Saturday, November 30, 2013

In it, But Win It? #8: Born To Runner-Up

For some reason, thinking of the UEFA Playoff games always makes me think of the scene from the Simpsons' where perpetual over-achiever Lisa ponders a life of (relative) mediocrity.
Announcer: And now, Avis Rent-A-Car is proud to present the second best band in America. Will you welcome Garfunkel, Messina, Oates, and Lisa singing their number two hit, "Born to Runner-up". [Audience boos] 
Lisa: Why would they come to our concert just to boo us? 
Such is the situation for Europe's other qualifiers. You know, the ones who didn't win their own group but instead beat somebody else who, also, did not win their own group. After all, if you're African you once you win you have to keep on winning...but if you're European...meh.

Here now are some wholly inaccurate predictions about what will befall the next batch of Europeans to take their talents to the unamused masses.

File:Croatia football federation.pngCroatia
Contender Credentials: As one of the top 16 teams in the world, and a perpetually well prepared cup side, Croatia promises to be a tough opponent for whomever they're drawn with. They also boast a tremendous tandem in Midfielder Luka Modric (Real Madrid) and Forward Mario Mandzukic (Bayern Munich), that should scare anybody.
Pretender Problems: After a sterling run to the semi-finals in their debut in 1998, Croatian football has been rather similar to other ex-Yugoslav states (Serbia/Slovakia/Slovenia), and is still searching for a breakthrough to equal Davor Suker's run of glory 16 years ago.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Now that he's head of the Croatian Association, Suker can use all the team's resources to finance a time machine to bring a good chunk of the '98 team in to play alongside Modric and Mandzukic en route to another 3rd place finish.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Drawn with faster, more agile players, everyone other than Modric and Mandzukic chokes up and turns into a red-chequered pumpkin.
Prediction: There's enough talent to get one win here, and if paired with a less compelling partner (Iran/Algeria) that alone should get them 3rd place.

File:Le nouveau logo FFF.png
Contender Credentials: Packed with some of the best talents in the world, and now with a world class side in Paris-Saint Germain. France has plenty of people playing world-class football everywhere you turn, particularly in Balon D'or Front-runner Franck Ribery. Add in the gritty ex-champion manager Didier Deschamps and its hard to see why France isn't a frontrunner.
Pretender Problems: Then you remember that they're France, and its hard to see how they even got this far. They needed a miracle win with their backs against the walls to beat Ukraine, and they got it. They are ranked by FIFA as the worst qualifier from Europe and they play that way until the last possible moment, so maybe it's a little much to expect another final appearance without Zinedine Zidane.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Deschamps gets the whole team to bond through trust falls and campfire circles until they are a well oiled machine that dominates in Brazil and unites a fractured nation.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: In fighting, racial tension and boneheaded play leaves them looking like a dog's breakfast on the world stage, yet again.
Prediction: As much as I mock the French, and I mock the French...I really do believe that they have a strong balance of talent, experience, youth and strategy. They just need time to gel away from the all important club season. Having done that they'll slip into the second round before falling to an upstart like Japan, the US or Ghana Round of 16

File:Greece National Football Team.svgGreece
Contender Credentials: Perpetually one of the toughest outs in Europe, Las Hellas knows how to frustrate and aggravate their rivals to the dying seconds of the match. They refuse to let in easy goals and in a tournament plagued by new and quirky balls that puts them instantly in competition for a top two spot in the group.
Pretender Problems: While they don't let in goals, they also don't score many, having gotten 2 in all their 6 previous World Cup matches. Forwards are as rare a commodity in Greece as retirees who don't mind cutbacks in public services, and while defense wins championships, you need someone (anyone) to put it in the back of the net too.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Three straight nil-nil draws see them through a tough group dominated by one of the heavyweights.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Another tournament, another bout of defensively brilliant, offensively dim futbol and another fourth place finish in the group.
Prediction: Mostly underwhelming, with a few flashes of brilliance from captain Giorgious Karagounis' new mentee Kostas Fortunis which suggests better fortunes ahead. 4th Place

