15/06 Argentina v Bosnia and Herzegovina 23:00 (Rio)
16/06 Iran v Nigeria 20:00 (Curitiba)
21/06 Argentina v Iran 17:00 (Belo Horizonte)
21/06 Nigeria v Bosnia and Herzegovina 23:00 (Cuiaba)
25/06 Nigeria v Argentina 17:00 (Porto Alegre)
25/06 Bosnia and Herzegovina v Iran 17:00 (Salvador)
Best finish: Winners (1978, 1986)
How they qualified: Finished 1st in CONMEBOL
It was plain sailing for Argentina in the South American qualifying campaign, breezing through to the finals with two games to spare after beating Paraguay 5-2 in Asunción. The process was far removed from that of four years ago when Diego Maradona needed a last-minute goal in the final qualifier to ensure qualification as his successor’s successor Alejandro Sabella, who replaced Sergio Batista after 2011’s disastrous Copa América, used the 16 games to create a cohesive unit quite unlike the bizarre array of attackers that formed the 2010 side. The Argentines suffered just one defeat prior to securing their place in Brazil (in their second game in Venezuela) and despite disappointing draws home and away to Bolivia, they looked a formidable force with Lionel Messi finally reproducing his club form at international level.
It goes without saying. After a season in which Messi has struggled with injuries, seen his club knocked out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals and been criticized for poor performances, he has still managed to score 28 goals in 29 league games – a phenomenal return. Alas, players will always be judged by the standards they set for themselves and his 91-goal exploits of 2012 is now being used as something of a stick to beat him with, while his overall contribution to the Barcelona side has been diminished. Still not fully fit? Unhappy under Gerardo Martino? Saving himself for the World Cup? Argentina will hope it proves to be the latter.
Another whose season has been stop-start because of injury. In late 2013, Agüero was something of an unstoppable force of nature in a Manchester City side that refused to stop scoring goals; the former Atlético Madrid man seemed to be forming half of a two-man battle for the Premier League Golden Boot with Luis Suárez whilst also firing City to the last sixteen of the Champions League. However, since then, things have changed – niggling hamstring and calf injuries have prevented him from stringing a run of games together and his latest knock sustained at Goodison Park at the weekend during his side’s 3-2 win against Everton. An explosive foil to Messi and Gonzalo Higuaín when fit.
During Argentina’s run to the quarter-finals in 2010, many said that their defence would capitulate against top-class opposition. And so the prophecy came to be – Maradona’s attack-minded system was overrun by Germany in a 4-0 demolition and the coach was soon out of a job. While the balance of the side is better this time around, the undoubted strength of the team still remains in its attackers so much of the defence onus will fall on the partnership of Garay and Federico Fernández, one that is untested at the highest level. The former of the pair is the more illustrious and has been one of the best defenders in Europe this season in a Benfica side that may yet win the Europa League in the coming weeks.
Sabella was dealt a major blow last month with the news that Fernando Gago will more than likely miss the finals. The Boca Juniors midfielder has had something of an odd career after a move to Spain didn’t work out due to injury but has become a key member of Argentina’s side and is the brains behind the newfound balance to the system. While the 28-year old may still make a late recovery, his lack of match practice will be felt, as will that of Agüero and Higuaín in attack: both are set the miss the end of their respective teams’ seasons. And there’s Messi, now with a few months of football under his belt but still looking like something is not quite right.
Big names to be left out?
Despite a good first season in Italy with Juventus, Carlos Tevez still hasn’t played for his country since missing a penalty in the Copa América shootout defeat to Paraguay three years ago and Sabella appears to have no intention of bringing him to Brazil despite intense media clamouring. Similarly, established Europe-based players Willy Cabalero and Esteban Cambiasso are unlikely to make the cut having been left out of Sabella’s plans up until now. In the case of the latter, Gago’s injury may have opened a spot that the Internazionale midfielder could fill perfectly had the coach not repeatedly emphasized that those not involved during his reign would be left at home which all but secures Caballero’s fate at a time which quality Argentinian goalkeepers are at a premium.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Best finish: First appearance
How they qualified: Finished 1st in UEFA Group G
A fairytale campaign for Safet Susic’s side culminated with a historic first qualification for a World Cup with a 1-0 win in Lithuania securing top spot in a lopsided group. Having already ensured at least a playoff berth a couple of matchdays prior to the Vedad Ibisevic-inspired victory in the final game, a superior goal difference to rivals Greece eventually proved telling in deciding the pool winners after both sides finished on 25 points. Having been knocked out by Portugal in playoffs for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, Bosnia were keen to avoid another two-legged affair this time around and had their attack to thank in the end – 21 goals scored in four games against the bottom sides Liechtenstein and Latvia (compared to Greece’s six) eventually proved telling.
