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 Ivory Coast and Brazil.
FIFA Rank: 21, Coach: Sabri Lamouchi, Group C: with Colombia, Greece and Japan. Odds of winning cup: 125-1.
FIFA World Cup history: appearances (2): 2006 and 2010, eliminated in group stage both times.
How they qualified for 2014: Group Stage: 4-Wins, 0-Loss, 2-Ties, 14 points, 15 Goals in Favor, 5 Goals Against (first place CAF Group C). Playoff against Senegal: won 4-2 on aggregate.
Ivory Coast have one of the greatest generations of African players to make it to a World Cup. The team is at least of the quality of the Senegalese one that made the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup or the Cameroon side that did the same in 1990. The current team has the likes of Roma’s Gervinho, Galatasaray’s Didier Drogba, Lille’s Salomon Kalou, and CSKA Moscaow’s Seydou Doumbia as strikers; Manchester United’s Yaya Toure, Bastia’s Romaric and Newcastle United’s Cheick Tiote at midfield; and Trabzonspor’s Didier Zokora, Liverpool’s Kolo Toure, Montpellier’s Saika Tiene, and Stuttgart’s Arthur Boka in defense, with Lokeren’s Boubacar Barry in goal.
This is an experienced and wily team that will give its opponents fits with their skill and athleticism and with their never-say-die attitude. bit.ly/1eXImSW Drobga, the Toure brothers, Boka, and Barry, are all in their thirties and Kalou is 28. These players are looking at their last hurrah and wanting to make a splash of it.
On their home stretch trek to qualification for the World Cup the seeded Ivory Coast went unbeaten, and in their last four friendlies they beat Austria 3-0 in Linz and Egypt 4-2 in Abu Dhabi, lost to Mexico 1-4 in the USA, and tied Belgium 2-2 in Brussels. Their next friendlies before the cup will be against Bosnia in the USA and against El Salvador in Japan.
The Elephants will have played against teams from around the world, sampled different climates, levels of competition and styles of play, and will end up playing in familiar climates against teams many of their players know well. They may not have played their group rivals as national teams, but the major Greek, Japanese, and Colombian stars play in the same leagues and competitions as the Ivorian stars.
The Ivorians will be staying outside of Sao Paulo in Aguas de Lindoia, and traveling 2,500 kilometers to Recife, 950 kilometers to Brasilia, and 2,800 kilometers to Fortaleza, for the group games before returning to Recife for their Group of 16 match. This will be a tough travel itinerary but with five days between matches a doable schedule.
In an Associated Press interview, Ivory Coast coach, Sabri Lamouchi discussed his team’s chances at the 2014 World Cup.
''I think it's quite a difficult and well-balanced group, which means that there's everything to play for. The ambition of the African people is to go as far as possible, even to maybe win the World Cup ... I can't stop people from dreaming. It would already be an achievement [for us] to get out of the group stage and then, after that, it will be more difficult to play [potential Group of 16 rivals] Italy, Uruguay or England. If we go there with no ambition then there's no point in going. Our aim is to achieve what [we] couldn't in 2006 and 2010. We need to be a bit more rigorous, a bit more disciplined, focused and determined.''
At Brazil, in Group C, they will have tough competition. Colombia, with or without Radamel Falcao is a power to contend with and will probably be the one insurmountable obstacle for the Ivorians. But Greece’s all-defense and occasional counter attack offense, and Japan’s style of tough tackling throughout the pitch and regular speedy attacks, should not be too tough for the African side to surmount. It is precisely that disciplined focus and determination Lamouchi alluded to that has eluded Didier’s elephants in the past. If they can concentrate in Brazil, they can achieve a lot.
Prediction: The Ivory Coast should come out of the group in second place, behind Colombia, and then most probably meet Uruguay in the Group of 16. This will be the Ivorians last game. Uruguay, possessing a golden generation of their own and playing on home-continent turf they will have the edge and find a way of defeating their opponents. It will not be a quarterfinals berth for The Elephants, but it will be their best national showing and match the third best finish of any African nation in the World Cup.
FIFA Rank: 6. Coach: Luis Felipe Scolari, Group A: with Croatia, Mexico, and Cameroon. Odds of winning cup: 3-1, the odds makers’ favorites.
FIFA World Cup history: appearances (19--only team to have made it to every World Cup): Champions in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002, second place in 1950 and 1998, third place in 1938 and 1978, fourth place in 1974, quarterfinals 1954, 1986, 2006, 2010, round of 16 in 1982 and 1990, eliminated in group stage 1930, 1934, and 1966. Brazil have had the greatest presence in the cup, winning it more than anyone else, scoring more than anyone, and winning or drawing 85% of their games. The 1970 cup team is considered the greatest World Cup winning team of all time. For Brazilians, only winning the cup is acceptable, anything else is by definition a failure.
How they qualified for 2014: as hosts.
