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June 11th, 2014 ALEX TOMCHAK SCOTT | Sports
 

World Cup 2014 Scouting Report

The cast of characters in soccer’s biggest free-for-all.

scroller-scoutreport_4032GHANA AFTER THE BALL: Dutch striker Robin van Persie (left) in action against Kwadwo Asamoah of Ghana during an international friendly May 31 in the Netherlands. The Dutch won the World Cup tuneup, 1-0. - IMAGE: © KOEN VAN WEEL/epa/Corbis

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The World Cup starts with two weeks of utter chaos. Called the group stage, teams compete within eight groups of four teams each. Each group plays a round-robin tournament. There are always multiple games being played, and all of them matter. The top two teams from each group then go on to the soccer equivalent of the Sweet Sixteen, called the knockout stage. The United States will have a tough time making it that far, seeing that it got saddled with a tough draw in Group G against Germany, Portugal and Ghana. Here’s a little scouting report on the royal rumble:


GROUP A: Fogo de Chao 

BRAZIL

Aka: Canarinho (Little Canary)

Scouting report: The bookies’ favorite, Brazil will win the tournament if two things go right. First, the restive home crowd needs to inspire Canarinho rather than heighten the team’s nerves. Second, horror-haired superstar Neymar needs to play dazzling soccer from start to finish.

Portland connection: More Brazilians play soccer abroad than any other nationality, but the Portland Timbers have never had a Brazilian player. Just another way Portland is keeping itself weird.


CAMEROON

Aka: Les Lions Indomptables (The Indomitable Lions)

Scouting report: In the 1990s, the Indomitable Lions were one of the most exciting teams in the world. They have retained a love for the violent foul into the 21st century, but not their attacking elan. Aging striker Samuel Eto’o is still world-class, but the team has more spoilers than creators.

Portland connection: Former Timbers ne’er-do-well Franck Songo’o’s father was a goalkeeper for Cameroon in the team’s dominant era. Whether that’s a reason to root for Cameroon depends on your feelings toward the son.


CROATIA

Aka: Vatreni (The Blazers)

Scouting report: Teams that lose their first game almost never advance in the World Cup, so opening against host Brazil is a massive obstacle for Croatia. Star striker Mario Mandzukic has been suspended for that game, making it even more daunting. Croatia is an excellent team, though, and the incredibly cerebral midfield trio of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Rakitic can threaten any team.

Portland connection: Ex-Trail Blazers guard Drazen Petrovic won a silver medal playing basketball for Croatia in the 1992 Olympics. Supporting Croatia would be a touching way to mourn his untimely death in 1993. Also, the national team’s official nickname translates as “The Blazers,” so...


MEXICO

Aka: El Tri

Scouting report: A difficult qualifying campaign means Mexico’s confidence has sunk from its usual “shaky” to “fatalistic.” The World Cup is a new animal, though, and even though Croatia is much better, Mexico doesn’t have to open against Brazil. The indomitable spirit of striker Oribe Peralta is the driving force of this team.

Portland connection: For one thing, El Tri is the most popular team in the United States, a nation that happens to contain Portland. For another, the team plays in green jerseys at home and red away, just like the Timbers.


GROUP B: Fields of Gallipoli

AUSTRALIA

Aka: The Socceroos

Scouting report: Australia got a bum draw, playing three teams in the group stage that have realistic ambitions of winning the tournament. Australia probably wouldn’t get far even in an easier group, with spent force Tim Cahill leading a generation of young, but not too promising, players.

Portland connection: The team is nicknamed the Socceroos, delightfully tacky to irony-loving Portlanders.


CHILE

Aka: La Roja

Scouting report: Chile has decided within the last eight years that its soccer identity is based on all-out, reckless attacking. This team can’t defend to save its life, and isn’t too good at finishing chances, but the likes of red-hot Alexis Sanchez will rocket at the opposing goal thrillingly. If Chile can beat Australia in its opener, it could provide a boost.

Portland connection: Portland is known as a bicycle town. The dynamic soccer move known as a bicycle kick is called a “chilena” in Chile, which claims to have invented it.


THE NETHERLANDS 

Aka: Clockwork Orange

Scouting report: Since the 1970s, Holland has been the world’s wellspring of new and inventive soccer ideas, but the Dutch tarnished their reputation with their ugly, violent 2010 team. They will be looking to young midfielder Jordy Clasie for inspiration, but they face masterful Spain in their opening game. A defeat could make it a difficult tournament for the Netherlands.