The man with the sixth-best goals-to-minutes ratio in Premier League history has hit form in the latter stages of the Premier League season just in time to spearhead Bosnia’s attack in Brazil. Scorer of ten goals in qualifying, Dzeko was a key factor in his country topping their qualification group on goal difference and although repeating the feat against a higher caliber of opposition at the finals will be a different challenge, he possesses the big game expertise and finishing ability to trouble opponents. The former Wolfsburg striker is often criticized in England for his languid style and apparent lack of interest but recent form suggests that he’s going into this World Cup at the peak of his powers.
The Roma schemer has been linked with a big-money move this summer (with Manchester United reportedly amongst his suitors) and it’s not hard to see why. Starring in a Roma side that has impressed in Serie A this season, Pjanic has shown the quality to match the potential that was evident whilst he broke through at Metz and then Lyon whilst plying his trade in France. Having moved to Luxembourg at a young age following the outbreak of civil war in then-Yugoslavia, the 24-year old represented the minnows at underage level before opting for Bosnia, making his debut at 18 in 2008. Provides flair and genuine attacking talent to the side – see his recent goal against AC Milan for evidence of his abilities.
Begovic is another whose path could’ve led him to a different destiny: having moved to Canada with his family after a stint in Germany, the giant goalkeeper turned out for his new homeland’s Under-20 side at the 2007 World Cup. Alas, he eventually pledged allegiance to the country of his birth and established himself as number one as Bosnia began to develop into an exciting side. The Stoke City man has played his club football in England ever since joining Portsmouth as far back as 2003 and finally became number one some six seasons later before moving to the Britannia when Pompey went into financial meltdown. One of the main reasons behind an impressive defensive record in qualifying – just six goals conceded in ten games.
Throughout the Bosnian squad, there are players who have European pedigree – the likes of Dzeko Ibisevic, Pjanic, Emir Spahic, Sead Kolasinac, Senad Lulic and Begovic are regulars at top-level clubs in Europe’s big leagues while others like Zvjezdan Misimovic, now playing in China, is a talented footballer formerly of Wolfsburg. On the other hand, some of the lesser lights of the squad will be exposed to players of the caliber of Messi, Aguero and Di Maria for the first time in their senior careers. For instance, upon naming his provisional squad, Susic earmarked Ferencváros’ Muhamed Besic – the country’s youngest-ever player – will be tasked with man-marking Messi against Argentina.
A story with no happy ending?
For some Bosnians, it’s already mission accomplished. And in many respects, that’s fair – it’s been less than 20 years since civil war ended in the country and a similar period of time has elapsed since their first-ever international game as Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since then, the nation’s football has gradually improved and after near misses in qualifying for major tournaments in 2004, 2010 and 2012, a first World Cup appearance in Brazil is a huge occasion. The question now is whether or not the story ends here: will Susic’s troops continue to ride on the crest of the wave that has carried them this far or tail off with the weight of expectation to blame?
24 players named by Susic on 6/5/14
Goalkeepers: Asmir Begovic (Stoke City), Jasmin Fejzic (Aalen), Asmir Avdukic (Borac Banja Luka)
Defenders: Emir Spahic (Bayer Leverkusen), Sead Kolasinac (Schalke), Ermin Bicakcic (Eintracht Braunschweig), Ognjen Vranjes (Elazigspor), Toni Sunjic (Zorya Lugansk), Avdija Vrsajevic (Hajduk Split), Mensur Mujdza (Freiburg), Ervin Zukanovic (Gent)
Midfielders: Zvjezdan Misimovic (Guizhou Renhe), Haris Medunjanin (Gaziantepspor), Miralem Pjanic (Roma), Sejad Salihovic (Hoffenheim), Senad Lulic (Lazio), Izet Hajrovic (Galatasaray), Senijad Ibricic (Erciyesspor), Edin Visca (Istanbul BB), Tino Susic (Hajduk Split), Muhamed Besic (Ferencvaros), Anel Hadzic (Sturm Graz)
Forwards: Edin Dzeko (Manchester City), Vedad Ibisevic (Stuttgart)
Best finish: Group stage (1978, 1998, 2006)
How they qualified: Finished 1st in AFC Group A
The Asian qualification system is lengthy – four stages, three of which featured Iran and the net result was the same in each case: Carlos Queiroz’s side came out on top. After beating the Maldives 5-0 in the second round, Team Melli finished first in their third round pool ahead of controversial 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar, whom they drew with home and away. The West Asian nation then produced their best form in the final stage, triumphing in five of their eight games to pip established Asian powerhouses South Korea to top spot despite scoring just eight goals, four of those coming in a 4-0 demolition of Lebanon in the penultimate game. Ultimately, qualification was sealed with a hard-fought 1-0 victory in South Korea despite being on the backfoot for the most of the game with Reza Ghoochannejhad the Iranian hero.
