Back in October of 2009 when Egypt was hosting the U-20 World Cup I wrote a somewhat esoteric preview of the countries in the competition oriented by one of my favorite soccer quotes (from Eric Hobsbawn): “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.” It was the start of the ‘Year of African Soccer,’ to be followed closely by the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria, the African Cup of Nations in Angola, and soon the mega event of them all: the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Drawing inspiration from my all-time favorite World Cup preview, Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey’s excellent edited collection of essays and miscellany related to the participants in the 2006 World Cup, the shared goal was “to use soccer as a lens and an excuse to learn something about the wider world.”
To my great disappointment, Weiland and Wilsey seem to have not produced a new Thinking Fans Guide to the World Cup for 2010, leaving me feeling a bit adrift. Sure I can look up many a preview opining about whether Serbia’s defensive pairing of Nemanja Vidić and Branislav Ivanović is strong enough to get them through the group stage—but where else could I learn that Serbia had the highest proportion of tractors per capita of any country in the 2006 World Cup (at least when they were combined with Montenegro)? Combining that absence in my soul with the fact that the daily ‘Sweeper’ series here on Pitch Invasion is on a hiatus, I thought I’d try to offer some content over the next few weeks in the form of moderately esoteric World Cup group previews. The mostly light-hearted intention is simply to both provoke and satisfy curiosities. Take these group previews, which I’m planning to drop sporadically over the next few weeks, for what they are worth. And feel free to add the many odd and interesting facts about these places I’m sure I’ll miss….
Group A: The Group of _______________
The provocative debate about which quartet to label as the “Group of Death” has always seemed to me to have so much more potential—why can’t we have enough catchy labels to distribute through all the groups? Why not the “Group of Death Warmed Over,” or the “Group of Death be not Proud,” or the group of “Death Anxiety”? Why does everyone have to fight for just one silly name?
In that regard, Group A is as good a place to start as any—since my sources tell me that the origins of the “Group of Death” as a moniker lie with a combined effort of Mexican journalists and Uruguay’s manager in the 1986 World Cup—two nations whose teams will meet in Group A (along with France and South Africa). In this tournament, however, Group A probably has little claim on being the actual “Group of Death.” In fact, with France ranked 10th in the world by FIFA, South Africa as 90th, Mexico as 17th, and Uruguay as 18th, it’s the only of eight groups in the tournament without one team ranked in the top eight.
So I had to look outside the soccer world to find high rankings, and here’s the best I could come up with: what Group A does have is land mass and, believe it or not, relative wealth. In terms of land mass, of 223 ranked nations Mexico is 15th, South Africa 25th, France 43rd, and Uruguay 90th—which, on average, is the lowest (ie, most land) in the tournament. In terms of relative wealth, Group A is the only one in the tournament where Gross Domestic Product per capita (a standard global measure of wealth) is above $10,000 for all four countries—all the other groups have to factor in a Nigeria ($2250 per person), a Paraguay ($4500), or the like.
Finally, and probably most significant to soccer fans, Group A is the only group in the tournament comprised entirely of World Cup host nations—in addition to South Africa, Uruguay hosted the first World Cup in 1930, Mexico hosted in 1970 and 1986, and France hosted in 1998. That can’t happen too often (though it is also interesting to note that it almost also happened this year in Group H with Spain—1982 hosts, Switzerland—1954 hosts, and Chile—1962 hosts, missing only Honduras). So I’ll label Group A ‘The Group of Gracious Hosts (with little chance of actually winning the tournament).’
Who would advance if there were any justice in the world?
This segment is my admittedly subjective ranking of the two teams most deserving of making it out of the group stages—based on a secret formula combining soccer history and global politics. In the case of Group A one team is easy to eliminate: France has only a tenuous claim on deserving to have qualified at all for the World Cup based on the kerfuffle with Ireland, and one often gets a sense that the French themselves are too debonair to really worry about silly things like soccer. So in my mind they are out.
I also have a soft spot in my heart for South Africa, which is partially defensiveness about all the criticism they are getting as hosts from a lot of people who know almost nothing about the place. South Africa doing well also seems to mean a lot to Nelson Mandela, and I’d argue that Mandiba has earned the right to get whatever he wants. So in my mind they are in.
The second spot gets more difficult. For Uruguay to be ranked 18th in the world with a population of only 3.4 million people is a mighty impressive feat. But beyond any TV watcher’s familiarity with Diego Forlán’s abdominal muscles, I just don’t know enough about the place. In contrast, I know enough about Mexico to realize that it really, really matters to the nation if they do well in the World Cup. Further, the fact that my own USA has a rising tendency to scapegoat and stereotype our neighbors to the South makes me want to offer some sort of conciliatory gesture. As a US fan I do still harbor bitterness about Rafael Márquez’s attempt to maim Cobi Jones in 2002, but in the spirit of South Africa I’m trying to offer forgiveness.
So from my completely subjective standpoint, if there were any justice in the world South Africa and Mexico would advance from Group A. But keep in mind, there is rarely any justice in the world.
Group A – Some Stats
|FIFA rank||Betting odds on winning the Cup||Population||GDP per capita||Rank out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index||Life expectancy||Rank out of 223 nations by land mass||A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country (1-32)|
|South Africa||90||150||49 mil.||$10200||129||49.3 yrs.||25||2|
|Mexico||17||80||107.5 mil.||$13600||53||76.2 yrs.||15||3|
|Uruguay||18||100||3.4 mil.||$13200||50||76.4 yrs.||90||10|
|France||10||20||65.5 mil.||$33700||8||80.7 yrs.||43||27|