Portland connection: With the free-thinking society that inspired it, its players’ iconoclastic nature and its unexpected success, the Dutch team of the ’70s draws comparisons to the Trail Blazers of the same era. But the team’s current incarnation is distinctly of the Oden-era variety.


SPAIN

Aka: La Furia Roja (The Red Fury)

Scouting report: The defending World Cup champions have spent the last six years redefining modern soccer, proving that a team can be built on nothing but flawless ball skills. They are still built around the subtle gifts of maestro Xavi, but the 34-year-old is a player in decline, like many on the Spanish squad. Winning this tournament would validate Spain as the greatest international team ever, but that looks unlikely.

Portland connection: The Trail Blazers have had three Spanish national team players: Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez and Victor Claver.


GROUP C: Wake Up to Colombia

GREECE

Aka: Piratiko (The Pirate Ship)

Scouting report: Ten years ago, Greece won the European championship playing soccer that was impossible to watch, and since then this minor nation on the soccer stage has insisted on being as obstructive and defensively entrenched as possible in every major game. Our best advice is to avoid watching this team at all costs.

Portland connection: Portland has a terrifically active Greek community, and has hosted an annual Greek festival for 62 years.


COLOMBIA

Aka: Los Cafeteros (The Coffee Growers)

Scouting report: The golden age of Colombian soccer is on the horizon. The team has a half-dozen goal-machine strikers to call on, but this tournament might be too soon for its promising defense and midfield. The silky talents of creator James Rodriguez will be a sight to see, though.

Portland connection: The team is nicknamed the Coffee Growers, a vocation that Portland’s coffee-making workforce can relate to. Also, Timbers linchpin Diego Chara has played for Colombia.


IVORY COAST

Aka: Les Elephants

Scouting report: This generation of Ivorian players has been hailed as the country’s “Golden Generation,” and like every group of soccer players ever afforded that nickname, it has been a failure so far. The 30-something Ivorians have a last chance to prove themselves. Midfielder Yaya Touré can run a game like few others, but he’s nursing an injury. Don’t bank on Les Elephants to buck a history of failure.

Portland connection: Abidjan-born midfielder Arsene Oka played seven games for the Timbers in 2007. Now playing for amateur side Vermont Voltage, he is the most obscure person mentioned in this article by a comfortable margin.


JAPAN

Aka: Samurai Blue

Scouting report: In the last 20 years, Japan has been teaching players infallible ball control from a young age, and it shows in this team. Japan is the rising force in world soccer, and if young stars like Yoichiro Kakitani can deliver in this World Cup, the sky’s the limit for this team.

Portland connection: Sapporo, on the island of Hokkaido, is Portland’s oldest sister city, and since none of the 23 players selected by Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni is from that town, show the Japan side your opprobrium.


GROUP D: Got the Blues

COSTA RICA

Aka: Los Ticos (The Costa Ricans)

Scouting report: Los Ticos are one of the least-talented teams in the World Cup, but they will pack the defense and hope for luck. Their only hope of a successful tournament is to have a breakout performance from attacker Joel Campbell, who plays for English club Arsenal.

Portland connection: Timbers midfielder Rodney Wallace would have been on the bench for Costa Rica had he not injured his knee in last year’s MLS playoffs.


ENGLAND

Aka: The Three Lions

Scouting report: England’s crippling self-loathing as a soccer country will be the team’s archnemesis. If glittering talents Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling can forget no one at home believes in them, they could do great things.

Portland connection: At the time of writing , the Timbers were close to signing defender Joleon Lescott, who played 26 games for England. Not getting picked for England’s roster lowered his value to the point where Portland could afford him, so give thanks.


ITALY

Aka: Gli Azzurri (The Blues)

Scouting report: Italy will travel more than any team at the World Cup because its governing body inexplicably decided to base it far away from all of its group-stage games. The languid creativity of Andrea Pirlo could thrive under any conditions, but Gli Azzurri, who usually start slowly, might need other teams to fail if they are to have success.

Portland connection: In the 1920s, an area in Southwest Portland was known as Little Italy because it had a large Italian immigrant population. Now it is known as Portland State University.


URUGUAY

Aka: La Celeste (The Sky Blue One)

Scouting report: No national team responds better to pressure than Uruguay, because no country is defined by soccer like this tiny nation that has won two World Cups. Nevertheless, the fortunes of this year’s La Celeste will be defined by whether world-beating striker Luis Suarez is fit.