The Iran skipper is closing in on the country’s all-time appearance record and still has time on his side at 33 to surpass Ali Daei’s 149-cap feat. That said, this World Cup is likely to be Nekounam’s last and after missing Iran’s final group game in 2006 due to suspension, he has unfinished business as he looks to lead his country into the last sixteen for the first time in their history. The midfielder is the heartbeat of the Iran side and dictates the tempo of their play, even if his age prevents him from covering the ground as he once did. An Osasuna player for six years, Nekounam returned him in 2012 to join Esteghlal before moving to Al-Kuwait on a short-term contract in January in preparation for the World Cup.
Dejagah has played a prominent role in Fulham’s futile Premier League survival bid, scoring spectacular goals against Newcastle, West Brom and Hull City in recent weeks to establish himself as Iran’s form player ahead of the World Cup. The attacking winger moved to Germany before his second birthday and represented his adopted nation at underage levels and even featured as the country’s Under-21 side triumphed at the European Championships in 2009. He scored twice on his debut against Qatar after being brought into the setup by Queiroz in 2011.
Another key member of the Iranian side brought up in Europe, Ghoochannejhad has been in superb form for his country since being recruited by the manager ahead of the final qualifying phase, scoring nine times in his first eleven international caps. In a team that struggled for goals during qualifying, the injection of scoring potential his inclusion has provided has made Queiroz’s rather blunt attack more dangerous. The attacker joined Sky Bet Championship side Charlton Athletic in January from Standard Liege in order to get more first-team action ahead of the World Cup but may be destined for a Premier League move if he performs well in Brazil.
Influx of new players?
Queiroz somewhat controversially turned to players raised in Germany (Dejagah and goalkeeper Daniel Davari), Holland (Ghoochannejhad), Sweden (Omid Nazari) and the USA (Steven Beitashour) in an attempt to boost the quality of the pool of players available to him and while the results have been largely successful, the issue remains around their allegiance to the cause. Nazari hasn’t been named in Queiroz’s preliminary squad but the others will be looked to to provide quality in Brazil and will be the first to be blamed should things go wrong. The newest face in the 28-man training camp group is Rubin Kazan’s highly-rated youngster Sardar Azmoun – yet to be capped by his country.
A common criticism levelled at the manager during his time in charge of fellow finalists Portugal was that his teams were too cautious and the same could be said of Iran during qualifying. Just eight goals in eight fourth round matches was quite a poor return and but for the added boost of Ghoochannejhad’s form, things could have gone worse. Qualification was essentially secured by narrow wins against nearest rivals South Korea in games that were largely one-sided, particularly the final meeting in June. In a group that looks to be presenting a shootout for second place behind Argentina, Bosnia and Nigeria may possess the extra attacking quality needed to prevail.
28 players named by Queiroz on 7/5/14
Goalkeepers: Daniel Davari (Eintracht Braunschweig), Alireza Haghighi (Sporting Covilha), Rahman Ahmadi (Sepahan), Sousha Makani (Foolad Khuzestan)
Defenders: Khosro Heidari (Esteghlal), Hossein Mahini (Persepolis), Steven Beitashour (Vancouver Whitecaps), Pejman Montazeri (Umm Salal), Jalal Hosseini (Persepolis), Amir Sadeghi (Esteghlal), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Zob Ahan), Ahmad Alenemeh (Naft), Hashem Beikzadeh (Esteghlal), Ehsan Hajsafi (Sepahan), Mehrdad Pooladi (Persepolis)
Midfielders: Javad Nekounam (Al Kuwait), Andranik Teymourian (Esteghlal), Reza Haghighi (Persepolis), Ghasem Hadadifar (Zob Ahan), Bakhtiyar Rahmani (Foolad), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (NEC Nijmegen), Ashkan Dejagah (Fulham)
Forwards: Masoud Shojaei (Las Palmas), Mohammad Reza Khalatbari (Persepolis), Mehdi Sharifi (Sepahan), Reza Ghoochannejhad (Charlton), Karim Ansarifard (Tractor Sazi), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan)
Best finish: Last sixteen (1994, 1998)
How they qualified: Beat Ethiopia 4-1 on aggregate in CAF Third Round
Brazil 2014 will only be Nigeria’s fifth-ever appearance at a World Cup but having only missed one (2006) since their first outing in 1994, they are a familiar sight in recent times. After failing to qualify for the African Cup of Nations in 2012, the nation’s football team was declared in crisis but they bounced back to win the tournament in 2013 under the guidance of Stephen Keshi, who captained the side to that maiden finals 20 years ago. Qualification this time around was relatively straightforward and was sealed with a 4-1 aggregate beating of surprise package Ethiopia with goals from Victor Moses and Victor Obinna sealing the deal in the away leg. Prior to that, the Super Eagles strolled through a weak second round group unbeaten, topping the pool ahead of minnows Malawi, Kenya and Namibia.
