top class douchebag: Asked if he was getting his fiancee an engagement present he replied, “She gets Zlatan.” If I was called Zlatan and stood 6’20” I suppose I’d be slightly cocky, too, and Sweden have enough talent to justify him by building a squad around his striking prowess. Young midfielders like Martin Olsson are available in some abundance to fill out the now obligatory 4-2-3-1. (Or they might play two up front with new man Marcus Berg partnering with Ibra, though there’s not much evidence of how they’d work together.) Two goals from Olsson impressively put away Bosnia/Herzegovina in a friendly match in May, and on Ibra’s return Scotland – admittedly understrength, but when aren’t they? – were devastated.

Their partners from Group 1, Hungary, don’t look like challengers. Somewhat sad in a way, considering that Hungary are one of the two or three nations most conspicuous for their lack of international success. But they’re a smallish nation with no well-funded major league to promote their talent and Africa, not Eastern Europe, is now the growth area. They’re impressive enough, but the weak Sweden of 2009 was already too much for them. Sweden will be stronger this year – to say nothing of the Dutch.

One can’t be so sure about Finland. They don’t have much going for them but, not for nothing, they were the only team in qualification that Germany couldn’t beat. They finished a surprisingly strong third a mere four points behind Russia. Then again they drew to Lichtenstein and have never qualified for anything ever, and you’re hard-pressed to find a Finnish “name”. That could be a good thing – a bunch of players with some talent and small egos working together as a team, which is something of a Nordic trademark – but to face the other three in this group you need quality. I’m not sure they have enough.

The Dutch to win. Sweden second. Finland and Hungary have outside chances, but no better than maybe 3:1 or 5:1, respectively.

Key matches: All of them. Even the matches against the crappy teams: this group might come down to goal difference, which means scoring 12 against San Marino matters.

Group F

Croatia (UEFA qualifiers Group 6: 3/6), Greece (World Cup group stage: 3/4), Israel (Qualifiers Group 2: 4/6), Latvia (Qualifiers Group 2: 3/6), Georgia (Qualifiers Group 8: 6/6), Malta (Qualifiers Group 1: 6/6)

A big 2010 reunion here: Greece, Latvia and Israel were respectively 2, 3 and 4 behind Switzerland in Group 2 of the World Cup qualifiers.

Croatia are by some reckonings one of the World’s top ten teams despite missing out on a World Cup playoff spot. They benefit from the consistency of Slavan Bilic, coach since 2006, despite the fact that he’s perpetually thought to be on the verge of resignation (as late as November he was talking up a Premier League move). His record is why: despite the disappointment of 2010 he has a .710 average with only four defeats in thirty-eight matches. Croatia have an embarrassment of riches for such a small nation, with a first team that boasts starters from the best leagues in Europe, including a trio at Tottenham Hotspur. They’ll need a serious inquest into their tactics after a string of middling results but they’ll have the opportunity to experiment a little with Latvia before their home meeting with Greece. (A box of wine and some Kenny G is probably a good place to start.)

The two meetings with Greece will decide which one will qualify automatically – though Croatia and not Greece will be a lock for one or the other of the top two spots. Brand new coach Fernando Santos has domestic experience but will be thrown into the deep end 7 September. In his predecessor’s nine year term, encompassing a 2004 European Championship victory, relatively few players saw action as an established, trusted side was played over and over. That was then: now they’re stale and were found out at the World Cup, where only two players were under 25 (versus eight 30+ and six who had fewer than 10 caps, including two who had never featured for the national team before). The country featured regularly in the advanced stages of European club competition, but the league has suffered lately and is now a lesser Scotland, with Olympiacos besting Panathinakos about once every six years. Constant European play lets the two big clubs buy players from outside Greece, which dilutes the talent pool for the national team. Lately, it’s showed.

Israel and Latvia both finished relatively solidly in an even group for the 2010 World Cup qualifying, mostly because it was also really awful. Latvia did especially well considering they have a squad that boasts nothing in the way of European competitors, while Israel often sends a team to the group stage of the Champions League (this year Hapoel Tel Aviv) but finds itself too Jewish for Asian competition and too poor for European.  Either of these teams have an outside chance – but only an outside chance – of stealing a march on Greece. Georgia and Malta do not (indeed I suspect football fans in the latter may wish they’d accepted the chance to fuse with England even after the World Cup).

Croatia should win. I’d like see Latvia or Israel sneak into the playoffs as rank outsiders but it’ll probably be Greece.

Key matches: Croatia against Greece for first; Latvia and Israel against Greece for second.

Group G

England (World Cup: Round of 16), Switzerland (World Cup: Group stage 3/4), Bulgaria (UEFA qualifiers Group 8: 3/6), Wales (Qualifiers Group 4: 4/6), Montenegro (Qualifiers Group 8: 5/6)

Speaking of being on crack, I feel confident enough after England’s friendly win and the following tabloid reports in predicting the Three Lions as runaway winners in 2012 and Brazil 2014.

Why? For the lulz.

A well-researched dramatization of Fabio Capello giving the bad news to a hapless young Englishman.

Fortunately for dear old England, they’ll have the benefit of a slimmed down (and relatively anemic) fixture list. England aren’t so hard to upset, but of the other teams here only Switzerland’s a real contender to take points from them. The Special One allegedly-kind-of-but-not-actually thinks England is doomed under Fabio Capello. He can backpedal all he wants – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that a nation who cannot find the native coaching talent to have a national manage their team has no place in the first rank. Could you imagine Italy having a foreign coach? The Dutch? The Spanish? No, but you can imagine them winning something, too.

Qualification was supposed to feature the departure of the old guard and the arrival of new faces like Jack Wilshere, Adam Johnson and – one can only hope – Tom Cleverley. In the event of the promising youngsters only Johnson and Arsenal defender Kieran Gibbs actually made it into the squad, with Wilshere sent back to the under-21s. Other overlooked players, including Darren Bent and Everton’s Phil Jagielka, did break the final squad, where they’re joined by Joe Hart. Though it’s too early to tell, Hart looks to be the first time England is in safe hands in almost a decade. Assuming he’s as good as his recent form you can expect him to be firmly in goal there for a decade or more.

Below that the group is perhaps the most finely balanced in the competition. At the very bottom I’d lay aside Montenegro due to youth (of the team, not the players); their first competition since independence was the World Cup campaign. There’s no reason they can’t emulate a nation like Slovenia, especially when the Euros expand in 2016, but I don’t see it yet. Switzerland were the only team in the World Cup to take points from Spain but it was an absolute smash-and-grab – and a classic on the level of any of these. Switzerland can’t often be accused of involvement in classics, since their last two World Cups have featured mostly long, dull, grinding games, including their draw against minnows Honduras when a win would have sent them to the round of 16. I don’t know how to say choke in French, Italian or German, but I bet a few people have been practicing.

Bulgaria and Wales are odd things. Both have teams with skill anchored by quality players. Bulgaria feature several talented Petrovs. Wales can call on Robert Earnshaw and Craig Bellamy up-front – the latter, now back in Wales and out of the Premiership entirely, might be moved to focus more on international performance – as well as Gareth Bale, who has been something of a sensation lately. That’s never translated internationally, perhaps as he’s been played at fullback rather than on the wings in midfield. As the Welsh squad thins out space there may be space for Bale to grow into the team, which would be a godsend for them. Aaron Ramsey, sickeningly injured against Stoke in February, should be back at some point in the qualifying campaign. If they can be made to work, these four could carry Wales far indeed.

England to qualify outright, though with nothing near a perfect record. I’ll gives Wales the narrow nod to reach their first European championship ever, though Bulgaria with good odds as well. The Swiss are the favorites if you’re laying money on it but they’re like Midas, only with shit, and I don’t like them. So they don’t qualify. Simple, no?

Key matches: England away to Switzerland; any Wales against Switzerland.

Group H

Portugal (World Cup: Round of 16), Denmark (World Cup: Group E, 3/4), Norway (UEFA qualifiers Group 9: 2/5), Cyprus (Qualifiers Group 8: 4/6), Iceland (Qualifiers Group 9: 5/5)

Another evenly balanced collection. You know, I rather like these five-team groups. Five is a pleasant number, found often in nature, while six is bloated and grotesque. The more you know.

Carlos Queiroz letting us know exactly where we can put our drug tests.

A reunion for Denmark and Portugal, the World Cup qualifiers from UEFA Group 1. Despite finishing behind unfancied Denmark (in a group including Sweden and Hungary), Portugal clawed their way out of the World Cup group stage with draws to Ivory Coast and Brazil before their obligatory 1-0 rout to Spain. Carlos Queiroz remains for now as Portugal coach, which is a lucky break for their opponents, as are the retirements of Deco and Simao. (Watch this space, however: persistent accusations of interference with drug testers have led to a six month ban for Queiroz, which may prove too much for the Portuguese FA to take.) Cristiano Ronaldo remains on good club and solid international form, but the team was unsettled to the very end in South Africa and Ronaldo has never been well-integrated into the national side. He’ll be out injured initially, and their initial squad combines a core of experienced players with several younger, less tested options across the field. Portugal, until now somewhat old, need the experience.

Riddled with injuries and themselves looking even older than they actually were, their qualifiying group betters Denmark simply weren’t. Wholly deserving their demolition against Japan, they’ll look to engage in the same kind of comprehensive reconstruction as England, France and Italy. They’ll keep well-respected coach Morten Olsen through the 2012 campaign,by which time he’ll have the longest tenure of any national team manager in the country’s history. He’ll have his work cut out for him: the venerable but aged Jon Dahl Tomasson has retired and Dennis Rommedahl, at 32, can’t be far behind. With Bendtner out against Iceland there are no other stand outs in front, and both Rommedahl and Poulsen have more individual caps than the rest of the forwards and midfielders combined.

