This World Cup seems to be, at least through most of the 2nd games in the group stage, signaling a new-found parity in international soccer. The traditional European powers, England (8), Germany (6) , Spain (2), Italy (5), and France (9), home to the 5 biggest and supposedly best soccer leagues in the world (FIFA rankings in parentheses), have been dreadful thus far. The records through 2 games (for Spain 1) are:
As you can see, Germany is the only team to win a game (a 4-0 drubbing of Australia (20)), though they have also lost as well (1-0 to pre-tourney dark horse, Serbia (15)). Italy and England have had to settle for a pair of draws each. One could argue that the first draw for each wasn’t a bad result with England drawing the US (14) and Italy drawing Paraguay (31). However, the second draw for each team has no doubt caused widespread panic in each country. England drew unfancied Algeria (30), and Italy can thank a dubious PK for their draw with New Zealand (78), one of the lowest ranked teams at the World Cup. New Zealand’s squad consists of players that mostly play in the A-Leauge, Australia’s top league, with a smattering of players plying their trade internationally. They have 2 players who play in a top European league, Ryan Nelsen who plays in defense for Blackburn in the English Premier League and Chris Wood who plays forward for newly promoted West Bromwich Albion (also of the EPL). A team with this makeup has no business drawing the defending champions. Italy’s entire squad is made up of players who play in Serie A, probably the 3rd best league in the world (after the EPL and La Liga), with the exception of captain Fabio Cannavaro who has just left Juventus to play for Al-Ahli in the United Arab Emirates. This is another example of a team taking an opponent too lightly. New Zealand was playing with house money and were able to cash in with a well deserved draw.
England controls their own destiny. A win and they are through to the next round. A draw coupled with a US loss would see the English through as well. If England loses to Slovenia (25), their tournament is done.
Italy is also in position to advance, they are level on points with New Zealand. Italy plays Slovakia (34) in the final group game, and based on rankings alone Italy should win. Though, they should have beaten New Zealand too. An Italian win sees them through to the next round. A draw could also advance them, as long as New Zealand doesn’t pull off a stunner against Paraguay (who have taken care of business) in their last group game.
France’s struggles have been the subject of two previous posts, however, the most pressing problem may be that they are likely to miss the knockout rounds because of a loss to Mexico (17), nothing to be ashamed of, and a draw with Uruguay (16). The French face South Africa (83) in their final game and need a massive win and some help to advance.
Germany is in the best shape of the teams that have completed two games. By virtue of their big win over Australia they provided themselves with a large goal difference cushion (goal difference is the first tie-breaker used to determine which team advances to the next round in the even the teams are level on points). For Germany, a win over Ghana (32) secures their spot in the next round. They could also advance with a draw as long as Serbia does not win their game over Australia.
Spain has the most time to recover from their lethargic display against Switzerland. With two games to play against inferior competition (Honduras (38) and Chile (18)). Spain can right ship and advance to the 2nd round with a pair of wins.
While none of the teams are totally out of it (France is on life support), this has not been the cake walk most were expecting. Also, an interesting tidbit is that if both France and Italy fail to make it to the knockout stage it will be the first time since the World Cup took on its current format (1986) that both teams from the previous World Cup final will have failed to make it to the knockout stage. In fact every team since 1986 that has been in a final has advanced at the next World Cup with the notable exception of the 2002 French squad.
Several surprising names lead groups – Slovenia, Ghana, Uruguay, Paraguay – and there have been several upsets, as noted above. Could this be signaling a change in international soccer? Only time will tell. There are still a lot of games to play but so far the little guys are making names for themselves in South Africa.