To assume makes an ass of you and me. So let’s get on with it. Part 1 here.

Group C – In-ger-lund!

England, United States, Algeria and Slovenia; last prediction 1st England 2nd Slovenia

Listening to today’s Football Weekly – the super-duper special World Cup preview – I can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with the English. Is the malaise in football’s motherland so great that America – America! – can be turned into some great vicious enemy waiting to maul hapless, helpless Albion?  What strange days we live in.

Yes, England looks a bit, uh, French lately. Indifferent against Mexico and fortunate to have two of Japan’s three goals go their way, you would rightly sniff a bit at the prospects of this being England’s Year. But only a bit: England were deadly in the qualifiers. You might smell a whiff of diffidence from their surrender to the Ukraine, but then a little charity is perhaps in order, especially since the squad was so much more unsettled this year than last. (A contagion starting with the Russian roulette going on in goal and abating only at the shiny golden pate of Wayne Rooney.)

But then. That Japan match was just – ugh. Ugh! God. I feel the bad kind of dirty just thinking about it. England’s best chance was a penalty. Which Frank Lampard missed.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths. We recall that they’re facing the same USA side that took a single point in 2006 and blew the 2007 Copa America. Their qualification run was basically identical this time around and the Confederations Cup, while an inspiring moment for a team of lesser lights, mattered rather less to Spain and Brazil, who seemed as though they simply couldn’t be bothered to lose. 3-1 against Australia is no mean feat – but big losses to the indifferent Czechs and the Dutch (minus Van Persie) are highly unencouraging.

See?

But that’s not how I really know the USA is in trouble. You know how? All this big tough bluster about giving England a rough time and psyching out Wayne Rooney when they can’t even muster the best widow’s peak. Like Jay DeMerit is Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney’s just going to oblige them an hysterical red card  or gift some horrible passing error in a fit of pique. I think they’ve been basing their team strategy on the Nike commercial.

Told you so.

Of  course Algeria are a horror show and will not foul themselves to a single point. (Though I’ll tip them for worst group stage disciplinary record – take that Uruguay!) Slovenia, however, still tug at my soul. Their friendly results are encouraging but sparse – only three since last September, two wins and a loss (to England). However in terms of finding it where it counts Slovenia are up there, tossing out the top three seeded teams in their qualifying group and an excellent Russian side in the playoffs. Like I said before: it’s the fussballgeist.

Admittedly their group was easy-ish. But besides Mexico, was the USA’s any more challenge?

Hmm. Perhaps cynicism towards your home nation is an Anglophone thing.

England wins all three. Their first match will result in less a defeat than a rout of the United States. Slovenia comes through, but on only four or five points.

Group D – Sitzkrieg

Germany, Australia, Ghana and Serbia; last prediction 1st Germany 2nd Australia

The months have not been terribly kind to Germany. They’ve lost Michael Ballack to a needless meaningless injury (Arsene Wenger will hopefully feel some sick pleasure that the pendulum swings both ways) and ex-coach Franz Beckenbauer is using it as an excuse to say they won’t contend. Balls. (Balls-ack? Can I get a har har?) Ballack was good, a lynchpin, but Germany are not a team so inspired by a single player. His loss doesn’t rule them out the way Rooney’s would England or Ronaldo’s Portugal. It’s the difference between an A and A- team.

But maybe they don’t sweep the group. All of the teams they face are notionally quite strong; Serbia and Australia actually so. Ghana has a lot to offer in FIFA World Cup but they were bad at the Africa Cup of Nations, atrocious against the Netherlands and will see none of Michael Essien, who was a best a toy flashlight in the midst of a black hole.

Australia impressed in 2006, qualified effortlessly in the more difficult Asian Confederation and their last several friendlies have been positive. (Especially after forcing a 0-0 draw with the Dutch.) Star midfielder Tim Cahill is an injury doubt but you’d argue this still leaves them better off than others. (Germany, Ghana…)  I noticed Serbia got some buzz as a dark horse team; this is right, if for no other reason than that they’re on par with Australia (and the USA) but get nothing like the coverage. Reservations about their shaky form lately weren’t helped by a slightly hysterical 4-3 result against Cameroon.