Fortunately, both teams’ meetings are interspersed with six competitive friendlies. Norway is the only other side capable of mounting any challenge and managed second place in the World Cup qualifying group only after a spastic display against Macedonia and Scotland. This group has real teams. The defining characteristic of the other three is not their ability to qualify – they won’t – but whether they take points off the two leaders. That will make the difference.

Olsen will have his work cut out for him, but is trusted and has some young talent coming through. He’s also relatively adaptable, which is good, as a thin bench will continue to force it upon him. Queiroz did barely enough not to get fired with a team that I could get to the World Cup Finals. (Half of which he missed, having been banned from the first two by his own country.) This is a case where the manager not merely matters but where switching them would almost guarantee a reversed result. Denmark qualifies automatically. Portugal second and a contender for best runner-up.

Key matches: Denmark and Portugal and not much else.

Group I

Spain (You damn well know), Czech Republic (UEFA qualifying Group 3: 3/6), Scotland (Qualifying Group 9: 4/5), Lithuania (Qualifying Group 7: 4/6), Liechtenstein (Qualifying Group 4: 6/6)

If Spain don’t win every match I’ll work in a poultry factory in Cambodia for a year. If their form slouches they might concede a goal on the way. The others might as well refuse to play them in the hope they get rusty without practice.

In Group 9 for the World Cup, which featured a Dutch side that didn’t lose and four other teams, Norway lost out on a playoff spot with the worst second place record, 10 points from 8 games. With 14 final places up for grabs the best goes straight up rather than the worst straight down, so about that number will do for one of the three contenders. (The Purple Parrots of Liechtenstein will miss out on the trip to Space Camp but receive a gift certificate to FAO Schwartz.) Both Scotland and the Czechs were disastrous in the World Cup qualifiers, Scotland’s 1-0 result in a March friendly equivalent to being Best Underperformer.

Now, I like Scotland. I was impressed despite their loss to the Dutch in the final group game. And then I watched them get walloped by Sweden. Mass rejections of a Scotland call-up left coach Craig Levein with little of a first team and they were run down as Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his return. Neither Scotland nor the Czechs have an Ibrahimovic, though Chelsea keeper Petr Cech is almost as good and the various journeyman keepers Scotland can call on (the latest Blackpool’s Matt Gilks via his father’s mother’s sister’s cousin’s aromatherapist’s girlfriend in Inverness) are not. Which might have had something to do with the 3-0. In a race for who sucks less, it’s the Czechs by a country mile.

I’m sorry – what’s that? Lithuania? Oh. Well. No.

Key matches: Any Scotland and Czech Republic.


Euro 2012: Episode IV

31 August 2010

Let’s face it. Your 20s aren’t what you expected. You’re lowly-paid, overworked (or underworked – or both), and you’re dreading the day that that itch gets so bad you can avoid the doctor no longer. And you pine – pine – for the simple summer days when your team was humiliated by Spain or Germany (or even the Dutch!). Well, if you’re European your wait is over, since those 47 long months until Brazil 2014 will be broken up by Euro 2012 somewhere out East, where natural gas and Russian denial-of-service attacks come from. The rest of us Americans will have Shark Week expanded to a month and the invasion of the Maldives to enjoy, but until we start awarding three points for a win in international police actions, I’ll settle for trying to decide if Moldova or Albania are more formidable with a little leather ball.

Group A

Germany (World Cup: 3rd place), Turkey (UEFA qualifiers Group 5: 3/6), Austria (Qualifiers Group 7: 3/6), Belgium (Qualifiers Group 5: 4/6), Kazakhstan (Qualifiers Group 6: 5/6), Azerbaijan (Qualifiers Group 4: 5/6)

You may remember Germany having a particularly good World Cup with an extremely young team and no Michael Ballack. They may be a bunch of gays, but undeniable a stylish one on the pitch and as much fun to watch when they cracked against Spain as when they crushed England and Argentina. O(e)zil, Muller and the other non-standard-character-promoting players have been crafted into a powerful system by Joachim Low, who will surely stay as Germany coach through the next World Cup. The best of them might have a decade of national team play ahead. Not only will they top the group, and not only will they do it without losing a game, they will be at worst second-favorites to win it all.

Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are perpetual also-rans who might pick up points here or there – mostly from each other. (Despite the rankings, Azerbaijan are better.) As in all things Belgium are a poor imitation of the Dutch and are in the midst of an unending breakdown. Their only real accomplishment in World Cup qualification was scoring a goal against Spain, and 1998 coach Georges Leekens can’t help a lack of top-shelf talent, a shortage cruelly exposed in their 11 August friendly defeat to underrated Finland. A result for them would be lasting longer than their country does.

In fairness bets on their groupmates Turkey and Austria aren’t much more inspiring: Turkey underperformed in World Cup qualification while Austria managed only four home wins in a group won by Serbia and a French team busy packing for their journey into the wilderness. Austria have also had a deal of upheaval in their coaches – 3 since Euro 2008 – while Turkey will still be working with a youngish team. (Only two current call-ups will be out of their 20s when eligible for their first game, which falls on midfielder Emre’s thirtieth birthday.)

And you thought the Mike Ditka pornstache was dead and buried

I favor Turkey. They’ve had time to reflect on missing the World Cup and have a huge pool of native talent with experience in European competition. They’ll also have the distinct advantage of experienced Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, who guided South Korea to the 2002 semifinals, Australia to the 2006 Round of 16 and Russia to the 2008 European semifinals (before watching them fuck up on the verge of the World Cup). What’s the chance lightning strikes twice?

Oh, fine. Take an option on Belgium then.

Key matches: Turkey and Austria in Germany.

Group B

Russia (UEFA qualifiers Group 4: 2/6), Slovakia (World Cup: Round of 16), Irish Republic (Qualifiers Group 8: 2/6), Macedonia (Qualifiers Group 9: 4/5), Armenia (Qualifiers Group 5: 6/6), Andorra (Qualifiers Group 6: 6/6)

If not for all the crappy teams you’d call this a Group of Death. Macedonia competed for the second-placed spot in Group 9 up to the final day, while Russia were unlucky to be drawn with Germany, shut out of outright qualification and then stunned by little Slovenia in the playoff. As for Ireland, they attract myths. Like their luck.

Let’s dive right in. Macedonia aren’t that good and never win away – impressing against Scotland does not equal impressing. (But more on that shortly.) So there’s them apples.

After their 2010 failure Russia have a new coach, Dick Advocaat, who left Belgium for Russia after Hiddink left for Turkey. (Whose previous coach was made Consul of Rome.) It will be familiar ground for Advocaat: a team with an occasionally-bright past and a few big-name stars which is nevertheless short on raw talent. Besides a few players in the Premier League (Arshavin most notably) they almost all play for Zenit St. Petersburg and the Moscow teams; however there’s no solid core of the sort Barcelona supplies Spain or Juventus used to for Italy.

Slovakia, of course, ran away with perhaps the easiest qualifying group and then stunned Italy on the final match day of the World Cup’s first round. Their team is precisely the opposite of Russia’s, an international melange marked strangely by a core of players in the Turkish Superlig, including the really impressive Robert Vittek. (His exploits detailed better here.) It’s hard not to be impressed, but Slovakia were gifted with weak groups – twice – and an extraordinary Italian team who realized you win by scoring goals just fifteen minutes before the end of their Cup journey. Ten games against opposition of considerably greater quality, the best I can say for them is that they might – maybe – sneak into 2nd. 3rd is far more likely.

The headquarters of the Irish national team. Also the Army, police force and cereal production authority

Which brings us to Ireland. If your heart wasn’t broken and your face contorted into rage over Thierry Henry’s handball, then you’re an asshole. Still, they’re managed by Giovanni Trappatoni – the kind of Italian manager you actually want, unlike a few I’m aware of – and most of the team plays in England or Scotland, lending some mutual experience and a coherent style far beyond what the country’s own anemic league could provide. There’s a diversity in the selection of players available and anchors in forward Robbie Keane and goaltender Shay Given. Both are heading towards the close of their international careers and both will be looking to wrap it up in style – especially Given, as he’s replaced (likely permanently) by England international Joe Hart between Manchester City’s posts.

Perhaps ridiculously, Ireland will top the group. Russia will come second.

Key matches: Any pair of Russia, Slovakia and Ireland. Watch especially when Ireland travels; I think they’re better away.

Group C

Italy (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Serbia (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Northern Ireland (UEFA qualifiers Group 3: 4/6), Slovenia (World Cup: Group stage 3/4), Estonia (Qualifiers Group 5: 5/6), Faroe Islands (Qualifiers Group 7: 6/6)

Or maybe this is the Group of Death, with three World Cup qualifiers in one delicious package. Somebody’s going to go home a sad panda, are they not? And it’s already begun; two stoppage time goals were all that prevented the Faroe Islands upsetting Estonia and – surely for the first time ever – taking the lead in a qualifying group. You’ll forgive me for underrating these two juggernauts, but this will be their last appearance in a paragraph I really ought to have ended thirty words ago.

I do need to take a moment to disregard Northern Ireland specifically rather than just lumping them with the others. They weren’t bad as recently as 2006, when they beat Spain 3-2 at home; the scorer of all three, Sunderland/Ipswich Town’s David Healy, is still available for the campaign. But even in the Euro 2008 qualifiers they came third, behind Spain and Sweden, and they’ve never qualified for the European Championships. Worse, nothing jumps out at me to say that this year they will.

