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 Portugal and Colombia.
FIFA Rank: 4, Coach: Paulo Bento, Group G: with Germany, Ghana, and USA. Odds of winning cup: 100-1.
FIFA World Cup history: appearances (5): 1966 semifinalist and third place, 2006 semifinalist and fourth place, and 2010 round of sixteen, eliminated in group stage 1986 and 2002. Eusebio won the Golden Boot award for the top scorer of the 1966 World Cup with 9 goals.
How they qualified for 2014: Group Stage: 6-Wins, 1-Loss, 3-Ties, 21 points, 20 Goals in Favor, 9 Goals Against (second place in UEFA Group F). Playoff against Sweden: won 4-2 on aggregate with Ronaldo and Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring all the goals.
Portugal is flying high on FIFA Ballon d'Or 2013 winner Cristiano Ronaldo's wings. He of the incredible performance (http://bit.ly/1fkcVBl) against next summer's biggest absentees Zlatan and Sweden. The Portuguese will go as far as Real Madrid's perennial top scorer, Ronaldo, can take them, and he may be able to take them for a nice ride.
Ronaldo was 21 in 2006 and played in about half of those World Cup games having a decent but not spectacular tourney. He was 25 in 2010 and had a poor and unfortunate World Cup, scoring one goal, being paired with Brazil in the group stage, and and running into eventual cup winners Spain in the Round of 16. In 2014, the gods have conspired to award him with a head to head match-up against his personal nemesis, Lionel Messi, should Portugal advance from the Round of 16 where they will likely meet Belgium. That potential Ronaldo-Messi match-up would be a cup highlight.
The Portuguese have been international competition underachievers for some time with Eusebio's 1966 and Luis Figo's 2006 squads the exceptions. Now comes a new generation led by arguably the best player to come from the Iberian Peninsula in decades. It would be hard to say that this year's roster is better than either of their two great generational predecessors, but it would be easy to argue that though it may not be another 40 years before the next great group comes along, it will not be another mere eight any time soon. For this group, a victory against Argentina would ensure another semifinals, putting Ronaldo at a par with Eusebio and Figo.
Portugal's roster boasts, aside from Ronaldo, the likes of goalkeepers Rui Patricio (29) of Sporting Lisboa and Eduardo (31) of Braga (http://bit.ly/1bsUb7f ), defenders Pepe (30) of Real Madrid (http://bit.ly/MP4d78), Bruno Alves (32) of Fenebahce, Fabio Coentrao (25) of Real Madrid (http://bit.ly/1lKRkYf), and Joao Pereira (29) of Valencia, midfielders Nani (27) of Manchester United (http://bit.ly/1doCwMU), Joao Moutinho (27) of Monaco (http://bit.ly/1kFqind), Raul Meireles of Fenebahce (http://bit.ly/1iTdiHn), and strikers Helder Postiga (31) of Lazio (http://bit.ly/1bQ46hW) and Hugo Almeida (29) of Besiktas.
Portugal's World Cup qualification campaign was an up and down affair against mostly mediocre competition (http://bit.ly/1g2CU1Y). Their two ties with Israel and one with Northern Ireland spelled playoff, but what a comeback performance it was. At home they won 1-0 with a Ronaldo diving header after playing a very strong defensive game. Away in Sweden they played their best football, albeit against a team that had to go forward allowing for Ronaldo's trademark speed in the counter to shine. But shine he did and spectacularly. Yet though he may have been the star and the scorer, Zlatan's two goals were earned by a good team, and Portugal could have settled for a tie. They wanted to make a point against their toughest qualifying competition and did so.
In Brazil, they will have a tougher go facing a revved up and rejuvenated USA and a wily Ghana and will probably lose to the mighty Germans. But the former opponents should be beaten and Ronaldo's group will advance in second place to face most probably Belgium or, ironically a third match-up with Russia. They will win against either opponent and then will have to play their game of the tournament to advance. That is the game they are gearing up for.
The Portuguese are staying in Campinas, outside Sao Paulo and will have three multi-hour plane rides in their group games before a short hop to Rio for their next encounter. Speaking the language, sharing the culture, liking the climate, and enjoying the special ride this cup is for them, will all bode well for this team.
In a late 2013 ESPN.FC interview, Ronaldo spoke about the World Cup: "[We are] in a very difficult group but...We can definitely qualify from that group. On a personal level I will obviously try to play to the best of my ability, score goals..." He continued in that vein in a January 20, 2014 interview with copadomundo.com, "My dream is to be champion of Europe with Real Madrid and [of] the world with Portugal. Winning the World Cup would be the pinnacle of my career."
Prediction: Portugal will come out second of its group and beat whomever it meets in the Round of 16, but it will have to play the game of its history to advance from there. Cristiano Ronaldo will have his best World Cup, perhaps his last, and his performance will dictate how far this generation of stars will go. At tourney's end he will have taken his country and team to a pinnacle, whatever that may be, that most will feel is an equivalent feat to Eusebio's 1966 (http://bit.ly/1gct5k4) and Figo's 2006 (http://bit.ly/1jCLc6c) sides.
FIFA Rank: 5. Coach: José Pekerman. Group C: with Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan. Odds of winning cup: 20-1, sixth highest as of today.
FIFA World Cup history: appearances (4): 1962 group stage, 1990, round of 16, 1994 and 1998 group stage.