File:Portuguese Football Federation.svgPortugal
Contender Credentials: Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo. The media's obsession with Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo.
Pretender Problems: The back line's best hope is the rapidly ossifying Bruno Alves, and the scrum of hum-drum goalkeepers is once again proof that no matter how good the chosen one is up top, he can't do everything himself. (At least, not until he finds a way to clone himself)
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Cristiano Ronaldo clones himself. Portugal wins their first cup. Portugal becomes a model for economic/scientific/football genius.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Cristiano Ronaldo injures himself while pretending that he was injured by a tackle. Portugal is pummelled, the economy tanks again.
Prediction: Ronaldo has enough offensive fire power (especially with his pal Nani) to overwhelm a couple minnows, but then runs smack dab into an equally potent offense in the next round. Round of 16.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

In it, But Win it? #7 Africa's Best Hopes

Edison Erantes De Nacimento (known to his friends as Pele) once predicted that an African nation would win the World Cup by 2000. Of course, Pele has never really been proven as terribly accurate as a pundit, and four cups after his prediction expired, Africa's still without a top 4 finish to their name.

Will this year's batch of qualifiers flip the script and prove Pele right, right in front of him? Probably not, but let's make a bunch of overly eager predictions about them anyway!
File:Logo Faf.png
Contender Credentials: The Fennec Foxes have slowly established themselves as the preeminent power in North African football, and as a xenophobic French population grumbles about foreigners on the national team, they're getting more and more top flight talent to play for the mother land including fast rising defenders Faouxi Ghoulam (22, St. Etienne) and Aissa Mandi (22, Reims) and the Inter Milan based duo Saphir Taider (MF) and Ishak Belfodi (F).
Pretender Problems: With the decline of Morocco and the tumult around Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, it's not terribly surprising that Algeria is the top North African team. More tellingly, while this is their second straight Cup, their most experienced player (DF/Captian Majid Bougherra) has twice as many caps as the second most experienced talent. So "experience" is a bit of a misnomer for the side.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Buoyed by a raft of young talent and minimal expectations, Algeria stuns a few teams in the group stages to make a stirring run to the Round of 16.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Manager Vahid Halilhodzic fails to mention a curfew, the young Algerians go out partying in Brazil and a sleazy James Franco with corn rows turns them into the subject of Spring Breakers 2: Brazilian Boogaloo.
Prediction: There's lots of talent in Algeria's line-up, but there's lots of talent in everyone's line-up, and it doesn't make much of a difference (4th in Group)
File:Cameroon 2010crest.png

Contender Credentials: With their trip to Brazil the Indomitable Lions will have made it to 7 of the last 9 world Cups. The quietly, doggedly, consistent West Africans are led by their greatest player since the legendary Roger Milla, Samuel Eto'o (currently making a major comeback with Chelsea). They'll be unlikely to quiver in the glare of the global spotlight.
Pretender Problems: The guys who played in Spain in 1982 aren't still on the pitch, worse still, neither are the players who gave Cameroon its first/only play-off round appearance in 1990. A team that often relies on Eto'o as their primary option still hasn't developed another forward who could partner with him, or take the torch once he makes his exit.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Eto'o's return to form inspires his younger teammates to greater heights and younger playmakers Alexandre Song (Barcelona) and Eynog Enoh (Ajax) use their Champion's league experience to set up another run to the quarters.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Eto'o gets hurt in training, a young backline gets gobbled up by faster opponents and Cameroon crashes out in the group stage, again.
Prediction: The Lions are always good for a historical montage, but they won't be making new memories in Brazil. (4th in Group)

