Boateng Brothers
Boateng Brothers

While Argentina seems set for a deep run in the World Cup, its path all but carpeted with rose petals, one football giant ? Brazil, Spain or the Netherlands ? will not reach the quarterfinals.

If Brazil wins its group as expected, with first-round matches against Croatia, Mexico and Cameroun, it will probably face Spain, the defending champion, or the Netherlands, the 2010 runner-up, in the Round of 16. A departure by Brazil so early in the tournament on home soil would be a devastating blow to a country seeking to win its sixth World Cup. And it would put a serious dent in the party atmosphere.

It also remains to be seen whether an early Brazil departure would affect the vehemence of expected protests over the large sums of public money spent on stadia for the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Brazil, though, can take comfort in knowing that it defeated Spain, 3-0, in June to win the Confederations Cup in Rio de Janeiro. And the Netherlands, despite enormous talent, disintegrated as a team in Euro 2012. On another hand, it was the Dutch who eliminated Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup.

Brother vrs brother

?Brother it?s time again,? Kevin-Prince Boateng posted on Twitter to his brother, J?r?me, who was smiling by his side in an awkward self-portrait when Ghana was drawn with Germany in Group G. ?So happy,? J?r?me Boateng responded, adding, ?What a hot group.? Hot indeed.

Kevin-Prince?s team, Ghana, and J?r?me?s, Germany, will play with Portugal and the United States in one of the most competitive groups. It will be the second consecutive World Cup in which the brothers have lined up on opposite sides in a World Cup match. Born to a German mother and Ghanaian father, the Boateng brothers came up together through the Hertha Berlin team and played for Germany?s youth national teams.

But in 2008, Kevin-Prince elected to play for Ghana?s Black Stars, while J?r?me remained committed to Germany. (Their uncle, Robert, played for Ghana in the 1990s.) The first time Kevin-Prince and J?r?me played against each other in an international match was at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa; Germany won, 1-0, in a tightly contested first-round match in Johannesburg. Both teams advanced to the knockout rounds.

It will be considerably more difficult this time around as Portugal and the United States are likely to vie to accompany favored Germany out of the group into the Round of 16. The brothers, who both play professionally in Germany, will be reunited in their teams? second game of the tournament in the tropical beach town of Fortaleza on June 21.

?It?s the draw of my dreams,? Kevin-Prince said Friday. He added, ?That is the beauty of life.?

For England, sniping starts early

England?s 2014 World Cup odyssey could end in Belo Horizonte, the site of its most ignominious World Cup defeat ? a 1-0 loss to a ragtag team from the United States in 1950.

But before the Three Lions get to their final game in Group D, against Costa Rica (June 24), there is the little matter of playing the opener, against Italy (June 15), in the Amazon city of Manaus. Even before Friday?s final draw, the carping was in full throat on both sides of the Atlantic.

?Manaus is the place to avoid,? England Coach Roy Hodgson said before the draw, referring to the city?s heat and humidity. ?You have a better chance if you get one of the venues where the climate is kinder.?

The mayor of Manaus, Arthur Virg?lio, came to the defence of his city, accusing Hodgson of being provincial and a bit close-minded, and sensitive to the sun in a most Anglo-Saxon way.

?We would also prefer that England doesn?t come,? he said. ?We hope to get a better team and coach who is more sensible and polite. He?s one of the few people in the world who is not curious about the Amazon, who doesn?t want to know about Manaus. To make excuses shows lack of enthusiasm and self-confidence.?

There are still six months before the match against Italy kicks off. Six months for the English news media to dissect and denigrate the destination, the opposition and its own team. Six months of Liverpool?s Luis Su?rez versus the tabloids (England faces Uruguay on June 19 in its second game, in S?o Paulo).

‘Easy? groups could be tricky

Before Friday?s draw for the 2014 World Cup, Switzerland and Colombia were the two teams all the unseeded teams wanted to join in a group. Now, after both nations ended up in what have been called ?easy? groups, teams such as the United States, England and Australia would gladly trade places with the likes of Honduras and Japan.

In Group C, Colombia, which has crashed the top five in FIFA?s world ranking, finds itself in a tricky group. Greece, which won the 2004 European Championships, is a team that is tactically aware and is powered by the 25-year-old striker Konstantinos Mitroglou. Mitroglou is an object of desire for some of the top clubs in Europe.

Cote d?Ivoire is dangerous, mostly because of the presence of the ageing but still deadly Didier Drogba, who has scored 62 times for his national team.