Though neither were they after Australia’s 3-1 loss to the USA…

Germany will top the group, but may give up a draw. Australia with Cahill is 54-46 to come second; without 52-48. See what I did there? I used numbers to seem sciency.

Group E – Stale Danish and doubled-over Dutch

The Netherlands, Cameroon, Denmark, Japan; last prediction 1st Netherlands 2nd Denmark

I have to admit the subtitle’s a bit forced. After I spent a solid 15 minutes on it. Yeah.

The Dutch have continued a strong run of form after a perfect qualifying run, but… I don’t know. I watched them against Ghana and it was probably the most jittery big victory I’ve seen. They seemed tentative and slightly distracted and only very late did they expose the soft underbelly of Ghana’s misery and crap goaltending. For a great team, they weren’t very great – and they’ll be down the truly excellent Arjen Robben in the opener against Denmark. If they’re lucky.

The Danes, however, have fared far worse. Their key men both up front and in back, Nicklas Bendtner and Simon Kjaer, are on the knife-edge for desperately-needed inclusion against the Dutch. Then just today the coach/namesake of Olsen’s Gang took to his bed with a fever. In South African winter. You can’t make this shit up, can you? Bendtner and Kjaer have at least returned to full training, but with all three fit Denmark dropped three of the last four friendlies. (Taking it easy to avoid injuries?) Bendtner in particular is a blessing, since Olsen brought only three strikers to the tournament, preferring to keep his options open in a variety of supporting roles.

Cameroon are fully fit and somehow even more pathetic. Samuel Eto’o threatened to quit because Roger Milla wouldn’t be his friend (dude, cold) and the rest of the team aren’t much to write home about. Even Japan has rather more depth. Cameroon haven’t won a match since the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations and I’m not sure their 0-0 draw against Georgia qualifies as a result. Or their 1-1 against Italy, come to that.

As for Japan – I can’t even. Read this instead. Too bad they’ll go as their fan contributor knows his stuff and is far less crap than I.

The absence of Robben probably won’t noticeably hinder the Dutch this early. They’ll come first. The Danes, luckier than good of late, to slide in second. If Cameroon are lucky they’ll make a good third.

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I mean you, Sepp Bladder, you awful manbearpig

Before getting to the World Cup draws themselves, I want to make clear that I will not christen a group of death.  FIFA has made groups of death obsolete.  Nothing like 1986 can happen again; stage management from continental leagues on up is such that no win will be terribly surprising, no loss so unexpected. It takes something away from the spirit of the game, but there you go. It’s not as if there’s no hope. Even 2006 managed a Group E.

Group A

One is tempted to be uncharitable and say that once again a biased and corrupt seeding system has worked to the benefit of Les Snooze. One is tempted to be right. Coach/offense to football Raymond Domenech bitched and moaned about his team being excluded from the top flight because of do-you-know-who-I-am? as if it could be thought fair for a qualifying group runner-up to be ranked in preference to the winner, Serbia. He can stuff it.

That said, even if they stumbled upon a path France remains to escape the woods. I learnt my lesson in the qualifiers when picking them, despite truly horrendous play, to come atop a Serbian team that not long ago would have been comically easy. A lot of better teams failed to get to Jo’burg and it slightly maddens me that the consensus is already to award the group to France.

I respectfully dissent. My money is on a good Mexico side, who don’t have to stretch have to beat France. They can tie or lose and still put away Uruguay and probably the unfortunate South Africans, who have Pienaar and some guys he met at a bus stop Friday afternoon.

France‘s native skill is enough to see them bumble through, so I’ll nod them for the second spot, despite more hot-headed predictions. No mistake I’d like to see them punished, but they’re lucky. For now.

The Greek national team

An interesting collection. Nothing really bad here, though Greece doesn’t inspire and Argentina’s ailing with a deficit of talent on the field matching that in coach Diego Maradona, who scraped them through the qualifiers with an anemic 8-4-6 record. We were speaking of losing teams being seeded higher – Argentina was South America’s lowest automatic qualifier and only then thanks to a late goal by Mario Bolatti. (Who?)