File:FIF NewCrest.pngCote D'Ivoire
Contender Credentials: Ranked 17th in the World, the Ivorians are easily among the worlds' best teams. They've also been Africa's most impressive side for most of the past decade, making the quarter finals of every African Cup of Nations since 2006 (5 straight), and boast a star-studded line-up from their golden generation: Drogba, the Toures (Yaya and Kolou), Zokora and Barry.
Pretender Problems: The Golden Generation is starting to resemble the Golden Girls, which isn't much of a problem in the haphazard "we'll-give-you-credit-for-whatever-matches-you-play" world of the FIFA Rankings, but starts to look suspicious when stacked up against a host of other sterling international line-ups.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: The best African players on the planet turn up for one last hurrah, while training in a new generation of talent (Wilfred Bony, Serge Aurier, Ismael Diomande) en route to a stunning final victory over Brazil in the Final.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: There's a split in camp between the cool-older kids and the snot-faced tykes, there's no cute girls camp nearby to sneak into and build morale, the summer ends with an unsatisfying poop joke.
Prediction: There's too much talent for the Elephants to be denied a play-off berth in 3-straight-cups, but that's as far as they go. Second-in-Group, Round of 16

File:Ghana FA.pngGhana
Contender Credentials: If Cote D'Ivoire has been the best African side in recent history, Ghana has been the most World Cup Savvy side. And one could argue (as I often have argued) that they were robbed of a semi-final spot by Luis Suarez. The team seems to have only gotten deeper as the years have progressed and with local coach Kwesi Appiah on the sidelines, they've been in great form of late.
Pretender Problems: Appiah's a fan-base pleaser to be sure, but he seemed to alienate familiar faces like Kevin Prince Boateng, Michael Essien and Sully Muntari. And if the Black Stars are as good as I claim, then why haven't they won a major trophy since 1982?
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Essien and Muntari take it upon themselves to lead younger players in the midfield and defense, while Asamoah Gyan runs rampant beside Dede/Jordan Ayew up top and the Black Stars live up to the title of "The Brazil of Africa" in Brazil, taking home the continents first cup.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: All the sterling runs from Gyan, Ayew and Dominic Adiyiah mean nothing when the defense and goalkeeping is spotty, and Ghana can't escape another difficult group.
Prediction: Keeping up the tradition of going one better every four years (and breaking American hearts every four years), the Black Stars top the US in the Quarterfinals and finish 4th over all.

Contender Credentials: The Super Eagles were the first African side to advance from the Group Stages in consecutive world cups, and can also boast of being the top team on the continent as the reigning Cup of Nations Winner. They'll know Brazil better than most teams after the Confederations' Cup last summer, and they have one of the brightest young stars in African football in midfielder John Obi Mikel
Pretender Problems: Mikel can't do it all himself (as their poor showing in the Confederations' Cup proved). Nigeria has very few scoring options up top and a relatively untested batch of defenders in the back, meaning that, in all likelihood Mikel will have to do it all himself. Add to that, the total unpredictability of the Nigerian FA and it's impossible to say what Nigeria will do next.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Goalkeeper/Captain Vincent Enemya finds the magical words to motivate a rag tag bunch of youngsters around one superb player, all while he finds love in an unlikely place, teaches the president a thing or two and learns a valuable lesson about growing up.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: The surly president blusters and fusses, the young players wilt under the pressure, Enemya snaps and goes on a profane tirade and John Obi-Mikel ponders changing his citizenship.
Prediction:They play soccer matches, sometimes well, sometimes not well. Goodluck Jonathan wears a cool hat. (3rd in Group)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy Trails #43-33: So Close, Yet So Far

The final spot was booked, the full field is set, and the fearing and fretting has kicked into high gear before the World Cup Draw on Friday, December 6th.

We're exploring ways to cover the Draw live on the blog, and we'll make sure to include some more analyses of those teams who recently added their names to the roster before all that analysis is rendered utterly irrelevant by the actual draw.

But before we do any of that we should tip our hats in the direction of the last 11 teams to fall short of Brazil. In the last qualification round of our Happy Trails posts.

File:Federatia Romana de fotbal.png#43 La Revedere, Romania
Why they lost: After surviving the battle royale type scrum with Hungary and Turkey to snare second place. Romania ran into the Greek buzz saw. Losing the first leg 3-1 meant that, no matter how stout the back line of Razvan Rat and Vlad Chriches might get, it would take a bundle of goals to get ahead...a bundle of goals they did not have.

