Editor’s note: This is the second part in a two-part column. The first part included previews of groups A through D.
E is for Europe, and both European teams will advance out of Group E. Switzerland and France will both be too strong for Honduras and Ecuador. Ecuador won home qualifiers in Quito (at 9,000 feet) but are hardly fearsome at sea level. Honduras has the only Colorado high school player in the tournament, Roger Espinoza.
His is a fairytale story that should serve to inspire local players. He moved to Denver from Honduras at age 12, played for Denver South High School (whom the mighty Huskies of Battle Mountain beat in the playoffs this year), then Regis Jesuit High School, Yavapai Junior College, Ohio State, Kansas City of MLS, and then on to Europe where he won the FA Cup with Wigan Athletic and has played in the Olympics and now the World Cup with Honduras. It would be awesome to see a Colorado kid lead Honduras into the second round, but I don’t see it happening. The Swiss beat eventual champions Spain in the first game of the 2010 World Cup.
France is due for a deep run if you believe in mathematical patterns, non-qualifiers in 1994, winners in 1998, lost to Senegal in 2002, finalists in 2006 (remember the Zidane head butt?), training ground strikes and an early exit in 2010, and now poised with a deep squad to go deep into this tournament.
FIVE GREATEST PLAYERS
F is for the five greatest players in World Cup history, a club which Leonel Messi seeks to join. While clearly the most accomplished and talented player of his generation, if not ever, he will need to win a World Cup if he wants to join the group that includes Pele, Beckenbauer, Maradona and Zidane, all of whom led their country to glory. Having left for Barcelona at age 12, many Argentines are not convinced of Messi’s commitment to the national team. Nothing less than a winner’s medal will put him into the level of Diego Maradona in their estimation. He has the supporting cast to do it.
The romantic choice for second place in this group is Bosnia-Herzogovina, a collection of players from the diaspora that took place during the civil war in the early ’90s. Sarajevo, such a beautiful host of the Winter Olympics in 1984, was decimated in that conflict and many of these players were born to families that survived or fled to points as diverse as Sweden and St. Louis, where forward Vedad Ibisevic was raised, attending high school there before going on to play for St. Louis University and signing for Paris St. Germain and various other European teams. Iran and Nigeria will push for the second spot in this group. Iran knocked the U.S. out of the 1998 World Cup for their only World Cup win ever! Nigeria is the reigning African champions, having won the Cup of Nations in 2013, but they looked sluggish against the U.S. this past weekend in a friendly. Argentina and Bosnia advance.
GROUP OF DEATH
Speaking of the USA, how about G for the group of death? Everyone I have run into in the past few weeks has asked about the Landon Donovan decision and here is my take. The coach is entitled to make whatever decision he sees as best for the team. Jurgen Klinnsman has coached and played at the highest levels and has developed a thick enough skin to handle any second guessing — it is part of the profession.
Donovan deserved to be told privately ahead of time allowing him to hold a press conference announcing his retirement from the international game. That is exactly how it was handled with long-serving England and Chelsea left back Ashley Cole. Bringing him in for a tryout and then cutting him so publicly seems a bit disrespectful, considering his longevity on the team.
Germany appears the clear favorite in this group with the rest battling for the second spot. The United States’ first game against Ghana seems the pivotal one. Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated tweeted that a team has an 87 percent chance of advancing if they win, 56 percent if they tie and just 9 percent if they lose the first game. For the U.S., it’s all about Ghana, who have knocked us out of the past two World Cups. One positive sign for the United States is that Jozy Altidore has found his scoring touch after a horrific 2014. He scored on a tap in and a great shot in a friendly against Nigeria this past weekend, which seems to bode well for the Ghana match on Monday. Portugal’s fortunes rise and fall with the tendinitis of Cristiano Ronaldo. Healthy, he has been the best player in the world this season and led Real Madrid to the Champion’s League title. Without him, they are the ordinary side that struggled in qualification. Keep the faith and bet on Germany and United States to go through.
H IS FOR HIPSTERS
H is for hipsters. Group H features the hipsters’ choice as a dark horse semifinalist, Belgium. Belgium has an incredible of young talent that has the third highest cumulative transfer value of any team in World Cup, behind only Brazil and Spain according to each player’s most recent transfer. They have united an often disparate country and represent a new generation of multi-cultural, multi-lingual and diverse young people. They are led by their talismanic captain Vincent Kompany, who also captained Manchester City to the English title this past season.
Russia will want a good showing at this World Cup as they are set to host the next one in 2018. They have had a good qualifying campaign, winning the group that contained Portugal. The group is rounded out by South Korea, an exciting team of interchangeable parts that loves to run and attack.
Feeling guilty about not knowing their names well enough, because they aren’t European or Asian, I felt better when I read that they used 45 different players in qualifying! They are interchangeable! Algeria gave the United States a hard time in 2010 but will not advance out of this group. I am going for Belgium and South Korea to advance.
I will check back after the first set of group games to see where it stands. Here are my picks for the best games of the openers for each team:
2 p.m. Thursday: Brazil vs. Croatia. You have to check out the opening game for Neymar and company, even if it is just to see if the protests happen and how large they are.
1 p.m. Friday: Spain vs. Netherlands. Right out of the chute we get a rematch between the 2010 finalists — talk about a tough seeding for Netherlands!
4 p.m. Saturday: England vs. Italy. An epic showdown between two former champions and European heavyweights.
1 p.m. Sunday: France vs. Honduras. All of us involved in Colorado soccer will be rooting for Denver’s own Roger Espinoza to pull off the massive upset.
4 p.m. Monday: Ghana vs. USA. Get out of work early to watch the big game!
David Cope teaches social studies and coaches the boys and girls soccer teams at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards.