So here we are. These are my World Cup picks, with brief explanations below. Here’s to a totally fabulous three weeks.
What more can be said? They’re two-time defending Weltmeister[‘s] (that sounds particularly intimidating in Deutsche). Why are they so heavily favored? Take your pick. There’s the familiar surroundings, the sterling defensive record (566 minutes without conceding a goal…haven’t shipped a goal in the World Cup since 2003), the innovative vision of the DFB, Silvia Neid’s pragmatic tactics, and/or the sheer depth in Germany’s roster. An unprecedented third World Cup seems assured. Anything else would be a shock of epic proportions.
Potential tripwire: Hype. Will the heightened expectations be too much to bear?
France [Semifinals – Fourth Place]
Similar to Germany, France is beginning to reap the benefits of the national governing soccer body’s investment and faith in the women’s game. The importance of the squads’ upbringing at Clairefontaine can’t be overstated, as Andy Brassell explains. Almost 80 percent of the players in Bruno Bini’s roster have honed their craft together at France’s elite football academy since they were 14 or younger. That generation of players is now of age.
In the 2011 UEFA Women’s Champions League final, champions Olympique Lyon staged a clinic in technical proficiency. The core of France’s World Cup roster were on that triumphant Lyon team. That coupled with France’s near perfect qualification record cement Les Bleus’ dark horse candidacy.
Potential tripwire: Stage fright. France’s squad must be careful not to get caught up in the moment, especially considering 16 of them will be set to make their World Cup debuts.
Canada [Group Stage]
*ducks from objects thrown by angry canWNT fans* I know. I don’t like it either. If FIFA introduced some kind of wild card situation for the best third-place finisher, Canada would be in with a shout. Head coach Carolina Morace was notably perturbed after the draw, and for good reason. To use an Ian Darke-ian expression, Canada are simply “luckless”.
Not even Morace’s tactical wizardry, Christine Sinclair’s predatory instincts, or the galvanizing effect brought on by the recent off-the-field turmoil can do much about getting drawn into this unjustly tough group. On the bright side, there’s always 2015. At an average age of 25, it’s safe to say most of the players in this year’s squad will be around to give it another go by then.
Potential tripwire: Goal production. Big Red’s recent friendlies have proven that goals can come from anywhere. That will need to be the case this time around as well, as the squad will be without Josee Belanger. Jonelle Filigno is not the finished product just yet and Melissa Tancredi has been known to blow hot and cold. Sinclair will have to be talismanic.
Nigeria [Group Stage]
History just isn’t on Nigeria’s side. The team has amassed just two wins over the course of five previous World Cups. Tactical discipline will be key, as physical prowess can only get you so far against the technical ability of Germany, France, and Canada. Nigeria’s U-20’s managed just that last summer and were duly rewarded for it.
One of the most overlooked storylines heading into the World Cup is Nigeria’s appointment of Thomas Obliers. The former Bad Neunahar head coach is considered a rising star in the German women’s soccer world. Obliers’ expertise could help plug some holes in the team’s set-up.
Potential tripwire: Disorganization. Nigeria have been known to switch off defensively at some points, making them susceptible to counter attacks. Also, the team’s public anti-lesbian policy would be laughable if it wasn’t so despicable.
There’s something about a new generation arriving as a previous one begins its departure. England’s golden generation (Faye White, Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey etc.) have entered the twilights of their careers. That makes the influx of youngsters like Ellen White and Jess Clarke particularly timely. If England can show the resolve displayed in Euro 2009 and/or the incisiveness showcased against the U.S. in April, they’ll be fine, regardless of the poor run of results leading up to the tournament.
Potential tripwire: Expectation. Undue expectations have historically undone England’s men’s team. Will England’s pioneering generation buckle under the pressure of knowing this could be their last shot at glory?
Japan has been the next big thing for a while now. Maybe now it’s for real, though. The team is fresh off a victorious 2010 Asian Games campaign, as well as U-17 Women’s World Cup title. Next to France, Japan could be the most technically gifted side in the tournament. That will come in handy in Group B.
Potential tripwire: Lack of a cutting edge. Japan’s deficiencies in the final third were made apparent in the team’s recent friendlies against the U.S. Passing, movement, and creating chances are well and good. It’s converting those chances that count most.