What we'll miss: The eternally appealing Romanian spinning soccer ball of death error message on our computer screens, plus occasional allusions to Georghi Hagi and Transylvania.

#42 Hej Da, Sweden
Why they lost: Cristiano Ronaldo. Wait, let me say that again as the Swedes will now say it: "Javla Cristiano Ronaldo". Shortly after Zlatan Ibrahimovic put the Swedes in the contest. Drew them even on aggragate with two masterful goals and appeared to have all the momentum going their way. Ronaldo scored twice to crush all of Solna under his, not inconsiderable boot.

What we'll miss: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Who sounds like he could be a super hero or a Bond villain, and has an ego to match both of those personas and a talent that gets slightly less overblown media coverage than Ronaldo.

#41 Bless, Iceland
We're upset too Gylfi
Why they lost: They couldn't capitalize when it mattered the most. All square going into the second leg in Zagreb, Croatia. Iceland just needed stout defense and a single goal to win their first cup berth in decades worth of trying. Even after Mario Mandzukic struck to put the Croats ahead--when the home side went down to 10 men, Icelanders were entitled to some confidence. But the offense never materialized and a second Croatian goal sealed the deal.

What we'll miss: The slim, but palpable odds that Icelandic midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson would not only guide his team to a victory or two in Brazil, but also finalize some sort of historic Brazilian-Icelandic fishing accord.

#40 Budte Zdorovi,  The Ukraine
Why they lost: Overconfidence maybe? The Ukrainians were ranked. The Ukranians were favored. The Ukrainians had a 2-0 lead going into France. But like Ireland 4 years before them, "The Team" was stunned at Saint-Denis, falling 3-0 and not even getting a shot at penalty kicks. Free travel tip to Mahamdou Sakho, don't plan on a tour of Crimea any time soon.

What we'll miss: Say what you will about Russian oligarchs, Ukranian oligarchs are just as crazy (and have a more onomatopoetically appealing ring to them). Better luck next time Petro Poroshenko, Pavlo Lazarenko and Sergiy Tigipko. There's always 2018.

#39 Senebti, Egypt
Why they lost: They lost 6-1 in Kumasi, Ghana during their first leg. Six goals to one. That was the ball game. Sure they won 2-1 at home in the second leg, but it would have taken a lot more from vets Amr Zaki and Gedo to make the difference, it just wasn't coming.

What we'll miss: Bob Bradley. The little appreciated national coach led Egypt to a 66% winning percentage over 2 years, during what was undoubtedly a challenging time for the nation, let alone the national side. Bradley got dumped, and we can only hope that some Egyptian smart aleck posted this question: ماذا عن بوب؟ (That's "What about Bob?" for those of you keeping track at home)

Okay, we won't whip towels, we promise
#38 Dehna Hunu, Ethiopia
Why they lost: As great a story as the Walia made, they just didn't have an answer for Nigeria's striking force, ceding two goal sat home and two goals on the road to turn a marvelous run into a marvelous moral victory.

What we'll miss: Sewnet Bishaw. I'm never going to get tired of cheering for the ex-gym teacher. Here's hoping we bump into you in a teacher's lounge sometime soon.

#37 M'asselema, Tunisia
Why they lost: The Eagles of Carthage had no luck at home and needed a result on the road in Cameroon to move on. Instead they got skunked 4-1. Though perhaps there was some Cape Verde jinx for sneaking into the third round based on disqualifications rather than stellar play.

What we'll miss: Talking about "The Eagles of Carthage" which is probably the best/most historically amusing nickname in all of African futbol. If she were alive today, Queen Dido would be proud (and probably stoned to death by some militant modern day Tunisians for fooling around with Aeneas)
#36 Si jaama, Senegal

Why they lost: I'm going to go ahead and blame Senegal themselves for this affair. Had they not thrown rocks, bottles and other projectiles at Ivory Coast back in October of last year they would have been able to host the second leg of this tie. Instead they had to play in Morocco and could only manage a draw in the biggest game for the country since the '02 cup.

