The World Cup is literally just hours away (1.43 p.m. South Africa time Friday) so everyone should get set for a month-long feast of football action. Every match should be good of course, but there are several in the first group stage that should be especially good. The top World Cup favourites – Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Portugal – are from Europe and South America, but several African teams, Australia and even the United States can spring a surprise or two. With this in mind, here are 5 intriguing matchups in the first round that hardcore fans, casual enthusiasts and soccer or Cup newbies should make sure to check out.
U.S. vs. England
Why is this one of the most eagerly awaited games in this tournament? Only because of history, form and high hopes of American glory. The U.S. is not a historic soccer power but it seems to have turned a bend in international respectability by beating European champions Spain and finishing second in last year’s Confederations Cup, a tournament featuring the champions of every continent as well as hosts South Africa. Combine this with the recent strong form of its biggest star Landon Donovan, and it’s understandable why confidence is high for the Americans.
Also, exactly sixty years ago, a brash English team arrived at its first World Cup tournament only to be shocked by the U.S. in a 1-0 defeat. England, with perennial high hopes, will be eager to not replicate this result and having reached the quarterfinals in the last two tournaments, will want to advance this time.
June12, Group C, Rustenburg
Brazil vs. Portugal
This clash of two flashy and strong teams features a former colonizer playing against its former colony except that it is the colony who is the top dog. Brazil’s coach Dunga made a stir with his comment that Portugal is “Brazil’s B Team,” because of the presence of three Brazilian-born players on Portugal’s roster.
Brazil are seemingly the world’s favourite team with their fluid, supremely skilful style and panache and they are always a favourite to win when every tournament starts (they have won it a record five times). Portugal meanwhile bring some style of their own and also boast Cristiano Ronaldo, age 25, a former FIFA World Player of the Year, unquestionably one of the best players in the world and the most expensive. Brazil, ranked first in the world, while Portugal are third.
June 25, Group G, Durban
Portugal vs. Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire)
Staying within the same group, this match pits arguably the most talent-packed African team the Ivory Coast against European power Portugal. With a plethora of Europe-based stars including Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, the Ivory Coast will be hoping to fulfill their promise by doing well in the World Cup after making their debut four years ago. Standing in their way are the aforementioned Brazil and Portugal, see above, and as only two can move on to the second round, expect Portugal and the Ivory Coast to fight it out for second spot with Brazil expected to finish on top. If Portugal loses, then their game against Brazil, see above, would be extremely vital.
June 15, Group G, Nelson Mandela Bay/ Port Elizabeth
Ghana vs. Australia
This will be a test between two of the best teams not from Europe and South America. Ghana boasts a strong complement of talented players including Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien and is looking to build on their fine debut in 2006 when Ghana advanced to the second round. Australia features many solid players themselves, with most of them playing in Europe, and having also reached the second round in 2006, will look to improve on this. Australia came through a tough qualifying Asian group to easily qualify for the World Cup, having not lost a single game. With Germany in the group and the favorite to finish first, this game will be vital for determining who will advance to the second round.
June 19, Group D, Rustenburg
Argentina vs. Nigeria
The other South American powerhouse will take on an African powerhouse in a match that may seem to be in the former’s favor on paper. With a highly talented squad featuring Lionel Messi, the Barcelona sensation who scored over 40 goals this season and who many feel is the best player in the world, Argentina may figure to be too much for Nigeria. Still Nigeria has talent too and finished third in this year’s African Cup of Nations, and will hope to do well at the World Cup too. Both teams have had some turmoil recently with Argentina performing well below their best in qualifying and Nigeria having a recent coach change, but their meeting should be an exciting showdown that may determine who will finish top of the group.
June 12, Group B, Johannesburg