Brazil 2014: Round of 16, Day Three Preview
Austin Fido has the preview of the third pair of second round matches…
Here’s a short history of World Cup football: start with as broad a selection of nations as can be managed, finish with a team from Europe or South America winning the whole thing in a final against another team from Europe or South America. It happens every time.
One day, things will be different. But 2014 doesn’t feel like it will include that day. The big teams that made it into the second round have had some close calls, but so far there hasn’t been a true upset in this stage of the tournament.
Second Round, Day 3, June 30: CAF vs. UEFA
The third set of games in the round of 16 pairs two traditional UEFA giants – France and Germany – against the last teams standing from CAF, Algeria and Nigeria.
This is probably the end of the road for African teams in this competition. Both the Fennec Foxes and the Super Eagles are rank outsiders in their respective games.
Still, this is the first World Cup ever that CAF has seen two of its teams advance out of the groups, and the first time since 2002 that Ghana hasn’t been the standard-bearer for African football in the knockout rounds.
All of which is to say: conditions are perfect for a break from the old routine.
11 am (Chicago time): France vs. Nigeria
Whisper it: France might be good again. After getting bounced from Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 without a win, and dropping out of Euro 2012 in the quarterfinal, and sneaking into this tournament by, essentially, beating Ukraine by the odd goal in five – Les Bleus might be back.
The demise of the golden generation is complete: not a single player in France’s 23 for this tournament had any involvement in the glory days back in ’98 and 2000.
The squad has plenty of talent and, with the possible exception of Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna, is of an age where most players may have reasonable expectation of remaining in contention for their national team through Euro 2016 and the next World Cup.
By that time, even the memory of the 2006 World Cup final, the last gasp of generation that couldn’t be beat, will be distant. But France’s clean-slate generation – truly free of the burden of expectation – has been having fun in Brazil.
They almost put more goals past Switzerland (five) in the one game in the group stage than the Swiss conceded in their entire qualifying campaign (six). And they dismantled a Honduran side determined to test their temperament.
Coach Didier Deschamps, a powerful link back to the glory days, rotated his squad effectively in the group, making it clear that he has a great many attacking tools at his disposal.
So much so, in fact, that Antoine Griezmann, a late call-up to replace Franck Ribery, has played in every one of his team’s matches in the tournament to date and started two of them.
The 0-0 in the dead-rubber game against Ecuador notwithstanding, France looks like a team that came to Brazil to play – and the game they want to play is exuberant, free-scoring football.
Interestingly, Nigeria would appear well advised to follow a similar plan. The Super Eagles made getting out of a lightweight group look difficult. A scoreless draw with Iran looked a little better in light of Argentina’s difficulty in breaking down the same opponent, but they squeaked past an out-of-sorts Bosnia-Herzegovina and left themselves vulnerable to being overtaken by Iran on goal difference.
At it happened, the Bosnians took care of Iran on Nigeria’s behalf, but not before the Super Eagles took the game to Argentina, trading goals freely with the presumptive finalists before settling for a 3-2 loss once it became clear the Iranians weren’t going to get three points.
Discontent has been the theme of this tournament for African teams: Nigeria’s players have been arguing about money with their federation’s leadership much like the Ghana and Cameroon.
That raises questions about motivation, and doesn’t bode well going into a game against an upbeat, seemingly united, opponent.
Still, the reigning Africa Cup of Nations champion is in a World Cup second round. And the one thing we haven’t seen from this France is how well it can handle a little bit of adversity. The French aren’t used to chasing a game: the only match they’ve won this year after going a goal down was against Georgia in March.
If the Super Eagles can score first, they will be asking just about the only question their opponents have struggled to answer recently.
But the likelihood remains that this match is merely the prelude to a bigger question: can France beat Germany?
3 pm (Chicago time) Germany vs. Algeria
For two teams that have only spent about three hours in each other’s company, Algeria and Germany sure have racked up a lot of history.
The head-to-head record between the sides favors Algeria: the Fennec Foxes have never lost to the (West) Germans.
The second time gets the most press, because it was the result that set up West Germany’s collusion with Austria to get out of the group stage of the 1982 World Cup. That game is responsible for the simultaneous kick-off times in the last stage of group games we now see in pretty much every major tournament.
But the first game was not without significance either. Algeria’s national football team had a role to play in the country’s fight for independence. There was effectively a guerilla national side representing Algeria from 1958 until the nation’s independence in 1962.
The national football team officially joined FIFA on January 1, 1964 – and played West Germany that same day, recording its first ever win as an official national team.
So the Germans don’t come along often in Algerian football history, but when they do – the matches tend to count for something.
In this case, if Algeria can spring a third surprise (there aren’t many occasions when a German national team isn’t the favorite in a game), it would set up a quarterfinal for the ages, regardless of the opponent.
Either the Fennecs would play the old enemy – France – or they’d be involved in the first all-African World Cup quarterfinal, with the winner guaranteed to represent the continent in a semifinal for the first time.
It’s a lot of pressure, but mostly, one suspects, Algeria would just like revenge for 1982.
The Germans will doubtless have noted that the other half of their once divided nation, East Germany, played Algeria four times and never lost (winning three and drawing one).
Die Nationalmannschaft appears to be in characteristically solid form for the tournament. Portugal was soundly beaten, the USA was put away in more comfortable fashion than a 1-0 score line might suggest.
Yes, the Germans looked vulnerable against Ghana, and were perhaps fortunate to get a 2-2 draw, but Algeria’s record in the tournament is not imposing.
The Fennecs are in the second round because they were better than South Korea, but they lost to Belgium and drew with Russia. And they didn’t keep a clean sheet against any of them.
Germany is the overwhelming favorite to win. Of course, that is always the case when these teams meet.
Austin Fido is OTF’s USMNT and CONCACAF editor. Follow him @canetop.