I can’t fix the World Cup draw, but if I could: England’s dream would be a nightmare

I’ve tried to read the runes on the draws for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 – with an almost freakish level of success.

For 2010, I tipped England for Group C and suggested they’d be only too happy to be joined there by North Korea, Algeria and Slovenia. Swap North Korea for the United States and that’s exactly what happened. The idea was that England would stroll to top spot and take on the runner-up from South Africa’s group, rather than getting battered by an in-form Germany.

For 2012 I tipped England to go into Group D with Ukraine, Sweden and Denmark. Again, right place with two out of three opponents correct – only France, instead of Denmark.

This time it’s different. For one thing, groups will be played across Brazil – a decision that is rightly worrying Roy Hodgson. And as an unseeded team, they could be handed any on of 24 sets of fixtures, rather than the seven possibilities the top tier teams have on their plate.

And as for making it ‘easy’ – well that’s where it gets hard.

Clearly, among the seeds England would want to avoid Spain, Argentina, Germany and the hosts. What’s more, if England were drawn against the other South American teams, Uruguay or Colombia, they would not only be facing teams close to home territory but would also face an increased prospect of playing another team from the same European pot England sit in – a group that in its own way is as menacing as the seeds.

That leaves Belgium and Switzerland. Belgium have tapped a rich stream of talent – would you prefer Vincent Kompany or Gary Cahill? Eden Hazard or Theo Walcott? Romelu Lukaku or Danny Welbeck? The Belgians are a team on the cusp of greatness, and a good bet to at least match the 1986 Enzo Scifo generation that made the semi-finals.

Pretty much by default, that leaves the Swiss, the only seeds England would have any reason to be confident in facing.

Such a turn of events greatly increases the possibility that England would face a South American team from Pot 2. Chile or Ecuador can’t be drawn against the four South American seeds. It’s probably too much to hope that England draw the weakest African qualifier, Algeria, again. And a fat lot of good it did them last time anyway. So let’s take Ecuador from that group – certainly not a bad side, but one England would back themselves against.

Pot 3 is the weakest, but still contains plenty of teams you’d rather avoid. The USA and Australia are no mugs. Mexico struggled in qualifying, but may fancy the conditions, especially in northern Brazil. Japan and South Korea have been constantly improving. Iran and Costa Rica have solid tournament experience, Honduras less so, so we’ll take them.

For the sake of argument, let’s stick England in the second slot in B2 – which gives them games largely in the more temperate south.

One basic principle for the draw: Fifa will not want Brazil to struggle early on on home turf, so expect a fairly easy Group A as well. So the draw, largely random, could go something like this.

Group A: Brazil, Greece, Costa Rica, Algeria

Group B: Switzerland, England, Honduras, Ecuador

Group C: Colombia, Japan, France, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Group D: Belgium, Netherlands, South Korea, Ghana

Group E: Spain, Chile, Russia, United States

Group F: Uruguay, Iran, Ivory Coast, Italy

Group G: Germany, Cameroon, Australia, Portugal

Group H: Argentina, Nigeria, Mexico, Croatia

So there you have it – if England were to win the group they would play the second team in Brazil’s group – and would Greece, Algeria or (more likely) Costa Rica really stop England getting to a quarter final, where they’d most likely to be playing the winner of Group D. Could England, on a good day, beat Belgium or the Netherlands? Probably, setting up a most unlikely semi-final.

Which is, potentially, the worst possible outcome.

England have fallen behind in player development. Not just behind Italy, Spain and Germany and other nations we fancifully compare ourselves to, but even the Belgiums of this world: smaller countries putting out substantially better teams. What might be better is a draw that sends England crashing out early with their tails between their legs. A draw that focuses the minds of our FA, clubs and leagues on developing quality English players.

What’s more, there must be no excuses – it must look like a draw that England should at least have a chance of getting through; so for example putting England in slot four in Group G, sending them to the tropical heat of Manaus, Fortaleza and Recife while pairing them (say) with Argentina, the Netherlands and Mexico would be overkill – it would just fuel conspiracy theories and hard-luck stories.

So, for the sake of argument we’ll give them the same group and the same set of fixture dates. And we’ll pair them with a European seed: Belgium. Then we’ll give them an African second seed, say Ivory Coast. And an English-speaking team from the third group: Australia.

Three draws and out? Stranger things have happened.

 

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World Cup fever

So, the election’s over, Blackpool FC are back in their rightful place in the Premiership… there must be something else going on this year, right?

Of course, a little under 48 hours from now it all kicks off in South Africa – and that’s not a reference to the street gangs who’ve dominated so much of the pre-tournament scaremongering.

Having run the predictor about 20 times now, I’ve not come up with a final that doesn’t involve the masterful Spanish facing the magical Brazilians. Sure, they’ll face tough games on the road to Soccer City – but nothing that’s beyond them. In fact, short of a stroke of luck, it’s hard to see them being stopped.

But luck, along with injuries, bad referees and rushes of blood to the head, can all play a part in a World Cup – which is what makes it great.

There’s even a scenario where the two favourites meet far earlier – in the second round. And all it takes is for one of them to fail to win their group. Brazil play home favourites the Ivory Coast and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. Spain have, on paper, the easiest group bar England’s – but messing up in the World Cup is as Spanish as paella and Picasso, and complacency or panic can set in all too easily.

So who could come up on the rails to challenge?

Well, let’s think about history for a moment. No European side has ever won the World Cup beyond the boundaries of its own continent. No African side has ever reached the semi-finals (that may change, if a fair wind favours Ghana – one of those predictions suggested a handy path to the last four could yet open up for them) and the best of the Asians, South Korea, might not benefit quite like they did on home soil in 2002. That leaves the North Americans – the USA? Mexico? Don’t think so – and the best of the South. Could Argentina do it?

They’ve certainly got the talent. They’ve got the best player in the world right now. But can Leo Messi do what his coach, Diego Maradona, did in 1986 and overcome a powerful disadvantage to lead his team to glory? In Maradona’s case it was the mediocrity of his workmanlike team-mates (how many of them can you name? Think there was one called Brown). The irony is that Messi’s handicap is Maradona – an inexperienced coach who almost managed to blow qualifying, never mind the finals. Argentina’s performance will be one of the most intriguing aspects of the whole competition. And their path could see them take on Brazil. And England. Yes, what about England?

Well, there’s a sense of realism sweeping across the nation. We’ve got no divine right to win, nor the best players – although we’ve had worse. The group stage isn’t being seen as quite the cakewalk it once looked like. And the second round could see a clash with Australia, Ghan, Serbia or, heaven forbid, even them.
But, despite all that, the quarter-final looks achievable. There France or Argentina and, most likely, defeat will await. But there is a scenario – in fact, more than one scenario – that could see us waking up, three weeks from now, looking forward to a semi-final And then the nation truly will go truly mental.