You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Four years ago, France imploded in a tricoloured starburst of civil war that signalled the end of coach Raymond Domenech’s dog-eared reign.
Domenech once boasted of using star signs to pick his players – but the new man in charge, Didier Deschamps, is a much more pragmatic fellow. Where Domenech was guilty of Banville-esque dreaminess that enabled the many egos in the French squad to do exactly as they pleased, Deschamps is more Ruth Rendell: a calm, calculating influence with a quiet taste for carnage. For Brazil 2014, he has made the initially unpopular decision to leave Samir Nasri at home nursing his tan and bruised feelings, instead preferring to pack the midfield with functional prose stylists like Moussa Sissoko of Newcastle United. In Yohan Cabaye, however, he has a player who belongs both on the shelves of WH Smiths and under the academic’s glare.
Switzerland occupy sixth place in FIFA’s admittedly baffling world rankings and are outsiders with teeth and claws. An awful lot of that is down to the multicultural nature of their squad. While the Swiss have some of the harshest immigration laws in Europe, their best players have been drawn from across the continent. Gokhan Inler, the Tom Stall at the centre of the midfield is Turkish, whilst Xherdan Shaqiri, blessed with two mutually holy feet, is Albanian. In the past it has been fashionable to stereotype the Swiss as boringly effective – and in many cases, they have played down to the generalisation. This group are solid in defence but have uncommon swiftness in attack: more Infinite Jest-like chaos than the bureaucracy of the Pale King. Brazil 2014 could be the great novel the Swiss have only ever placidly threatened to write.
Ecuador are the least-likely of the South American sides to travel any kind of distance in the competition. They arrive with a functional style and a story awaiting Jerry Bruckheimer’s cack hand – their star striker, Christian Benítez, died last July at the age of 27. They will play this tournament for him – and for a chance at facing bilious rivals Colombia in the knockout rounds. That potential encounter would have potential diplomatic significance: Colombia made a brief invasion of the Ecuadorian border back in 2008. If they can gain results against Honduras and Switzerland, then even the expected Gallic whipping might be enough to propel Ecuador limply into the knockout rounds before the expected soft bump back down to earth- or to 2800 metres, the altitude at which they play their home games.
Honduras remind me a little of Richard Ford’s everyman Frank Bascombe. They’re the footballing equivalent of brown slacks and a turtleneck jumper, with an estranged wife and kids and a job as a real-estate agent in New Jersey – with just enough sparky introspection thrown in to make you believe there may be light for them at the end of the Group E tunnel. A recent friendly with England showed them to be optimists of the short-term, brutal kind – and they source many of their players from Wigan Athletic. It won’t be pretty, but it might well be effective.
Prediction: 1) Switzerland 2) France 3) Ecuador 4) Honduras
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
What a random group, in the way that randomly assorted groups should be. Iran are rather like the coffee Revel that promises little and may deliver only a little over that. Argentina have a forward line as sharp as a Lakeland set of stainless-steel knives, and a defence as leaky as a Poundland sieve. Nigeria are chasing former glories, whilst Bosnia and Herzegovina’s history has yet to be written.
Argentina have the world’s finest attacking player in Lionel Messi, a diminutive homunculus whose runs with the football resemble the outline of Norway’s western coastline, or a wayward dribble of sick on a baby’s bib. Either way, they have an incantatory rhythm that renders opposition defenders frozen like popsicles left in a Tierra del Fuegan freezer. Combined with the more direct Angel di Maria on the opposite wing, they give Argentina one of the World Cup’s most awesome attacking forces. When you add two of the world’s best strikers in Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain to the delicious, uncooked pancake mix, it becomes clear that Argentina will be difficult to stop. That’s just as well, too, because with their defence they will struggle to stop anyone from scoring themselves.
This is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first World Cup. Their path through qualifying was as calm and reassuring as an Adriatic breeze – though results told only a fraction of the tale. They scored over 30 goals in 10 qualifying games, attacking teams with all the fervour of Alan Titchmarsh approaching an erotic novel. Spearheaded by Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko, Bosnia are more D.H. Lawrence than Mills and Boon – though attacking midfielder Miralem Pjanić has a good deal more elegance than Walter Morel. They will be helped by the fact that they are still somewhat of a little-known quantity – though not for much longer.
Winners of the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013, Nigeria arrive in Brazil with more hope filling their sails than has been since the halcyon days of 1998 and the golden generation of Jay-Jay Okocha, Taribo West and co. Once regarded as the Kings of African football and the country most likely to bring the continent its first World Cup, Nigeria have fallen by the wayside in recent years – it’s been a John Steinbeck journey rather than a fantastical trip to the centre of the earth. Their main player is John Obi Mikel of Chelsea, who resembles a somewhat soporific crab for his club side but transforms into a vibrant threat when his country comes calling. Nevertheless, great expectations may need to be revised: there’s no Mr Jaggers in Group F.
Iran are probably best known as an international side for France 1998, when they faced the USA in the group stages in a battle of metaphorical diplomatic détente. It may sound patronising, but they are simply happy to be here – and in Carlos Queiroz, formerly of Manchester United, they have a sharp-brained tactician capable of plotting at least one minor upset.
Prediction: 1) Argentina 2) Bosnia and Herzegovina 3) Nigeria 4) Iran