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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IOC’s choice poses questions for Fifa

It comes to something when the International Olympic Committee, long the watchword for corruption in international sport, shows more sense than Fifa.

While football was happy to pocket the oil money and give Qatar the 2022 World Cup, the IOC has taken the city out of the running for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Now, by any sensible measure, hosting the Olympics is a far more straightforward than a World Cup. Venues can be concentrated within a relatively small area, many sports take place inside, there are, as a rule, fewer fans to accommodate. Most importantly, that timing is flexible – the Sydney games took place in late September, rather than the usual July/August dates.

So why the snub? Apparently, it’s down to … exactly that reason. The IOC doesn’t want the October games that Doha preferred.

But haven’t the Qataris been telling us all along that they can air condition a World Cup? If they can’t keep Olympians cool at the end of September, how are they going to manage it for footballers in June and July? Fifa – and indeed – the Qataris owe us an explanation.

As an aside, the other city rejected by the IOC is Baku, host to this weekend’s Eurovision Song Contest. While that particular campfest will never rank alongside the Olympics or the World Cup, and the selection procedure is simpler – give it to last year’s winner – wouldn’t it be nice to imagine that the focus on forced evictions and other human rights violations might focus the minds of those taking part in Saturday’s telephone vote?

Nice, but probably unrealistic…

End of the world?

The tension is building – there are just a few hours left before England finds out it has blown its chance of hosting the 2018 World Cup.

OK, perhaps it’s a bit hasty to dismiss the bid already – after all, I do have previous for making duff predictions on such matters (although World Cup draw guesses have a more favourable record on this blog).

But, undeterred as always this is my take on the fields for 2018 and 2022

2018
Russia

Russia must host the World Cup one day. It’s one of the world’s most populous countries, football-loving (if not to the football-mad level of the three other bidders), cash-rich and with a plethora of large, international cities. But now? Ridiculous visa rules, limited transport infrastructure to link the disparate cities, complete lack of stadiums . . . after South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, Russia is surely a gamble too far for Fifa. The fact Vladimir Putin has chickened out has been given a significance it perhaps doesn’t warrant. He was only going to be there if his country was nailed on to win – and it’s not. Verdict; second

Belgium/Holland
What’s not to like? Football-mad people, great cities, superb beer, it’s really hard to see why this bid hasn’t gained more traction. OK, the stadiums aren’t all there yet and some of the cities scheduled to host games are on the diminutive side, but it seems that co-hosting is counting against the BeneLux pair more than it is against Spain-Portugal which, when you consider how small the countries in question are, is hard to fathom. Verdict; fourth

Spain/Portugal
Seems to have stolen England’s thunder as the ‘safe’ choice. But it’s hard to see why. The countries are on the verge of bankrutcy, not all the stadiums are ready and one of the partners held a World Cup as recently as 1982. Still, the fabulous football of the Spaniards and positive memories of Euro 2004, not to mention the sound political connections of the Latin diaspora, seem to be putting them into contention. Still, the fact that one bookies was offering odds of 6/1 against them leaves a few doubts. Verdict; Winner

England
Should be a no-brainer. The most-watched league, the best stadia, first-rate commercial connections, very little needing to be done. OK, so the selection of Milton Keynes as one of the host cities stuck in the craw of some fans (including me). But the farcical way the bid had been managed by the FA, not to mention a complete failure to cut the right deals with the Fifa powerbrokers, has left the England bid team scrambling to stay in the race. David Cameron, Prince William and David Beckham might be the the most persuasive line-up of right-wingers this side of the 2012 Republican primaries, but they’ve got it all to do. Still, odds are shortening and perhaps there’s one lasty twist in this sordid tale yet to come. Verdict; third

2022 comments follow

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.

I can’t fix the World Cup draw (but if I could, it’d look something like this)

I’m a nine-year-old at heart, and like all nine-year-olds I can’t wait for next year’s soccerball World Cup, even down to poring over the different permutations for tomorrow night’s draw.

And, inspired perhaps by a certain book by OJ Simpson, I’ve decided to have a look at what the World Cup draw would look like if there was a way to pull off the crime of the century.

Obviously this is written from an England point of view and, equally obviously, the actual draw will be nothing like this….

First, It’s important to consider who we want England, should they trample the minnows in the first round, would play in the quarter-final, the first time they’d come up against a fellow group-winner.

Clearly the weakest seed is South Africa. The hosts may be able to rely on fanatical home support but they have only a handful of truly international-class players. That puts England in Group C.

Next, to the rest. Brazil and Spain are clearly the favourites, so a quarter-final showdown for them would be handy. They’re into F&H respectively. Next, England’s possible semi-final victims. The four other seeds are much of a muchness, but I’ll take a declining Italy and a Diegoe Maradona ‘inspired’ Argentina for E&G, with the Germans and the Dangerous Dutch in B&D.

The second pot brings in Asia, Oceania and North America, so its North Korea for England (rather than a New Zealand side with a point to prove).

Pot C is more tricky, as it involves African and South American sides who can’t face seeds from their own continent. We’ll give Brazil one of the most dangerous unseeded teams, Ivory Coast, and Spain, Ghana. Continuing a trend of putting the weakest possible choice in with South Africa, they’ll face Paraguay. Algeria look the poorest outfit.

Finally, the unseeded European pot, where France, Portugal and the tough Serbs lurk. But England should fancy their chances against Slovenia, while Slovakia would risk a nosebleed if they got as far as the quarter finals.

The final pools would look something like this;

A) South Africa, New Zealand, Paraguay, Slovakia
B) Germany, United States, Cameroon, Serbia
C) England, Korea DPR, Algeria, Slovenia
D) Netherlands, S Korea, Uruguay, Demark
E) Italy, Honduras, Chile, Switzerland
F) Brazil, Mexico, Ivory Coast, Portugal
G) Argentina, Japan, Nigeria, Greece
H) Spain, Australia, Ghana, France

Based on FIFA rankings, this would be the quarter-final line-up.

Paraguay vs Cameroon
England vs Uruguay
Italy vs Portugal
Argentina vs France
Germany vs Slovenia
Netherlands vs Algeria
Brazil vs Chile
Spain vs Greece

Ok, tricky for England – but by no means impossible, and with some real rewards ahead in the shape of semi-finals (rankings-based) that looked like this

Cameroon vs England
Italy vs France
Germany vs Netherlands
Brazil vs Spain

Ok, so Cameroon would have the whole of Africa behind them – but could you really imagine England losing that game? A semi-final with Cap’s native Italy or a post-Zidane France? Going into a final against a bruised Brazil? I dare to dream

But probably shouldn’t, as England will probably end up with Portugal, Cote D’Ivoire and Australia when the balls finally drop some time after 1am Thai time Saturday morning.