The Return of the Great Messi-ah

With an overload of talent that includes Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s best player, Argentina would seem a safe bet to get out of the group stages. Yet it should not be overlooked that just seven months ago, the team was in serious danger of failing to even make it to South Africa after three straight losses; the sanity of manager Diego Maradona even fell into question. The Argentines lost five of seven qualifying matches from October 2008 to September 2009, and only a last-gasp Martin Palermo goal in the final qualifying match against Uruguay punched their ticket to South Africa.

Afterward, Maradona found it necessary to prove god had nothing to do with what came out of his mouth — in contrast to the divine intervention of his 1986 “hand of god” goal — saying, “Those who did not believe … let them suck my dick, and keep on sucking it.”

While Maradona didn’t really prove anybody wrong by running Argentina’s worst qualifying campaign in recent history, his team did come together when it really mattered — a quality that could bode well for their fate in South Africa. He may have driven away Juan Roman Riquelme, one of the country’s top midfielders, but his attacking options are still second to none, with the likes of Messi, Carlos Tevéz, Gonzalo Higuaín, Diego Milito and Sergio Agüero to back him up. An older defense may not be as world-class as the strikers, but experience in high-pressure international matches is often underestimated. Qualification in South America is never easy, and despite Argentina’s struggles, it is still very capable of a deep tournament run, and should emerge as the winner of Group B.

After Egypt’s failure to qualify, Nigeria currently stands second only to Cameroon in the FIFA rankings of the African nations to qualify for the World Cup. Nigeria will be a case study of sorts, providing a measure for how much “home continent” advantage boosts a squad’s tournament fate. The “Super Eagles” have some quality attacking options with Obafemi Martins, Yakubu and two-time African Player of the Year Nwankwo Kanu leading the frontline. Joseph Yobo and Taye Taiwo will anchor the defense, and Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel has proven himself to be a strong holding midfielder at the highest level.

With virtually every one of its players based in the world’s top leagues, Nigeria seems ready for the high level of competition it will face in South Africa. However, the team did crash out of the 2002 cup, and failed to qualify in 2006. Consequently, Nigeria’s chances of rising from the group stages are far from certain. Nevertheless, the team should emerge as a runner-up if its players can keep their nerve on the world’s biggest stage.

Only eight years after their shocking fourth place finish, South Korea has proven that it should not be overlooked. World powerhouses Portugal, Italy and Spain learned that lesson the hard way in 2002, when each lost to the co-hosts of the tournament. Now led by native Huh Jung-Moo, South Korea will look to repeat that upset and build on a hugely successful qualifying campaign that saw them go unbeaten and become top qualifiers out of Asia. Captained by Manchester United winger Park Ji-Sung, the squad is certainly not without talent, with a speedy attack led by Park and Bolton forward Lee Chung-Yong.

Yet with the majority of the squad playing in South Korean and Japanese clubs, much of the team is untested against the world’s top talent. South Korea will certainly give each of its opponents in South Africa a difficult match, and making it beyond of the group stages is not out of the question. However, with a majority of the South Korean players based in leagues that don’t rank among the world’s best, the team might narrowly miss the opportunity to advance in this year’s tournament.

Like South Korea, Greece has had recent unexpected international success that it will aim to build upon in South Africa. After an astonishing victory over Portugal, Greece emerged as the Euro 2004 champion, marking the team’s most successful finish ever in an international tournament. The Greeks also boast notable international talent: Liverpool defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos will lead the back line, and Celtic striker Georgios Samaras is expected to provide the goals.

However, a majority of the squad plays for Greek clubs, and will have to elevate their game considerably in South Africa. In addition, this is only Greece’s second time qualifying for the World Cup, as a 1994 appearance ended after three straight losses. A nation deep in financial trouble, Greece could certainly benefit from a successful showing in South Africa; still, it will take a substantial effort and perhaps a bit of luck for the Greeks to move past the group stages.

Group B should be a dogfight — easy games will be hard to come by. Look for South Korea and Nigeria to stay close on points, with the final game in the group stages deciding who advances.

Ever do blow with Maradona and want to tell me what it was like? Do you think Park Ji-Sung was a more-than-adequate replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo? Write me at [email protected].