Tuesday, October 29, 2013

IBWI: Europe's Top Offerings

We're just a few weeks away from all of European futbol descending into a pitched dog-eat-dog, man-beats-man, no-holds-barred, battle-to-the-dismemberment for five measly plane tickets for Brazil. But while those teams have work still to do, four others punched their own tickets by finishing top of their qualifying groups in October.

We could wait for the full field to be set, the groups to be arranged and the rosters to be finalized before we predict their results...but that sounds responsible/lame. So let's just make inaccurate assertions to fill up time.

File:Russian Football Union logo.jpgRussia
Contender Credentials: The double headed Eagle and former powerhouse will be making their first appearance since 20002 in advance of hosting the cup themselves in four years time. They topped perennial qualifier Portugal in their group, boast a tightly knit group of players who all ply their trade in the Russian premier league, and have media-darling manager Fabio Capello as their coach.

Pretender Problems: Topping Portugal in qualifying's a lot easier than in the real thing. The only real chance for Russian Premier League players to face top tier opponents is the Champions' League, which means that unless you play for CSKA Moscow...good luck. And having a media-darling manager wears thin...just ask England (Capello's last squad)

Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Vladmir Putin steps in as a shirtless center half and guides the team to the title (possible through KGB tactics, but who really cares?)
Pits of Despair Scenario: Ongoing international spats cause Putin to through a pout and keep the team home leading to the first intentional disqualification since India in 1950.
Prediction: They go, they have one good match, they struggle against a better team and one they should beat and Capello's star dims further as they wind up 3rd Place in the Group

File:Logo of the Football Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina.svg
Our First Debutante

Contender Credentials: The Golden Lilies debut in the World Cup having soared as high as 13th in the world and with two players (Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibevic) with more than 8 goals (only Argentina has a similar tandem: the slightly higher profile Messi/Higuain). Their defense was similarly stingy ceding only 6 goals in all of qualifying.

Pretender Problems: The Lilies lost their #13 ranking swiftly when they were squashed by America (yes...America) at home. Take away their absurd 21 combined goals in victories over Lichtenstein and Latvia and their totals are slightly less impressive (7 of Dzeko's 10 came in those games). Then again, they also ceded half their goals to the mighty forces of Lichtenstein and Latvia...so maybe that Defense merits some questioning too.

Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Not content to just appear in the Cup, Bosnia is inspired to push themselves to greater heights and inspires a new golden generation to pick up the game with a second round berth.
Pits of Despair Scenario: Coach Safet Susic has to go into hiding after all his timidity and substitution quirks cost them any continued glory.
Prediction: They're by no means incompetent, but they're also unlikely to reach the same heights against better competition: 4th Place

File:England crest 2009.svgEngland
Contender Credentials: They have some of the world's most prolific players, who all earn their keep playing in the world's toughest league, many of whom also face off against the best teams in Europe, while facing the relentless pressure of the World's most intense fan base. And even if they didn't have all those things, they still invented the darn thing!

Pretender Problems: As long as there have been World Cups there have been English teams finding new ways to lose them. Every four years the entire (English speaking) world is deluged with predictions of England finally taking back what is rightfully theirs, and every four years they find a way to screw it up (or almost screw it up). Is it really crazy to predict the same thing again this time?

Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Inspired by enough media coverage to make a Kardashian blush, the Three Lions finally get their just reward and take home the spoils from the cursed usurpers land.
Pits of Despair Scenario: The WAGS are disappointing, the players are more so, the sun is too hot and Sepp Blatter is so irritated by their complaints that he connives to cheat them out of all three matches.
Prediction: It's England, so they'll survive the group stage. But it's England, so they'll screw it up in the Round of 16

File:Spain National Football Team badge.pngSpain
Contender Credentials: Credit where it's due, the Red ones, The Red Fury, or the Fury are the best team in the world. They have the trophy from South Africa, they have the number one ranking in the world, they've won an absurd three straight major tournaments. They've lost one game in two years [to Brazil, in Brazil]. Until they're beaten, they are the team to beat.

Pretender Problems: Until 2010 Spanish futbol was known much more for their ability to squander opportunities than for their ability to finish them. With the golden generation of Spanish talent rapidly passing 30 and entering their decline, a repeat may be difficult--especially since the tournament takes place in South America.

Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: South America, Shmouth America; the most indomitable collection of international talent racks up a second title as nonchalantly as they do everything else. Every other national association pays obscene sums of money for the secrets to player development and solves the Spanish debt crisis.
Pits of Despair Scenario: A couple of injuries keep heroes like Villa, Xabi, Xavi, Iniesta and others from playing. Latin Americans take their vengeance on conquistadors by intentionally ruining the erstwhile colonizers return.
Prediction: As golden as all get-out, Spain slides into the Quarter-Finals when an unfortunate red-card and a little homefield advantage send them home.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Happy Trails #59-44

With only a few weeks left in the qualifying campaigns, lets pause for a second to recognize some of the teams that have fallen by the wayside, in their quest for the World Cup.

#59 Latumire, Albania
WOOO! We Love you Ismail!
Why they lost: The Red and Black Eagles only won two games at home, drawing against Norway and losing to Iceland and Switzerland. For an cranky, insular, ex-cold-war rival, you'd think that protecting the home front would be a little more important for Albanians.

What we'll miss: Our annual shout out to Ismail Kadare! Superb poet, perennial Nobel candidate, only Albanian we actually remember.

#58 Snakkes, Norway

Why they lost: The golden age of Norwegian futbol is almost 20 years in the rear view mirror now. Desperate to improve things the National Federation brought back master manager, Egil Olsen, who helped guide the Norwegians to the Mondiale's in both the US and France. This time he got the team up to 11th in the world in 2011, but crashed out violently for the fourth straight time.

What we'll miss: According to Wikipedia, Olsen has an encyclopedic knowledge of geographic trivia. Maybe we could have asked him to list the 12 longest isthmuses in the world.

#57 Tsedesutyun, Armenia

Why they lost: Stunningly, shockingly, Armenia was alive in the race for a spot up until the moment Mario Balotelli scored a tying goal with just 14 minutes left in Naples. If Armenia had won that game they would have been in tremendous position to finish second and get a playoff spot in the play-in round. So if you want to blame Mario Balotelli for everything, (1) I assume you're an Italian citizen, (2) you can add the crushing of Armenian hopes and dreams to the pile.

What we'll miss: At 24, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is already a vice-captain, has 12 goals in 40 matches, and is soaring up the lists of desirable prospects in Europe (from Borussia Dortmund to Liverpool).

