Earlier this week, as ESPN once again revved up its NBA Lottery coverage extravaganza – answering the pressing questions, such as, “When will someone analyze every possible draft order and speculate endlessly about each outcome so that I can sleep at night?” – I was reminded of FIFA’s own version of the Lottery back last December.
The scene was a large auditorium at a resort in Brazil, where FIFA Secretary General Jerôme Vaicke stood on a stage with a vibrant and festive backdrop. Vaicke announced the eight groups of the 2014 World Cup, snapping open randomly selected lottery balls and reading the country listed in each as if they were exciting new toys inside chocolate Easter eggs.
American soccer fans watched in disappointment, as the Yanks were grouped with Germany, Portugal and Ghana in Group G in what many labeled as the ceremonial “group of death”; the United States became the Looney Tunes characters without Michael Jordan, and they were given a date with the Monstars in just the first round.
In short, U.S. fans have accepted defeat before the first kick-off in less than a month; as of May 8th, FIFA has Germany and Portugal ranked second and third in the world, respectively, although Ghana is only 38th.
Yet as anyone who has watched more than two games can tell you, the FIFA rankings are meaningless. Would any football expert really tell you that 2010 World Cup runners-up the Netherlands are just the 15th best team in the world? Or that Greece deserves 10th place ahead of star-studded Belgium or France?
Regardless, that same expert would likely tell you that Germany and Portugal are still tough opponents, and that it will be challenging for the U.S. to get a point from playing either of the two.
Germany finished third in the last World Cup and was a semifinalist in the Euro 2012. Moreover, since the team’s exit in South Africa, Germany’s players have evolved into some of the world’s finest at the club level; half of the nation’s 26-man squad traveling to Brazil will represent either Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich, the two teams in last year’s Champions League final.
Portugal can challenge any team simply by possessing the World Cup’s most athletic weapon in Ballon d’Or winner and Vogue cover enhancer Cristiano Ronaldo. The main criticism of the side is its balance, yet what makes Ronaldo the best player on Earth is his ability to infiltrate and pick up the play in whichever area of the pitch where his team is stagnant, while still magically finding space on his favored left wing to dash past any fullback that stands in his way.
And then there’s Ghana, the team that knocked the U.S. out of the last two World Cups.
Thus, there’s reason to believe each of the U.S.’s games in the group stage will be a challenge and that they probably will not be one of the two teams advancing from Group G. But here are the counters to that: is Ronaldo actually so good that the Americans have no chance against a vanilla Portuguese side? Having only played two games against the U.S. in the past decade, is Ghana’s record between the two countries significant?
I disagree with the assertion that there is no way the U.S. can be better than Portugal and Ghana, which is all they need to do in order to advance.
Germany is the best side in the group, and it’s not close; its record in the group stages between the last two World Cups is 5-0-1, and it compiled a combined goal difference of +10. The squad is made up of both fresh (Julian Draxler, Mario Gotze, Marco Reus) and established (Miroslav Klose, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm) players, who are led by a reputable manager in Joachim Lōw – he is 25-3-4 in UEFA competitions. Die Adler’s starting eleven is as talented as any in this tournament, and possibly even better than the country’s third place team from 2010.
The U.S. will likely come away from its game against the Germans without a point, yet Portugal and Ghana will probably do no better; it will be the matchups with the latter two teams that the Americans can use to lift themselves to second place.
Ghana will deliver an impressive midfield and attack with Michael Essien, Sulley Ali Muntari, Andre Ayew, Kevin Prince Boateng, and others with recent experience in the top leagues. The team that will face the U.S. in Brazil will largely resemble the one that beat them in South Africa. The cast sporting the red, white, and blue jerseys, however, will bring an unfamiliar look for the Black Stars; instead of Landon Donovan, Carlos Bocanegra and Maurice Edu, the team will feature Graham Zusi, Geoff Cameron and Chris Wondolowski. And instead of Bob Bradley on the touchline, there will be Jurgen Klinsmann, the man who coached Germany to the semifinals in 2006.
Essentially, the fact that Ghana pulled away with two victories – narrow victories, at that – in the last two meetings does not indicate how it will fare against a much different U.S. side in Brazil. Furthermore, Ghana’s recent form has to come into question when it includes losses to Egypt, Libya and Montenegro since last November.
Portugal also has struggled in its recent contests; in the qualifying stages, it was placed in a group where its toughest opponent was Russia, and Portugal only managed second place. And while that led to a godly duel between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo in a playoff with Sweden, coach Paulo Bento surely needed some inner emotional strength to cope with losing to Russia.
But perhaps Portugal’s performance in the qualifiers was a sign of what’s to come. Helder Postiga is 31 and missed significant time this past season due to a hamstring injury. Nani too missed most of the regular season dealing with his hamstring, and even when he was healthy he struggled to earn playing time on a subpar Manchester United squad.
Ronaldo’s presence on the field will give Portugal plenty of opportunities on the counterattack, even against Germany, but this is certainly a lesser team than the one that finished fourth in the ‘06 Cup.
By no means should U.S. fans go into their side’s June 16th encounter with Ghana expecting to win. And six days later America will have to play its best to pose a threat against Portugal. But if the U.S. can come away with a win in either of those games and if Germany can blow Portugal and Ghana out of those deep, blue Brazilian waters, then the Yanks will have a shot at seizing second place and advancing to the second stage.