A Lot Going on in 2008: International Competitions

Save the World Cup, you couldn’t ask for a more action-packed year in waiting.

1. African Nations Cup (January 20-February 10) – As many European clubs try and hold on to their African stars for as long as possible, 16 teams will focus on Ghana, the host, and their chance at a place in the 2009 Confederations Cup. A couple favorites exist in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Egypt (2006 Champions), and Ghana, but the real problem is due to the influx of African talent to European teams, how will these Euro powerhouses deal without potentially three or four of their best players? Here’s a quick breakdown as not only Euro teams are affected…

Etoile Sahel (Tunisia) – could lose up to 10 players
Chelsea (ENG) – Michael Essien (Ghana), Salomon Kalou, Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Jon Obi Mikel (Nigeria)
Marseille (FRA) – Andre Ayew (Ghana), Mamadou Niang (Senegal), Modeste M’Bami (Cameroon), Taye Tiawo (Nigeria)
Sevilla (ESP) – Frederic Kanoute, Seydou Keita (Mali), Arouna Kone (Ivory Coast)
Portsmouth (ENG) – Sulley Muntari (Ghana), Papa Bouba Diop (Senegal), Nwankwo Kanu, John Utaka (Nigeria)
Sochaux (FRA) – Omar Daf, Boukhary Drame, Badera Sene, Guirane N’Daw (Senegal), Rabili Afolabi (Nigeria)
Arsenal (ENG) – Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue (Ivory Coast), Alexandre Song (Cameroon)
Lille (FRA) – Tony Sylva (Senegal), Jean Makoun (Cameroon), Souleymane Youla, Larsen Toure (Guinea), Adil Rami (Morocco)
Everton (ENG) – Steven Pienaar (South Africa), Joseph Yobo, Yakubu (Nigeria)
Barcelona (ESP) – Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon), Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast)
Newcastle (ENG) – Obafemi Martins (Newcastle), Amdy Faye, Habib Beye (Senegal), Geremi (Cameroon)

That’s a lot of talent missing – at least we know that the MLS isn’t the only league that goes through this sort of talent drain. You will see many clubs make transfer moves based on who they are losing for the whole month. Held every two years, 2008’s version pits newcomers Benin and Namibia (only 2 appearances) versus stalwarts Ghana (4 titles), Egypt (5 titles), and Cameroon (4 titles).

2. World Cup Qualifiers (ALL YEAR) – The first CONCACAF Prelim matches start on February 6, 2008 but the USA won’t play their first match until June of 2008. South America has gotten under way with the first 4 matches played and the rest not slated to be contested until the summer as well. Paraguay along with Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil have come out in form. Oceania is already well into Phase Two of their qualifying with New Zealand in firm control of the chance at that half a spot that the OFC gets. If New Zealand wins, they will play an Asian team to get through. If you are wondering where Australia is, let’s remember that due to competitive reasons they have moved on over to the Asian qualifying zone. Speaking of Asia, through to the last round of three stages – the AFC’s qualifying campaign will begin in early February. Africa also has all their groups set and ready to go at the end of May with 5 spots to be contested for.

3. Men’s and Women’s Olympic Tournament in China (August 6-August 23) – Argentina and Carlos Tevez hoisted the trophy at the Athens 2004 Games, while Iraq stole the spotlight making it to the bronze medal game before bowing out to Italy, 1-0. The 2008 Games will feature 16 teams that go through varying degrees of qualifying (CONCACAF has yet to play theirs). Argentina, Brazil, Holland, Italy, and Australia are just some of the few who have already qualified. There are three spots left and two of those belong to the CONCACAF region, whose qualifiers will be borne out of a Championship Tournament held in the USA from March 11-20, 2008. The Americans have drawn Panama, Cuba, and Honduras. As it stands, the Olympic roster must consist of players born AFTER January 1, 1985 with the exception of three senior players who can be of any age. For a look at who you should expect to see on the 18-person roster come August, here is who Nowak has recently called up. On the Women’s side, the USA have a tough track record to follow as they have won 2 out of the 3 Olympic tournaments. Their qualifying campaign has yet begin, but it is rapidly approaching as they prepare for the Final Round in Mexico this April. The tourney will feature 12 teams with 6 of the slots already taken.