#56 Zbogom, Bulgaria

Why they lost: Coming in to the final match in second place in their group, The Lions were in the driver's seat looking for a playoff position. According to fans, they brought a serious attacking mentality against the Czech Republic to try getting a win, up their goal differential and get a playoff spot. Sadly the attacking mentality left the defense open and they lost 1-0. Ending their chances.

Stick it Krum-Bum
What we'll miss: Continuing the quidditch shout outs we sent to the Peru national side--we have to assume that Viktor Krum would be a big supporter of the Bulgarian national side.

#55 Slan libh, Ireland

Why they lost: Hard as it is for me (as a Scotsman) to say, it probably didn't have anything to do with Leprechauns, Guinness, or lousy whisky. But you have to admit, it's a pretty thin team after Robbie Keane and John O'Shea (both of whom are on the wrong side of 30)

What we'll miss: The chance for Irish quidditch players to rub Viktor Krum's face in another humiliating defeat.

#54 Lehit, Israel

Why they lost: Popular as futbol is in Israel, it usually places second next to the favorite past-time of "staying alive/keeping loved ones alive in a place that is constantly on the brink of war." Until they get their priorities straight, they'll continue to struggle. [This moronic obliviousness to serious world issues is brought to you by ESPN, ESPN: minimizing important things in life since 1979]

What we'll miss: The musical magic that appears everytime you say Yossi Benayoun's name.

Anybody want a helping?
#53 Do Videnja, Montenegro

Why they lost: For a while the brave falcons actually led their group over the Ukranians and English. But as all good things (including a traditional Montenegrin dinner of black risotto and cuttlefish), it was not to last. STUPID TRANSIENT NATURE OF LIFE!!

What we'll miss: Trying to make black risotto and cuttlefish in honor of the Montenegrins.

The 5th 2010 Finalist Eliminated
#52 Zhivijo, Slovenia
Why they lost: Coming off of their second world cup appearance in South Africa (and one where they very nearly slipped into the second round past the maddeningly indecisive American/English teams), hopes were high throughout Slovenia. Finishing behind upstarts Iceland has left them as cold as...well...Iceland. Notably, the National team dropped two vital matches at home in Stozice Stadium in Ljubljana, the second to aforementioned Iceland in front of just 6,000 fans. (Maybe hopes weren't that high)
Eat your heart out Christian Bale!

What we'll miss: Samir Handanovic's goalkeeping, which apparently has inspired at least one person to see him as not the hero we want, but the hero we need.

#51 Ahoj, Czech Republic

Why they lost: A lousy showing in September (with losses against Armenia at home and Italy) pretty much sealed the deal for the erstwhile champions of Eastern Europe. Now Peter Cech and Tomas Rosicky will have to spend their summer vacation drying their eyes with huge fistfuls of Premier league money.

What we'll miss: The logo! This post's winner of "Coolest National Team Crest For an Eliminated Team.

#50 Hoskcacal, Turkey

Why they lost: You could blame a young group of players or a cannibalistic qualification group or uncertainty this summer over national certainty due to Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian rule. But, I prefer to blame increasing immigration into Germany and a steep decline in Turkey being able to count on the best young Turkish talent. Thus the great ballet of geopolitical/economic exchange claims another victim.

What we'll miss: The chance to recall the sepia toned glory days of Hakan Sukur and Turkey's miraculous 3rd place finish in 2002. You know...the olden days.

#49 Vislat, Hungary

Why they lost: Malnourishment (ba-dum-ching! HUNGARY PUN!) Seriously though, no matter how close Hungary was, the 8-1 butt kicking it got at the hands of the Dutch on October 11th made it all irrelevant.

What we'll miss: American announcers failing horribly at pronunciations of Balazs Dzsudzsak! [Bolage Jujak]

#48 Abe D'ehre, Austria

They're thawed for every home game
Why they lost: It was an impressive campaign for "Das Team" who make up for the bland nickname with a balanced squad that plays in some of the top leagues in Europe. But taking only four points from the combination of Germany and Kazakhstan, while second place Sweden took seven definitely accounts for the third place finish

What we'll miss: Pre-game, half-time and post-game performances by the Von Trapp family!

The 6th 2010 Finalist Eliminated
#47 Vi Ses, Denmark

Why they lost: The Danes finished second in their group but came up short as the worst second place finisher from round 1, ending their chances of qualification. (If you want to nitpick, the loss at home against Armenia--4-0 no less--cut into their point totals and left them a point shy--had they won, Croatia would be in this spot).

What we'll miss: A chance at a second interview with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

#46 Nos Vemos, Venezuela

Sorry Nicky, but you can't
out-crazy the crazy one.
Why they lost: The Burgundy are the only South American nation to never qualify for the World Cup. Never. Not once. In history. Next in the ranks of continental ineptitude is Bolivia, and even though they have a -19 goal differential in their 6 matches, that is precisely 19 goals more than Venezuela has even dreamt of...because they lost, which is probably a direct result of NEVER WINNING!

What we'll miss: President Nicolas Maduro's attempts to spin a sporting victory into an endorsement of socialist policies/The Ghost of Hugo Chavez haunting opposing goalies.

We like him for
fashion sense alone
#45 G'bye, Jamaica

Why they lost: [Insert stereotypical assumption about Jamaican life here], or more likely there's the fact that Thoedore Whitmore made a better player (scoring a winning goal over Japan in 19998) than he did a manager (getting walloped in 5 straight Hexegonal qualifiers

What we'll miss: Inspiring ourselves to greater feats and better writing with classic motivational scenes from Cool Runnings

#44 Panama

Why they lost: Despite a massive improvement in the quality of play by the Canal Men (including two semi-final appearances in the last two Gold Cups) they still were unable to get over the hump in World Cup Qualification with the glorious final goal by Raul Jiminez sealing their fate.

What we'll miss: Attempting more palindromic sentences like "A man appears, reap Panama"(all sentences have to start with "A man...but still it's good fun"

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Waning Seconds: Europe's a Mess

Sweet god, the final seconds of Panama and Mexico left me stunned.

Just as I resigned myself to a underwhelming Mexico settling into matches against New Zealand by default, Luis Tejeda pushed himself through a sloppy Mexican defense to score and put Panama and Honduras into fits of delight.

Four minutes later, Raul Jiminez, in his third minute of play, scored a scinitillating bicycle kick to retake the lead, revive El Tri's hopes and make any fan of futbol stand up and shout (even if you take a certain bizarre appreciation of Mexico's struggles). Suddenly you can see how scrappy, frantic and down right desperate the North American Goliath had become. Blood is drawn, the players wrassle up and down the pitch in frenzied efforts for Panama to get one more equalizer that never materizalized.