How they qualified for 2014: Second place in CONMEBOL with Wins-9, Draws-3, Losses-4, 30 points, 27 Goals in Favor, 13 Goals Against. Third best offense after Argentina and Chile, first best defense.
Colombia suffered a major blow to their World Cup chances when former La Liga star and international goal-scoring sensation, Radamel Falcao (http://bit.ly/1bRmx5X), now of Monaco, had his knee destroyed in a French Cup match January 22, 2014, against fourth division team Chasselay (http://bit.ly/1jEmXo0). He underwent surgery to repair torn ligaments January 25th. The severe injury usually takes 6-9 months for a full recovery, but he has been progressing well ahead of schedule, and his doctors believe there is a chance he will recuperate in time for the tournament.
Falcao (28), The Tiger, is the motor, inspiration, and leader of the Cafeteros team and without him Colombia is not the same. We will proceed under the best case scenario assumption that he recovers in time to contribute if not be at his best this summer.
Colombia's football lineage is littered with a special class of extravagant players who sparkled on the pitch and off and who became iconic figures at home as they plied their trade globally. Some, such as Rene Higuita (http://bit.ly/1bwP0Do) were several degrees beyond flamboyant while on the job, while others routinely looked flamboyant, such as Carlos Valderrama, but were more extravagant in their football skills (http://bit.ly/MUyZeW). But those days are past and the newest generation sparkles because of their on-pitch accomplishments while their personas are a bit more ordinary.
It has been 16 years since Colombia last participated in a World Cup and this year the team they bring on to the Brazilian pitches is made up from a special roster. Among its stars are goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon (42) of Deportivo Cali (http://bit.ly/1gyMyeq) and at defense is the similarly veteran combo of Luis Amaranto (35) of Cruz Azul, Pablo Amero (27) of West Ham United, Cristian Zapata (27) of Inter Milan (http://bit.ly/1eyt2dG), Mario Yepes (38) of Atalanta (http://bit.ly/1c5CVmk), and Juan Camilo (28) of Napoli. At midfield are Fredy Guarin (27) of Inter Milan (http://bit.ly/1gfaXWZ), Abel Aguilar (29) of Toulouse, Carlos Sanchez (28) of Elche and Radamel’s Monaco teammate James Rodriguez (22) the newest Colombian sensation (http://bit.ly/MiQNjG). At striker Teofilo Gutierez (28) of River Plate (http://bit.ly/1otVOF4) and Jackson Martinez (27) of Porto (http://bit.ly/MRakYL). This was the second most potent offense in South American qualifiers and the best defense. Colombia has not had this strong and balanced a team ever.
CONMEBOL’s qualifying round is unforgiving. Teams play at unreal altitudes in Ecuador and Bolivia, withering humidity and heat in Venezuela and Colombia, Seattle Seahawk-like atmospheres in Argentina and Brazil, and then comes the tough competition of a year when no fewer than half the teams have super generational rosters. Colombia did well to advance in second place and their four losses say more about the competition and having to play 16 matches (as opposed to the average 10 played by UEFA teams) than anything else. That they came out on top defensively against the likes of Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero Angel di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Roque Santa Cruz, and Alexis Sanchez–allowing only 5 goals from the combined superstar strikers on this list is quite an accomplishment.
Perhaps the emblematic match of that tough CONMEBOL 2014 World Cup qualifiers was played on October 17, 2013, after Colombia had secured its ticket to Brazil. Chile was visiting Colombia at Barranquilla and, needing the points, it had gone full out and scored three first half goals much to the dismay of the home crowd. But Falcao and company did not want to seem to be backing into the World Cup, particularly in front of their fans. What followed was Colombia’s statement, its calling card for anyone paying attention, a three-goal second half comeback for the ages (http://bit.ly/1bRrThi).
The Colombians are in a relatively easy group in Brazil, and even if Falcao is not fully fit the South Americans, playing in their home continent, should advance in the top slot of Group C. Their next opponent in the Round of 16 will probably be Italy, and this will be the Colombian’s signature match. The Italians historically play great football once the group stages are over and this cup will be no different. If Falcao were fully fit Colombia would have the edge, but with him in post-operative condition the Italians have the edge and will come in as favorites.
The Colombians are staying in Cotia a short flight from Bello Horizonte where they play their first match against Greece, then take a longer flight to Brasilia for their match against Ivory Coast, and then take their longest flight to Cuiaba, for their final group game against Japan, before their shortest hop to Rio de Janeiro for their Round of 16 match. Playing in their home continent will be a boon to this team whose stars are accustomed to playing abroad but who relish playing before their own fans.
Coming out of his operation Radamel Falcao, lying in bed watching a Monaco football match where his teammates wore t-shirts with “Come on Tiger” printed on them, tweeted a picture of himself and said: “From Porto, watching the team, thanks for the strength you send my way, I’m here, sending mine back to you.”
The president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, visited Falcao in the Portuguese capital days before the striker was due to move to Madrid to complete the next phase of his rehabilitation. At the hospital, the surgeon told the striker and the media that Falcao's prognosis was improving, moving from 50% to 55% simply on the basis of his accelerated rate of recovery. For Colombians and football fans world wide that was reason for hope.
Prediction: Colombia’s hopes to progress through the 2014 World Cup were tied to Falcao, and his condition, whatever it may be after only 21 weeks of recovery, will not be that of a man at full strength. Without him Colombia’s chances plummet. They will make it out of the group stage, but unless they meet unexpectedly weak opposition in the Round of 16, they will get no further.