South Korea (which is a Republic, in case you didn’t know) weren’t able to replicate their success in 2002, crashing out narrowly in the group stage, but rallied to win the Asian Cup the year after and pipped Japan to win the East Asian cup. Doubtful competition, to be sure, but talent like Park Chu-Young makes them a threat. Nigeria overcame traditional African powerhouse Tunisia to get here but haven’t thrilled.

In Nigeria’s case I would ask whether Obafemi Martins or Victor Obinna can be their side’s Drogba or Eto’o. I’m doubtful.

Argentina to top the group only narrowly. South Korea to go to the sixteen with them.

Group C

I spoke of mistakes. I’ve made a few. One was predicting Slovenia to lose their second-place draw. I have seen the error of my ways and I’m attempting to atone.

As such, though you’ll think I’m crazy and you’ll be right, either England or the injury-plagued United States are going home with Algeria.  Slovenia have something, you see. Call it fortune. Call it God. Call it the fussballgeist. Whatever. Like Turkey in 2008 they should not by any means be winning, and have no right to be, but are. In Slumdog Millionaire they would say it’s because “it is written.” Whatever it is, it is.

Who are their players? How’s the back-four? What about possession? Don’t know, don’t care. Many very silly people are dumping on them – while tweeting during the Guardian’s minute-by-minute someone remarked that they weren’t better than anybody – and these people are right. Slovenia weren’t better than the Czechs; or the Poles; or the Northern Irish; or the Russians. And yet all are long gone.

Of the big two even if the US had the talent and depth to make a go of it the injuries sustained towards the irrelevant end of qualifying will probably mean we see a substandard side. And the US wasn’t that good to start with. A strong but not superlative England will qualify at the top and Slovenia will take the second position. America, thanks for playing.

Group D

Germany, to a lesser degree, also cannot catch a break. No one ever thinks they’re very good and I can never tell why. Their qualification record was flawless; they placed third in 2006 and second in 2008; and have talent like  Podolski, Ballack and Schweinsteiger at the front and little Philipp Lahm at back. They’ve had some internal issues, and some tragedies, under coach Joachim Low – my reply is “Yeah and?” Every team does. If they’ve suffered I just don’t see it. Go on all you want, but look at the matches. Their performance is, indeed, German: maybe not inspiring, but solid and stalwart and always where it needs to be.

They’re in a tough group, too; far worse than immediate collective Group of Death G. Australia and Ghana are arguably the best in their leagues (for Oz their move to Asia means that’s no longer a sneery boast) and feature marquee players at their head. Serbia is a reviving powerhouse who bested a group including France, Austria and nominally-superior Romania, and unlike other small countries they did so without resorting to a single star hopelessly trailed by the rest of the team. Not for nothing, too: this is the only group where all four teams appeared in 2006. All but Serbia cleared the groups, making it the most collectively successful, too.

I can’t see Germany failing to qualify, though it’s conceivable they might not top the group. Any of the other three could go forward with them. This year I’ll give Australia the edge over both thanks to a tougher qualification run than the others got.

There’s no group of death. But if there were… the fireworks would be here.

Group E

As a Danish fan I was not displeased: this was a better draw than one might expect. The Dutch cruised effortlessly through qualification even if they let a disappointing friendly draw with Paraguay reward their loss of Van Persie to injury. (A blessing in disguise? He’ll be well-rested in plenty of time to train for South Africa, and being out means he’ll be less exhausted from constant league and European matches until then.) Denmark had little more difficulty, losing only to Hungary in their last match in a group that included Portugal and Sweden.

As for Japan, though they apparently have a strong midfield they were badly drubbed in 2006, lost the Asian Cup the year after and lost every game in last year’s Olympics, which is not known for exhibitions of great footballing skill. They also have only one player on their squad who currently plays outside the J-League, which points to a deficit of international experience. Though cultural homogeneity can perhaps be a strength, their recent friendly records are decidedly mixed, with wins over Ghana and Scotland  balanced by a 3-0 failure against the Dutch.