It's that kind of action that makes world cup qualifying exciting, that makes me want to watch well past 10 PM when I don't know or have a vested interest in either team. While I'll turn away from playoff baseball to watch it. That's just how fun it is.

And then I look at Tuesday's action and I think...please, let there be even one match with 5 minutes as good as the final 5 of Mexico/Panama.

Whether we get it or not, we got it Friday night, and Tuesday, a number of teams are going to get their own moments of glory. Here's how it sets up for the last day of group stage qualifiers.

A brief update on the teams I wrote about last Thursday. Only Venezuela and Jamaica have been eliminated, and here's how it works out for those left.

IF Honduras beats or draws with Jamaica: They go to the World Cup
IF Honduras loses to Jamaica and Mexico beats Costa Rica (plus goal differential): Mexico goes to the World Cup, Honduras plays New Zealand in the playoffs
IF Honduras doesn't lose and Mexico wins/draws in Costa Rica: Honduras goes on, Mexico goes to the playoffs.
IF Mexico loses in Costa Rica and Panama beats the USA: Honduras goes in, Panama faces New Zealand, Mexico is out.

If Uruguay loses or draws to Argentina: Ecuador and Chile are in, Uruguay faces Jordan in the playoffs
If Uruguay beats Argentina, Chile or Ecuador lose their match and there's a swing in goal differential: Uruguay and the winner of Chile/Ecuador go to Brazil, the loser of Chile/Ecuador faces Jordan in the Playoffs.
And  now...for the mess that is Europe...hey, look it's one of two phrases that appear both on my blog and in World Bank board rooms! (The other, of course, is 'Robert Mugabe's a tool')

Alive for an Automatic Berth
There are only four spots left, and mercifully it's easy enough to follow. 

Azerbaijan can't handle that...
In Group F Russia just needs a point in Azerbaijan to push themselves past Portugal. They've handled lesser squads on the road as easily as an oligarch handles obscene sums of cash.

In Group I Spain needs a point against Georgia to see off France. Georgia could have all of their nation, all of the state of Georgia and all of the intergalactic six-footed, speed-demons of Georgorious 7 and still be underdogs against Spain.

Group G gets a little more complicated. Bosnia/Herzegovina and Greece are dead even on points, with B/H at a staggering +23 goal differential and Greece at just +6. So Bosnia holds the tie breaker as they go to Lithuania and Greece hosts Lichtenstein. Greece needs a better result than B/H (a win rather than a draw, a draw rather than a loss), while the Golden Lilies can make it in with any equivalent result, so they might as well get a win to play it safe.

Hardest to figure out is Group H, England has the lead, but being England it's not that safe. They're only a point up on The Ukraine who is going to face San Marino. Yes, that San Marino. The San Marino that has mustered one goal in nine matches. The San Marino that wins about as often as someone's finger actually lands on San Marino when they spin a globe. Meanwhile, England faces Poland at home, a home match is nice, but they only drew with them before, with Ukraine guaranteed to beat San Marino, the three lions need a win.

Alive for a Playoff Spot
There are eight playoff spots up for grabs (which will eventually turn into four honest-to-goodness world cup berths).

However qualifying for one is tricky business. You don't just have to finish second, you have to finish as one of the eight best second place teams by having a good record against the top five teams in their group (because it would be unfair to count their matches against last place. Especially since Group I only has five teams. 

So to judge these odds, we need to use some inferential thinking.

We know that Sweden is in, and if we assume that Spain, Bosnia, and Ukraine do what they need to do (while England fails, like they usually do) then we can also book spots for France, Greece and England too [Technically Montenegro could qualify if they beat Moldova and San Marino beats Ukraine...and technically the US Congress is "working" right now]. That leaves us with 4 spots and 5 groups that will try to supply them.

Here's where things get tricky.

In order to qualify you need to have more points against the other top 4 teams in your group than at least one other 2nd place finisher. Lots of teams and groups could end up in that situation, but right now it seems most likely to land on Group B, where Bulgaria has just 7 points and beloved underdog Armenia has 9 points (after you take away their wins over Malta). Even if Bulgaria wins they end up with 10 points, Armenia could get as high as 12 if they pull off a miraculous win IN Italy (11 if they pull of a slightly less miraculous draw), but finishing 3rd or 4th is more likely. Denmark has the most likely route with a final game against Malta but even that should set them up with just 10 points...so let's call that our minimum number of points required.

Even if they can't pass Russia, Portugal should be already taken care of. Their worst case scenario is a Russia win, a loss to Luxembourg and a Northern Irish win. Even that would give them 12 points and keep them in front of Group B's runner up so again, they're safe.

Ditto Croatia, who's assured of 2nd place behind Belgium and should have 11 points regardless of whether Macedonia, Scotland or Wales finishes bottom of their table. (Ideally Scotland finishing bottom would help out the Croatians the most...to which I imagine most Scots would say, "HELL NO!")

Add caption
Iceland should be good to go if they beat Norway or just do better than Slovenia. But things aren't as rosy for the NZS. A win for Slovenia should seal their spot, but if they win 2nd by drawing in Switzerland and Iceland loses it may be all for naught since most of Slovenia's points come from whaling on Cyprus and they could end up with just 10 points, and be stuck arguing goal differential against the Danes or Bulgarians.

The most likely group (other than B) to wind up at the bottom of the runner's up table is Group D with it's three way battle for survival. With a win against a resilient Estonia, Romania should be 2nd place and safely into the playoffs. A loss for Romania and a win for Hungary over hapless Moldova (pretty likely) should give them second place, 11 points and safe passage into the playoffs Romania could be even better positioned A victory for Romania should have them dancing. Turkey's got the toughest route ahead, as a win is unlikely v.s. Holland so they'd need Estonia and Moldova to win in order to finish second. Of course, doing that puts them in the same position as the Slovenians, bickering over goal differential.

Most likely we'll end up with Russia, The Ukraine, Spain and Bosnia/Herzegovina going to Brazil, and Sweden, Greece, France, England, Porugal, Croatia, Iceland and Romania with Denmark being out of the money.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

In it But Win It? #4: TGIF!

Last night was a great night around the world. Not only because lots of people kicked off their weekend in style, but because four more teams punched their tickets to Brazil.

But now it's Saturday morning and the cartoons are loud, the heads are pounding and reality starts to set in. They may be in the world cup, but can they win it? (I have no idea...which means I'm just as qualified as anybody else to be making irresponsible predictions now! WHEE!)


