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.

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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.