What we'll miss: The sweetly simplistic Senegalese logo, which looks natural, artful, effortless and sincere. You know, all the things that Italian football isn't.

#35 Bilfu, Burkina Faso
Why they lost: The fastest rising stars in African Football, the Stallions of Burkina Faso finished second at this spring's African Cup of Nations. They had a lead over Algeria. They were on the verge of being a second debutante next year at Brazil, and yet it all came undone in a 1-1 draw, because in the 68th minute at Ouagadougou, Carl Medjani scored a second goal. That was Algeria's 2nd away goal. And though the teams finished level on total goals...the away goals were enough to determine that Algeria was a better team despite the fact they didn't beat Burkina Faso in either match. LOGIC!

What we'll miss: The simple joy of seeing a new team revel in the thrill of their first world cup. Sometimes there's no need for snark, just for satisfaction.

Jordan's national team is a step up here...
#34 Salaam, Jordan
Why they lost: Losing 5-0 at home was pretty much all that was required to spell the end of Jordan's run towards Brazil. Though they played more assertively in the second leg, they needed assertiveness more along the lines of "Hulk Smash" than "Hulk hold rival to a very defensively minded draw"

What we'll miss: The inevitable Nike cross-marketing promotion with Michael Jordan

#33 Aaroha Ni, New Zealand
Why they lost: Like Jordan, the Kiwis gave up 5 goals in the first leg (though thankfully on the road), but couldn't fare any better in the second leg than Jordan did. Proving that even the very best that Oceania has to offer is no match for a bedraggled and inconsistent Mexico.

What we'll miss: Tourism suggestions from Flight of the Concords

We know who's in, but do we know who will win? Yes...or rather, we know who will win our wildly inaccurate six month early predictions.

Stay tuned for those

Monday, November 04, 2013

In it, But Win It? #6: The Three Friendly Long Shots

I was going to call this post "The Three Amigos..." then I remembered the various quasi-racist offerings of that same name and thought, "meh...this is better".

Anyway, we're nearing the end of qualification, but for those happy few Central/South American teams who sealed the deal early the nerve-wracking part is over...for now. While Mexico and Uruguay fret and fuss over match-ups and terrible twists of fate that have landed them in the play-in rounds, these three squads are set to go...though whether it means anything or not is another matter entirely.

So here's a quick spin and ridiculously presumptuous analysis of three more qualifiers for next year's world cup.

Contender Credentials: The South American Roja will be making their second straight trip to the Mondiale in 2014 with a squad full of familiar faces that play among the top leagues in the world. In particular the front of Alexis Sanchez, Humberto Sourez and Jean Beausajour is back for blood.

Pretender Problems: Chile's biggest flaw is that, while many of their players are entering their prime, they don't have the unit cohesion that many of their rivals will. Spread throughout Europe and South America, they don't get to play together, save for international affairs. Last fall they dropped four straight and only qualified thanks to 5 wins in 6 matches to round out the campaign.

Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Their recent form is a sign of piecing everything together and--as the darkest of dark horses--they race to a surprising semi-final.
Pits of Despair Scenario: A rough European season depletes their experienced fronts and they're left as the butt of jokes in South America for the next four years.
Prediction: Chile are the Oakland A's of South American soccer, too often overlooked, but never a champion. Round of 16

Contender Credentials: Better known as "El-Tri-That-Actually-Already-Qualified", Ecuador have long been feared in South America, but little respected elsewhere in the World. Despite a disappointing campaign in 2010, they were back in fine form--looking comfortable throughout their campaign and have one of the most consistent leaders in South American Futbol: 2006 rising star/current-day captain Antonio Valencia of Man United
Pretender Problems: Mexico's non-union, South-American equivalent has problems similar to their northernly brethren. Their manager Reinaldo Ruena gets middling results, they seem utterly incapable of winning away from home and they had the straight up rotten luck to lose the fearsome striker Christian Benitez to a heart attack.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: My Ecuadorian student is right about an international conspiracy to stop Ecuador from showing up higher profile Argentina/Brazil/Uruguay, and a plucky squad of upstarts uncover the secret assassination plans while leading an inspirational underdog charge to the championship.
Pits of Despair Scenario: They can't get off the ground away from Quito. Literally. The pressure of playing so close to the ocean makes their ears pop and they lie in the fetal position for three weeks straight.
Prediction: There's a lot of enthusiasm/team-of-destiny fervor around Ecuador, but not enough talent to see them through. Third in their group