File:DFBEagle.svgContender Credentials--Do you see the three stars on the crest? Have you seen the ruthless, calculating, machine-like efficiency with which Germany decimates its rivals? If Germany's at a World Cup, its a contender for the title. Add to that the fact that the German Bundesliga, where most of the DFB-Elf is playing, is one of the strongest leagues in the world right now and you have a team of superbly trained, superbly coached, superbly prepared athletes  who are expected to make the quarter finals at the very least.
Pretender Problems--The strength of the Bundesliga (and the fact that the other main players in die Nationalmanschafft regular rotation play for such European luminaries as Arsenal, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Lazio) means that many players are likely to be exhausted when the World Cup rolls around. Then you've got a trip to South America and all the associated headaches.
Pie-In-The-Sky Scenario: Laser-visioned dedication, hard-work and great coaching strategies from Joachim Low see Germany to the title it has just missed in '02, and '06, and 2010.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Some kind of Greek/Portugese/Irish/Icelandic hex dooms Germany's favorite 11 to a bottomless pit of sovereign debt and a shocking last place finish.
Prediction: I initially was going to put them as losers in the round of sixteen...but come on, this is Germany we're talking about. They'll be runners up...again...sorry Germany.

File:SFV Logo.svg
Contender Credentials--La Nati cruised through a not all together easy qualifying group, besting recent World Cup qualifiers Norway and Slovenia as well as daring upstart Iceland. The mix of German and Italian families in Switzerland attempts to merge to successful styles of play and has been impressive in guiding them to regular appearances including a victory over Spain in the first group stage match in South Africa. The team is familiar with each other and with coach Ottmar Hitzfeld who has been coaching the same national team for an astonishing 5 years! (Practically an eon by national team standards)
Pretender Problems--As long as Hitzfeld has been at the helm of Switzerland they've been good but not great. Fans have come to expect strong workmanlike, but not transcendent victories. In a sport that values innovation and adaptability, being comfortable with a job and a coach does not always equate to being victorious with a coach. Add to that the fact that only midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri is likely to be making a run against top European talent regularly (as a player for Bayern Munich) and the Swiss may well "miss" in Brazil.
Pie-In-The-Sky Scenario: Someone, somewhere says "I want to play like insert name of Swiss player here" and makes their hearts glow as they lose in the round of 16.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Uncertain and unfamiliar with each other players tepidly execute Hitzfeld's game plan, which the rest of the world already knows and Switzerland is once again just a footnote on someone else's epic ass.
Prediction: Third place in the group, but at least one Swiss child gets excited by a well struck goal.

File:Belgium urbsfa.pngBelgium
Contender Credentials--The hype around the Red Devils has been humming for years now. Eden Hazard's tremendous play in the Premiership will do that, but the flood of young Belgian talent in the World's top leagues has buoyed their performances and boosted the Belgians to a number six world ranking.
Pretender Problems--That flood of young talent is a double-edged sword, especially since the Belgians haven't made a World Cup since 2002 when Hazard and co. were a bunch of prepubescent daydreamers. Much as we might like to have a new power emerge, there's a reason why so few teams have won the world cup...very few know how to.
Pie-In-The-Sky Scenario: The hype is real and they soar into the finals as an unheralded wunder-team.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: The hype is well...hype and intense marking of Hazard limits distribution and playmaking chances for others, forcing the Belgians into an embarrassing fourth place.
Prediction: Truth be told, the hype probably is a bit much, but with the tonnage of talent and a likely seeded position, they will easily be good enough for a round of 16 berth where a team that phoned it in during the group stage beats them, and starts the fears that another golden generation will go wasted.

File:Federacion Colombiana de Futbol logo.svgColumbia
Contender Credentials--After a 16 year hiatus, los Cafeteros are back in business, but without the same starry-eyed hype as the Belgians (despite being ranked 1 spot higher in the world). Columbia's best performance came a little over 20 years ago when a young and impetuous team (led by my still beloved Carlos Valderamma) made a great run in Italy.
Pretender Problems--Valderamma's not on this team (which is actually probably for the best since he's now 52). The Columbian fan base has a tendancy to overreact and heap a little too much pressure on to the players (witness the epic wikipedia page and the horrible events surrounding defender Andres Escobar's assassination). It's little surprise that, like the overwrought Red Sox fans of decades gone by, the team's frequently underwhelms when they're expected to do well (both in continental and international competitions). Since they're expected to be good now...well...
Pie-In-The-Sky Scenario:  Like Uruguay in 2010, Columbia shakes up the established order of things as they rise up to the Semis while Brazil and Argentina get dumped out before hand.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Like Columbia in 1994, they think they can, they think they can, they think they can...and then they don't.
Prediction: Without a true leader at the front of the field, but a truly sinister back defense they'll get through the group stage but struggle in a Round of 16 exit.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Waning Seconds: October I--'Mericas!

We're nearing the end of the road to qualification, ten are in, fifty still have a shot, but only twenty-two spots remain. We'll keep narrowing the field of contestants this weekend starting with matches on Friday and continuing on to Tuesday when all that will be left are guaranteed participants and terribly nervous, play-off bound teams.

Europe is a mess [hey, look sport imitating life!], so we'll look at the ramifications of the final qualifiers closer to next Tuesday, but things are much clearer with North and South America. But since this is a blog from a Montanan perspective we all know there's really only one America that matters...OUR AMERICA!

So here are the qualification routes for the teams still alive, with as much rootin'-tootin' American-ized analyses as I can muster.

We already have a spot in the World Cup, so the remaining two spots (one in the cup one in the playoff versus New Zealand) doesn't really matter enough to talk about.


Oh, okay I'll talk about it.

Jamaica has the longest shot at qualification, probably because they're too busy sipping delicious coconut drinks in hammocks rather than pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Technically they could qualify if they beat both the US and Honduras while Mexico and Panama draw their first match and then lose their second matches. That's about as unlikely as a Sandals' beach vacation not being a colossal money suck.

Y tu Mickey? Wait...that was foriegn...
Mexico is finally getting their comeuppance for that border crossin', job theievin', consistently-contributing-to-our-growing-Gross-Domestic-Product-while-we-eschew-all-manual-labor-positions-and-humbly-accept-our-semi-racist-commentary-on-their-worth-as-human-beingin'. Okay, satire aside, a cup without Mexico isn't a good cup (and it might just hit our economy, not to mention Mexico's, pretty hard). So El Tri need to beat Panama in Azteca (a likely proposition) and then top Costa Rica (who should be resting their best players). A draw or loss in either makes things tough...in both it ends their hopes.

Panama perhaps the most successful team in Central America of late, Panama is also the home to a KICKASS CANAL!! ATTABOY TR!! WOOO!!! Oh yeah...Panama has the hardest road ahead of themselves. Needing a result in Mexico City and some points against the US. Difficult, but possibly duable.

