A note on these grades. Each teams’ grade is not to be compared with another team, but is based on how they did according to expectations, the manner in which they did it in (playing style, ease/difficulty, adversity etc.) and how they carried themselves.
Netherlands – A
The Dutch became the second team to win all three of their group games and they did it without any internal fighting. Even Robben got a brief run out and in the 20 minutes he was on he had a spectacular shot denied by the woodwork which went straight into the path of a grateful Huntelaar who easily slotted it home.
They were rarely troubled in any of their games though it took a deflected block from the keeper to ensure their three points against Japan. They could have taken it easy in their final match against Cameroon, but they came out hard and were eventual winners.
They’re well organized and deadly going forward — now even more so with a healthy Robben. Their defense is solid and their engine room is humming perfectly along.
Now comes the real test (well, after they meet Slovakia) and the quality of teams once they reach the quarters should greatly improve. For now they aced their group stage games.
Japan – A-
Japan were supposed finish bottom of the group. They were certainly a team to be respected but every game against them was treated like the “easy” game.
Their pre-tournament games didn’t fare too well as they went 0-4 (all against teams going to the World Cup finals) and the media and public back home had their doubts about the Blue Samurai.
That all changed when they came to South Africa. They’re incredibly well organized at the back, but it’s from the back where they’re very potent going forward as they send their fullbacks screaming down the wings. Their midfield is wonderfully creative and very good at finding the runs by their strikers and wingbacks.
Their forwards are okay but they make intelligent runs which must be kept in check, and don’t foul them anywhere in free kick range as Denmark painfully found out.
The Jabulani has come under a lot of criticism by players and keepers alike, but today Japan made it their bitch by scoring two exquisite free kicks the likes of which Ronaldo, Lampard, Messi, etc… cannot seem to master with this new ball.
Up next for the Blue Samurai is Paraguay. This should be a very exciting encounter as they both play good football. I pip Japan to sneak on through to the quarters as they are more balanced and I hope they do it from a free kick.
Denmark – C-
This marks the first time in their history that the Danes failed to get out of the group stage. Having missed out on the festivities in Germany they came to South Africa with a veteran squad.
It was this I feel that let them down. They were always a half step behind the Dutch and the Japanese. Against Cameroon in one of the most entertaining games of the tournament, they were lucky not too lose or at least draw as Cameroon missed gilt-edge chance after another.
They didn’t play badly or negatively. In fact, every one of their games was exciting. Unfortunately it had to do with some of their own defensive errors.
Going forward though, they were a constant threat especially with Rommedahl rediscovering some of his 10.2 second 100 meter speed. Sadly, old warhorse Tomasson was anemic in front of goal as he tried to equal the Danish scoring record. In the final minutes of their last game against Japan, and already going home, he scored from a penalty and achieved the milestone.
In the end, I think the Danes and especially Morton Olsen underestimated Japan and had no real plan if they were to fall behind. Many of their players will no doubt retire from international duty after this cup and the team will go home disappointed.
Cameroon – D+/C-
Cameroon started the cup amid controversy as legend Roger Milla called out star striker and captain Samuel Eto’o for not recreating his club form for his country. Whereas that might be true, it is a little unfair as his club teammates possess a little more skill and quality then his national teammates.
Eto’o, always a sensitive soul, threatened to quit the team. Then after their first game loss to Japan, Paul Le Guen publicly questioned the team’s attitude when in turn Eto’o question they starting selection.
In their second game, they came out guns a-blazing with the team selection suggested by Eto’o. They created chance after chance but their finishing was poor. The Danes, patient and calm, attacked them on the counter and were 2-1 winners. The Indomitable Lions became the first team eliminated from the competition.
Admirably, they came out hard in the meaningless third game. Unfortunately, so did the Dutch. It was an exciting affair but their defense let them down and they ended their campaign winless.
I didn’t give them a failing grade as they played exciting attacking football. After the first game, they really put their hearts into it. Unfortunately their discipline, finishing abilities and organization were thrown out the window. They were responsible for one of the most entertaining start to finish games and were a pleasure to watch (from an attacking POV; defensively it was painful).
Ultimately they were a major disappointment, but I have soft spot for the Cameroon teams of ’90 and ’94 so I was generous with my marks.
Paraguay – B
The Paraguayan team came into the World Cup as the surprise of the South American qualifications. They were the second team to qualify and did it by beating all the traditional powerhouses.
Solid all over, they sadly, like many other teams, started off the tournament on a cautious note. They scored the opening goal against Italy but gave the defending champions too much respect, and they eventually gave up a poor goal.
Against Slovakia they resorted back to their free-flowing qualification style of play and totally dominated the Europeans, scoring two well-taken goals to boot.
Oddly though, in their third game they reverted back to their cautious style knowing a draw would see them through. They didn’t really try too hard and just made sure they maintained a clean sheet.
In the next round they play Japan and cannot afford to have this sort of split personality manner of play. They will face a well-disciplined side with a strong attacking verve, and will need to play like the did in qualification and against Slovakia if they have any hope of progressing.