I’m sure they’re all nice guys, though.

Italy will be very early in their reconstruction after the horror show of this year. In Prandelli they’ve got a new manager and some of the oldest players will retire themselves, with a couple of young standouts like Quagliarella and New Jersey’s own Giuseppe “The Situation” Rossi available to take their place. It’s not clear how far and how fast this reconstruction will go; attacking options Pirlo, Gilardino and Pazzini were recalled while the entire back line has been retooled. Even into qualification several players are receiving first call-ups, suggesting (rightly) that there isn’t much satisfaction to be had from the lost to Ivory Coast; of the returners, from perhaps the widest spectrum of Italian clubs  ever, a number are relatively unknown. They’ll have to get known pretty fast if Italy is going to avoid the dragon-slaying potential of the second-place playoffs. (I will give some points. Mario “Stupid Mario” Balotelli returns to ignominy for the first two games. Well done.)

Serbia were unlucky not to go to the World Cup round of 16 – they fell to weak Ghana thanks to a red card, a penalty and international sympathy for OMG AFIRCAN TEAM!!!11, gained a shock victory over Germany and then collapsed when Australia found their own shit too late, a trend that’s plagued Serbia longer than just this June. Even if they wanted to retool it’s not clear they have enough options, as their team is not hugely aged or experienced to begin with and already draws in the best of the Serbian soccer diaspora. Matters are made worse as Coach Radomir Antic landed himself a four-match ban for slagging off the referee in the Australia game and the Serbian authorities, complaining of the lack of better options, demanded he take a pay cut or get the boot. (And took the chance to piss all over him as they did.) They should have thrown him into the Guus Hiddink merry-go-round. They could have sent him to Iceland and got San Marino’s coach.

Slovenia, meanwhile, finished the best of the three, narrowly missing clearing the group at the expense of either England or the USA. Like Serbia’s, their squad is pretty settled and proved unusually thrilling despite extremely limited resources. What can you say? They had the fussballgeist. But this is a fickle thing, and surely they won’t keep it. The problem for a team like Slovenia (or indeed Serbia) is that in order to progress in a more difficult group – which this one is – they will need to rely on all of the same players over a long period of time, a big difference compared to gambling on their fitness in three games over 10 days. A bench consisting of all (and only) of the finest players with major league experience in the country makes attrition their biggest foe, especially for those players who have both league and European competition. Any changes forced on them due to form or injury will have more of an impact on systems which have already proven relatively successful with a certain set of players. The temptation will be to shoehorn new players into the old system.

All material, this one. Italy will be shaky but will have enough time to put together a decent team. I don’t smell the magic around Slovenia again, but I’ll back them to continue on in second place. Serbia’s turmoil (and pre-existing injuries to a few key players) will cost them.

Key matches: Slovenia away in Belgrade.

Group D

France (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Romania (UEFA qualifiers Group 7: 5/6), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Qualifiers Group 5: 2/6), Belarus (Qualifiers Group 6: 4/6), Albania (Qualifiers Group 1: 5/6), Luxembourg (Qualifiers Group 2: 5/6)

Does anyone else think that when Henry handled the ball he stole Ireland’s luck?  I think that. The President of Ireland and some Druid prince and his Leprechaun Army will probably have to rip out his beating heart and turn it into an amulet so Milla Jovovich can use it to stop the destruction of the Earth with her sidekick, Norm from There’s Something About Mary, and the Artist Formerly Known As the Second-String Mel Gibson.

Either way, once again France drew the Group of Life. An AIDS Ward XI could go to the finals from here. Belarus, Albania and Luxembourg are all minnows and Romania’s not much more: They have a new coach who’s okay but they draw their core team from the country’s own biggest sides, whose failure in European competition leaves the national league and by extension the team in freefall. (Though, famous last words.)

France and Bosnia/Herzegovina, then. As ever the ball is pretty much in France’s court. B/H are what they are and though certainly no pushover they don’t have the depth to metamorphose into a really superior team. If they win, it is because France aren’t pushing hard enough; if they lose it is because France are on the way to comprehensive reform. Given their dive into the abyss in South Africa, coach Laurent Blanc has the leeway to completely recraft this team. He has the players, too. The real question: Does he have the balls?

His first step was decisive: against Norway he banned all 23 of the players in South Africa and called up a whole new squad, declaring also that only the blameless keeper, Hugo Lloris, is certain for re-inclusion. This offered him the chance to call up an entire raft of the neglected and ignored. The cost was a 2-1 loss, but it may be the best of all France’s late sufferings. Lessons were learned, and the squad now named for the beginning of Euro 2012 qualification is a decent melange of old and new: Saha, Benzema and Mexes return as Loic Remy and the excellent Jeremy Menez join up.

The consensus was that after the collective punishment of the Norway match the entire thing should be put behind France; for that reason, and for the effect on qualification, the further bans handed out to Anelka (the “mild-mannered” man who will never play for country again) et al were a mistake which could only hamper the team. Bilge, I say. In fact wouldn’t have mattered a jot if Laurent Blanc called up eleven new people to play Norway, all were terrible and then he called them up again. Everyone on the team must know they’re optional and that bad attitude is worse than bad form, since it means they’ll be humiliated despite rather than because of their skill on the pitch.  Sending this message is the only thing that can save these miserables. On September 7th in Bosnia, we’ll see if they have done enough.

I want Blanc to succeed. I think he will. France will top the group and maybe even with a little style. B/H to the playoffs.

Key matches: The very first one. If France win in Bosnia they’ll be pretty much home free. Runner-up status to the matches between Bosnia/Herzegovina and Romania.

1. Why am I still keeping this blog? Is it some grand experiment in narcissism? Not so grand, anyway. I’m not Andrew Sullivan, masturbating into a napkin at dinner and posting the results for my many ideologically-pansexual followers. But then people pay him somehow for this. How does this happen? How do you make money at a blog? Frankly I haven’t figured out how anybody makes money at anything since being taught about economic profit through one flickering eye in 2006. Spoiler alert: in the long run there is no profit. Mind: blown.

2. One one day last week, six people here using the search term “good looking black boys.” Six people. I will give you six dollars if you can tell me how this would happen. I will give you six more if you can model, given the exponential growth rate of Internet use, how long before it makes everyone a pedophile.

3. Incidentally, the British spell it paedophile, and say it like pee-dough-file. Which both looks and sounds appropriately more virulent than our version, which, like most American language, is carefully scrubbed of hard edges and meaning.

Rather more incidentally, enjoy this highly-offensive example of how little important people know about the problems they froth over. And marvel at the fact that, fifteen years later, a satirical news report seems ever so slightly tame.

4. Besides the above, how do you know you live a morally-dubious existence? When your job gets shit on by Street Sense. Honest to God.

So much for Doing Good Work. Though of course I was mostly in it for the money. Wonder with me why I don’t have very much of it.

It might hurry me along the path to goodness if I had a real name. It’s been months since someone has called me by my name. Most days at work I’m Mr. Walder, Walderburg, Waldrich, Wallburn, Walker, Walter, Wilbur, Wilburn, Wilder. Or Mr. Roberts. Or Mr. Stiffenburg.

Mr. Stiffenburg. That was from a girl I spoke to some dozen times in three days; as her frustration increased she wandered further and further from my actual name until by the end, when I’d decided not to pay her while I still had a pulse, I was addressed only gutturally. I’m fairly certain I now exist only as a specially-designed symbol of hatred in her diary, like the little whip Gladstone drew whenever he beat himself for beating himself.

5. Strange things happen to me when I’m in Dupont Circle.

While I was standing on Eighteenth Street yesterday, shortly after walking past this

On which I will offer no further comment

a school bus trundled by. Inside loud music blared and three dozen people holding various mind-altering substances were engaged in what might charitably be called dancing or, more accurately, aggressive gyration. People waved at me as they went passed. Twelve hours later, I’m still not sure what they were waving.

I suppose this wasn’t as bad as the man on Sixteenth Street the week before. I was going on my merry way when I ambled in range of a homeless beggar. He turned, looked straight at me, and laughed. Explosively.

As I rushed past him I could only wonder to myself: How did he know?

Then I saw his little green bib and copies of Street Sense. And I smiled smugly to myself because, of course, there is no profit.

I suppose Barack Obama has never been famous for his tactical subtlety.

You could argue otherwise – unlike many people he and his team saw through the clusterfuck that was Super Tuesday in 2008 – but Washington’s a pretty myopic town and the primary system is above all just an annoying long division problem. (If two trains leave New York at 8 and Chicago at 8:30, how much debt can Hillary Clinton rack up before they crash?) You don’t get points for remembering the primary campaign goes on after the first week of February.

He was always a brilliant communicator – but never a subtle one. The hope and change stuff and the Socialist Realist campaign posters, the Jeremiah Wright speech and the Inauguration – all very stirring, but for the unmoved it felt like being bludgeoned by a frozen sturgeon. The campaign took hold of the economic crisis with a certain deftness but between that and Sarah Palin the pieces settled themselves by election night.

Fairly, he’s not had the easiest time since, and accomplishing any policy goals in the face of the recession has to be rated a kind of success. But his administration has not been a study in effective communication or political artistry, especially considering just how powerless the Republican opposition was (and how risky the strategy of No). The White House allowed the debate on health care and (fatally) climate change to drag on and on and then seemingly capitulated at the last moment more from exhaustion than anything else. On gay marriage, Gitmo and even Afghanistan they haven’t engaged much at all. (That or they’re playing a game so deep and well-managed that not even their own people are aware of it.) In this he’s a victim of his own success. Government is about as much shady compromise as grand gesture but he was far too good at conjuring elaborate images of a grand political breakthrough embodied in his campaign. (Which the left especially thought meant it got to win everything.) It was as stupid to propose as it was to believe, but the bottom line is that once more the victories are measured in yards rather than miles.