Honduras is in the lead....for third place...SUCKERS!!...USA, USA! Four points will be enough to see them on to Brazil and since they get to face bottom feeding Jamaica and Costa Rica (who will probably be resting their best players), they should be heading for at least the intercontinental playoff.

There are four spots left (three for the cup and one for the playoff), two of them have already been claimed, but three others will fight for the remaining two.

Venezuela is experiencing what all misguided nations who give in to the siren song of socialism experience: a bloated bureaucracy, mildly-successful sports programs, and wide reaching social programs that don't shut down over petty partisan politics...SUCKERS! With only one match left, and a big goal deficit they need to crush Paraguay at home and hope that Uruguay or Ecuador (more likely Uruguay) flame out twice in a row.

To be fair...Luis Suarez might be able to handle this.
Ecuador and Uruguay are fighting to avoid the play-in game against Jordan and get into the World Cup directly. They face each other on Friday, in Quito, which means hard cheese Diego Forlan. While an Uruguay win would pressure Ecuador to get a win in Chile, an Ecuador win will pretty well guarantee Uruguay needs a miracle against Argentina...both teams will be playing to win. So you can pretty well count on it being a hard fight...not as hard a fight as Glacier Versus Sentinel in Kalispell this Friday Night. But, you know...a hard-ish fight.

Finally there's Columbia and Chile responsible for two of every American's favorite foods: Coffee and Chili. What's that? That was a gross misunderstanding of both geography and spelling? I'm sorry...I can't hear you over the sound of AMERICA BEING AWESOME!! [Guitar solo!!]. Anyway, Columbia has been phenomenal in qualifying and appears to be on the verge of not only going to Brazil but getting one of the 8 top spots in the seeding. Meanwhile, Chile has shown consistent improvement since their round of 16 showing in 2010 and can seal qualification with a win in either match.

Since their closest competitors (Ecuador and Uruguay) face each other in a frantic scrabble for points, the leaders of the pack may be tempted to lay back for a comfortable draw in Barranquilla on Friday, knowing that Columbia only has Paraguay left and Chile can seal the deal at home versus Ecuador.

But of course, whoever wins, whoever loses, whoever draws [shudder runs through American sports fans] we can all agree on one thing.


(This concludes the satirical jingoism in this blog for--hopefully--ever.)

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Winnowing the Field: Happy Trails #91-60

It's been a while since our last "Happy Trails" post. But it's high time that we doff our cap and pour out a taste for our departed brethren whose hopes of a trip to Brazil must now be confined to the same "off-peak" lucky break kayak.com searches that the rest of us have.

#91 Adeu Andorra
Why they lost: Inability to capitalize on home-field advantage. Unlike the Ecuadorians who own in Quito, Andorra doesn't get any boost from playing at the highest pitch in Europe (Communal d'Andorra la Vella), ceding 9 goals at home without scoring one.
What we'll miss: Cranky pants Catalan separatists (one step above the Quebecois whose poutine laced tirades are just irritating now)

#90 Bis Spater, Lichtenstein
Why they lost: Any time you lose 8-1 AT HOME you're pretty well sunk. On the plus side that loss was against Bosnia & Herzogovinia, rather than arch rivals Latvia.
What we'll miss: Irritating fans of philately by joking how postage stamps are bigger than Lichtenstein...especially since there is a superb postage stamp museum in the capital, Vaduz

#89 Nagha Naghrak, Malta
Why they lost: Their stunning 1-0 win in Armenia may be the downfall of Armenia's quixotic quest for a World cup bid, but it was also the lone highlight in a dismal campaign with a -14 goal differential.
What we'll miss: Taking the chance to push Malta to stop the frantic shuttling of refugees to and fro across the Mediterranean in rickety, likely doomed boats rather than continuing say...humanitarian aid.

Thanks to Nursultan and Kanye, this is only
the third biggest insult to Kazakhstan
#88 Qosh sau bolyngdar, Kazakhstan
Why they lost: The team has been reeling ever since the 2006 documentary by beloved national journalist Borat Sagdiyev was revealed to be a mockery by British comedian Sascha Baron Cohen. The incessant joking by rival teams often reduces them to tears in the middle of matches.
What we'll miss: Besides obviously dumb Borat jokes there's also Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is rapidly shooting up the charts of moronic, slightly despotic world leaders (and that was before he called in Kanye West to perform at his grandson's wedding

#87 Ya Su, Cyprus
Why they lost: Some teams face a scoring drought, Cyprus faces a scoring dust bowl. It's been a year since the tiny Mediterranean island got to go all goofy celebration style. Since Efstathios Aloneftis scored at home versus Norway in the 42nd minute, Cyprus has been shut out. True they got a win over second place Iceland before that, and a draw with group leading Switzerland after it...but not scoring's definitely not helping.
What we'll miss: The slim possibility that Cyprus could have faced either Turkey or Greece in a playoff, inciting all kinds of patriotic kerfuffels [though hopefully no actual trouble].
Bressan wondering where the
help is. (eurosport.com)

#86 Ubachymsia, Belarus
Why they lost: The Belarusians cannot build on any kind of success in World Cup qualifying. Just miss a playoff spot in '02? Tank in '06. Get your best ever goal differential (plus 5) in '10? Slip back to -8 in '14...and that's even before a game in Spain. 
What we'll miss: Renan Bressan, dominated the Belarusian league, leading it in goals in 2010 and 2011 for league champ FC BATE Borisov. Though he's been less effective in Russia, he is easily the leader of Belarus' youth movement. Okay...he is Belarus' youth movement (if only all Belarusian's were also Brazilian)

#85 A Pli Tard, Moldova
Why they lost: Failure to face San Marino more than twice in the qualifying process. Sure there a FIFA rules and everything, but come on Moldova, don't be so small minded.
What we'll miss: A few young talents mark Moldova as a potentially improving team, particularly if Artur Ionita (already a hot commodity in the Swiss league) and Serghei Gheorgiev become a powerful midfield combination for the next few decades.

#84 Xudaafiz, Azerbaijain
Why they lost: Five draws in eight matches, isn't bad, but it's not exactly the stuff that winning campaigns are made of either...hence the whole "draw" thing.
What we'll miss: Their national team logo. Half ball on fire. Half-paint company advertisement

#83 Kargard Iqaveet, Georgia
Why they lost: Pulling a nil-nil draw against France at home in Tiblisi was a great result for the Crusaders. But it came a little late in the qualification for it to matter much, or at all, so it ends up being just a nice consolation prize.
What we'll miss: Awkward conversations in which fans of Uga the bulldog think they've done something worth drinking about. Even though they'll still take the opportunity to drink about it.

