Nickname: Les Fennecs (the desert foxes)
FIFA ranking: 30
How they got here: Won a tiebreaker with Egypt after the two teams ended qualification tied at the top of their group.
Record in previous tournaments: Have appeared at the World Cup twice, in 1982 and 1986, and went out at the group stage both times.
Manager: Rabah Saadane, who's been coaching the national side off and on for years.
Players to watch: They don't have anyone that I've ever heard of, but apparently midfielder Karim Ziani is a Zidane-style playmaker.
Nickname: The Three Lions
FIFA ranking: 8
How they got here: Cruised through qualification with nine wins -- including two cathartic wallopings of Croatia -- and only one loss.
Record in previous tournaments: Won it all in 1966 but haven't been able to repeat away from home. Knocked out in the quarter-finals in both 2002 and 2006.
Manager: Fabio Capello, who won just about everything in Europe before coming to England to give the team the discipline they sorely lacked.
Players to watch: Wayne Rooney. Wayne Rooney. Wayne Rooney. Beyond him, they have lots of other top-class players, like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in midfield. The question right now is who will be fit (captain Rio Ferdinand has already been knocked out with a knee injury) and what formation Capello will use to get them to work together effectively as a team.
Nickname: Zmajceki (the Dragons)
FIFA ranking: 25
How they got here: Finished second to Slovakia in their qualifying group, then -- somewhat surprisingly -- beat Russia in a playoff.
Record in previous tournaments: Have only been to the World Cup once before, in 2002 (which isn't all that bad, considering they weren't even a country) until 1991); didn't win a single game that time.
Manager: Matjaz Kek, who took over as senior coach in 2007 after managing the U15 and U16 teams.
Players to watch: Cologne striker Milivoje Novakovic leads the attack, supported by captain Robert Koren in midfield.
Nickname: They don't seem to have one, and I think somebody (*eyes Amanda and Sarah*) should get on that. "USMNT" doesn't count: it's not a nickname, just a jumble of letters.
FIFA ranking: 14
How they got here: Came through all three stages easily, finishing ahead of arch-rivals Mexico in the final group.
Record in previous tournaments: Their best-ever finish was third place way back in 1930. They made it to the quarter-finals in 2002 but then flopped at the group stage in 2006.
Manager: Bob Bradley, who some of us suspect is actually a robot.
Players to watch: Attacking midfielder Landon Donovan usually gets all the press, although I don't think he's ever really lived up to his own hype. More interesting, to me, are players like Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley (nepotism FTW!).
Verdict on the group
England's chances looked more robust a few months ago, before the squad --particularly the back line -- began getting hit with injuries. But I still have confidence in their ability to top the group, especially with Capello's steadying influence to overcome their usual combination of pre-tournament hubris + group-stage mediocrity + agonizing quarter-final penalty defeat. The USA look like a pretty solid bet for second; their opening group match with England on Saturday should be interesting.
Friday, June 11, 2010