You might think, then, that this Cordoba House Mosque issue is the latest in a long series of own goals by the Obama team. Certainly that’s the immediate consensus. The Post quotes a political asshole saying

He is right on principle, but he will get slaughtered on the politics.

Note the implicit divorce of the two. So heartening.

Certainly, the consensus is in favor of this conclusion. Harry Reid already jumped ship, as did that guy in Louisiana who can’t get traction in the Bible Belt against a Republican Senator who visited prostitutes. While Obama gets credit for standing on principle – expressed darkly, in embarassed whispers, because nothing in Washington is more socially uncomfortable than a principle – it is accompanied by heaps of opprobrium. Has he, indeed, decided the midterms are a lost cause? Has he gone off the reservation? Is there a civil war in the White House?

No. Somebody did their job, and in a way that united morality and Machiavellianism.

Consider that right now the Obama White House is a spent force. In a rush of activity since early 2009 it depleted the vast amounts of political capital accumulated in the election, most of it ironically a direct result of the decision it least wished to take – passing the stimulus and its resulting debts. What wasn’t lost in the policy pushes that followed pretty decisively disappeared in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Now we’re well into the midterm elections and far from ignoring Obama the fear is that he will be an albatross around the necks of Congressional Democrats, facing down a public who, though unsold on the New Coke Republican Party, feel they have the option of a broadly consequence-free vote against them. Big majorities have that downside. The left, professional or otherwise, are irritated at the White House’s weakness in the face of its own moderates and perceived lack of principle in enforcing its beliefs, let alone its campaign promises.

What’s a president to do? Take a stand in favor of the Ground Zero Mosque. At a stroke you recapture the moral high ground with your own supporters by doing something pure as new snow. You also provide a harmless wedge issue to to your own party, allowing embattled candidates in swing states to implant a dash of populism into their own campaigns and starkly illustrate their independence from the White House on an issue which, despite high salience and high emotions, they can’t effect anyway. You open up a juicy forum for Republicans or Republican supporters to say something racist on television and, since it’s a mosque, create the opening for renewed birther questions directed at GOP congressional candidates – or better still, accusations that Obama’s a secret Muslim (torrid break with his pastor notwithstanding). Any one of these is lose-lose for a politician who dares wade into the mix. It distracts from the debt, from health care, from climate change and from financial services reform, all issues for which Democrats have gotten stick on the road; and best of all it gives candidates for the perennially-unpopular Congress the chance to talk about something Congress didn’t do – and that nobody blames it for. How often does that happen?

The bottom line is Obama hit on a move at once shrewd, highly principled and politically selfless. If indications are correct he did so on his own instinct and without the intervention of advisors. If so he should keep going, the braying of the shriller parts of the commentariat notwithstanding. Given that his staff have come under near constant criticism for their style of management, and given the endless complaints about his Administration’s political opportunism, it might not be bad for Obama to, as Simon sneerily puts it, “[take] seriously all the ‘change’ stuff he promised during the campaign.” The American people certainly did.

And, by the way, it might just keep him a Democratic Congress.

I recently moved into a new apartment, in the process of which I regained a roommate from this past summer who possesses, along with baking skills and a robust liquor supply, a copy of the first season of The West Wing. Moseying my way through it I saw – though it had lingered as a distant memory – the now-ubiquitous Dr. Cuddy engaged in a bizarre career lacuna in which, sandwiched between undergrad and a brilliant subsequent career as a doctor medical school and a hospital administrator, she went to Georgetown Law and became a hooker to pay her way, slept with the Deputy Communications Director of the White House and lived in an inappropriately-posh townhouse for someone in her station. It was a decade ago, so perhaps it was the wrong side of Dupont Circle at the time. Anyway as in addition to being a club princess in the 90s Lisa Edelstein has been in perhaps every television show on air (and some not) I didn’t think it worth making hay.

What had not lingered in my memory, however, was the sight of Glee’s own Principal Figgins as the much younger Indian Ambassador to the United States in an episode inappropriately entitled “Lord John Marbury.” (It is inappropriate because only the second and later sons of marquesses and dukes are titled “Lord Firstname Lastname” – in the show his senior title, if memory serves, would be Marquess of Needham and Dolby and therefore he’d be called Lord Needham, as would the episode, which is entirely beside the point.) Incidentally, in the minute or so he is featured Indian Ambassador Figgins was considerably more reasonable than High School Principal Figgins ever was. He was probably forced to resign in disgrace after railing about the dangers of Muslim vampirism.

The problem with postmortems are that they invariably require bodies. This World Cup, we’ve had several. But of course without death we have no new life, eh? Eh? Am I right, Italy fans?

Group A & B: La France est mort… vive Maradona!

I predicted three teams over the course of seven months to clear Group A. The one I didn’t topped it without conceding a goal. So much for me.

After gaining a draw despite a late red card from France Uruguay roared out of the gate, their 3-0 win over South Africa not merely putting them first but virtually ensuring that the hosts would not proceed. (Which they duly failed to do, despite a really fiery win over a France both shameless and shameful.) Mexico followed them to no particular surprise.

In Group B Argentina were top with a full nine points – with the Netherlands the only ones to qualify with a perfect record. (In 2006 four of the eight groups had a finisher with three wins.) The performances that got them there were more mercurial – a shaky 1-0 win over a solid Nigeria, a rollicking 4-1 over second place finishers South Korea and a pretty sleepy 2-0 result against Greece, who needed and knew they weren’t going to get three points to sneak forward. South Korea played out an exciting 2-2 draw with Nigeria on the last day, with three more points from Greece enough to carry them forward despite poor goal difference. South Korea have dazzled only in flashes – but when they’ve been on, they really have been.

The clashes it sets up are Uruguay-South Korea and Argentina-Mexico. Uruguay-South Korea have already finished 2-1 for the former; I was going to take a punt on South Korea, so that’s 1 down already.

Argentina-Mexico promises to be a fascinating clash, but the momentum’s really with Maradona’s boys. He had the chance to rest several starters (but not Messi) against Greece and with the sheer weight of attacking power he’s got I don’t see how Mexico can do enough to exploit Argentina’s iffy defense. (Demichaelis in particular should probably not start.) The result depends on what Argentina comes in expecting. If they take it as they did Nigeria, Mexico have a chance. Considering the tantalizing possibility of a dream quarterfinal against either England or Germany, however, it’s not much of one. Argentina.

Groups C & DThe world turn’d upside down…

Lots of misfires in this one. Slovenia did not go through, though it has to be said that they finished second-place finishers before Landon Donovan nailed a rebound against an Algeria team who were mostly useful in exposing how poor were this group. England’s low-scoring finish mean that it’s the USA who finish first on goals scored thanks to the incredible 2-2 draw with Slovenia.

I have to admit I did not cheer for my home country but for about five minutes before and after Donovan’s goal. I wanted Slovenia to win in their match-up, not only to be proved right – I like being right – but because all America turns into Boston when our teams do at all well in international competition. And we know how Boston fans are. (i.e. insufferable.) For a moment of weakness the possibility that the USA might go out on a pair of disallowed goals – on decisions which were each shaky at best – moved me to patriotism. I promise it won’t happen again, but I’ll give USA their due: when they play, shit always seems to go down.

In Group D Germany recovered to finish top despite falling to Serbia. (Inexcusable, 10-men or no.) Thanks to their shellacking against the winenrs, Australia failed to get through, despite nearly pulling off a 10-man win against Ghana and absolutely dominating Serbia. If you consider that in the two games Ghana won both featured sending-offs and penalties, and that Ghana did not score a goal besides, I think I was correct when I suggested that no African team had the quality to get through the group stage. Ghana just had the luck. “But it’s Africa’s World Cup!” No, it’s South Africa’s World Cup and I’m damn sorry they didn’t get through. I’m also sorry Ghana did.

Ghana have already met the USA and booked their place to the quarterfinals thanks to some truly horrific defending. For the record, my money was on USA; and if you asked me again it’d still be. 0-2 now…

Thanks to their profligacy England have a horror meeting with Germany in the round of 16. Ledley King might be back; but Miroslav Klose certainly will. England are still playing Emile Heskey, who’d possibly be good at what he does if his job wasn’t scoring goals, and Fabio Capello just doesn’t appear to be up for it. The hero of England’s campaign has been the fan at the Algeria match who got lost looking for the pisser and wandered into the dressing room, where he promptly gave the team a dressing down for their performance. Winning a World Cup can’t be that easy. The only thing that can save England now is Roy Hodgson. But he’ll come only too late.

I’ll be cheering for England. But Germany will win. England at least can take comfort that they got further than the champions.

Group E & F – A huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge advantage!

Now I have no problem being wrong here. In Group E Netherlands came first after three relatively grinding performances against three solid teams. (Still too much pretty passing though.) But in a decisive and extremely impressive performance Japan absolutely shut Denmark down. They needed less shutting than I’d have hoped, sadly, since a good half of their starting XI were missing or playing at less than full fitness. I’ve got an article about what went wrong for Denmark in the works – but suffice it to say unfavored Japan richly deserve their place in the 16.

Group F was fucked up. There’s no other way to put it. Italy turned in the second-worst performance by a defending champion in history (behind, of course, France in 2002), coming last in the group after two draws and a nail-biter 3-2 defeat against Slovakia. Slovakia! Paraguay, over whom I was too embarrassed at my naivete to tell a real newspaper I thought they’d beat Italy, didn’t but ran off with the group anyway. Final-day last-placers Slovakia took the second spot over Italy’s dead body.