#82 Pob Hwyl, Wales
Why they lost: It didn't help that Gareth Bale was unwilling to play both Forward spots, defend, goaltend and sell the popcorn.
What we'll miss: International media swooning over Mr. Bale for a whole World Cup...thereby keeping the focus on Messi, Neyemar and half-a-dozen other Nike branded superstars.

#81 Eddi, Luxembourg
Why they lost: The goalkeeping is more than a little suspect for the Red Lions. Ceding 9 goals in two matches against Israel, and matches ahead against Russia and Portugal. Without keeping the biscuit out of the basket, it's a little tough to get ahead in life.
What we'll miss: Threatening Luxembourgish coach Luc Holtz with the aged spectre of his future: Lou Holtz.

#80 Slan go foill, Northern Ireland
Why they lost: Despite a 1-0 win over Russia, the Norn Iron struggled to find a decent run of success at Winfield Park in Belfast. Losses to Israel and Portugal hurt, draws with Luxembourg and Azerbaijan were the real crusher.
What we'll miss: Working with a number of Belfast-bred teachers, my Northern Irish accent is better than my Irish, so I guess I'll miss irritating friends and family.

#79 Jumalaga, Estonia
Why they lost: Attacking midfielder, Joel Lindpere does a marvelous job for both the blue shirts of Estonia and the blue and red of the Chicago Fire. But at 31 he's a bit old for the national team...as are the 9 other regular team members who trot out against Europe's freshest talents.
What we'll miss: The chance to trot out my 9th Grade "World Cultures" report factoids about Estonia (culled from the 1997 World Book Encyclopedia). Did you know that one of Estonia's major exports is "ore"? Or...was back in 1997?

#78 Sveiki Latvia
Why they lost: They didn't look great in any qualifier, but it might help to have some forwards who could balance out the defensive aura cast by Captain Kaspars Grokss and youngster Vitalijs Maksimenko.
What we'll miss: The chance for Latvians to take those heathen Lithuanians down a peg.

#77 Dogledanje, Macedonia
Why they lost: The Red Lynx have the distinct disadvantage to be building a new generation of talent cobbled together by a wealth of players who ply their trade anywhere but Macedonia. From Captain Goran Pandav with Napoli to youngster David Babunski on the Barcelona B team, Macedonians really only get to play together in camps making cohesion and development a bit tough.
What we'll miss: Snooty arthouse showings of films by cinematic pioneers Yanaki and Milton Manaki, it's hard to imagine many soccer fans who wouldn't also enjoy a little art house falderal.
C'mon Lithuania, give us more Arvydas!

#76 Iki Greito Pasimatmyo, Lithuania
Why they lost: In their last two matches in the group, the Lithuanians fielded a team with a combined 20 goals over a combined 385 caps...and that was the line up with fire power (scoring three goals against Latvia and Lichtenstein)
What we'll miss: Arvydas Sabonis.

#75 Nakemiin, Finland
Why they lost: The Eagle-Owls were doomed the minute they got lumped into group I with Spain and France. Even a draw away to Spain couldn't keep them in the hunt.
What we'll miss: A distraction for our Finnish friends in those long brutal summer months between sled-dog racing season.

#74 Do Videnja, Serbia
2nd 2010 entrant Eliminated
Why they lost: What happened, Serbia? A team that was all prospect and potential, that offered so many talented players and such a strong defense that they were considered a model of Eastern European strength on the international scene. Qualifying for the cup as Serbia and Montegro in '06 and as just plain Serbia in 2010 they seemed poised to be a long term power. But Dejan Stankovic and Nemanja Vidic proved to be too integral to team success and with their declines and retirements coinciding with increased struggles in Europe
What we'll miss: The chance for my wife and her slew of proudly Serbian relatives (from the great city of Red Lodge Montana) to bubble over with national pride during the cup.

#73 Zbohom, Slovakia
3rd 2010 Entrant Eliminated
Why they lost: Slovakia's decline was far more predictable. A seemingly fluk-ish qualifying in 2010, a stunning upset of a lethargic Italy in the group stage before flaming out against Holland in the round of 16 and then struggles in qualifying for Europe 2012 and the World Cup. They should have had a better chance with an inconsistent Greece as their main rival for qualification, but losses at home to the Greeks and Bosnia/Herzogovina sealed their return to the fringes of futbol attention.
What we'll miss: The slim chance of Turn-Back-The-Clock Uniform night with piratey shirts and stirrup socks.

#72 Jojoechajevypeve, Paraguay
4th 2010 Entrant Eliminated
Why they lost: Paraguay's fall from grace is closer to down right baffling. Four straight qualifications for the cup. A quarter-final berth in 2010. They don't seem like they should be dismissed so decisively (unlike say, the North Koreans). But when you can't get a win anywhere on the road AND drop home matches to Argentina, Chile and...Venezuela? Well, I guess Roque Santa Cruz and Justo Villar had to get old at some point. 
What we'll miss: Long Guarini ramblings from my grad school friends, and groomsman (all of whom have extensive experience in Paraguay)

#71 Wauslegga, Bolivia
Why they lost: Long the forgotten cousin Oliver of South American qualifying, the "green ones" seemed to save their best for the biggest teams on the continent: beating perennial qualifiers Paraguay, and semi-finalists Uruguay at home, and drawing with Argentina on the road. And while those performances might have been nice, they meant doodly-squat when you can't beat Venezuela or Peru anywhere.
What we'll miss: Our quadrennial: Hey! Remember Marco Etcheverry moment. Speaking of which, HEY! Remember Marco Etcheverry? Good times...good times.
That's a Peruvian team we can get behind

#70 Uq Ratukama, Peru
Why they lost: The Incas' stubborn refusal to build a stadium atop Machuu Pichu. C'mon, if Quito is tough to play in Machu Pichu's going to be helacious and there's no way you drop matches to Columbia and Uruguay at home then.
What we'll miss: Analyzing the soccer team's strength in comparison with the Quidditch team's strength.

#69 Salang sentle, Botswana
Why They Lost: The Zebras have a rather punchless offense, with just two goals to their name (both at home, in a draw and a loss). Their youngest stars are defenders and midfielders so, that probably won't change any time soon.
What We'll Miss: Inspiration for another Alexander McCall Smith collection of mysteries for The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency. ("The Zebra in Brazil"?)

#68 Magha, Gabon
Why They Lost: The Panthers had a slim shot at qualification in their final match, and fielded a rather young and alotgether inexperienced team. They did not keep up with Burkina Faso and were summarily ousted from the tournament.
What We'll Miss: Like Estonia previously, the chance to trot out my 9th Grade Geography report on Gabon, ahem: "Albert Schwietzer, the famous doctor, spent many years serving the people of Gabon." You're welcome everyone who doesn't look at Wikipedia.