Contender Credentials: La Bicolor is slowly rising in the ranks of continental powers. This is their second straight cup appearance, matching Costa Rica for the longest streak by any CONCACAF Team not named "Mexico" or "the United States of America". They're even rising up in global estimation with Wigan Athletic building a pipeline of sorts through Midfielder Roger Espinoza and Defender Juan Carlos Garcia
Pretender Problems: Okay...honestly? that record reflects a lot more of CONCACAF's weakness rather than Honduras' strength. Even qualification was something of a fortuitous break with Mexico playing so poorly that they backed in via a couple of draws against Panama and Jamaica. (Plus Garcia & Espinoza have a combined 12 Premier league caps)
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: They cement their rising star status with a shocking 2nd place finish and tightly contested Round of 16 match.
Pits of Despair Scenario: They forget to pack their shin guards and have to cover themselves in Spongebob Bandaids once the bigger kids start picking on them.
Prediction: Sorry Honduras, nothing doing...4th Place in their group

Friday, November 01, 2013

Starting XI: Our Favorites for November

Hey, how convenient, I need a list of 11 things for this month's starting 11 and there are exactly 11 spots left in the World Cup! Why not talk about who we'd love to see win those spots--most especially the underdogs who deserve it most.

I've crossed all my fingers for these guys.
I. Ethiopia over Nigeria--I've been meaning to write a profile on Ethiopian futbol and just how much I love their underdog story for months and haven't done it yet...sorry boys...but take solace from the fact that if there's one team I really want to see in next year's cup it's you. From coach Senwet Bishaw's history as Phy Ed teacher, to the national passion for the game (with over 1,000 local clubs it's second only to Algeria in that number), to the fact that they started playing the cup back in 2011. At that time they were 139th in the world, they ranked behind Nepal...behind Kazakhstan...behind St. Kitts and Nevis...and yet, they are still alive and all those teams (not to mention about 92 others) are gone. On top of that, there's a chance to embarrass the increasingly autocratic Goodluck Jonathan!!

They need to win by 2 goals IN it's going to take some doing, but never, never sleep on the Walia.

II. Ivory Coast over Senegal--Strange as it is for me to write in favor of the underdog, I've got to toss in two cents for Cote d'Ivoire on this one for a single simple reason: they're the best that Africa has to offer. Rated in the top 20 in the world, filled with a line-up of potent and powerful players, they should easily be in line for a spot at the Cup and another dark horse label as Didier Drogba makes one last go of it on the world's biggest stage.

They need a win, a draw or a loss by a single goal (in Casablanca, Morocco, since Senegal is barred from hosting matches) for certain qualification

III. Tunisia over Cameroon--Fond as I am of geopolitcal rationales for who I root for and who I don't, Tunisia's a pretty easy squad to praise. One of two remaining Arab Spring nations in the cup, they're the only Arab Spring nation to maintain the veneer of moderation (as shown by people of all belief systems being pissed at the ruling party). Give the Eagles of Carthage a chance to develop a new strain of nationalist pride by booking them a spot in Brazil.

Having drawn the first leg in Rades, Tunisia will need a result in Cameroon to move on.

Sorry Bob-o, I've got to go against
you here...
IV. Ghana over Egypt--I've been to Ghana. I've lived in Ghana. I nearly died in Ghana (a little melodramatic maybe...but it was malaria and I had to be dragged to a doctor...if I'd been more stubborn things could have ended badly). Me pe Ghana, paa paa paa. (Plus, any nation that plays Shania Twain in public spaces as much as Ghana does has a secret affinity for us Montanans)

They've got a 6-1 lead over would take a disaster, or a Bob Bradley sized miracle for Egypt to reverse that lead.