Paraguay and Japan now meet in the next round. I’m excited for this match-up, maybe moreso than any other in this round, because I really don’t know what to expect. Based on the Japan I saw against Denmark, however, I’m going to take a shot on them to win. They were really good, and if we’ve seen the best of Paraguay so far I don’t think it’s enough. (Hint to Paraguay: try not to give away free kicks.)

Netherlands-Slovakia I don’t expect to be much of a contest. You’d like this Dutch team to make the quarterfinals against pretty much any opposition – Slovakia were scrappy against Italy, but then Italy were just bad. I don’t know if the Dutch have the juice necessary to go all the way, but I see no more Eastern European giant-killing in this World Cup.

Groups G & H – Mas que nada

Yesterday Brazil and Portugal passed the ball and forth for about 90 minutes while Ivory Coast desperately tried to replicate the latter’s 7-0 demolition of North Korea. It didn’t work. As a whole I thought the group was pretty unspectacular – the most exciting moments were North Korea’s real threat to Brazil in the first match and the bizarre sending off of Kaka for being run into by an Ivorian. (Fabiano’s handball, on the other hand, was just eh. He had no flair.) So Brazil first on 7, Portugal following on 5.

In Group H, despite the difficulty of the occasion, best result was acheived when a very negative Swiss side was put out after a goalless draw with Honduras while Chile, despite being reduced to ten men and two goals down, pulled one back to finish behind Spain on goal difference, each with 6 points. Frankly I don’t know many neutral fans who didn’t want these to be the two teams who went through – they earned it. Especially Chile. They have the second best ten-man performance of a World Cup with a lot of them, only behind Australia – and Australia didn’t claw a goal back after they were reduced.

Two very exciting match-ups in the round of 16, then: Spain-Portugal and Brazil-Chile. I think one of the second place teams will upset. Now, Portugal are certainly a strong team and Spain have displayed very worrying behavior – Del Bosque is still playing two holding midfielders rather than sending one up in attack, and when he does it doesn’t seem to matter much. (Perhaps because it’s Fabregas, who hasn’t been great so far.) But in the end Portugal live and die by Cristiano Ronaldo – like it or not he is this generation’s Eusebio. He was good for the semifinals last time around; he might be this time. But Spain have a half-dozen Ronaldos to call upon – they might almost being playing a World XI. It is Spain’s to lose.

Chile, however, have really shown a phenomenal spirit and we know they can beat Brazil – they did it during qualification. Against Spain they really were magnificent and dominated large portions of the game despite being a man down. They’re not perfect and certainly neither were Spain, but I most doubt Brazil. There’s a strangeness to them right now, a certain emptiness. They play but – I don’t know. It’s probably some bullshit marginally-racist construction I have in my head, but I expect Brazil to show just that bit more feeling than all the rest, not grind out wins by hook or by crook. Chile have shown that feeling, and if they can just hit the target a little bit more I think they can upset. What’s more, I think they will.

Also, Dunga dresses like I do. Never a good sign.

FULL TIME! – Three desperately needed points but Cameroon out of the World Cup. The Dutch have an exhibition against Cameroon, Paul Le Guen will join Raymond Domenech’s new book club and Denmark have a decisive match against Japan to determine who faces the winner of Italy’s group.  (Wild guesses…)  That was hair-raising, nail-biting stuff. Denmark will still need a win from Japan – a draw will see them go through on goal difference thanks to Japan’s one-goal loss to the Dutch. This group has the tournament’s first casualty but plenty of action left.

Thanks to Sean, Mike, Peter and Lars Eriksen from the Guardian. I’m out to write their fan reporty thing.

90+2min. – Cameroon are really pressing and there’s flashes of real beauty in their desperation.The Danes are not pressing much and are showing real vulnerability, but the defending is stout and manful. Morten Olsen looks positively manic.

90min. – “Kjaer doesn’t care where he puts it!” shouts the announcer. I LOL nervously, like a police suspect hearing a detective joke about juvie during interrogation. Denmark freekick interrupts the Cameroon volley against the Danish goal. Passing practice now for Demark.

88min. – Kjaer out for Japan game! He looked to have wasted a cross into the Cameroon half and then brought down the counter-attacker. What a blow.

86min. – Tomasson off for yet another Poulsen, Jakob. Sorensen booked for timewasting. Commentators joking about a profusion of Poulsens. Denmark have retreated to their half – they need to score!

83min. – Poulsen down after a collision with the attacking I-don’t-even-know-who after Bendtner passes a beautiful ball to the Cameroon keeper. A Cameroon player blocks Aboubakar’s shot and the corner ping-pongs before Sorensen saves.

82min. – People are going on about Cameroon like they’re some beautiful underdog story rather than the top-tip to take 2nd place in this group. It’s you and me, Denmark. Let’s see this one home.

80min. – Useless Webo comes off for Abouakar after that brilliant save. Now a Cameroonian corner. They’re at the gates – but Idrissou sends another one over the net. Denmark need to get another, and not just for me – they can’t be safe with this scoreline, not as hard as Cameroon presses.

78min. – Cameroon are almost through but it’s saved!!! There’s nobody there!

75min. – Mbia in the book for bring down Kahlenberg roughly. It leads to, uh, something, and then Idrissou’s back down the Danish right. I thought they’d play much more centered.

73min. – Cameroon are taking off the booked Bassong for Idrissou, right after Bendtner overplays a pass. I can’t look. I must look.

70min. – Tomasson had a great through-ball, passed off from Rommedahl, but he sends it right off the keeper. That was his chance to make an honest man of me.

69min. – Why are they letting Eto’o receive all these passes? If they don’t get somebody in there he’s going to throw one of those passes straight in the net… but not yet.

66min. – Makoun misses a half-sitter, but he was marked and under pressure. The Danish defense have really come together but Cameroon are going to give this everything. Gronkjaer off for Kahlenberg – Olsen is going to push this all the way home.

64min. Cameroon still very dangerous, and Webo is doing little to help at the front. The attack must continue for Denmark – when they sit back, they’re dead.

62min. Dennis Rommedahl wanders through an aimless defense and bangs it right past the keeper. Wonderful. I would have his babies if he asked me.


59min. – Gronkjaer gets away with the ball but is too bloody clever by half and gets dispossessed. It heads back to the Danish side but the defending has been much better – though too needful.

56min. – The FIFA website is useless as it also thought Njitap/Geremi went off for Makoun. It was in fact Eyong. My apologies. Cheers to Sean for the catch.

55min. – Kjaer takes a knock on the head. He’s being walked off. Oh God.

53min. – Magnificent run by Simon Poulsen, but it’s knocked back for a corner, which comes to naught. This ball is getting worked harder than… you fill that one in.

50min. – The free kick goes into the wall but a follow-up by Kjaer is palmed lightly over. Officials miss the corner and award a goal kick. Bassong the booked Cameroonian.

49min. – A horrifying chance by Makoun is averted as he’s brought down by Jensen. It looked very borderline to me, but the ref gave nothing and no one appealed. On the clearance Bendtner was through but was taken down, earning a Cameroonian the first booking of the match. Ref has been quite anonymous, and pleasantly so.

47min. Jensen has come on for the relatively-anonymous Jorgensen. Njitap for Makoun. For once FIFA does me a solid. Geremi remains. A header is palmed over by Sorensen.

46min. Apparently Bendtner has not left the field but stayed running up and down the touchline throughout the interval. For Cameroon, Geremi is said to have come off, for N’Guemo? Not confirmed.

HALF-TIME. The general World Cup press pool know what really matters – the endless whining about the disallowed goal against Slovenia. Having apparently heard nothing about what happened to Ireland, the entire World Cup-watching sports commentariat are screeching for a replay, a reversal, a tarring and feathering, anything! Only Alexi Lallas remains, horrifyingly, a voice of reason.

The stars for Denmark are all attackers – Rommedahl has been a one-man guerrilla army and Bendtner has been on-point all game. Some contributions from Christian Poulsen but Tomasson still doesn’t look fit and the back four look like they were fed LSD shortly before the match. Fortunately Cameroon are with a few exceptions completely lost.

Sean writes, “This is fun. As much as we all admire good defending, there’s little better than World Cup match littered with schoolboy errors.” Fun for you – I need a damn Ambien after that.

45+1min. – Olsen will probably spend the entirety of the half watching the replay just to see how many chances they each really have. Cameroonian defense are looking a little better but still badly vulnerable.

44min. – “Who thought up these defensive strategies? Evel Kineval?” says the commentator. For once I agree completely. These were huge chances both teams just had, and I barely had time to process what the Hell happened before somebody else was through on net. Absolutely agonizing stuff.

42min. – Rommedahl is terrorizing the Cameroonian right, rushes forward and beats the universe on a long ball. Rommedahl turns in, gets a shot, saved, another from Tomasson, saved, and finally a long ball from Bendtner is turned off. Then Cameroon are there, and they’re through, and a save and then it goes off the post! And back! And forth! Four unbeatable opportunities in two minutes!

40min. – Suddenly Denmark have new life, though Cameroon have not dropped off the face of the Earth. They still know what’s at stake. Geremi tries to play in Webo but Sorensen grabs it without undue trouble.

38min. – If you came by twitter, I apologize for my momentary bad Danish spelling. I went phonetically and didn’t correct it quickly enough. But, we persevere. I think we usually say “real end-to-end stuff” at this point, so there we are…

33min.HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES??!!! – Kjaer plays a long ball to Rommedahl, past a clustering band of Cameroonians. Rommedahl sends it laterally to Bendtner, who is right there. Fantastic.

