Invariably, there will be days when you’ll flip on the television to watch the World Cup, and struggle to have a rooting interest in the teams playing that day. But, hey, it’s the World Cup. Of course you’re going to watch, even if it’s not a great bunch of teams in a group.
Group F comes to mind. Alas! There is a local connection, albeit not nearly as strong as Matt Besler and Graham Zusi playing for the United States.
Bosnia-Herzegovina has a Missouri kid in the starting lineup. Well, Vedad Ibisevic wasn’t born and raised in the Show-Me State, but his family emigrated to St. Louis via Switzerland. He played high school soccer in St. Louis and college ball at Saint Louis.
Ibisevic has been playing in Germany since 2006 and has tallied 81 goals in his last 194 Bundesliga games. Not too shabby.
We can all agree on this: Lionel Messi is not worth our praise. Wait, what? That’s the feeling in Argentina, where the love affair with Diego Maradona continues to this day. Former Star scribe Wright Thompson has an excellent story on Messi in ESPN The Magazine, and it’ll make you scratch your head and wonder where the Argentinian fans’ taste went. Yes, Messi has scored 243 goals for Barcelona and won the Ballon d’Or so often (four times), you wonder if they aren’t going to name the thing after him one day.
The thing is, he’s never shown his best in the World Cup, but even if Messi has an off-day, there is talent all over the pitch. He’s joined up top in the 4-3-3 by Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain. Argentina also will benefit this time around from having Alejandro Sabella as coach, rather than Maradona, who was overmatched when the tournament reached the knockout stages in 2010.
How They Got Here: Won South American qualifying group
Best World Cup Finish: Two-time champions (1986, 1978)
This is a tough squad to get a handle on. Nigeria scored a mere seven goals in six games of its qualifying group stage and went an unimpressive 3-0-3. But it also is the defending African Cup of Nations winner, so maybe Nigeria just knows how to get the job done.
Emmanuel Emenike was the top goal-scorer in the African Cup of Nations and John Obi Mikel has been with Chelsea since 2006. The Super Eagles should be a motivated squad after a disappointing 2010 World Cup showing. They get the edge for second place in the group because they should know how to deal with the heat better than Bosnia-Herzegovina.
How They Got Here: Won Group F in Africa, then beat Ethiopia in a playoff
Best World Cup Finish: Round of 16 in 1994 and 1998
They’ve got a fantastic one-two punch up top in Edin Dzeko and Ibisevic, and they rolled through qualifying with 30 goals in 10 matches. What’s not to love, right? There was a 2-0 loss to Egypt in March, and this will be the squad’s first time in a major tournament. Add to that, a defense that no one is praising, and it could a third-place finish could be in line.
A hot goalkeeper can make all the difference, however, and Stoke City’s Asmir Begovic has been called the Minister of Defense. He could be the most important player on the squad.
How They Got Here: Finished first in UEFA Group G
Best World Cup finish: First appearance
If the FIFA rankings are your thing, then maybe Iran won’t finish last in the group. It is ranked 37th, which is better than Nigeria (44). Of course, that’s also one spot behind Panama. Defense is the name of the game, and Iran gave up just seven goals through three rounds of qualifying, in which it went 10-2-4.
Iran’s lead-up matches have been two scoreless draws (against Montenegro and Angola) and a 1-1 tie with Angola. That’s not too surprising for a squad that will play in a 4-4-1-1 formation. The most experienced player, at least internationally, is Javad Nekounam, who played in La Liga for six seasons with Osasuna. Former MetroStars coach Carlos Queiroz also selected Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah, but it could be a tough tournament for “Team Melli.”
How They Got Here: Won Group A in the fourth round of Asian qualifying
Best World Cup finish: Group stage
Who Will Advance: Argentina, Nigeria
Dark Horse: Bosnia-Herzegovina
Glad to be here: Iran
Three Players to Watch
Angel Di Maria (Argentina): YouTube is full of fantastic goals from his teammate Lionel Messi, but even though Di Maria plays in the midfield, he is still capable of this:
Edin Dzeko (Bosnia-Herzegovina): Dzeko has 35 goals in 62 matches for his country and 46 since 2011 for Manchester City.
Emmanuel Emenike (Nigeria): He scored a dozen goals for Fenerbahçe last season and has found the back of the net 10 times in 21 games for Nigeria.
Must Watch Game
Nigeria vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina, June 21
It should be an entertaining, attacking game, with the winner likely to grab the second spot in the group.