Cameroon, meanwhile, crept through on the strength of Samuel Eto’o and his many watches. They offer a good record and have an unusually deep bench with lots of players in the top flight, and though they’ve little World Cup experience they took second at the 2008 African Cup of Nations and perenially feature well there. Too Africa is not the football backwater many once thought. These were real challenges they faced.

Won’t do them, though. The Dutch will clear, maybe with three straight wins, and on low points the resurgent Danes will follow. Japan will fall bottom. Cameroon will miss out narrowly, but have a young team and bright future.

Group F

My Slovenia rule somehow doesn’t extend to neighboring Slovakia. As a fourth-seed their qualification would have been the talk of UEFA if not for Slovenia’s success; but unlike their close neighbors they didn’t clear anybody really tough to get here and impressed less despite a superficially better line-up. The moral value of a scalp like Russia’s makes a big difference.

Same with New Zealand. It’s exciting for them just to be here. Presumably they’ll be allowed to stay and watch all the way to the end.

It is hard to imagine the Azzurri coming below Paraguay, who nevertheless offered a strong performance in tough marathon qualifying. And Italy had an easy-ish group. And really didn’t do that well. So maybe not impossible. And oddly satisfying.

In the interests of contrariness, then: Paraguay come top. A weakish Italy at their backs.

Group G

BIG SCARY GROUP OOOOOH.

Snore.

Oh my Ronaldito, there there...

To make up for all the ink yet to be spilled on this collection: Brazil qualifies. North Korea does not. Real race falls between Portugal and Ivory Coast for second. (I know it’s Cote d’Ivoire,  and I’m switching back and forth… but only so much can be expected of Americans.) Portugal had a badly flawed qualifying run in a difficult group while Cote d’Ivoire had a faultless one against pedestrian opposition.

Cote d’Ivoire, then, as Cristiano Ronaldo pre-emptively bursts into tears on which Simao subsequently slips and misses a penalty. Plus their flag is pretty.

Group H

Interesting one, this. Perpetually overrated Spain (it’s their year – really!) face Chile, Switzerland and North American dregs Honduras. The latter’s schizophrenic performance in the qualifiers and the old age of their recent call-ups suggest to me little threat. Probably ageist, especially given that a good many pros are already younger than me… but then none of these people play for Honduras. So then there were three.

Snide at Spain though I may they qualified perfectly, and indeed beautifully, refusing to give up any pointless games simply to protect themselves from injury like some European teams I can think of England. It would be almost an injustice were they not to go far in the World Cup. They’ll at least beat the group.

After Spain there’s a real dogfight for second-place. But Chile, who qualified second on tiebreaks with Paraguay, are a formidable team with a deep bench who handily took recent friendlies against Paraguay, Denmark and Slovakia while the Swiss are le sigh with the added stain of the hypocrisy of a deeply xenophobic country relying on a Turkish Muslim halfback and a Congolese striker for a high proportion of their offensive oomph.

So in the spirit of football my second place is Paraguay. Think of it as my contribution to ending racism. I’ll accept my Commentators’ Fair Bray award now, Sepp. You bastard.

Thoughts? Comment’s free.

Came across an article today from a fellow at the Cato Institute lauding the latest piece of bizarre politics to come out of that funniest Commonwealth – Australia’s Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is proposing a massive increase in defense spending as part of its May White Paper envisioning a “Force 2030“.  Wasn’t so long ago that Force 2010 was the target of wishful thinking.  2010’s a bit grittier than expected.

A lot of white papers have come out of various Western governments in the past few years as their militaries fight dramatic postwar cutbacks.  Australia’s is interesting because it proposes re-armament, perhaps for the first time.  (America has certainly been “rearming,” but then we’ve been busy.)  However the Cato article takes a tone that is at once too sanguine and loses something of the broader strategic picture.  I’ll get there.

The defense white paper, like the Cato write-up, assumes a resurgent Japan a domineering China and an increasingly-disengaged, if not declining, United States.  All of these assumptions, like most such strategic considerations, are pretty badly flawed.