32min. – “What the fuck was that?” says IRL Dane Peter. I literally cannot tell what he means, Denmark are so poor.

30min. – Jacobsen confuses an Exocet missile with an ICBM and using the latter lifts the ball into near-Earth orbit. It’s just shocking, but at least Denmark have the ball.

27min. – “Apparently a friend-of-a-friend’s Mum looks like Danish striker Jon-Dahl Tomasson,” says Sean Carroll. And this is a man who yesterday was in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Who actually looks a bit like a bald, bespectacled Morten Olsen… but I suppose at their age almost everyone does.

26min. – All crossing in this World Cup is terrible, say the commentators. Crosses feature a ball. Therefore the ball is terrible. A philosophy degree from a B school gives me little logical purchase, but I think I sense a few holes here.

24min. Mike writes, “This is a very different Danish side that what I saw on Monday. Lacking discipline and confidence on the ball.” But – little-by-little – building up in the Cameroonian half. That goal was good fortune but little more and Cameroon look a bit unconvincing otherwise. But then, so do the Danes…

Webo plays with the ball on the touchline and is so adroit he’s flagged out of bounds.

20min. – Emana tries to get away with it a second time, but no dice say the defenders, who converge on him. Rommedahl leads an attack and it’s played to Tomasson, who beats the offside but can’t quite get to it.

17min. – Cameroon are swarming the ball as it goes from Dane to Dane. This is leaving a great deal of space open for long passes if Denmark can exploit. Gronkjaer has a shot, which is deflected to a pointless corner.

15min. – The commentators are now practically crowing about how wonderful it will be for an African team to make it out of the first round. I think it’d be wonderful if they weren’t so horrible – that goal was thanks to the Danish defense. Make no mistake.

Somehow that feels no better, though.

11min. – Also, lost in a cacophony of my dry heaving at 10”, Lars Eriksen notes that he is still – but still literally – writing the book on the ’86 Danish team. We’ll call that my glitch for the day. Emana blasts one at the goal. It’s wide, just.

10min.HELL. Samuel Eto’o benefits from a Christian Poulsen defending horror – how many of those are worth his quality? – and bangs it in from no range. This could be a horror.

7min. – “There’s a lot of Poulsens around in the Danish squad, you’ll have gathered.” Only as many as Songs in Cameroon. Rommedahl launches a powerful, probing shot from distance. Over. Not by so much.

3min. – Jorgensen already looks 138… or 12.

1min. – Cameroon already on the attack, but Kjaer is on hand for the deflection. Not wasting any time, then.

2:29pm Der er et yndigt land” is sweet and melodic. I do so like it. Though it’s a bit sleepy.

2:26pm – Duh-duh-duh-DUH CAM-ER-OON! I love an anthem with cymbals. Though it sounds a little bit like something played by an inept high school band who just got the music ten minutes ago.

2:22pm – Oh, by the way, the big people minute-by-minute’s here. I say keep them open side by side.

2:19pm – Alexi Lallas: “This is gonna be a game!” Top commentating. He makes me feel like Jonathan Wilson.

2:17pm – Though to be fair there have been worse ideas. Like Fabio Capello.

2:16pm – Network television (ABC) is showing this match in the United States, to the delight of the country’s vast Camero-Danish community.

IRL Dane Peter Stockmann sends this link to Ekstra Bladet which suggests treatment for Bendtner was attempted via a witch doctor. You heard me. Witchcraft.

Sorry it’s in Danish.

2:11pm – Fresh from a shower for the first time since mumble mumble. In that time we’ve got the team sheets, but before posting those Lars Eriksen, who literally wrote the book on the 80s Danish Dynamite, posted to alert me that there is a slightly shorter version to which I haphazardly referred. As it happens it jogged my memory as being excellent, and I’ll probably devote the next thirty minutes to a swift reread. He also links to his effort of this morning which shows the current lot in more skeptical relief. Cheers.

The teams:

DEN – Sorensen; Poulsen S., Agger, Kjaer, Jacobsen; Rommedahl, Poulsen C., Jorgensen, Gronkjaer; Tomasson, Bendtner. Coach M. Olsen (DEN).

CMR – Hamidou; Assou-Ekotto, N’Koulou, Bassong, Mbia; Emana, Song A., Enoh, Geremi; Eto’o, Webo. Coach P. Le Guin (FRA).

Key takeaways:

All the doubtful Danish starters are in. Tomasson especially will provide much needed firepower up front and Kjaer’s presence removes a big worry, as he is not only stout but useful pushing forward. No telling if all three will make it.

Big push forward for Cameroon. Alex Song is back in central midfield, with Webo and Eto’o moved up to forward positions. This should be much more dangerous.

Afternoon, gents and potentially ladies. Halfway through the second round two dozen teams are staring into the abyss. Included among them are England, laboring under two dire draws and trailing Slovenia; Spain, shocked by Switzerland; Germany, stunned by Serbia (with help from a soft red and Lukas Podolski, Serbia’s top defender); France, whose coach is even now putting Nicholas Anelka on a plane home; and most of the African contingent, including the hosts. There was loud concern that this World Cup would be boring, defensive and predictable. Not anymore.

Denmark and Cameroon are both among that number, though the Danes have reason to feel better about their position. An expected loss to a Dutch team favored to take nine points out of the group nevertheless displayed a relatively strong defensive performance and some attacking threat out of the dedicated forward players. More than most the Danes are susceptible to injury and more than most they’ve suffered from it; Bendtner, Tomasson and Kjaer are still iffy and now substitute Beckmann are added to their number. Still, having your backs to the wall and the worst behind you can be encouraging and liberating and I’m hopeful for all three to play.

Cameroon are meanwhile laboring under a fractious regime with unending reports of upset with coach Paul Le Guen, who is about as popular as a French manager should be, and the growing little black clouds hanging above Samuel Eto’o. Team selection has been particularly contentious thus far. However Eto’o will be satisfied with Le Guen’s decision to play him in the center after positioning him on the wing effectively removed him from the match against Japan, and others (Alex Song?) are likely to return to the pitch today. The whole team are well aware that a loss ends their contention for a place in the final sixteen. They will be a deadlier team than Japan found.

(Incidentally, earlier today someone asked me if it bothered me to cheer against an African team at Africa’s World Cup. Considering how bad they all are, not a whit – though I still hold out secret, unspeakable hope for the hosts.)

Tactics are likely to be similar and built around a key playmaker. Denmark will defend vigorously and where possible get the ball to Bendtner, ideally up the wings. Cameroon will try to get it forward to Eto’o through a string of central midfielders. Bendtner’s a rather better conductor if less individually talented than Eto’o, and Cameroon’s defense is less stalwart. Denmark are under real pressure to get goals early lest Bendtner give out. I think they’re up for it. I’ll say Denmark 3-1. (Jinx/knock on wood/fingers crossed?)

As last time Sean Carroll and Mike de Vries will have their tweets shamelessly stolen to provide inter-group reaction, as well as my friend Peter for the thoughts of an actual Dane. You can also have yourself reflected in this little dog and pony show via my slice of the Twatcracy as well as over e-mail at wahlberg(dot)peter(at)gmail.

Especially if you’re a Cameroon fan. I don’t have one of you yet and could use the counterpoint as I’m not exactly neutral.

A note from the world of the unseen: According to yesterday’s World Cup Daily, Rob Smyth of the Guardian has apparently written about how this Danish team is the finest since their 1986 side – and possibly better. I’ve been unable to find anything but a bunch of smaller write-ups on the ’86 squad but if and when it surfaces I’ll put it up (and let me know if find it). So far, I’m not sure – they seem to be uncomfortably perched in a transitional phase between old and young players and a strong defense balanced by a really menaching strikeforce. One jittery first game – amongst both teams – isn’t enough for me to judge.

Teams: To come.

He is the ref: J. Larrionda. The last Match he referred(? Why not) was Portugal-Ivory Coast in Group G, which had no score but three yellow cards. He’s been a ref at the top level for a long time but is controversial – at least in the USA. He’s certainly not shy about tossing around yellows and reds, so he may not tolerate a physical game. Denmark are a very physical team but their discipline is better than Cameroon’s, so we’ll see.

2-0. That’s the result of Morten Olsen’s big push for a draw against the Dutch. Between Elia’s legs, Dirk Kuyt’s right foot and Daniel Agger’s back, Denmark was thoroughly dominated by a Dutch team that showed flashes – just – of brilliant play.

Zonal Marking has a great summary of what went down, and it reports what you might expect: for a 2-0 win there wasn’t much in it as the Dutch struggled to bring down tightly-managed Danish resistance. The Dutch were favored and they got their win, and you might – as they do – take good note of the fact that the Danes avoided the mauling that was suffered by a poor Australia or a far better South Korea against similarly talented teams. But you can’t help thinking that they were capable of more – that if the Swiss can manage a very shaky team to a shock victory over the tournament’s favorites, Denmark could have taken one over an uncertain and only vaguely-favored Great Team.

Morten Olsen’s little fake-out routine with Bendtner was probably a mistake – at least it was a waste of time. I suppose there’s a chance that when he gave all those interviews he really didn’t think Bendtner would play. There’s also a chance that tomorrow I’ll become CEO of Merrill Lynch or the Sun will crash into Mercury. The fact is he played a little mind game with the Dutch that ultimately caused them no great consternation and got out of it was sixty-five minutes of mature but ultimately ineffective play from his star striker.

