Some time ago, my colleague at The Coors Effect wrote an illuminating column on the subject of the pecking order in the NL West, concluding that aside from the altitude (and the whole lack of talent thing) the Rockies have an uphill battle to fight when it comes to changing the national perception of their franchise. In the lack of credible evidence to the contrary, folks just assume that the Dodgers and the Giants are better than the Diamondbacks and Padres who in turn are better than the Rockies. The NL West isn't quite the AL East, where the five teams finish in the exact same order every season, but there's for sure a reductive tautology at work. The Rockies are bad because...the Rockies...are bad.
So how does this apply to the World Cup? Well, if you've been browsing any of the many previews written here and there on the web and in print about how the tourney will shake out, you'll probably notice that every single group has an ironclad pecking order. To a certain extent this is by design, as the teams are seeded so as to allow the most prestigious squads the best chance to advance. Besides, the weight of history looms large. Either Brazil or Germany has been every final save one since 1950. On the other hand, surprise runs to the semifinals are all too common. Witness South Korea in 2002. So why does every prognosticator have the teams in the same order? Because they have a good chance of being right, and no one will call them out if they fail to foresee a big run by Togo.
Group A: Germany, Poland, Ecuador, Costa Rica
The Germans are the hosts, who always make it out of the qualifying rounds, and they're also the Germans, who have been to seven finals and have won three. Poland isn't head and shoulders above the remaining teams in the group but they do have the next best thing to home-field advantage besides the Germans themselves. Ecuador has beaten Argentina and Brazil recently...but both of those games were on their home turf in Quito, which makes Coors Field look like Death Valley: 9,186 feet above sea level. Costa Rica are okay but they've certainly gotten no favors out of the schedulemakers, who have set them up as sacrificial lambs for the home team in the tournament opener Friday in Munich. Is there a shot for a surprise advancer here? No one would be terribly surprised if either Ecuador or Costa Rica pushed aside the Poles. But no one would have any expectations from whichever team finishes second in Group A to make it a match past the round of 16.
Group B: England, Sweden, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago
This one is as clearly tiered a group as there is in the draw, with one world-class squad, one sleeper, a fair Paraguay team, and Trinidad and Tobago. Don't confuse them with Togo. But don't bet on either to score a goal in group play, let alone win a match.
Group C: Argentina, The Netherlands, Ivory Coast, Serbia and Montenegro
Two of these teams have a lot of World Cup history behind them. Argentina has won twice, once (1978) beating out Holland. The Dutch have never won, but they've been in the finals twice. The Ivory Coast, on the other hand, are in the final 32 for the first time ever. Not that just getting invited to the dance isn't a historic accomplishment. The factions in the country's Civil War have agreed to a truce for the duration of the World Cup. The last team in Group C is just plain history: Montenegro voted for independence from the Serbian state last month. They'll never compete as one again, not that there are any Montenegrans on the current team. S&M, perhaps fittingly given their acronym, plays suffocating defense, but good fundamental play isn't enough to stop the stars the Argentines and Dutch are bringing to the dance. Ivory Coast has the most names recognizable to European club football fans among the African teams in the World Cup, but name recognition alone isn't likely worth better than third place.
Group D: Mexico, Portugal, Iran, Angola
The softest group in the draw still has an obvious pecking order. Angola is just happy to be here. The Iranians are probably scared to succeed given that their homeland is run by religious nutcases and several team members are quietly making very good livings playing club ball in the decadent west. Among the traditional soccer powers, Mexico is probably the most disrespected. They should make it out of this group without breaking a sweat, which may not bode well for their performance in the knockout rounds. Portugal ought to be runner-up by default, but they sure will have to watch their backs when they play Angola. Countries tend to hold grudges about four-hundred-year legacies of subjugation and enslavement. So I've heard.
Group E: Italy, Czech Republic, US of A, Ghana
If you're a new fan trying to learn the game in anticipation of your first World Cup, don't dwell too much on all the stories about the American team. They're not ready yet. They're improving, but they're not as good as the scandal-tainted Italians or the Czechs and their bounty of EPL stars. Each team will probably take target practice at lowly Ghana, another happy-just-to-be-invited squad. One trend soccer fans will point to, like the ubiquity of 5-12 upsets in the NCAA basketball tournament, is the tendency of at least one African squad to make it out of the group stage in each recent World Cup. The chalk likes this streak to get broken this time around, but the chalk is often wrong. You can erase chalk, you see.
Group F: Brazil, Croatia, Australia, Japan
The "Brazil and everybody else" group. Brazil doesn't hope to win World Cups, they expect it, and although injuries and age have rendered them less than invulnerable this go-round, they're still the class of Group F. The conventional wisdom has the Croats pegged for second thanks to a sweet qualifying run and good past Cup campaigns. The Japanese and the Australians make for an interesting matchup, not that it will really much matter which finishes third and which fourth. Australia has more famous players, but Japan has a superstar coach, Brazil's Zico. How will they finish? Well, if you look at the schedule, Australia plays Croatia last, while Japan meets Brazil. If the Croats don't need a win to move on, they could cede the Aussies some meaningless points. Brazil, on the other hand, isn't going to mess around with Japan or in fact anybody else. They're frickin' Brazil, five-time World Cup champs and the alpha dog of international soccer.
Group G: France, Switzerland, South Korea, Togo
When in doubt, you should always pick the team that's closer to home to win in a World Cup match, and both France (champs in '98) and South Korea (semis in '02) benefited greatly from past World Cups on their home turf. France is still good but old. No one takes South Korea any more seriously than they do the Americans, especially with the Swiss coming to play so much relatively closer to their home soil. Don't confuse Togo with Trinidad and Tobago, remember.
Group H: Spain, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia
For a country that's home to some of the best club teams and players in the world, Spain has a shaky history at the World Cup. The random draw for groups did them a huge favor by lumping them in with the inexperienced Tunisians and Saudis. Ukraine is all about Andriy Shevchenko. If he's good, they're good for second. Maybe even if he isn't, as the level of play to which the Ukrainian regulars are accustomed is simply across-the-board better than their African and Asian rivals. Does it bug anybody else that Tunisia's flag is a star inside of a crescent moon? That doesn't happen! The stars behind the moon are blocked by the portion of the moon unlit by the sun's rays, for heck's sake!
Well, that was a fun way to while away an afternoon. Time to shift gears and get my Stanley Cup Finals groove on. I'm not enough of a hockey expert to make any sort of prediction, but I will say that I'm pulling for Edmonton. The Canadians just seem to need it more, you know? Plus the whole eight-seed-makes-good deal would be a great story. One that won't be replicated by any of the bottom-of-the-pecking-order teams in the World Cup draw.