A roster sprinkled with experienced players from European clubs (the Tour? brothers, Kolo and Yaya, Gervinho, and Salomon Kalou) will be a handful. Japan, often called the Brazil of Asia on the soccer field, has players who are technically gifted, but it has never advanced past the Round of 16. Could this be Japan?s time?

The Swiss have produced the top-seeded team in Group E. The early line is that the France of Franck Rib?ry will be the other European team to emerge from this group. But do not count out Ecuador, a team led by Manchester United?s Antonio Valencia and Lokomotiv Moscow striker Felipe Caicedo.

Most people see Honduras as the weakest in the group. Los Catrachos will be playing in their third World Cup and have yet to win a game.

A first for Bosnia and Herzegovina

When Bosnia and Herzegovina was preparing for its first official international match 18 years ago, the war that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia had just ended, the fragile peace had just begun, and members of the national team had to buy their jerseys from a sports shop in Zagreb, Croatia. It was a game at Albania, held nine days after the Dayton peace agreement was signed. The team had only 11 players and no substitutes, and it lost, 2-0. But that did not matter.

?We had only one mission, and that was to create a federation and a national team and to be recognised by FIFA and UEFA,? Bosnia?s first coach, Fuad Muzurovic, told The Guardian in a recent interview. ?We just wanted to play football.?

Two decades later, Bosnia and Herzegovina is preparing for its first World Cup as an independent nation. Not that Bosnians have never played in a World Cup. As part of the united Yugoslavia, the current coach, Safet Susic, starred on a team blessed with talent and verve. Susic played in two World Cups. But it was the qualification of Bosnia playing under a Bosnian flag that mattered more than anything.

Despite having talented players in recent years ? Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic, for example, would walk onto any squad headed for Brazil ? the Dragons have become known for falling short, missing out on the last World Cup and European Championships after losing play-offs against Portugal. They wondered whether they would ever make it.

?We?ve always fallen short, it seems to be the story of the country,? goalkeeper Asmir Begovic said before the team?s qualification match against Slovakia in September. During the war, Begovic?s parents fled to Canada, where he grew up. ?Any kind of joy we can bring to them is huge,? he said. ?It took people all over the world, the war. This teams brings everybody together.?

The Dragons advanced by beating Lithuania, 1-0, in the final game of qualification. Hundreds of thousands of Bosnians took to the streets. On Friday, they were drawn into a group with Argentina, Nigeria and Iran. The country remains economically and politically dysfunctional, split among Muslims, Croats and Serbs. But one flag flew that night, as it will in June when the Dragons head for Brazil. ? IHT


In with U.S. help, and sitting pretty

Two months ago, the United States revived a near-dead Mexico team, scoring two stunning late goals to eliminate Panama in the dying minutes of qualification. Mexico, suddenly, ascended mathematically into a play-off spot. The next morning, the front page of the Mexican sports daily R?cord screamed, ?We love you!?

The draw Friday, then, seemed cruel. The United States, now the cream of CONCACAF, the North and Central American and Caribbean federation, found itself in one of the World Cup?s toughest groups, from which advancement will be a huge challenge. Mexico, a team that may not have deserved its berth, is with Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon ? a wholly manageable situation, if it is up to the job.

Mexico remains in shambles, so this draw was a godsend. In October, Miguel Herrera became the team?s fourth coach in six weeks. This month, he got the nod to take the team to Brazil. There is so much work to be done. Debates rage on how the team should be made up, the style it should play, whether the country?s European stars should be included. But things were suddenly looking up on Friday.

American fans and journalists got an up-close look at the mess on Sept. 10, when Mexico limped into Columbus, Ohio, and staggered away as a 2-0 loser. The home crowd reveled in its rival?s mess.The Americans now are the ones with heads spinning, cursing fate.

Less fuss this time

In recent years, Iranian World Cup qualification campaigns have all followed a similar path: hope, disappointment and political controversy.

This year has been very different. Team Meli, as it is known in Iran, has quietly gone about its business, qualified for Brazil 2014 without much fuss and has now landed in a group that gives it a chance of qualifying for the second round for the first time.

The team will play Lionel Messi?s Argentina, the African champion Nigeria and the debutant Bosnia and Herzegovina. With Carlos Queiroz, the former Portugal and Manchester United coach, in charge, Iran finished at the top of its group in Asian qualification, above the 2002 semifinalist South Korea. But it is the absence of the political controversies that hit previous teams that has been the most refreshing.