Ruse or no, he had little choice: with only three strikers in a squad that often plays two and veteran Jon Dahl Tomasson down with injury, it was either Bendtner or Soren Larsen, the journeyman striker who’s played little for the national team since his sensational introduction in 2005. You almost get the sense that he was included only because two strikers was too few even for Olsen; and when Bendtner went off he was replaced by Mikkel Beckmann, an attacking midfielder who seemed a poor fit and left little impression.

Eventually all three substitutions went to players up front – before Bendtner, the young Thomas Enevoldsen went off for the venerable Jesper Gronkjaer and Thomas Kahlenberg went off for Christian Eriksen. None had the effect of the Dutch substitution of van der Vaart for Elia, who terrorized the Danish right and turned Jacobsen, Rommedahl and the reinforcing Eriksen inside out. Worse, his runs pinned back Simon Kjaer and Daniel Agger, both of whose support were an important component in the early threat by the debilitated Danish strikeforce.

The lack of striking options, and the over-reliance on tried-and-true players like Jorgensen, Christian Poulsen and Rommedahl are problems with no solution; the squad is there, like it or lump it. But the good news is that Denmark’s defense did prove a good deal of mettle and for the first thirty minute the attack was as good or better than a Dutch team with far more options. Now Denmark has got its most difficult match out of the way and low expectations mean no psychological shock like that suffered by France, England or Italy. Poulsen/Agger’s own goal was unfortunate but a bizarre lacuna to otherwise excellent play – and perhaps only a little worrying in view of the fact that the only goal surrendered by Italy in the 2006 group stage was their own. The next match is against a Cameroon side which can’t work with Samuel Eto’o and Japan are not likely to get any better result against the Dutch. A final match against Japan suits a Danish team that tends to thrive with their backs to the wall. The dynamite burns slowly, but it burns all the same.

FULL TIME. So that’s it. No denying the Dutch were good for this, especially after bringing on Elia (it would be incomprehensible if they can’t find a place to start him after a display like that). As for Denmark, all this means is that it won’t be 1986. They’re not running away with anything. But from today’s form I can see them taking results against both Cameroon and Japan, who play momentarily. Now they’ll need to; but that’s the hardest match out of the way. Thanks to Mike de Vries and Sean Carroll and Peter in Denmark, and to the surprising number of people who checked in on this. For a first effort, it was a gas.
90+3 min. Sneijder takes a knock and petulantly stays on the ground like a dead fish, spewing abuse at a Danish player.
90+2 min. A final, desperate run is wasted. The Dutch still have near-unchallenged authority in the two-thirds of the pitch near then. I came to work 90 minutes early for this.
88 min.  MASSIVE CLEARANCE! Elia fatally breaks into the box again and beats Sorensen, but the effort isn’t fast enough and a defender (Poulsen?) boots it off the line at literally the terminal moment. If it were close, that would have been the moment of the match.
85 min. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL!!!!!! Elia breaks away with Kuyt on the two central defenders. Elia winds up, strikes half-powerfully and it bounces off the post, pass the outrunning Daniel Agger and straight to Dirk Kuyt. He boots it into the empty net.
80 min. Denmark actually moves again, but three times are either dispossessed or let the ball run away from them. How do you come back from this? Also, I think I was slightly unfair to Daniel Agger, but then so was the Jabulani. Though really I blame the vuvuzela. And international communism.
77 min. Remembering the match against Portugal, we know that Denmark comes on late. It’s their bread and butter. Van Persie off for youngster Affelay. Teams are getting younger and younger all the time… ESPN also wants you to vote for man of the match. My pick’s Daniel Agger (NED).
73 min. Elia is practically rioting on the Danish right, outrunning his men and crossing for van Bommel. The back line is holding but the Danes are not looking like winners. They need a chance and pronto. 18 year-old Christian Eriksen comes on for the effort.
71 min. Confronted with a big opening Mark van Bommel decides that charity requires the donation of his ball to some of the poorer neighborhoods on the opposite side of the city. A decisive man, he uses his right foot to send it express.
70 min. Elia gets away, but Sorensen calls out the militia and the effort is cleared away on a pass.
68 min. Van der Viart off, Elia on. American commentator says all that Mike de Vries just said for free and is richly praised by John Harkes.
66 min. A free kick for reckless glaring is awarded to Denmark. It’s a good ball in, but headed away, and a resulting cross back scorches away faster than Jay Leno’s ratings. “Thinking from a Dutch perspective we might see Affelay or Elia come on in order to stretch the Danish back line late on,” prognosticates Mike. We’re gonna hold you to that.
62 min. Striker Beckmann on for Bendtner! Probably insurance for Bendtner’s injury issues, but that doesn’t smack of much confidence of salvaging a result. Denmark are dropping passes everywhere and, like England, look like the error has got under their skin. How doesn’t it? “Remarkable that the Dutch haven’t scored any goals actually,” Peter remarks from Copenhagen. I think it’s more remarkable that they have. This performance is shaky. Probably good enough to hold on, but shaky.
59 min. Decent save by Sorensen. The mostly unmarked Van Persie passed to the entirely unmarked Van der Viart, who takes a stab. Not much for it, as the Danish defender was out of position to convert for the goal.
57 min. First sub. Enevoldsen off, Gronkjaer on, almost immediately gets his first touch.
55 min. Another Guardian commentator for Denmark, freshfromdk, remarks that he thinks the Dutch are playing a severe game and getting away with it. That it took de Jong so long to get booked is bizarre, but I’m not sure the Dutch aren’t just playing the physical game the Danes usually do but aren’t.
53 min. Another Dutch foul leads to another wasted Danish free kick. “Well a dull first half gives way to a dull opening goal! A lovely header from Poulsen takes a touch off his own man,” quips Mike de Vries. But it was a lovely header, was it not? I call that looking on the bright side.
49 min.Sean Carroll writes, “Come on Holland, a draw here is not good for Japan!” Yeah, Denmark’s stealing all that own goal thunder!
46 min. HORROR! – An own goal to Agger, though Poulsen is sensed to have some culpability. A quick rush by Van Persie sends him wide, but he maintains possession and flings it into the box, where the defenders convert. Some team talk they must have had.
Half -This match has rather been like a work by that Great Dane, Soren Kierkegaard – heavy with flashes of brilliance but long stretches of rather tedious digression. Fortunately that has not included many of the odd vowels favored by the Danes which, having never seen them on Sesame Street, I can only think heretical. (Come to think, do the Danes have Sesame Street? And what the Hell do the Japanese do?)
ESPN are so invested in this match they’re encouraging people to wake up their friends – for Japan and Cameroon. Thanks for that.
“The Dutch are too slow,” says Gullitt. I think the primary problem is that they’re a bit too fancy. But of course calling the Dutch slow is already too thinky for ESPN, which quickly cuts away to a report about Tim Howard’s injury as a result of Emile Heskey playing soccer in his general area.
It goes out for a corner which Bendtner fails to convert. “Right now these two Europeans – the giants – are looking to change things up for the second half,” says American. Denmark? Giant? Aw, shucks. We’ll see what Ruud Gullitt has to say about this fact.
Also, correction on 44: de Jong picks up his booking. About bloody time.
44 min. – de Jong brings down Bendtner – his tackles are coming with increasing nastiness – but he dodges the card. Christian Poulsen’s free kick is wasted, on Simon Kjaer or indeed anyone shorter than a Chinese NBA star.
43 min. – Van Persie gets clear in the penalty area, but can’t deliver a shot until Agger and Sorensen have all the roads covered. It goes agonizingly wide. In the commentary box, American commentator says blah-blah-blah. John Harkes says yes.
40 min. – “They don’t ever actually build up a play,” sighs Peter. “They just shoot it off to the Dutch and wait for a counter.” What else do you do? Denmark’s got a world class defense but players up front who don’t have the ability to carve up a packed defense. The breaks are the best chance. Inter did it successfully during the Champions League final.
38 min. – Absolutely deadly break leads to a shot from Kahlenberg palmed away for a corner. The resulting kick leads to a Sneijder breakaway, but though he’s good to win it he’s not to keep it. The Danish defense must be among the best we’ve seen so far.
36 min. – Denmark wins a free kick, which Kjaer rifles into the wall. The Dutch are dominating possession but two of the three best shots have come off a Danish boot. This is really tight stuff.
35 min. – On counter-attack the ball is crossed beautifully to Dennis Rommedahl, unmarked high on the right. Rommedahl rushes in and unleashes a zinger, which unfortunately goes straight into the arms of Martin Steklenburg. He’s definitely on notice after that one.
33 min. – Van Persie nearly has a sitter but Simon Kjaer forcefully muscles him off. Schneijder for the corner… leads to a close-range cracker from Kuyt!
32 min. – “Denmark are holding their defensive shape really well. They are frustrating the Dutch passing,” says Mike. And that’s exactly what they’ve got to do. Indeed it’s their only hope, that and finding the droids they’re looking for.
30 min. – Oh, for those just joining us for a little pastry trivia: the Danish call Danish wienerbrød, which means “Viennese bread.” But then what do the Viennese call it? Must get to the bottom of this. A fair challenge brings down Martin Jorgensen, who doesn’t get back up. Some players mill about like cops at a crime scene.

27 min. – Does anyone else feel disconcerted to hear an American commentator? It’s like instant coffee, it just isn’t right. Meanwhile Dennis Rommedahl lifts in an excellent cross on a rare Danish attack; Bendtner heads narrowly wide.
23 min.Mike says, “I’m loving van der Wiel’s charging runs from deep. He’s causing a few issues. The Dutch are just starting to click into gear a little.” I was going to quip that that gear is neutral, but of course Denmark are wandering around at vague distance from their own goal, occasionally obligingly hoofing the ball towards the Dutch goal.