Despite the CATO author’s brushing by Article IX in fairly brusque terms as an American invention – which it fully was – he fails to realize that it is in fact a deeply-ingrained assumption in Japanese politics and the Japanese psyche that the Second World War won’t happen again.  And no mention is made of an economy deep into a ten-year recession with a 0% interest rate, a declining population and ballooning elderly demographic.  Where, precisely, does such an economy find the money for a broad rearmament program?  Where does it find money for something incremental?  This would perhaps be less pressing if the long-term, pro-US Liberal Democrat government wasn’t about to be turned out.  (Though, stay tuned.)

Now in terms of China there isn’t yet any evidence to back up the supposition that they are going to be flexing their strategic muscle.  The Taiwan problem has been left to wither on the vine as a succession of internal uprisings grips the country (which the author does mention) and most importantly China’s power projection capability is not yet serious.  Even with the intervention of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force it’s not clear that their main fleet could seriously challenge America’s local naval forces, much less any major American task force.  Assuming they did so successfully, and the conflict remained non-nuclear (as it almost surely would, at least as long as China’s strategic forces are puny compared to the United States’), the United States could quite simply dispatch a new fleet.

(Would this be likely?  Maybe not, but I can’t really forecast the effect of a Chinese victory over American policy.  My sense is that there would be no other choice – and the defeat of Third Fleet’s single carrier battle group would merely unleash Seventh Fleet’s five, assuming no chance to deploy them sooner.)

This might seem a bit insane.  The Chinese Air Force, and Navy, against a single American carrier?  But consider the context.  Any flashpoint would be over Taiwan, Japan or the Koreas.  This would mean the benefit of local assistance (and the fleet Japan and South Korea do have is of high quality, while Taiwan’s is entirely American product) and most importantly local air support.  The Chinese would have to fly out over the South China Sea and risk the loss of downed pilots.  A significant portion of their Air Force is either old or not particularly suitable for a fleet engagement, and their Navy – such as it is – is home to only a few native designs and a lot of old Russian hardware, including the Kusnetsov, if memory serves.  (Close.  Ironically, it has purchased several carriers to study various designs.  One of them?  The British-built HMAS Melbourne. Australia no longer operates a carrier.)

There is also a question of experience.  Much of America’s naval aicorps have seen some sort of action in their careers, the benefit of constant engagement in so-called “brushfire wars.”  The PLAAF has had little of the same experience.  Many of the pilots involved in an attack (not to speak of the seamen, if China were foolish enough to even introduce their fleet) are likely to be fairly green, if not totally inexperienced, and pound-for-pound their hardware is not going to offer them an advantage.

I generally think the abilities of an air force are somewhat overstated as against a modern fleet.  The victory of the British in the pre-AEGIS era Falklands War, using relatively antiquated vessels and equipment but superlative training against a relatively well-equipped but inexperienced Argentine Navy and Air Force, should be taken as a warning against alarmism.  The US Navy would have all of Britain’s advantages, but enhanced, and China all of Argentina’s handicaps magnified.

That introduces the element of America.  We’re really not going anywhere.  Even if Australia, Japan and South Korea all wanted us gone, we probably wouldn’t do.  (How many American forces are still in Germany?)  In its deployments after World War II American policymakers were actually subtly, sublimely clever – they knew where the new threats would come and laid the groundwork for what were essentially long-term watchtowers.  Since we were the ones responsible for kneecapping the British and French, we knew too when and how to react to the ebbing of their power.  (Judging, at least, by the relative lack of American interest at Britain’s withdrawal from the East of Suez and later Hong Kong.)  America’s interests are not necessarily strategically malevolent, but the message is clear: if there’s a war it will be far away, even at the risk of making it harder.

At the moment, as I said, China seems not to mind this.  It’s getting rich.  Its leaders’ foresight rivals their advanced age and they realize that a major rearmament would unnecessarily drag down their breakneck development.  The military advances you’re seeing out of China are not directed really at anybody – they’re directed at putting China properly in the frame at a level appropriate to their size, economy and geopolitical importance.  (As opposed to ours, which are dedicated to locking in an inflated and ossified geopolitical status.)  They are not Germany in 1910 (or indeed in 1936) – they are not bedazzled by the impression that in a few short years they could outbuild, outcrew and outgun the US.  In a land war – well, okay.  But the land war won’t matter.  It didn’t in Europe and it didn’t in Asia.

