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World Cup 2014--national team generations, part I

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At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil a number of National Teams will be playing what may be the final major tournament with their current generation of stars. For many, this summer may be their current rosters’ last hurrahs. In an eight-part series, we analyze what the cup means to sixteen teams with special hopes for their current generation of stars. We will see how they got to the cup and are preparing for the tournament, and what their aspirations and chances may be next summer. Today we review Croatia and Argentina.

Croatia

FIFA Rank: 16, Coach: Niko Kovac, Group A: with Mexico, Brazil and Cameroon, Odds of winning cup: 100-1

FIFA World Cup history: appearances (3): 1998 semifinalist, 2002 and 2006 eliminated in group stage. Davor Suker won the Golden Boot as the 1998 World Cup's top scorer with six goals.

How they qualified for 2014: Second place in UEFA Group A Wins-5, Draws-2, Losses-3, 17 points, 12 Goals in Favor, 9 Goals Against. Won 2-leg playoff vs. Iceland 2-0 on aggregate.

Croatia is reliving its glory days of 1998 in 2014. The 1998 squad, led by then Golden Boot winner Davor Suker, was a revelation that culminated in a third place finish which included a 3-0 demolition of Germany and a 2-1 third place win over the Netherlands. But the 2014 squad is probably more talented on the offensive half (http://bit.ly/1fg2XB3). So expectations, if not their own certainly those of their fans and the media (http://bit.ly/1boqHYd), are high.

The current crop of stars includes Darijo Srna (31), the captain and Shakhtar Donetsk defensive stalwart, star Real Madrid playmaker (http://bit.ly/LQvpS9) Luka Modric (28), Niko Kranjcar (29), the Queens Park Rangers (http://bit.ly/MFYBMg ) attacking midfielder, Mario Mandzukic (27) the Bayern Munich (http://bit.ly/LQvzZK) striker, Eduardo (30), the Shakhtar Donetsk striker, Ivica Olic (34), the Wolfsburg striker, and Nikica Jelavic (28), the Hull City striker.

Though they lost twice to Scotland and once to Belgium in World Cup qualifiers, the Croats have a W-9, L-4, D-3, record in their last 16 internationals dating back to 2012. Their fourth loss was a 0-1 defeat to goal-scorer Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal in a friendly. During qualifiers ten different players scored their 14 goals, led by Mandzukic with four tallies.

The Croatian team seems to play alternately on all cylinders or barely in second gear. When Modric (http://bit.ly/1fg6XS3) is creating or Kranjcar is on his game, or Mandzukic is on target, they are very competitive, when all three are clicking at the same time they are a force to be reckoned with. If they peak or are inspired enough to play at their potential this team will make it out of Group A and could go further.

Having to face hosts Brazil, Mexico (ranked 21 by FIFA) and Cameroon (ranked 50), will not be easy tasks for the Croats, but other than their game against Brazil, when Mandzukic will be off the pitch serving a ban due to a qualifier red card, the two other matches seem winnable. Unfortunately for the Croats they will have to play the top team in Group B in their very next match. That group features Spain, the Netherlands, Chile and Australia, with the at least the first two being favorites on paper over Croatia.

What makes this potential second round match-up interesting, though, is that not one of the four members of Group B is known for its defensive prowess while the Croats are a powerful offensive team. This match, much like the 1998 one against Germany, could be one of the tournament's turning points. The what-ifs of a repeat of that feat are what make World Cups special.

Croatia is counting on its many stars, most playing outside the country in higher ranked leagues, to be in sharp form coming off their respective competitive environments. The team is then scheduled to play Switzerland at St. Gallen on March 5, and then Australia in Brazil on June 6, as their last two warm ups. Then they start off their 2014 World Cup with the tourney’s opening match against hosts Brazil in Sao Paulo, on June 12th.

