Kicking off the World Cup: The contenders, Part I

Published: June 16, 2010

From the qualifiers, three teams stood out as strong contenders: Spain, Brazil, and England.

With the FIFA World Cup 2010 well and truly underway, it’s time to take a look at the performances of the traditional heavyweights.

From the qualifiers, three teams stood out as strong contenders: Spain, Brazil, and England. The champions in 2006, Italy, did not particularly impress in the run up to South Africa 2010, while their fellow finalists France achieved qualification in what can only be described as dubious circumstances (just don’t ask the Irish.) Argentina’s presence has required a fair bit of divine intervention, while both Germany and the Netherlands championed the no-fuss approach. How did these teams actually fare in their opening games?

France, who were only beaten on penalties in 2006, started off brightly against Uruguay but fizzled out after the opening quarter of the game. It was quite frankly exactly what most observers had predicted – France had been anything but convincing before the Cup and carried on where they had left, comfortably held by Uruguay who were never really put under serious pressure. The biggest failures for Les Bleus were Franck Ribery and Youann Gourcuff, of whom great things were expected – however, neither of the two stars really got into the game. Nicolas Anelka looked lost without a striker beside him and couldn’t be expected to replicate his Chelsea form without the accompanying service from midfield, and the French coach Raymond Domenech only brought on more strikers near the end. While France will still expect to go through to the second round, a tactical reworking may be in order to use the midfielders more effectively. An exercise in team unity wouldn’t hurt either – rumor has it that internal bust-ups in the French camp around Thierry Henry’s exclusion led to a shutout of Bordeaux star Gourcuff in the warm up fixtures.

Argentina were next to take on the field against the fast Nigerians, and played better than could be expected from their hit-and-miss qualification campaign. The best player in the world, Lionel Messi, was at the heart of their best attacking moves and would have certainly scored early if not for some great goalkeeping by Vincent Eneyeama. The goalkeeper could do nothing about Gabriel Heinze’s goal, though. It was a mix of poor marking by the defense and smart play by Argentina (Walter Samuel held off a defender) to score what would turn out to be the winner. Argentina missed a few chances and should have scored another goal, but lacked someone to link up the midfield and attack, with Messi repeatedly having to drop back. Angel Di Maria’s expected contributions were absent and Jonas Gutierrez, played out of position at right back, couldn’t do much – especially when Nigeria brought on a good winger. Overall Argentina played above expectations with coach Diego Maradona clearly feeling that he could attack with abandon against Nigeria. The defense wasn’t really tested because Argentina owned the midfield, but Javier Mascherano and Sebastian Veron will undoubtedly come across better opposition as the tournament progresses and reveal how good the Albiceleste truly are.

England’s 1-1 draw against USA may be perceived by many to be a defeat, but it is important to take note of the myriad problems faced by coach Fabio Capello. Starting defender Rio Ferdinand’s injury necessitated the inclusion of Ledley King, who had to be removed due to injury and has since been ruled out until the semifinal stage of the World Cup, while Gareth Barry’s invaluable midfield presence was also missing due to injury and forced captain Steven Gerrard to play deeper than he might have liked. Of course, the goalkeeping problem is far from solved, but Robert Green must not be unfairly cast as the sole reason for the disappointing result. Capello’s expressed satisfaction belies the impotency of the English on Saturday – Gerrard and Frank Lampard took turns in leading and defending, but rarely worked effectively with each other to drive the team forward. Too many passes went straight to the Americans and long balls from the English defenders often resulted only in losing possession. The impatience of the English after conceding the freak goal was as complicit in their failure to score as the committed American defense. England is blessed with two of the finest fullbacks in the world, Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson, but neither was able to contribute as much as we all know they can. England will probably make it to the next round, but did not live up to expectations in the tournament opener.

One team that not only met but also surpassed expectations was Germany, who destroyed Australia with four high-quality goals. Undoubtedly the performance of the tournament so far, Germany served notice to the rest of the contenders that they aren’t here just to make up the numbers and are gunning for the title. On the evidence of their powerful show against the Socceroos, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see a repeat of the Euro 2008 final, when only a Fernando Torres goal decided the game for Spain, who were undoubtedly the best international side in the world at the time. Germany have made a habit of starting well (with 16 goals in their last three World Cup openers) and are one of the most consistently successful teams in major international tournaments – the last time the Mannschaft failed to reach at least the quarter finals was in 1984 (apart from Euro 2000 & 2004). Characteristically, it was a solid performance with a host of excellent individual performances combining well to score four goals. The Germans fielded a young side that shone with confidence and hunger – exemplified best by the darting runs of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller. The ease with which they moved around the ball and kept possession was more than just clinical – it was undeniably classy. While the team was admittedly helped by poor Australian tactics, and not seriously tested defensively, Germany has made a strong statement. Their strength in depth was also in full display – with team captain and talisman Michael Ballack out, not many predicted they would do well, but Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger bossed the Australian midfield and the icing on the cake for coach Joachim Lowe was a goal for substitute Cacau. Coaches around South Africa will be losing sleep before meetings with Germany.

Note: This article deals with the major contenders from Groups A-D; the follow up in a few days will examine those from Groups E-H (Netherlands, Italy, Brazil, and Spain.)


Nabeel Shakeel Ahmed

A public policy student, blogger, freelance journalist, and photographer.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Syed Tariq bin Shahid

    The true team to look up for in this worldcup should be Argentina, and as the tournament progresses I am looking forward to a Germany vs. Argentina final. No doubt Holand is ruling supreme too, and playing the way they’ve been known for playing.

