Every Wednesday throughout the 2014 NASL season, a guest writer who regularly covers the NASL and soccer in North America will give their take on the league or the sport in general.
This week its third part of series articles where NASL players help guest writer Carlos Verde – Canadian Sport Journalist, to preview this summer’s World Cup
By Carlos Verde
In a little over a week, the world’s greatest soccer players will congregate in Brazil. Like most other professional soccer players, the stars of the NASL will be following game-by-game as the tournament churns excitingly towards the crowning of a World Champion on July 13th in Rio de Janeiro.
Another fascinating group featuring countries that aren’t normally associated with each other (aside from neighbors France and Switzerland), Group E seems to be wide open after obvious favorites France.
The Good – Didier Deschamps’ squad boasts elite talent all over the pitch- from captain Hugo Lloris in goal to Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud up front. A strong defensive core features both young (Raphael Varane, 21) and old (Patrice Evra, 32). Les Bleus boast a wealth of midfield talent- Blaise Matuidi, Mathieu Valbuena, and the incredible Franck Ribery will all feature for Deschamps’ squad, while Real Sociedad’s Antoine Griezmann, if given the chance, could enjoy a breakout tournament for the French. One final note- the French haven’t allowed a goal in their last five matches, against reasonably good competition.
The Bad – The debacle of South Africa 2010, when the team completely fell apart under Raymond Domenech, with the various members of the French government venting publicly about how disappointing their efforts were. That being said, this group showed more cohesiveness and composure to reverse a 2:0 deficit against Ukraine in the second leg of their World Cup play-off.
The Skinny – France will bring a very talented, very deep squad to Brazil. What Didier Deschamps’ men do once in the knockout stage will really be decided by their form on the day, but they should have no trouble rolling through this group with at least seven points.
Prediction – 1st.
The Good – The Swiss did not drop a single match in UEFA qualifying, topping their group with 24 points. Manager Ottmar Hitzfeld has instilled a sense of unity amongst his players, and while no player in his squad has more than ten international goals (Tranquillo Barnetta, Eintracht Frankfurt), Hitzfeld feels that his players will be able to step up offensively. Led defensively by veterans Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus) and Philippe Senderos (Valencia), Hitzfeld’s squad conceded just six goals in ten qualifying matches.
The Bad – The team’s biggest asset and biggest hindrance will be its youth- with players like Xherdan Shaqiri (22, Bayern Munich) and Haris Seferovic (22, Real Sociedad) expected to contribute, the Swiss could flunk out in the group stage just as easily as they could surprise everybody and make a deep run in Brazil. Young squads are like that!
The Skinny – The Swiss were the only team to beat eventual-champions Spain at World Cup 2010, and I don’t see any reason why this hard-working and genuinely talented squad can’t commit another giant killing in Brazil.
Prediction – 2nd.
The Good – Luis Fernando Suarez’s men defeated all three of the other World Cup-bound CONCACAF teams (Mexico, Costa Rica, USA) in the final round of qualifying, so there’s no doubt they’ll be able to compete. The Hondurans’ strength lies in their midfield, which is buoyed by Roger Espinoza (Wigan Athletic), Wilson Palacios (Stoke), and Oscar Garcia (Houston Dynamo). If the midfield can create offense, then Suarez’s men will be capable of taking some points out of this group.
The Bad – The Hondurans lack a clear-cut elite player, though veteran Carlo Costly would like to become it in Brazil. Costly has 30 international goals to his name. Still, Honduras certainly doesn’t have a wealth of top-level talent outside of the midfield, and will have to rely on team cohesion and a high work-rate if they want to escape this group.
The Skinny – Suarez’s group is an interesting mix of foreign-based and domestic-based players, and it will be entertaining to see how they mesh together. They drew 0:0 in group stage play with Switzerland in South Africa 2010, and that result could definitely be on the cards again for the Hondurans as they’ll probably grab a point or two from this group.
Prediction – 3rd.
The Good – Reinaldo Rueda’s men were quite consistent throughout qualifying, finishing in automatic qualification spot after missing out entirely on South Africa 2010. The squad boasts plenty of international experience, with Captain Antonio Valencia (Manchester United), veteran midfielder Segundo Castillo (Al-Hilal), and defender Walter Ayovi (Pachuca) all sporting more than 65 international caps.
The Bad – Most of the key players in the squad are at or over 30 years old- this could work two ways for Rueda’s squad. Their experience and veteran poise could help them upset somebody and advance, but their tired legs could be exposed in a rapid-fire tournament like the World Cup.
The Skinny – While no doubt talented, this Ecuadorian team simply doesn’t do it for me. Probably the least-threatening team to qualify from CONMEBOL.
Prediction – 4th.
A very intriguing group featuring one perennial favorite (Argentina) and three underdogs, Group F could potentially see a country make the knockout round of the World Cup for the first time ever (Iran or Bosnia & Herzegovina).
The Good – What is there not to like about the Argentine squad? Lionel Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Sergio Aguero will form arguably the greatest strike force of any team in the World Cup. The midfield will be anchored by Javi Mascherano (Barcelona) and Angel Di Maria (Real Madrid) is one of the most dynamic wingers in the game today. Did I mention they scored 35 goals in just 16 qualifying matches?