The meeting with the United States at France in 1998 is perhaps Iran?s most memorable World Cup match. So rare were opportunities for dialogue between the two nations that President Bill Clinton recorded a video message before kick-off calling for reconciliation. Team Meli beat ?the great Satan,? 2-1, in a match still referred to as ?the mother of all games? in Iran. A million people took to the streets to celebrate the victory.

Times had changed when Iran qualified for the 2006 World Cup. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president. He loved soccer and wrapped himself in the team?s flag. He would arrive for training and give talks to the players and saw the team, the strongest Iran had ever assembled, as a chance to show Persian strength on the global stage.

When he suggested he might go to Germany, several politicians called for his arrest under the country?s tough Holocaust denial laws. Protests led by Jewish groups hounded the team at every city it went to. Iran limped home early.

By the last game of qualification for the 2010 World Cup finals against South Korea, Iran was being coached by Afshin Ghotbi, an Iranian-American. He had even been part of the coaching set up at France in 1998 for the American team. Ghotbi had to win the final match to progress, but the Green Revolution, the 2009 uprising, had just begun.

As protesters were being clubbed on the streets, Iran?s players wore green wrist bands in support of them, causing howls of protest among conservatives in Iran and calls for the players to be banned for life. Perhaps it would have been different if the team had not tied the match, 1-1, subsequently being eliminated from qualification.

The qualification cycle today is very different. Ahmadinejad is gone and a temporary nuclear agreement has been reached with the new president, Hassan Rouhani. Gone too are many of the ?golden generation? of players, like the former Bayern Munich midfielder Ali Karimi. They have been replaced with talented youngsters like Ashkan Dejagah and Reza Goochannejhad.

?It?s a privilege to play against these teams, the best in the world,? Quieroz told the Portuguese sports newspaper Record after Friday?s draw. ?We are very pleased and full of ambition.?

Keep your eyes on these hands, legs

The teams aren?t set yet, but here are four body parts to keep an eye on before the World Cup:

Lionel Messi?s hamstring: Messi can do almost anything, it seems, except heal his tender left hamstring. First injured in April, he has been in and out of the line-up since. In November, Barcelona announced that Messi would be out for two months. ?When the time is right,? he said, ?I will come back.? Argentina got a great draw; having to play without a healthy Messi would complicate things immeasurably.

Sami Khedira?s knee: Khedira, Mesut Ozil?s muscular sidekick in Germany?s midfield, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in November and faces a six-month recovery. If he can?t return, it won?t be a crushing blow; Germany has plenty of talent. But it would rather enter the Group of Death with him.

Luis Su?rez?s hand: Su?rez scored three goals in the 2010 World Cup but will be remembered for one he prevented: a potential winner for Ghana that he batted away with his hands. Su?rez faced criticism after he celebrated Ghana?s miss of the ensuing penalty and then crowed, after Uruguay won on penalties, about making the ?save of the tournament.? Come to think of it, it is probably a good idea to watch Su?rez?s mouth, too: he has twice been suspended for biting.

Mario Balotelli?s head: Handling a tough draw will be one problem for Italy Manager Cesare Prandelli. Handling Balotelli, his sometimes sullen and sometimes unstoppable striker, is another. Balotelli recently went nine games without scoring. If he sorts out his shaved head by June, he could lead Italy a long way.

History not on Brazil?s side

While Brazil is favoured as host to win the 2014 World Cup, history says it will not happen. No winner of the Confederations Cup tuneup tournament has won the World Cup the following year. And no country is more soberly aware of that than Brazil.

Brazil has won the Confederations Cup four times, only to come up short in the subsequent World Cup. The 1997 Confederations Cup title victory was followed by a second-place finish in the 1998 World Cup, the match infamous for the torpid performance by Ronaldo following what has been variously described as a seizure or a panic attack.

In 2005, Brazil again won the Confederations Cup, only to exit the 2006 World Cup with a poor performance against France in the quarterfinals, managing one shot on goal.

In 2009, after trailing by 2-0 at halftime to the United States, Brazil won the Confederations Cup with a blistering second-half revival. A year later, it again prematurely left the World Cup with a quarterfinal loss to the Netherlands.

Last June, Brazil humbled mighty Spain, 3-0, to win the Confederations Cup. But that may presage doom, not victory, at the World Cup.

Brazil last won the World Cup in a redemptive performance by Ronaldo against Germany in 2002. And where had Brazil finished in the previous Confederations Cup? A lucky fourth.

Source ? Graphic Sports


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