Portland connection: Uruguay has about 3 million people, like Oregon, and has one large central port. The difference is that Uruguay has won two World Cups.


GROUP E: Vive la France!

ECUADOR

Aka: La Tri

Scouting report: Ecuador could surprise with a starting lineup full of underrated players who have a good understanding of the game. Striker Enner Valencia is in red-hot form and could be a breakout star of this tournament. Playing in a weak group, Ecuador should have a good chance of reaching the knockout round.

Portland connection: Covered in endangered rainforests full of resources ripe for the squandering, Ecuador is a growing cause célèbre for environmentalists. The Climate Trust lists its location as Ecuador but its mailing address on Southwest Yamhill Street.


FRANCE

Aka: Les Bleus

Scouting report: The French have imploded in every tournament since 2006, but they have as much raw talent as any team at the World Cup. If this team can put infighting aside, it can get as far as a fearsome midfield containing dynamo Paul Pogba can take it.

Portland connection: The Trail Blazers’ French star, Nicolas Batum, is a massive soccer fan who’s personal friends with many Les Bleus stars.


HONDURAS

Aka: Los Catrachos (The Hondurans)

Scouting report: Los Catrachos are one of the lesser teams in the World Cup—perhaps weaker than in 2010, when they struggled. Playing in a relatively easy group, Honduras will rely heavily on physical hustlers like Boniek Garcia.

Portland connection: The Timbers will face Honduran club Olimpia in the first round of the CONCACAF Champions League this fall. Four of Olimpia’s players are on the Honduran squad, including goalkeeper and captain Noel Valladares.


SWITZERLAND

Aka: Schweizer Nati (The Nats)

Scouting report: The Swiss always threaten to blossom into a team with the talent to take on the world, but always seem to play too conservatively for their ability. If teams wilt in the Brazilian heat, that could work to Switzerland’s advantage. The raw talent of midfielders Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri will only get the Swiss far if they take risks.

Portland connection: The Swiss are famously neutral, while Portland is famously a city of opinionated busybodies. Death to Switzerland!


GROUP F: Cry for Argentina

ARGENTINA

Aka: La Albiceleste (The White and Sky Blue)

Scouting report: Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, is the captain, and he has plenty of world-beating talent supporting him in the team’s attack. But Argentina’s coach, Alejandro Sabella, famously covers his eyes when opponents have the ball because his side cannot defend.

Portland connection: Four Argentines play for the Timbers, and Portland star Diego Valeri even played a couple of games for the national team. So this is pretty much our team. Death to America!


BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA

Aka: Zmajevi (Dragons)

Scouting report: Misfit genius Zvjezdan Misimovic pulls the strings on a team built around wild, unpredictable creators. He’ll mesmerize an entire defense into submission one minute, then trip over his feet the next, and he’s not the only one. Bosnia could do anything at this tournament, including go down in flames, since it has the only defense more suicidal than Argentina’s.

Portland connection: In 1937, Bosnian-born ski instructor Otto Lang opened a now-defunct ski school on Mount Hood. Legions of Timbers fans also conduct their away-game cheering at 4-4-2 Soccer Bar, hosted by Muhamed Mujcic-Mufko, who was briefly a pro soccer player in Bosnia.


IRAN

Aka: Sirane Iran (The Iranian Lions)

Scouting report: Iran will remain a mystery even to its coaches until the opening game because U.S. sanctions make it all but impossible to organize practice matches. But the country produces players with a rare combination of talent and steel, with the clever and ruthless Masoud Shojaei and the wild wizard Ashkan Dejagah the biggest weapons.

Portland connection: Iranian defender Steven Beitashour plays for the Vancouver Whitecaps, rivals of the Timbers.


NIGERIA

Aka: The Super Eagles

Scouting report: Don’t bet against a generation full of fearless and exciting new faces like Sunday Mba turning heads in this tournament. Actually, don’t bet at all where Nigeria is concerned. The country has awe-inspiring soccer talent, but its team is still best known for flagrant institutional corruption. Nigeria could win the whole thing, but it could also throw all of its matches on purpose.

Portland connection: The Super Eagles cruelly tantalized former Timbers striker Bright Dike with the prospect of inclusion, but ultimately left him on the sidelines. And they didn’t even have the decency to call up the Seattle Sounders’ Nigerian star, Obafemi Martins, and handicap the Timbers’ chief rivals.