The Bad – While the front six of the squad is without a doubt solid, the defense must give manager Alejandro Sabella some doubts. While Pablo Zabaleta is a quality right-back, the defense as a whole does not boast much big-stage international experience. Marcos Rojo, Federico Fernandez, and Fabricio Coloccini are three other players that play in Europe’s elite leagues and could feature in Sabella’s back four. Not bad per se, but not as star-boosted as Argentina’s midfield or strike force.
The Skinny – Brazilians and Chileans alike would be left with a bad taste in their mouths if Argentina became the fifth South American team to win a World Cup on continental soil, and that is looking like a very real possibility. They should take all nine points from this mediocre group.
Prediction – 1st.
Bosnia & Herzegovina
The Good – Safet Susic’s squad is much underrated. They absolutely destroyed their qualifying group in UEFA, scoring 30 goals and conceding just six while dropping a measly five points. The amount of creativity and sheer attacking talent is very high, with the likes of Edin Dzeko (Manchester City), Miralem Pjanic (Roma), Senad Lulic (Lazio), and veteran Zvjezdan Misimovic (Guizhou) all expected to be on display. Factor in the leadership of captain Emir Spahic at the back, and this is a squad that’s ready to pull off a surprise or two.
The Bad – A severe lack of big-game experience for the Bosnians could turn them into the proverbial deer in the headlights against teams like Argentina. None of these players have ever played in a World Cup before, but the effect that will have remains to be seen- certain first-timers have memorable debuts while others simply flounder and die.
The Skinny – Contrary to popular belief, there is much more to Bosnia & Herzegovina’s squad than big Edin Dzeko. With second-place in this group up for grabs, B&H have the necessary horses to run themselves into the knockout round.
Prediction – 2nd.
The Good – The Super Eagles boast plenty of offensive talent including Shola Ameobi, older brother of FC Edmonton star Tomi Ameobi. Manager Stephen Keshi can also look to Peter Odemwingie (Stoke), Emmanuel Emenike (Fenerbahce), and Uche Nwofor (Heerenveen) for offensive production.
The Bad – After some exciting results at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, the Super Eagles have had a forgettable run of form in recent World Cups, with two 4th-place group finishes (2002 and 2010) and an absence at the 2006 tournament in Germany to their name. Surprisingly, there isn’t a dearth of international scoring experience, with Victor Obinna’s thirteen international goals leading the national player pool.
The Skinny – Lacking international experience, the Super Eagles will be looking to return to the heights of their 90s form. However, a lack of midfield talent and a questionable defense could spell an early exit for Nigeria in Brazil.
Prediction – 3rd.
The Good – The Iranians topped their Asian qualifying group under the direction of Carlos Queiroz while showcasing a sturdy defensive game, conceding only twice in eight matches. The largely domestic-based squad is very close-knit, and Queiroz has instilled a high work-rate and new identity for the Persian Princes. The midfield is also quite strong, with captain Javad Nekounam (formerly of Osasuna) and Ashkan Dejagah (Fulham) leading the charge for Queiroz’s squad.
The Bad – There is a lack of elite talent in the Iranian squad, and no player who has recently appeared for Quieroz’s side has tallied more than eleven international goals. One has to wonder if their work rate will be enough to make up for the probable talent gap.
The Skinny – If their anemic offense can find some goals from Charlton Athletic’s Reza Ghoochannejhad (nine international goals in 11 caps), Iran might be able to steal a point or two.
Prediction – 4th.
NASL In-Depth With: Sinisa Ubiparipovic (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Born in Zenica in what was formerly Yugoslavia, 30 year-old Ottawa Fury FC midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic grew up during a turbulent time in his country’s history.
The former Minnesota United entered his pre-teen years just as the Bosnian War reached the height of its destructive violence in the mid-90s, training in the youth academy of FK Modrica.
Though his formative years in the former Yugoslavia seem like ancient history, Ubiparipovic remembers where he came from and loves his country – Bosnia & Herzegovina.
“People, especially those from outside of the country, forget how important soccer is in Bosnia. Probably because of the terrible things that have happened there in the last twenty years, obviously the war and negative stuff. So people have lost focus of what the country’s all about, they’ve forgotten the beautiful things about it- soccer is one of them.”
Ubiparipovic admits that he is living the dream of every young boy back home, reflecting that, “Over there soccer is definitely the number one sport, everybody loves professional soccer and every boy wants to be a professional soccer player.”
The Zenica-native concedes that simply making the World Cup is, “A huge success for the country. Everybody was in a state of euphoria for two days after they clinched the berth (in Brazil)!”
Ubi’s face darkens a tiny bit as he gloomily says, “Seems like every time people talk about Bosnia, you can’t talk only about sport- there’s always politics involved, which are as complicated as ever,” before smiling, “It’s very important to be united as one behind the national team. What the Bosnian national team has done for the country’s unity is huge- it’s brought people together, made them closer.”
In terms of key players, Ubiparipovic highlights Miralem Pjanic. “Pjanic is going to be very big for us in the midfield. Lots of offense is going to go through him.” As for leadership, Ubiparipovic points to veteran Emir Spahic. “He’s going to be holding the defense together, and he has a lot of experience. As captain he will have to lead the team, for sure.”
Prediction-wise, Ubi says, “With Argentina being clear favorites, I think it’s clear that the two games we need to focus on are Iran and Nigeria. Those are the games where we need results. I think Bosnia will advance as second in the group.”
Soccer Is Truly The World’s Game will conclude with Part IV next week.
Photo - Sinisa Ubiparipovic of Ottawa Fury FC, by Steve Kingsman