Slovakia – B+
I have mixed feelings about this team and gave them this grade mainly based on their last game against Italy. Not expected to do much in South Africa, they were shocked by an injury time equalizer from New Zealand before being thoroughly outclassed by Paraguay.
Coming into their third game against Italy there chances of qualification were slim to none. They had 1 point and needed to beat the defending world champions (who up until then had failed to impress) as well needing some help from the other game.
They came out hard and played some good solid workmanlike football. They took a two goal lead, gave up one and then by the skin of their teeth held on for a 3-2 victory and a passage into the next round.
They will meet the Dutch and will more than likely be sent packing, but will leave their inaugural trip to the Big Dance with their heads held high. This grade maybe a little generous, but it as all to do with the manner they dispatched Italy and how they punched so much higher than their weight (literally for their keeper).
New Zealand – A-
New Zealand have been the biggest surprise of the tournament. They came into South Africa with the world expecting them be demolished by the rest of the group giving up goals at a record pace. Many journalists were lamenting their inclusion in the final 32, stating that their spot could have been given to far more deserving teams from the other regions.
Their team consists of players who mainly ply their trade in the Australian and New Zealand football leagues with one player not even having a club.
Not only did they not lose a single game, they only gave up two goals on their way to three points. They should have won against Italy but the Azzurri were awarded an incredibly soft penalty from an over-theatric Di Rossi. They also played a fairly adventurous game, attacking whenever they could and possessed a keeper who will surely taking calls from bigger clubs.
Mark Paston was immense and was the major reason New Zealand did not lose. New Zealand more than exceeded pre-cup expectations and came into the final game with a decent shot of going through. They played out of their minds.
Their grade reflects their personal performance as a team, how they overcame the other bigger footballing nations and their overall play stunning the world with each game.
Italy – F
For the first time in the history of the World Cup, both of the previous finalists were knocked out in the group stages. Where as France were embroiled in comical controversy, Italy were just unimaginative, arrogant and incredibly negative.
Traditionally slow starters, they came out with a 1-1 draw against a timid Paraguay. Though they didn’t lose, you could see the wheels coming off when they started resorting to playacting and diving in order to gain an advantage.
The same sort of theatrics earned them an undeserved draw against New Zealand. It was arrogance, however, that was their final undoing. Believing the hype that they were traditional slow starters who eventually turn it around when they needed too, they came into their last game against Slovakia over confident.
Even after going into the half down 1 – 0, they started the second half disinterested in the proceedings. Finally with 20 minutes left and down 2-0 they started playing like the champions from 2006. They scored a goal through some beautiful passing but quickly gave up another. Quagliarella made it a close finish with his exquisite goal, but in the end it was too little too late.
The last time they played so poorly was in 1966 when they lost to North Korea en route to crashing out in the group stages. They came home to be pelted by rotten tomatoes from their enraged fans. I wonder what will be thrown at them this time?
Brazil – B
Brazil breezed their way through the “group of death” (which it didn’t turn out to be and never really was) but didn’t do it in the convincing manner that we are used to.
To be fair, when they needed to push themselves they did, mainly against the Ivory Coast as they secured an easy three points. In their first game, they came up against a North Korean team that wasn’t the pushovers they were hoping for. They won, but it wasn’t entirely convincing.
Against Portugal, having already qualified and needing just a draw to be group leaders, they actually showed a lot of intent and really tried for a win. They came close a couple of times, but they couldn’t break down the Portuguese defense.
One gets the impression though, that Brazil were playing the group stages in third gear and that they have another two if not three they can go into should it be deemed necessary. And it very well might have to be if they are to meet Chile or Spain in the next round!
I will say this though: Dani Alves and Maicon both marauding down the right is scary for any left back, but it does leave a huge hole from which to attack!
Portugal – B-
Portugal had a rough qualifying campaign, and had to beat Bosnia Herzegovina in the playoffs to book their ticket to South Africa. They had a lackluster pre-tournament warm up, including a terrible goalless draw against Cape Verde. Even their opener against Ivory Coast lacked any conviction, as they rarely ventured forward.
That all changed though, in their thorough demolition of North Korea. The first half continued from where their first round game left off. And though they went into the dressing room leading 1 -0, North Korea had long stretches where they looked the more dangerous team.
No doubt feeling confident from their first half forays, North Korea pressed forward leaving their back line exposed and Portugal made them pay…and did they ever! Scoring 6 goals, including Ronaldo’s first for his country in 16 months, they essentially booked their passage into the knock out rounds.
In the last game, they did show some defensive steel to stop Brazil from scoring. Ronaldo seemed close to getting to his tricky best (both as a player and actor), but they once again failed to impress.
Who knows what lies in store for Portugal. Either Spain or Chile will bring about a mouth-water tie in the round of 16, and Portugal will have to play better than they did against their tougher opponents if they want to progress.
Ivory Coast – D+
Sadly the Ivorians were a disappointment. They started off the first game without inspirational leader and captain Drogba (who did appear in the 66th minute), and played into the cautious “if you don’t lose the first game, you will be fine” mindset.
Unfortunately, a combination of getting beaten 3-1 against Brazil and Portugal’s destruction of North Korea effectively knocked them out of the tournament.