GROUP G: G Is for Germany

GERMANY

Aka: The Nationalmannschaft

Scouting report: Stung by repeated defeats at the hands of more patient passing teams, Germany is trying something new at this World Cup: emulating Spain . Rather than counterattacking, it will play without a true striker and try to hold the ball. That might be a challenge for Germany’s best player, Mesut Ozil, the ultimate counterattacker.

Portland connection: Many of Germany’s World Cup players will come to Portland when club team Bayern Munich, the reigning European champion, plays the MLS All-Stars on Aug. 6 at Providence Park.


GHANA

Aka: The Black Stars

Scouting report: Ghana is soccer’s secret powerhouse. In 2006, the Black Stars got to the second round of the World Cup without taking the tournament seriously. Four years later, they buckled down and got within a whisker of the semifinals. Being in a difficult group is a challenge, but if Ghana can beat the United States in its opener, it will be in a commanding position. Striker Asamoah Gyan is the leader.

Portland connection: A succession of Ghana coaches have denied the Timbers’ Kalif Alhassan a place on their side.


PORTUGAL

Aka: Os Navegadores (The Navigators)

Scouting report: Captain Cristiano Ronaldo is the reigning world player of the year. His neck muscles alone would be a world-class striker, and his ball tricks are mesmerizing. Though Portugal has a clutch of enviable talent, the team is built to supply Cristiano, and its run in the tournament will end when he has an off day.

Portland connection: ESPN will use the abbreviation “POR” to denote Portugal in its onscreen score box, just like it does for the Blazers and Timbers.


UNITED STATES

Aka: The Stars and Stripes

Scouting report: Coach Jürgen Klinsmann promised a new American style of soccer based on Latin verve when he got the job in 2011. When that didn’t work, he fell back on the team’s traditional strength: its advantage in fitness and strength. The U.S. then had the misfortune of being put in a group with three of the brawniest teams in the tournament. The opener against Ghana is a must-win.

Portland connection: This team is built around Seattle Sounders captain Clint Dempsey, who is also the U.S. captain. No Timbers made the squad. So cheer for the Yanks to stay in the tournament as long as possible, wrecking Seattle’s season in the process.


GROUP H: The Belgian Stoemp

ALGERIA

Aka: Les Fennecs (The Desert Foxes)

Scouting report: The Foxes are destined to be an also-ran. On the African scene, Algeria always seems to outperform its talent, and it will need to do that to win even one game at the World Cup. Talented midfielder Sofiane Feghouli is great in Spanish club soccer because he can be a foil for others, but he can’t quite take control of a game like Algeria needs.

Portland connection: Well, umm, former Timbers striker Frederic Piquionne played one season for Portsmouth in England, where one of his teammates was Algerian Nadir Belhadj.


BELGIUM

Aka: Les Diables Rouges (The Red Devils)

Scouting report: So many people have tipped the Belgians as the World Cup’s dark horse that they have become one of the favorites. But no one in Belgium has any idea how a tiny soccer backwater suddenly produced a preponderance of world-class players. Captain Vincent Kompany shoulders a lot of pressure as a symbol for the country’s collective aspirations.

Portland connection: The closest Portland has to an analog in the tournament, Belgium is known for beer, bikes and being suddenly and tenuously trendy.


RUSSIA

Aka: Russians do not care for such trivialities.

Scouting report: There is always one breathtaking Russian performance at a major tournament before the team makes a disappointing exit. The team is full of virtuosos with the talent to play anywhere, but it also has relied on chronically creaky defender Sergei Ignashevich for a decade.

Portland connection: During the 19th century, Russia claimed the Pacific Coast of North America almost as far south as the San Francisco Bay. It’s worth noting nobody took those claims seriously, but the Russians are still our former colonial overlords. Death to Russia! 


KOREA REPUBLIC

Aka: Taeguk Warriors

Scouting report: The biggest difference between South Korea and everyone else is that Korean players do not take dives, or feign injury, to draw fouls. The Taeguk Warriors aren’t one of the more thoughtful teams, but they are fun to watch because they run harder and play faster than anyone. Striker Son Heung-Min has considerable skill.

Portland connection: Retired defender Cho Young-Jeung, who played in nearly 100 games for South Korea, spent a season with the Timbers in the early 1980s. 

 
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