21 min. – Brilliant run by van der Viart ends in frustration some twenty yards out. He keeps possession but shoots well wide.

19 min. – The Dutch win a corner which comes to naught. No Rommedahl, but injuries seem today to favor Denmark, which was highly unexpected. “The danish players dont gain control over the ball at all. They just hit the ball randomly away from the Dutch,” Danish Peter complains. How very English of them. At least they’re not serving it up shined and on a doiley.

14 min. – Denmark are locked up tight but this far aren’t doing much but repelling slightly shiftless attacks. The vuvuzelas are eternally peppy, though. I can’t believe they want to ban them. I think they’ve got a delicious existentialist quality.

12 min.Sean reports that Japan favors the Dutch to take three points today. Surely this outcome is more likely than desirable. Peter in Denmark: “At least they haven’t scored.” Typical Danes.

8 min. – Good also to see Enevoldsen playing for Denmark; he made a bit of a splash in the qualifier against Senegal. First Van der Wiel makes a run and Kuyt follows up; both come to naught.

6 min. – Lousy DC bus system. I rush into work just in time to see a) a crunching tackle and missed Dutch free kick and b) Bendtner’s alive!  He’s alive!

It’s 7:00 and I’m alone in a windowless room, which means it’s time for my very own extraordinary rendition of the tried and true minute-by-minute. More speculative than a Greek government bond, it is my hope that this effort entertains, informs and failing that avoids the sort of humiliation normally reserved for a first-choice England goaltender. (No points for the observation that it’s far, far too late.)

Group E’s  juggernauts the Netherlands meet my own adopted Denmark in a match-up whose conditions bear some similarity to this year’s Arsenal-Barcelona tie in the Champions League. Both teams were automatic group qualifiers; both feature strong defenses and attacking players of individual brilliance; both share not merely a style but a shared experience of play, with many players on both sides hailing from the Dutch Eredivisie; and one is the obvious favorite, overflowing with talent, while the other looks in desperate need of their own hospital emergency room. The Dutch may be short the miraculous if folically-challenged Arjen Robben, but they have a side packed with players of unquestioned international quality like Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and the retiring Giovanni van Bronckhorst. By contrast Denmark feature a combination of old international hands and up-and-coming youngsters like defender Simon Kjaer and Arsenal’s Nicklas Bendtner, both of whom have been struck by the illness and injury plague that has also raised doubts over keeper Thomas Sorensen, striker Jon Dahl Tomasson, midfielder Daniel Jensen and even the coach, Morten Olsen. Olsen already ruled out Bendtner, though there are hints in the Danish press it may be a strategem, especially when he declares that he’d be perfectly satisfied with a draw. Given how badly outclassed Denmark is supposed to be, you don’t blame him.

But the teams’ histories are more complicated. The Dutch, of course, stand with Hungary and Spain as one of the best national teams never to win the World Cup. They created the total football that revolutionized the game but twice in a row fell just short of the prize, having to content themselves with a European Championship in 1988. They looked to repeat but the Danes, winners of the classic World Cup Group of Death six years before and admitted to the 92 Championship days before thanks to the expulsion of the collapsing Yugoslavia, saw them off in a thrilling semifinal penalty shootout on their way to a shock victory. Since then the Danes have been relatively unfancied and unimpressive, only reaching the World Cup Finals twice between 1986 and 2010, while the Dutch make regular appearances but never with the payoff they seek. As a result the teams rarely meet: the last time was  2008. Once again the Danes are the darkest of dark horses; once again the Dutch eye hungrily the prize that might very well, this year, be theirs.

I’ll be monitoring the match and updating regularly, so be sure to refresh the page. I’ll also be lucky to have the contributions of two of my fellow Group E fans from the Guardian’s band of international irregulars. Mike de Vries is a self-described “pessimistic Oranje supporter,” which did not stop him from effortlessly and rightly schooling me for my unintentional dismissiveness of a “youthful” Dutch side. (Average age: 27.7 – same as Denmark.) His blog is a great source of comment on these potential World Cup winners. Sean Carroll is a Tokyo-based writer and Japan aficionado who does, like, actual journalism, which I think will contrast nicely with my aimless blundering. Very much worth a look is his interview with Japan-based North Korea international Jong Tae-Se, which has kicked up quite a stir. Both gents have been good enough to lend their pith, mirth and insight on the match. I also hope to call upon my friend Peter Stockmann, who doesn’t have a website but is an actual Dane and can read Danish papers. Literacy is a huge advantage these days. The more you know.

(Starting off late here but feel free to e-mail your thoughts – wahlberg(dot)peter(at)gmail(dot).com. Sorry to be irritating, but I fear the spammers.

A handball a day keeps the World Cup away. Sorry, Thierry. Parts I and II here.

Group F… ig newtons

Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia; last prediction 1st Paraguay 2nd New Zealand

It’s a balmy, breezy tropical night.

You’re out. Nice little bar. You’re having a drink, you’re having a good time. You go into the bathroom. There’s a guy there, with a couple other guys. Something happens. Shit goes down. Out comes a gun – out comes a bullet. You’ve been shot. In the head.

This is Paraguay’s World Cup story: a brilliant qualifying campaign marked by wins over Brazil and Argentina marred by a shooting paralyzing their star striker. Still stranger, though, is the result: Salvador Cabanas not merely survives but is even now an outside chance to play!  In a World Cup plagued by injury this would surely be the bizarre angel atop the Christmas tree – and even on half-fitness Cabanas would be a massive boon to Paraguay’s chances. A Club America star, he has emerged as an absolutely top-class striker and was being seriously scouted by Premier League clubs before the shooting. (Also he’s money in FIFA 10.)

Italy’s story has rather less to it. The whole purpose of this exercise was ostensibly to retcon my unenviably optimistic prediction of a second-place finish to Paraguay. And yet… and yet they haven’t won a match since last November; they lost to Mexico; their qualification campaign was shaky from beginning to end; they’re roundly criticized for being too old, too immature, too rickety and crickety and for smelling a bit of formaldehyde. They have no injuries, which is good for their opponents since it means they miss the chance to play someone new and useful. Everyone says to me, “Oh but don’t you remember X when Italy were terrible but went on to win.” No. No I don’t. I don’t think the fussballgeist does either, for it a just spirit.

This group’s a two horse race: New Zealand have shown flashes of brilliance but more than anything are happy to be here at all, while Slovakia – fourth seeds and shock group winners ahead of Slovenia – in fact showed little spunk in a poor group (a weak finish whittled their lead to nothing and featured a loss against Slovenia) and none since. Either could finish third or fourth.

Prediction: Not much in it. Italy. On goal difference. Anybody who thinks they make the Final – and there are people – are absolutely unstable.

Group G – One is the loneliest number…

Brazil, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire, Portugal; last prediction 1st Brazil 2nd Cote d’Ivoire

All right, well, easy bit first. Brazil is going to win the group. There’s iconoclasm and then there’s just magical thinking: I could downshift Brazil all I want, but they’ve not gone out in the group stage since 1966. I can only imagine that team was crap, but still really good crap, the easy-out no-wiping kind. That slightly disgusting metaphor aside, they glance at the group and win.

On the other end, North Korea are impeccably strange. How they got here, who they are, their tactics – we know nothing. What we do know is that a couple of humph-inducing results aside, they’re probably not very good and in a group with at least two good teams are likely to be totally outclassed. I think it’d be a remarkable result if they took a point. (Enjoy especially the grainy smuggled-out-under-a-cassock quality of the enclosed photo.)

My original pick, Ivory Coast (no more of that Frenchness; I expect them to call where I am “Etats-Unis”), are in the mire. They limped through the African Cup of Nations’ group stage after a humiliating draw to Burkina Faso only to be put to grass (GREAT phrase) by a violent Algeria. They got beat soundly by South Korea, drew to Cabanasless Paraguay and the only virtue in their Japan win was that they scored both of their goals unlike some England teams I could mention. That virtue certainly didn’t cancel out Didier Drogba’s elbow fracture, which has left him with a so-so chance of playing at all.

Portugal are far too Ronaldo-centred. (It goes around.) But the few results they’ve had in 2010 have been sound wins and their form was definitely on the uptick as qualifyiers drew to a close. They’ve lost Nani, true. But Portugal without Nani is weakened; Ivory Coast without Drogba is not.

I was ready to dump them in January, Drogba or no. Brazil then Portugal to come out of the group.

Group H – Ode to Ricky Martin

Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile; last prediction 1st Spain 2nd Chile

Ricky Martin was maybe talking about a different country, now that I think about it. But looking at a team picture, he’d certainly have sung for this Spain team. Who have not lost since 2009. And were unbeaten for 35 games before that. Let’s be honest, they’re a deeply arousing squad. Is that gay to say that way? It’s not gay to say that way.

Honduras on the other hand are just keeping a place. (Though they beat the USA. That juggernaut.) They don’t have much chance to acheive anything.

In the middle Switzerland and Chile are both very decent sides. They’re also fighting amongst themselves for the chance to lose to Brazil, so it’s something of a poisoned chalice. I believe my reason for picking Chile last time was that Switzerland are racist. There wasn’t much else between them then and time has not changed the fact; both have injury issues with key strikers, both had very solid qualifying results (Switzerland a group winner, Chile the CONMEBOL runner-up), both are used to cooler conditions and playing at altitude. In this World Cup it’s no small advantage when the other team doesn’t have it…

Chile follows Spain. Yay for geographic diversity. As for how full of shit I am… tune in.