The Brazilian National Football Team is at a crossroads of generations. The players that make up this group are a mix of veterans and up and comers with eleven potential roster members slated to be in their early to mid thirties by 2018, and probably playing in their last World Cup, and another dozen looking at one or two more cups after this at most.
But what is troubling for the hosts is that just as they have built up the nerve to risk a repeat of their 1950 home-loss national tragedy, they are saddled with a team this is relatively weak compared to those of the 1950-1970, 1978, 1982, and 1994-2010 sides. Added to that fact is the issue of them not having to play any qualifiers and thus not fine-tuning a core group to build on.
Ironically, it is creativity and offense, their trademarks, which the team is lacking. What is the biggest omen, though, is that coach Scolari believes he must play a more defensive style this time around than that which he successfully used to win the 2002 World Cup. Granted he has a better defense than any other Brazilian team in recent memory. But, Brazilian Football is attacking football and asking this Selecao to be more defensive minded reeks of the failed Dunga side of 2010, and the Carlos Alberto Parreira side of 2006. The latter team boasted Ronaldinho, Kaka, Ronaldo (albeit in decline) and Robinho, yet they still played too constrained to win.
Brazil boasts several genuine world class players among their ranks. Barcelona striker Neymar is their major star and hope. But, only PSG central defender and captain, Thiago Silva, can contribute at the same level. Their starting goalkeeper, the new MLS Toronto starter, Julio Ceasar, is still in decent if not great form. The defense is stellar, populated by Chelsea's David Luis, Bayern Munich's Dante and Rafinha, Real Madrid's Marcelo, Barcelona's Dani Alves, and Roma's Maicon. It is in midfield and attack that the team suffers from a lack of stars.
Chelsea's Oscar is the only genuine playmaker on the team, but at 22 he is still coming into his own. He may have a great cup, but it would not be a surprise if he did not. Given he will only have Neymar to create with, opponents will have a field day with only two worries to focus on. Ramires--not a Scolari favorite because he gravitates toward offense--is their best defensive midfielder. The rest of the midfield roster is workmanlike.
On offense, Zenit St. Petersburg striker Hulk, Fluminense striker Fred, and the coltish Atletico Mineiro striker Jo, have been the coach's picks. Sorely missed are such underused but available strikers AC Milan's Robinho and Sao Paulo's Pato, who are both more creative, mobile, and harder to mark than the former trio. Finally, we have the case of the creative attacking midfielder Kaka. He is the one genuine star available who is yet not on the roster despite enjoying a stellar campaign this year at AC Milan. No World Cup Selecao has ever taken the trophy home fielding less than three creative players in the starting line-up. Kaka must be a last minute choice for Scolari if Brazil are to have a strong campaign in this cup.
As history has shown when a contender is the host they have the inside track to the final. Though that advantage will continue in 2014, the difference this time is that Argentina, Germany, and Spain have better sides, and Italy, Uruguay, and Portugal, have sides that would give the hosts a tough, even match. Besides, teams such as Chile, the Dutch on a good day, and the likes of Colombia if Radamel Falcao is healthy, could provide early unexpected trouble. For Brazilians, an early exit (anything prior to the finals) would be difficult to swallow, but another finals loss at the Maracana could be psychologically devastating and lead to widespread national unrest.
Dating back to April of last year, Brazil have used 44 players, played 7 Confederation Cup competitive matches, and 10 friendlies. Fourteen of those matches were against teams who have qualified for the 2014 world Cup. Their record in those 17 matches is 14 wins, 2 draws, and 1 loss (against Switzerland in Basel); they scored 50 goals and had 10 scored against them.
Brazil's hopes of winning the 2014 World Cup rest with Scolari's roster choices and Neymar's performance. The odds are good that two of the top four contenders will reach the final and the most intriguing possibility, Argentina vs. Brazil, is one that Barca teammates Neymar and Lionel Messi have actually discussed. In a recent FIFA.com interview Neymar revealed that they had spoken about that possibility. "Obviously with Brazil winning," he said smiling.
But last week two interviews showcased the difference between the mentalities of these two adversaries. Messi, discussing the same topic at an ESPN interview, but not mentioning Neymar, said: "It would be a wonderful thing to beat Brazil in the finals." Neymar, in a post Barcelona La Liga match interview, was asked of his aspirations for the cup. His response was: "It would be wonderful to dispute the finals on home soil." Perhaps the difference lies therein, the 22-year-old Brazilian is happy competing in his first cup, the 26-year-old Argentine is ready to win on his third try.
Prediction: Brazil will move onto the semifinals before meeting true competition and that is when the promise of Scolari's choices and Neymar's form will come due. If the choices were wise and Neymar is in form they can ride the 12th player advantage into the finals, otherwise any of the three other potential adversaries will prevail. If they make it to the finals it will be either against Spain or Argentina, both better sides. I believe that if all teams are at full strength and in fairly officiated games, Spain will beat Brazil, but Brazil will ride its pride and that 12th man to eek-out a victory that will vanquish both Argentina and the ghost of Ghiggia.