V. Burkina Faso over Algeria--The Burkinabe are one of only two teams left in African qualifying who have never made it before. But unlike the Ethiopians, the Stallions have been rising up the FIFA rankings for several years now. They're ahead of traditional powers Senegal and Cameroon. They're a darling in the making and send a squadron of players throughout Europe to ply their trade. Plus, manager Paul Put needs something to hang his hat on, other than the unfortunate homonym-name game with the Cambodian warlord.

They've got a 3-2 lead over Algeria (who had their shot in 2010), so here's hoping Les Stalon can hold on for a draw or better in Blida

VI. Iceland over Croatia--When Burkina Faso and Algeria kickoff, the first of Europe's decisive kickoffs will  be happening in Zagreb for the second and decisive leg of Iceland v. Croatia. It's pretty easy to say that our favorite is Iceland. The only potential debutante left in Europe's field, Strakarnir Okkar (Our Boys) started their qualifying campaign ranked 122nd in the, they're 46th. In their way are the Blazers of Croatia who have bored me since 1998...I blame the ugly checks.

Iceland had a better qualifying campaign than Croatia, they've got a higher profile star in Tottenham's Gylfi Sigourson, but they open at home and will likely need a draw at least in Zagreb.

VI. Sweden over Portugal--You can root for Zlatan Ibrohimovic who did this:

Or you can root for Christian Ronaldo who does this:

Yup go with Sweden

Portugal's quadrennial underachievement in qualification has yet to come back to burn them. If Sweden wants to keep the Selacao back in Lisbon, they'll likely need to spread a weaker midfield with Kim Kalstrom and Sebastian Larson. A point in the first leg would be a huge help.

VIII. Greece over Romania
I was all set to root for Romania, a chance to revisit the glory days of Georgi Hagi and the wild color wheel of a badge, it would be perfect. But did you know that Greece is higher ranked than France, Croatia and the Ukraine? Did you know that, rather than embracing the violent Golden Dawn neo-nazi political party, Greek footie fans attack Golden Dawn headquarters? Can you imagine how much the Greek economy would be boosted by cheap knockoff soccer things? (Probably not enough to eliminate the deficit, but still, it's a step in the right direction!

Starting in Priaeus rather than Athens (you know with all the fire/riot issues), Greece will need to start out well and hold off Romania in Bucharest in the second leg.

IX. France over the Ukraine
Sure France is another irritating side, but how would Americans cope with a world cup without fish-in-a-barrell "cheese eating surrender monkey" jokes. If the Ukraine is the price we have to pay...that's a pretty easy decision.

This is one of the most tightly contested ties, but it ends in Saint-Denis home of famous French triumphs (the '98 Cup) and infamous French triumphs (the Hand of Frog).

X. Jordan over Uruguay
Two easy deciding factors here: Uruguay has Luis Suarez, easily my least favorite player on the planet (both for his behavior and for the Ghana quarterfinal three years ago), Jordan has never been to a World Cup. Without doubt, Uruguay should win...but just rooting for the people who should win is pretty darn dull.

It's vital that Jordan get off the mark strong at home in Amman, Uruguay will have to come to them from all around the world. The better the home score the more work Uruguay has to do back Montevideo a week later. A good home win could seal the upset over a flat and inconsistent Celeste squad.

XI. Mexico or New Zealand?
I've been going in the order of the games until now...because I genuinely have no idea who to root for here. Do you root for the Kiwis: the apple-cheeked underdogs who have the longest most inconvenient route to qualification (thanks a lot Pacific Ocean) and yet were a tremendous threat in South Africa helping to undo Italy's defense hopes (always good for some bonus points in our book). Or do you root for a team with a greater legacy, a greater history, a greater need for this trip after a tumultuous qualifying campaign (and a team who...if not in the cup will likely depress revenues, ratings and income for everyone associated with the tournament--that's not the point of the games of course, but it would be nice if people weren't calling it a flop before it ever started). I genuinely don't know: Chicharito or Shane Smeltz? Either team would be fun to root for...until they face the US.