The Croats will be staying at Mata de Sao Joao, in Bahia, and traveling 1,242 miles (2.5 hour flight) to Sao Paulo for their game against Brazil, 1,553 miles (6 hour flight, with a plane change in Brasilia) to Manaus for their game against Cameroon, and then a relatively easy 494 miles (1.25 hour flight) trip to Recife to play Mexico. Their second round game would be a 750 mile (2 hour flight) trip to Fortaleza. Brazil’s size, and its many dispersed venues, should not unduly penalize most nations, but travel will be a factor. Weather wise, it will be humid in most of the venues, and one can count on some rain, but the temperatures will range in the 60s to 70s most of June and July, ideal football weather.

In a January 17, 2014 interview with FIFA.com Croatian coach Niko Kovac responded to a question about his team’s chances in the cup by saying: “We won’t just be there as tourists. You only get a shot at the World Cup every four years so we want to leave behind a lasting impression. I really don’t know whether we’ll ever have a generation like that [1998]…we know a repeat performance [in 2014] will be incredibly tough.”

Prediction: the Croats make it out of Group A, by beating Cameroon and Mexico while losing to Brazil (see Brazil’s winning goal in their last World Cup clash in 2006- http://bit.ly/1djAFZM). They then advance by surprising Chile should the South Americans top Group B, but they will lose to Spain or the Netherlands if either tops that group. This generation will take Croatia to the second best finish in their country’s history.

Argentina

FIFA Rank: 3. Coach: Alejandro Sabella. Group F: with Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria. Odds of winning cup: 9/2 (second best odds after Brazil)

FIFA World Cup history: Tainted Champions in 1978, sublime (minus the hand of God) champions in 1986, runners up in 1930 and 1990, and quarterfinalists in 1966, 1998, 2006, and 2010.

How they qualified for 2014: first in South American (CONMEBOL) World Cup qualifiers with Wins-9, Darws-5, Losses-2, 32 points, 35 Goals in Favor (tops in the region) and 15 Goals Against (second best in the region).

Argentina is riding the wave of the Lionel Messi era and hoping his superb form will be on display this summer, making the second coming of Maradona, in the 2014 World Cup. The prospect of winning the cup at their archrivals’ home is just too delicious to say out loud—less they jinx it—but it is in their coaches’ and players’ minds, to a man.

Germany and Spain aside, only Argentina can lay claim to the strongest team at the 2014 World Cup. In some respects, playing in their home continent, just miles from Buenos Aires in some venues, may be the advantage that puts them over the top. A team that includes Messi is by definition a contender in any tournament, he can change the course of any football event. And as opposed to when Maradona roamed the world’s pitches, Messi is much better accompanied than his predecessor.

This Albiceleste vintage boasts, aside from Messi, the likes of Sergio Romero (26) Monaco’s goalkeeper (http://bit.ly/1ertOsE), defenders Pablo Zabaleta (29) from Manchester City, Federico Fernandez (24) from Napoli, and Marcos Rojo (23) from Sporting Lisbon, midfielders Angel di Maria (25) from Real Madrid (http://bit.ly/1boXYTf), Maxi Rodriguez (33) from Newell’s Old Boys, Fernando Gago (27) from Boca Juniors, Javier Mascherano (29) from Barcelona (http://bit.ly/1nu9PiB), and strikers Gonzalo Higuain (26) from Napoli (http://bit.ly/1m86cU7), Sergio Aguero (25) from Manchester City (http://bit.ly/1jxzSrY), Rodrigo Palacio (32) from Inter Milan, and Ezequiel Lavezzi (28) from PSG. This team of stars matches up well against any opposition.

It is ironic to note that Maradona’s 1986 World Cup winning side was less talented than Argentina’s 1982 losing side, and that their 1978 side was perhaps just a bit less talented than their successors, yet had to cheat (http://dailym.ai/1ntQPRj) to win on home soil. The current team, Argentina’s strongest side in decades, could do a lot to erase the world’s memory of that tainted win while rubbing it in the eyes of the team they most cheated in 1978—sort of a Gaucho win-win. But that is only one-third of the story.