John Obi Mikel
In 2005, Mikel and Lionel Messi went head-to-head in the 2005 Under-20 World Cup in the Netherlands as two of the hottest prospects in football at the time. Mikel, soon to be at the centre of a controversial transfer from Lyn Oslo to Chelsea via flirtations with Manchester United, was on the losing side in the final and as Messi subsequently went on to become the greatest player of his generation, the midfielder has had a mediocre Premier League career. At Chelsea, he’s widely seen as a limited holding player but the 27-year old is usually unleashed by his country to provide creativity that he rarely shows at club level. Mikel was ruled out of the 2010 World Cup due to injury.
Although a loan spell at Liverpool hasn’t gone to plan for the talented winger, Moses has performed consistently for his country during their recent successes and his absence played a major role in Nigeria finishing third in their Confederations Cup group last summer. The Chelsea-owned attacker hit two goals in qualifying, one of them being a crucial penalty in the playoff win in Ethiopia and will be expected to provide forward thrust to the side in Brazil. A lack of playing time in the second half of the season is probably an indication that his time at Anfield won’t be extended beyond the end of his temporary deal.
Now 31, Enyeama was probably the star of Nigeria’s World Cup outing in South Africa four years ago despite an error in their final group game against South Korea with his fine goalkeeping keeping the score at 1-0 in the opening game against Argentina with whom the Super Eagles will once again lock horns this time around. The Lille stopper went an amazing 1062 minutes without conceding a league goal earlier in the season as his side look set to book their place in next season’s Champions League. He scored eight goals during his time in Israel with Hapoel Tel-Aviv and captained Nigeria to their African Cup of Nations win last year.
Lack of match practice?
Key players Moses and Mikel have been out of favour with their club sides this season and are unlikely to get any proper match fitness until joining up with the squad for the pre-tournament friendlies with Scotland, Greece and the USA. While the pair are likely to be fresh, their absence from their respective teams’ title run-ins may render them rusty by the time the opening game arrives on June 16th. Moses’ lack of games will be particularly galling for Keshi – the winger only joined Liverpool because his first-team opportunities at Chelsea were limited.
On the face of things, Nigeria look defensively sound – just four goals conceded in qualifying, the same number they let in upon winning the African Cup of Nations last year. But looking closer (and taking the Confederations Cup campaign into account, where they shipped six in three games), Keshi may be having sleepless nights about the solidity of the central defensive partnership of Kenneth Omeruo (another Chelsea-owned Nigerian currently at Middlesbrough in England’s second tier) and Godfrey Oboabona (at bottom half Turkish side Rizespor. The manager has named Norwich City’s veteran Joseph Yobo in his preliminary squad despite the 33-year old gradually becoming more peripheral in the national team setup but what he offers in experience isn’t matched in the confidence he inspires against potential opponents such as Messi, Aguero and Edin Dzeko.
30 players named by Keshi on 6/5/14
Goalkeepers: Vincent Enyeama (Lille), Austin Ejide (Hapoel Be’er Sheva), Daniel Akpeyi (Warri Wolves), Chigozie Agbim (Gombe United)
Defenders: Elderson Echiejile (AS Monaco), Efe Ambrose (Celtic), Godfrey Oboabona (Rizespor), Azubuike Egwuekwe (Warri Wolves); Kenneth Omeruo (Middlesbrough), Juwon Oshaniwa (Ashdod), Joseph Yobo (Norwich City), Kunle Odunlami (Sunshine Stars)
Midfielders: John Obi Mikel (Chelsea), Ramon Azeez (Almería), Ogenyi Onazi (Lazio), Joel Obi (Parma), Nnamdi Oduamadi (Varese), Ejike Uzoenyi (Enugu Rangers), Nosa Igiebor (Real Betis), Sunday Mba (Bastia), Reuben Gabriel (Waasland-Beveren), Michael Babatunde (Volyn Lutsk)
Forwards: Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow), Shola Ameobi (Newcastle), Emmanuel Emenike (Fenerbache), Victor Obinna (Chievo), Peter Odemwingie (Stoke), Michael Uchebo (Cercle Brugge), Victor Moses (Liverpool), Uche Nwofor (Heerenveen)
David Kennedy, Pundit Arena.