#67 Tionana, Malawi

Why They Lost: Trailing Nigeria by two points, the Flames needed a win to stun the world and knock out the Super Eagles. Sadly they went to Calabar, Nigeria, and were utterly overwhelmed on the road, squandering their shot.
What We'll Miss: Midfielder Tawango Chimodzi flashing that sweet, sweet Greek paycheck as the lone Malawian national team player to be based in Europe.

Even if he's a scientologist, better
Whitaker than Amin...

#66 Mweraba, Uganda

Why They Lost: So many players flying in from so far afield (Iceland, the US, Vietnam and Poland to name but four) had very little time to gel as a unit in Marrakesh ahead of their do-or-die-tilt against Senegal. Unsurprisingly, the cranes died.
What We'll Miss: Forrest Whitaker attempting to rally the troops as Idi Amin in the worst-inspirational-sports-speech ever.

#65 Allah Yismallak, Libya

Why They Lost: Honestly? I don't know, maybe there was just a little too much going on with the political instability, the threat of losing one's homes, families and welfare and the tremendous national pressure on them to steal a victory over Cameroon in their last match. Or maybe they knew that it's just a game...not life-and-death, especially as they have seen life-and-death.
What We'll Miss: Pointing and laughing at stupid Ghadaffi mistakes.

#64 Ate Logo, Cape Verde Islands
Why They Lost: Back in June I wrote that the problem was "Late blooming. The Tubaroes Azuis (Blue Sharks) started out with three straight losses, but big wins this month against Equitorial Guinea and Sierra Leone saw them up to second in their group behind Tunisia. A little earlier and The Eagles of Carthage might have had some competition."--Now the solution is simpler: "Inability to read rules and regulations"--If Cape Verde had held one man out of their line up against Tunisia they'd be mulling a play-off match up instead of how to spend the winter in Cape Verde. (Might we suggest living on a beautiful island...oh yeah...you already do that.)
What We'll Miss: Hipsters trotting out Cape Verde jerseys in an effort to be cool and obscure.

#63 Tikala Malamu, Congo

Why They Lost: Credit to the Red Devils, they went from the play-in games to within one point of the  World Cup Playoffs (a feat that Ethiopia actually did accomplish), and with a scad of talented young players breaking into Europe they likely won't have to work as hard in the future.
What We'll Miss: The burgeoning play-making combo of Delvin N'Dinga and Prince Oniangue.

First of many, Emmanuel...
#62 Fikani Biwo, Zambia
Why They Lost: Even for a hard core Black Stars supporter like myself, it's a little tough to say goodbye to the Copper Bullets, one of the true feel good stories of African football. Coming off a 2012 Cup of Nations Title, Zambia gave Ghana all they could handle and more in the qualifying region's group of death. Sadly some untimely draws (away at Lesotho and home v. Sudan) saw them off despite beating the Black Stars at home.
What We'll Miss: With 35 caps at age 20, Emmanuel Mbola is clearly going to be a fixture of the backline for years to come. And while he might not have netted the high profile transfer to Spurs at age 17, he still has plenty of time to get a pay day.

#61 Sizobonana, South Africa
The 5th 2010 World Cup Finalist eliminated
Why They Lost: Since the heartbreaking "goals-scored" tiebreaker nocked Bafana Bafana out of the 2002 World Cup, the once rising power in Africa has fallen on hard times, after a lackluster showing at home (with only a win over an absolutely incompetent French team) they're back to their "not-quite-good-enough" status, even when their group includes Botswana and Ethiopia
What We'll Miss: The soothing sound of vuvuzelas...wait..no, I won't miss that.

#60 Ertagacha khair, Uzbekistan
Why They Lost: I'll own this one. I've been boosting the White Wolves chances since I saw them give an excellent performance in the 2011 Asian Cup not to mention some good U-20 performances. They had a lead going into the final stages of Asian qualifying only to see Iran squeeze past the post and then fall to Jordan in a heartbreaking penalty shootout. Sure it's easiest to lay the blame on Anzur Ismailov for the final miss...but at this point, a loss is a loss and the best thing to do is hope it turns out better next time around.
What We'll Miss: Smug self-satisfaction in assuming I spotted Uzbek greatness before it happened.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Starting XI: Nerdery Engage!

If there's one thing that gets me as nerdily riled up as sports, it's books. So October is just about the best time of year for me. There's the Major League Baseball playoffs, at least one guaranteed international match day, and the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

With dozens of teams still dreaming of qualification, there's plenty for international sports/book nerds to root for in the coming weeks. Including these 11 writers, who could give geeks like me not one, but two things to go crazy about in October (along with their country of origin and the most recent Ladbrokes odds in their favor)

Note, I only went with the authors with the highest odds who come from countries that are still in the hunt for a World Cup spot

I. Peter Nadas--Hungary 7/1
The artist: At once classical and experimental, Nadas is revered throughout the literary world as positively Proustian in his depth of detail and calibre of expression. As he builds conflict and division between people in our modern world, he also finds ways to bring them together, merging into a collective vision of humanity as shown in his novels, essays AND plays.
The odds of a double: The Magical Magyars are in the driver's seat for the runner-up spot in Group D, up a point with two games to play. Unfortunately up-and-coming Romania are set to face the bottom feeders of the group (Estonia and Andorra) while Hungary opens with Holland. Still, their recent 5-1 drubbing of Estonia (while the Estonians challenged the Dutch) suggests that they should not be trifled with. The biggest problem they both face is that favorites (both in futbol and in Nobel discussions) rarely win. How good are their odds of turning the double? About as good as Congress agreeing on anything other than the fact that America is awesome.

II. Assia Djebar--Algeria 10/1
The artist: The one African and the one woman on this list, Assia Djebar is the leading voice of passionate feminism in North Africa. Her novels address that feminist philosophy by casting modern women in a world immersed in traditional gender roles. Her debut novel (La Soif or The Mischief or literally The Thirst) earned her death threats for showing a decadent westernized woman in traditional Algeria. Her later work has been less controversial, but equally adamant about the role that women ought to play in an open society.
The odds of a double: Algeria opens against Burkina Faso around the time we'll hear about the Nobel. While the Burkinabe may be the most likely debutante left in Africa, Algeria has a little more international clout and a little more poise on the biggest stages. That combined with Djebar's own clout and poise suggest that the odds of an Algerian double are around odds that a Fox News Pundit screws up 8 Arabic names in 80 seconds.