Mexico [Group Stage]
So what was with Mexico’s performance against the U.S. early this month? What happened to the adventurous, free flowing football that electrified the Mexican faithful in World Cup qualifying last fall? Instead, Mexico opted to bunker in their own territory, rarely venturing past the halfway line to mount an attack. It’s unclear whether those are the tactics Leo Cuellar will employ in Germany (chances are not). Still, Mexico will have to make do with an attack that’s heavily reliant on the brilliance of Maribel Dominguez.
Potential tripwire: Variety in attack. If Mexico does indeed play with a 4-5-1, clear opportunities on goal could be sparse.
New Zealand [Group Stage]
It’s perhaps not quite New Zealand’s moment just yet. With a squad with an average age of 23.4, the Football Ferns’ squad is one of the youngest in the tournament. In six total World Cup matches, New Zealand has managed to score just one goal and has yet to win or draw a single game.
Potential tripwire: Inexperience at the highest level. New Zealand had a perfect qualification campaign and made mincemeat out of the likes of Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea. Can John Herdman’s team do it against, erm, higher caliber competition?
USA [Semifinals – Third Place]
The U.S. will find a way to get it done, just as it has on a handful of occasions up to now. It’s not going to be pretty, because it’s not like the team learned how to play Total Football during its one-week stay in Austria. But what the U.S. lacks in style it more than makes up for in grit. The sheer individual talent of the players in the U.S.’s roster will be the ones to make the difference. But it will be nervy.
Potential tripwire: Tactics. The U.S. is probably the easiest team in the world to scout. From the team’s predictable flat 4-4-2 formation to its by-the-book substitutions, there aren’t likely to be many surprises with this team. For good or for not so good.
Sweden has the oldest squad in the tournament (but not by much). As is the case with Sweden’s Group C opponents the U.S., tradition could go a long way in determining Sweden’s progress. The team has a creative, yet firm central midfield and killer pace on the wings. An experienced squad should go a long way.
Potential tripwire: Explosiveness. Sweden has promising talent in attack, but reports from the team’s recent tune-up match against Japan suggested that the team seemed sluggish. Thomas Dennerby’s team will have to liven up quickly.
North Korea [Group Stage]
North Korea’s squad is conventionally unconventional. With an average age of just 20.47 (!) that features just one player with prior World Cup experience, “baptism by fire” comes to mind. The team looked defensively stout against Germany recently, but eventually fell victim to the team’s pace down the middle.
Potential tripwire: Inexperience.
Colombia [Group Stage]
Colombia are capable of some pretty mesmerizing stuff, and aren’t likely to tone down the flair for their opponents. Quite the opposite, in fact. Yoreli Rincon will lead a technically proficient team bursting with potential. Potential doesn’t always equal promise, however.
Potential tripwire: Fearlessness. While that can definitely be a good thing to have, Colombia’s adventurous style of play could leave to defensive weaknesses.
If Brazil are the Harlem Globetrotters, will that mean the rest of the field is the Washington Generals? Brazil is the only team in the world that can generate so much hype despite having spent so little time together preparing. There’s really one reason for that and her name is Marta. She’s supposed to be pretty good.
Potential tripwire: Lack of team cohesiveness? That lack of prep time could be a concern. Marta will have to be at her best, too.
Australia’s youngsters will come good once more. The team’s 2010 AFC Asian Women’s Cup championship went a long way in affirming Tom Sermanni’s trust in his youth players.
Potential tripwire: Pressure. The Matildas’ debutants could cave in to the enormous pressure on hand, particularly after the team’s historic run in the 2007 edition.
Norway [Group Stage]
Has Norway’s moment in the sun come and gone? If Norway are nipped by the Aussies (or the Equatoguineans), it will be the first time the team misses out on the knockout stage in World Cup history. But several years of mediocrity may mean something.
Potential tripwire: Lack of an ‘X’ factor. Isabell Herlovsen and Cecilie Pederson are probably the closest things to it, but does Norway have a player capable of turning a match?
Equatorial Guinea [Group Stage]
Equatorial Guinea could be shown to be out of their depth. The team will have to rely on a corps of attacking players that are all unknown quantities on the international stage.
Potential tripwire: Distractions. From the gender controversy to the team’s lax naturalization policy, Equatorial Guinea’s World Cup journey has been rife with controversy.