So to Australia.  Australia is like China in one key way (similar to Japan, South Korea, and indeed local powers like Singapore): their military power is undersized.  Despite a small population they’re relatively prosperous and their military deployments have been increasingly-robust and generally successful.  (Especially as they develop an Italian-style immigration issue.)  So what do they plan to do?

Not much, actually.  Heavy vehicles for the Army; costly fighters and fighter upgrades for the Air Force; and new-generation submarines.  These aren’t bad ideas in and of themselves, but if we’re to suppose they’re enhancing their power-projection capabilities, as the Cato editorial does, it’s a puzzling set of choices.  Australia has a very limited sealift capability, so its ability to get its new heavy vehicles anywhere is going to be tricky.  (And this despite the white paper’s assurance that “it is not a principal task for the ADF to be generally prepared to deploy to the Middle East… in circumstances where it has to engage in ground operations against heavily armed adversaries.”)

By the time Australia would ever need them, its expensive new F-35s (total cost something like $15 billion US) may be antiquated, while the F/A-18F is a capable and cheap platform but lacks the range necessary to cover Australia without large numbers, much less project power.  Even the government admits these will probably only get 10 years or a bit more out of their life.  In choosing the F-35 they appeared to be looking for a good multi-role platform, which is a fine choice.  But it’s probably going to run $150,000,000 a piece, if not more.  You can get a nice little Saab Gripen for a third of that – or indeed a Eurofighter Typhoon with some cash to spare.  (Buy an F-35 you you’ll know when you get it but not how much it’ll cost.  Buy a Eurofighter and you know what it’ll cost but not when you’ll get it.)  More than anything it’s questionable whether Australia needs an aircraft with the F-35’s capabilities.  By that standard it’s a diplomatic, wishful purchase – not a serious one.

A good ship

A good ship

As for their fleet, submarines with cruise missile capabilities aren’t a terrible idea, but it’s not a “power projection” platform so much as a “sea denial” one.  (Submarines don’t really “hold” an area.)  The money might be better invested in the Anzac-class frigate platform, which can better project Australian power, engage in peacekeeping tasks (which the white paper predicts will be crucial in the short- and medium-term) and best of all avoids a costly new design program.

The upshot is this: you can plan for the future or plan for today.  Australia is attempting to do a little of both.  It’s unsurprising – democracies always try to split the difference.  We’re doing the same thing, but we have enough money and defense research establishments to pull it off.  Australia and the nations the Cato Institute is encouraging to up their game don’t.  So they can either decide that China is going to be a problem and arrange for that or they can engage in a realistic military assessment and build or buy weapons platforms that are useful today and whose obsolescence isn’t immediately foreseeable.  Australia is doing neither, and encouraging this sort of schitzophrenia in its policy-making will not help them become self-sufficient or build them up vis-a-vis emerging threats.  It will leave them even more reliant on American technology and support.  This outcome is the worst of all worlds.

[UPDATE: It appears that my numbers were wrong about the cost of the F-35 – by almost twice what it actually costs on a per-unit basis. It may be more when the cost of the concept, design and initial construction is taken into account, but the actual cost is actually $83,000,000, which is competitive with the Eurofighter Typhoon. I think the point stands but it’s worth correcting the error. – 21 July]

The two Australian girls sitting across from me in the computer lab are having an argument about whether both Catholics and Protestants are both Christians.  The girl who dissented from that view, having been disproved by a Google search, then said that a Protestant is “any Christian who’s not a Catholic” and that Protestantism was Henry VIII’s fault.

“To be honest I don’t really know anything about… like, the differences between Presbyterians or whatever… like, my friend doesn’t know why we have separate denominations, it’s so stupid.”

“Yeah, but it’s just, like, the rules.”

By the way, did you know that we – Catholics – believe Mary’s a god?  They forgot that part in my seven years of Catholic school.

ECUMENICAL FAIL

ECUMENICAL FAIL