III. Amos Oz--Israel 16/1
The artist: Oz has the combo platter of great writing and serious political clout. Both in his literature and his opinionated essays for Israeli newspapers, he advocates for peace and justice throughout Israel and the West Bank.  He remains prolific both in literature and in his non-fiction.
The odds of a double: Since the same people who give out the literature award give out the peace award too, the temptation to make political statements with both awards (as with Mo Yan and Orhan Pamuk) is pretty great. Meanwhile the national Blues and Whites have a pretty steep hill to climb needing powerhouses Russia and Portugal to falter while winning against Northern Ireland and in Portugal. Despite Oz's justifiable confidence, odds are only slightly better than peace breaking out in Gaza tomorrow.

IV. Milan Kundera--Czech Republic/France 25/1
The artist: Kundera's technically from the Czech Republic, but prefers to write, live and be recognized as French. One of the most popular writers internationally (based largely on the success and affection around The Unbearable Lightness of Being), Kundera's writing lives in the beautiful mixed up world between comedy and tragedy underneath totalitarian regimes. He writes to encourage, rather than pacify the reader's imagination, and in an increasingly literal world, that's rather refreshing.
The odds of a double: It depends on which country you want to go with. The French are sure of a playoff spot (and better if Spain somehow implodes) while the Czechs need to win in Malta and Bulgaria, while Denmark and Bulgaria lose both of their matches. While Kundera rarely disappoints his fans, the French and Czechs do it on a seemingly daily basis. So I'd say the odds are about as good as late night talk show hosts not making fun of the French.

V. Jon Fosse--Norway 25/1
The artist: Never underestimate the desire of Norwegians to award other Norwegians, all that nordic humility is thrown out the window on one day of the year--hence the tonnage of scandinavian laureates. Fosse certainly has Norway in his corner. He gets to live in a resident on the grounds of the Royal Palace, and at 53, he'll get to bunk with the kings and queens of Norway while watching people marvel at his ingenious dramas.
The odds of a double: The Norwegian national side has it all within their power with two matches against Slovenia and Iceland to break into the playoff picture, but the pressure on the Nobel committee to cast a broader net (and Fosse's relative youth and likely consistent status as a contender for the award) suggests that this may not be his time. I'd venture the Norwegian odds are about as good as the odds of American Cable news pronouncing a name with one of those slashy o things correctly on their first try.

VI. William Trevor--Ireland--33/1
The artist: One of the most acclaimed writers of the modern Irish era, Trevor is a grand statesman at a time when Irish writers could use one. 18 years after Seamus Haney won his Nobel, his forerunner, Trevor may be due for his turn at the podium. At turns Gothic and Chekovian, Trevor might seem to be  an imitator of the first rate, but that undercuts his strengths and inventions as a writer, offering a variety of protagonists, a number of narrative perspectives and a truly Irish sense of tragicomedy.
The odds of a double: Trevor may get some sympathy points for Haney's recent passing, but the boys in green won't. The Irish team will need something darn near approaching a miracle to beat Germany on the road and get a major goal differential boost to pass Austria and Sweden (assuming Austria beats Sweden as they need to). Their chances of turning the double are about equal to odds of Ireland running out of Guinness.

Who wouldn't want to rule that?
VII. Javier Marias--Spain--33/1
The artist: Marias is a man who thinks in terms of split identities in an ever changing and global world. He's also apparently the King of Redonda--a small island micronation that's not really a country or a kingdom at all, it's just a place where writers sit around and write and argue over whose in charge. At just 62 he would be very young for a laureate, and hasn't done quite as much as others on the list, but is already highly regarded in European literature.
The odds of a double: Naturally Spain is going to get in, they host bottom dwelling Belarus and Georgia and a win in either of them will put them in directly. Whether or not Marias actually has a shot to win the day this time around, he may help a double soon enough. I'd say there odds are about as good as Spain getting 8 goals in two matches.

VIII. Salman Rushdie--England--40/1
The artist: Rushdie is one of the best known writers on the planet. Being threatened with a fatwa by the Ayatollah will do that for you. So will being lampooned by Seinfeld when it was in its heyday. So are the great collection of best-selling, critically acclaimed works that make him a focal point of the press every time he publishes something, anything at all. He's a master of magical realism and a truly classic writer. 
The odds of a double: Gabriel Garcia-Marquez already has the magic realism medal, Rushdie's got that "always-a-bridesmaid-never-the-bride" air about him (like John Fowles and Vladmir Nabokov before him). And if there's any greater football choke artist than England I've yet to see them. That puts their odds of pulling the double somewhere around, George RR Martin publishing two books in the same calendar year.

IX. Leonard Nolens--Belgium--50/1
The artist: Little known outside of Antwerp, Nolens is a major postmodern figure in Flemish poetry. (I know, I know...so many great Flemish poets, so little time.) He has both an excellent poetic style and an insightful selection of journal entries that chronicle the artistic process. 
The odds of a double: Belgium is pretty clearly guaranteed a world cup berth, and Nolens is just the kind of underexposed European poet who is beloved by the Nobel committee. There are many better known authors in the running for the prize, but as any football fan will tell you, it's not always the best known team that wins. So I'd say it's about as likely as a show actually earning the title of "The New  Breaking Bad" in the next few months.

X. Ismail Kadare--Albania--50/1
The artist: The bard of the Balkans, Kadare, enjoys blending his own local mythology and modern social issues (such as dangerous and despotic regimes). While he has been exiled to France for undermining socialist status quo, he remains a beloved figure even though his recent output hasn't matched his greatest accomplishments. 
The odds of a double: While Kadare (by virtue of his high reknown and other glossy wins--such as the Man Booker International award) makes a good dark horse, Albania would be a jet black horse in the darkest cave on the darkest side of the moon. A win in Cyprus is likely, but they'd also need a win over front running Switzerland and stumbles from Iceland, Slovenia and Norway...eek. Turning the Albanian double is about as likely as Steven Segal starring at Stratford on Avon.
Really looks like a crowd
pleaser, doesn't it?

XI. Peter Handke--Austria--66/1
The artist: The controversial Austrian (who has frequently defended former dictator/genocide afficianado, Slobodan Milosovic) would be an odd choice for the Nobel committee, who prefers their controversial causes to have the backing of most UN members. But he did write The Goaie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick which uses a penalty shot as a metaphor for criminal behavior.
The odds of a double: Between Handke's controversial behavior and the fact that Austria likely needs a win on the road against a leading Swedish side, I'd say somewhere around all my students handing every assignment in on time for the rest of the year.

Of course, Haruki Murakami is the bookkeepers favorite, Joyce Carol Oates is the pop-culture favorite, and the Nobel prefers to award literally anyone but the favorite. So realistically, it's better to be a fan of the futbol teams than the writers.