Another third is that what is at stake for Argentines is World Football Supremacy in the history books. With Brazil (5 wins), Italy (4 wins) and Germany (3 wins) holding better World Cup records, and Spain spoiling to become the only team to win back-to-back-to-back-to-back major international tournaments (Euro 2088, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012…and World Cup 2014), Argentina could drop a peg to a fifth place tie with neighbors Uruguay (winners in 1930 and 1950). That Latin teams have won the most cups, and that a win in Brazil by a South American team would draw the cup wins even between Europe and South America at 10 apiece, are simply not consolation. Argentina wants to be within striking distance of the top of the heap, and they are not there yet.

The final third is also a record book issue. Pele, Maradona, and now Messi? What a wonderful thing it would be to be a porteño (as denizens of Buenos Aires are known), sipping a mate (Argentine tea) at a sidewalk café in the trendy Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and to discuss in lunfardo (Argentine slang) their new two-to-one advantage at the top of the super-world-class football players’ pantheon. Many outside Argentina would argue that if a Messi-led side actually wins the cup, Lionel has made that grade. With his hamstring injury having left him off the pitches for a long spell, and his recent return a slow-motion affair, he should be relatively fresher than most come this summer.

Talent does not always match expectations though (see performances by Hungary 1954, Holland 1974 and 1978, Brazil 1982, 1998, and 2006, Argentina 2010), and Argentina have been working hard to ensure this campaign is one that can be called “for the ages.” Albeit without having to contend with Brazil, Argentina finished first in South American (CONMEBOL) World Cup qualifiers with 9 wins, 2 losses, 5 ties, 32 points, 35 Goals in Favor (tops in the region) and 15 Goals Against (second best in the region). This in a year that counts 4 out of 8 South American countries in the qualifiers having special generation teams (http://bit.ly/1gutJb1).

The Argentines are capable of sublime football (http://bit.ly/McdYfF) and in Messi they have a pantheon-in-waiting star (http://bit.ly/1j40A88), if they are able to put it all together only Germany and Spain are capable of giving them a run for their money. Argentina are in cake walk Group F with Bosnia and Herzegovina (ranked 19th in the World by FIFA), Iran (34) and Nigeria (41) and will, after they demolish this meager opposition, most likely be playing the likes of Ecuador (23) and then probably the likes of Belgium (11) or Portugal (4), the former falling easily the latter their toughest match. Passing that test, they will reach tougher competition in the semifinals. If Argentina cannot make the best of this draw, they will never have another as easy.

The Argentines will be playing tune ups against Romania on March 5, in Bucharest, Trinidad and Tobago in La Plata, June 4, and Slovenia in Buenos Aires, June 7, before their opener in Rio de Janeiro against Bosnia and Herzegovina on June 15th. They are staying in the town of Vespasiano, just outside of the city of Bello Horizonte. In the group phase, they will have a short-ish ride to Rio and a shorter ride to their game in Bello Horizonte, before a flight to Porto Alegre.

On February 7, 2014, in a BBC Football Focus interview, Messi said: “I will be getting there [Brazil’s 2014 World Cup] to hopefully peak at the right time…It will be extra special, well above all the other World Cups. It’s in Brazil, with everything that means for us…I’m sure we can achieve something very, very special. To keep winning things are my main motivation. I want to keep going and win them all.”

Prediction: the Argentines will win Group F and coast through to the semi-finals with but a potential tough match if they run into Portugal. But in the semi-finals they will most likely meet one of the three other tournament favorites. The odds are they will meet Spain and if the Roja is still fresh they will beat the albiceleste legions. If the Roja are out of sorts Argentina reaches the final.

If they reach the final, assuming both expected potential contenders are whole and at a similar level of strength, they will lose to either Germany or Brazil. This generation will ride Messi as far as he can go and in this cup that will be the final or semi-finals, the Argentines’ fourth best finish.

Caveat: Messi lights up beyond his Barcelona persona and takes over, then all bets, odds, and predictions, are null and void.

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