Needing to score 9 goals in their last game, they certainly went for it but could only muster 3.
On paper and perhaps on the field, Ivory Coast represented Africa’s strongest team. Unfortunately, their coach’s tactics of reserved play didn’t suit their natural instinct for attacking flair football. Erikson is a good coach, but is better suited for club football than the International game, and ultimately didn’t understand the pulse that flowed through the Ivorians’ bodies.
This is two World Cups in a row that Ivory Coast have been drawn into one of the tougher groups. Here’s to hoping that in Brazil, they will make a serious challenge and go deep into the tournament.
North Korea – D (an A+ if “Dear Leader” is reading this)
Not much was known about the football team from The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea when they were thrown into this group of heavy weights.
Many jokes were made at their expense, but they quickly silenced critics with a credited display against Brazil. They even got a well-taken goal in the final minutes to give Brazil a nervy end to the game.
That performance, coupled with Portugal’s listless display against Ivory Coast, gave hope that might get a draw and may even squeak out a win against the European team. They even dominated parts of the first half, and the first goal was on a counter from one of their many attacking displays.
Unfortunately, they threw their players forward in an effort to score an equalizer and Portugal punished them. 45 minutes later, they were out of the World Cup having just lost 7-0. This was the first game ever to be televised live in North Korea. Hopefully Kim Jong Il was taking a nap and a crack team of CGI experts ensured that the second half never happened.
They weren’t too much better in that last game, and though they only let in 3 and played a better defensive game, their attacks didn’t possess the same bite as in the first game.
All told, congrats to making it, South Africa. They played 135 minutes of good football and the rest…well the rest will remain on the cutting room floor when Dear Leader watches the recaps!
Spain – B
After a rocky start against Switzerland, Spain righted their ship by winning their last two games against Honduras and Chile.
They played all three games the only way they know how. Lots of slick quick passes to try to break down any defensive line so that their strikers and attacking midfielders can slot balls home.
This didn’t work against Switzerland as the Swiss were very well organized at the back, let the Spanish attack them from out wide and ensured nothing came down the middle.
Against Honduras and Chile, teams with not as sophisticated a defense and more of an attack style respectively, Spain found the holes, penetrated, attacked and scored some very well taken goals (mainly Villa, who scored 3).
They qualified top of their group but not as comfortably as everyone expected. Casillas looked nervous throughout the group stages and was at fault for the goal against Switzerland. He certainly didn’t command the area the way he used to, and other teams will take note.
They meet Portugal in an exciting Iberian derby. Their defense will have to be on guard, but if they play like the did against Chile, they should send Ronaldo home packing!
Chile – B+
Chile came into the tournament known for their attacking, swash-buckling style of play, and they did not disappoint. Coached by “El Loco,” they’re a non-stop barrage of viewing pleasure as they run at every defense with the intent to score a beautiful goal.
That said, they could only muster 3 goals in the group stages, even though they created lots of chances. They almost were punished for not putting away some simple ones against Switzerland, but in the end it was all moot as the Swiss couldn’t beat Honduras.
What has been forgotten in all this is that the Chilean defense is nothing to laugh at. They kept clean sheets in the first two games, and a moment of madness from Bravo and a well worked Spanish goal were their only undoing in the third game. For 60 minutes, the Spanish Armada could do nothing against their defense when they were a man down.
In the next round they meet fellow confederation team, Brazil, who, over two games in qualification, beat them 7-2. Hopefully, they will be able to call on Humberto Suazo, South America’s leading goal-scorer in qualification, for the knockout stages.
Switzerland – C+
Switzerland started off in South Africa as the surprise of the first round when they beat Spain 1-0 (and nearly 2-0). Against Chile the broke the record for most consecutive minutes in a World Cup without giving up a goal, a testament to their defensive prowess.
Unlike Greece, they did venture forward when they could — it was just that their first two games were against very attack-minded opponents. Unfortunately though, their forwards finishing abilities left a lot to be desired. Dirdiyok especially was guilty of missing 3 opportunities of the sort strikers salivate over. The first one, late in the Chilean game, would have tied it up, and 2 against Honduras would have put them on top of the group.
They needed to beat Honduras, and they went all out. They had more shots on goal and in general in the first half than they did in the previous two games. Valladares, though, was on form and he smothered every one of the Swiss goal attempts. The rest was due to the ineptitude of their forwards.
In the end Switzerland finished with 4 points, a number that before the tournament they would have been happy with, but ultimately based on how they started, they will go home disappointed.
Honduras – C-
The Hondurans were placed in a tough group. Their schedule also didn’t help them as they had to get a result from their first two games against arguably two of the most potent attacking teams in the competition.
They played decently in the first game, but if it wasn’t for Valladares they would have lost by many more goals. Against Spain, their back 4 looked panic stricken every time Villa charged at them, and they were on the wrong end of a scorned Spain.
Against Switzerland, already out of the tournament, they held their heads up high and earned a well deserved point. They even went close a couple of times as they found holes in the Swiss back line.
Never expecting to get out of the group, they were thought to be of the quality to trouble their opponents, but in the end, they were outmatched and outclassed.