    Brazil is tarnished, as predicted by the Brazilian legends, the European leagues have made Brazil lose the touch it had, the stuff that made Brazil Brazil. There are just a few glimpses of the superb short passing that was trademark Brazilian, and not that much co-ordination and team play. I doubt if even the traditional game aggressiveness is there anymore. Sure the players have loads of skill, but then so do some African players. The Nigerian goalie impressed everyone, and the Ivory Coast goalie is no less. I’d be hoping out for these underdogs instead of the traditional heavy weights.

    Amongst the African teams, each is struggling. Ghana won, but not as one would want them to. Nigeria lost, but it was an honorable defeat, one with loads of effort and aggressiveness. South Africa have been poor, especially since they are not so careful about fouls.

    It is noteworthy here that some new qualifiers are very poor game teams. Serbia and Australia do not play the game the way it should be played, and the refferees were correct in pointing out their fouls. I haven’t seen all the matches, but I believe there would be more such teams. They stand out against the clean-sheet teams. I remember the Chilean great, Sukker. Me and my family supported his team only because not once did we see his team commit an intentional foul. That is honorable, and worthy of support.Recommend

  • M.Waqar

    I like your profound analysis but football is incomplete without Brazil! With their Necromancer -Ronaldinho and co(Adriano etc) missing out from the team, they ill still be a force to reckon with.

    Young Brazilian team with Defence duo of Juan and Lucio,flare of Robinho and kaka, and blistering pace of Fabiano!they are one to be watched out!

    One more thing!After operose defeat to raining European champion Spain at the hands of unheard Swis,there are many surprises yet to come!So no more favourites!

    best surprises are yet to come:)Recommend

  • Nasir

    Maybe you should have mentioned that no coach of any team made a bold comment as Jogi when he said, ‘We will embarrass teams’ and then went on to prove it. I think the key to Germany’s success was the presence of 7 bayern stars in the lineup. From Lahm to Schweinsteiger to Muller to Klose… while Podolski has been a part of the team until recently. All those stars can communicate without speaking. Its even greater that Lowe has been able to amalgamate these group of players with Ozil and Khedira and the rest. My concern with Germany is the centre of their defence which was hardly tested. Mertesacker and Friedrich arent a classy pair. While I can somewhat rely on the first, I cannot say I am too confident about the latter’s capacity to cope with stronger centreforwards. Absolutely love the left and right back. Especially the tiny right back. =)Recommend

  • Omar Hasan Khan

    I was only able to watch the England and France games out of the ones you’ve mentioned.

    France, ever since the retirement of Zidane, seem so uncoordinated! There seems to be no shape to them, nor do roles seem clarified. Before, it was pretty simple, Henry would not drop so deep, plays were made through Zidane while Vieira was a complement to both Zidane and Makelele with Ribery and Malouda bombing down the wings. Not quite the same anymore! Domenech has taken quite a risk with his selections and team policies, and perhaps rumours of subsequent disharmony are true.

    As far as England are concerned, once again, Gerrard and Lampard just does not seem to work! Barry is definitely being missed because he sticks to his role nor does he have that ego issue. Moreover, I’m guessing Joe Cole was injured for the last game because bringing on Wright-Phillips on the left flank was not something I’d do unless desperate. Additionally, there was a lack of imagination in England’s play as well, and I agree about their impatience as well.

    Looking forward to further analysis :)Recommend

  • Ammar Habib Khan

    Very un-express like blog. Can’t see anything yellow here. =)Recommend

  • Nabeel

    Tariq, given recent results, Germany-Argentina doesn’t look too unlikely…Brazil was playing excellent football but was up against some very disciplined defense, which has been a feature of the Cup so far.

    Ghana and Ivory Coast are definitely Africa’s great hopes now, after Cameroon got knocked out yesterday and Nigeria has an uphill battle.

    Tariq, I personally don’t think there is any one specific way the game should be played, as long as the intent is to win and hopefully entertain along the way. Suker, by the way, was Croatian.

    As mentioned, Waqar, an analysis of Brazil’s performance will be forthcoming after their match against the Ivory Coast! Agreed, however, that there are few if any clear favorites left.

    Nasir, Jogi might well have been embarrassed himself – such are the vagaries of sport. And similarly the key to Spain’s success might well be the Barcelona hegemony in their lineup,but it hasn’t happened yet, has it?

    Omar, completely agree. The disharmony – well, I’m sure you’ve heard the headlines – Anelka sent home, players refusing to even practice, it’s all very bleak for the French. England must play like they have nothing to lose and be fearless in their must-win game against Slovenia now, else there’s an early exit on the cards for one of the favorites!Recommend

  • Syed Tariq bin Shahid

    Yea… Germany look like they need a face-lift after their last match. But I stick to my guns, clean-sheet is clean-sheet and no matter what strategy or skill, clean-sheet is the way football should be played. Fouls exhibit lack of skill and frustration. Actually, I like it when the opponent team tries for fouls ;DRecommend

  • Nasir

    I think Germany doesnt like the Balkan states… they lost to Bulgaria (QF) in 1994, Croatia (QF) in 1998, drew against Yugoslavia in 1998. So, I guess it was to be expected. But I think it was a good thing… this little loss against the Serbians… but they did well enough in my opinion. Sometimes the ball just doesnt go in.

    Also, there should be some performance check against Referees who do stupid things like give 7 yellow cards in the first 15-20 minutes.Recommend