4. EURO 2008 (June 7-June 29) – Held in Austria and Switzerland, we all know there is one very noticeable absence. England. The draw was made recently with one group standing out – Netherlands, Italy, France, and Romania. The others aren’t much easier, but for many, Romania is the dark horse drawing the most parallels to a Greek squad that won four years ago (well maybe not). There will be four venues in Austria (Vienna, Salzburg, Klagenfurt, and Innsbruck) and four in Switzerland (Bern, Zurich, Basel, Geneva). Both host squads, however, are looked at as pushovers. Throughout qualifiers, it was Croatian and Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva that led the scoring charts for those qualfied, but da Silva finds himself in a group full of scorers. Both runner-up and third place on the score charts are in his group, Lukas Podolski of Germany and Ebi Smolarek of Poland. If you can’t get over to Central Europe for this one, no worries as it will be broadcast fully on ESPN in the States. There will be a full break-down of this as we get closer…

5. FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup (October 28-November 16) and FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup (November 19-December 7) – For the U-17s, it is the inaugural competition and a breaktrough in women’s soccer. It will be held in New Zealand, while the U-20 tournament has been in existence since 2002 and this year, it will be held in Chile. The U-17 tourney will host 16 teams with qualifying still in the running. The U-20s qualifying is in full motion as well, all vying for the 8 spots left. Last time out, Korea DPR overcame China in the final. The US U-2os will look to improve upon their 4th place finish and repeat their performance from Canada 2002 where they took home the gold.

As you can see, there’s almost too much to look forward to…but that is the world of soccer for us. This is just on the international level…and it’s enough to keep any soccer blogger busy and/or fired from his day job. What are you looking forward to the most? Any figures in soccer world that we should be watching out for in 2008?  

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Guest Post: Euro 2008’s Underwhelming Co-Hosts

A fellow blogger, a fella who runs a site called Starting Eleven, contacted me about doing a post-hosting swap. That sounded like “Post Toasties” to me and who doesn’t like those? So I said, yeah, what the the hey?

He’ll be posting my item shortly – and I’ll link to that when it’s up. As for this space, his item is below, a tidy commentary on the competitive quandary of allowing two nations to co-host major soccer tournaments. I liked it plenty and hope all y’all like it as well. And, if you like it, pop over to Starting Eleven and enjoy; he’ll be churning out the content for you.

On with the show:

Soccer’s principal governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA, have fallen in love with the notion of co-hosts for their major championships. Blame UEFA because it was first with Belgium and the Netherlands hosting the 2000 Euro, but it didn’t take long for copycat FIFA to fall in line with the 2002 World Cup taking place in Japan and South Korea.

While it may be a noble gesture to allow two countries to experience big tournaments simultaneously, exposing both to more media attention and the opportunity for massive amounts of revenue, fans are left with a soul-less event. We’re left to suffer with an inferior tournament because of FIFA’s and UEFA’s transparent motives and decision to reward mediocrity.

Look no further than next summer’s Euro; Austria and Switzerland will co-host and also earned automatic qualification for the tournament. Under normal circumstances, neither nation would get in without paying for tickets. Austria has made one previous Euro, Switzerland three. Neither has ever finished in the top four, nor has either made it out of the initial group stage of the finals.

Yet there they’ll be next summer, occupying two spots normally reserved for deserving teams. And therein lies the problem with the concept of co-hosts. If 16, 24 or 32 teams are good enough to qualify for a tournament, and two of the spots are reserved for hosts with no business being in the competition, how does UEFA or FIFA look at Nos. 17, 25 or 33 with a straight face and tell them they don’t belong.

If UEFA’s logic, for example, is spreading the wealth and the experience of hosting the tournament, fair enough. But once the host nations are excused after three games, that’s really out the door. Right now, England, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Belgium, Norway and exciting Israel are ranked higher than both Austria and Switzerland, and any of them would have a better showing than Austria or Switzerland, yet they’re on the outside looking in because of the decision to have co-hosts.

Sadly, this is a concept that isn’t going away any time soon. Poland and Ukraine are on tap to host the 2012 Euro, and Portugal and Spain are expected to make a bid for the 2018 World Cup [why? Portugal hosted a great Euro on its own in 2004.]

It’s time for FIFA and UEFA to find the courage to turn away these bids. If a country doesn’t have the infrastructure to host the game’s biggest tournaments, than it just doesn’t deserve them. It is doubtful fans would complain about somewhat permanent host nations for the Euro, in a rotation between say, England, Italy, France, Portugal, Spain and Germany. Same goes for the World Cup: Any of those European nations, along with the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Japan, China and perhaps Australia.

To quote a funny guy: “Two of shit, is still shit.”

EURO 2008 Draw: A Bonafide Group of Death

Group A

Switzerland
Czech Republic
Portugal
Turkey

Group B

Germany
Austria
Croatia
Poland

Group C

France
Netherlands
Italy
Romania

Group D

Greece
Spain
Russia
Sweden

I think we can all pretty much agree that Group C is going to be particularly exciting to watch. With Netherlands, France, Italy all duking it out, I wouldn’t be surprised if Romania snuck through – we’re talking about an under-rated team here that finished in front of Netherlands in qualifying.

If Hiddink sticks with Russia, I can see a great tournament coming from them as they have a rather favorable draw. Heading on over to Group B, Austria is going to get slaughtered – Germany and Croatia look pretty dominant in that field. The wonder of the European Championship though is the underdog – like Greece in 2004, Denmark in 1996 – my dark horse pick is Russia.

Second Round Picks:
GROUP A – Czech Republic, Portugal
GROUP B – Croatia, Germany
GROUP C – Netherlands, Italy
GROUP D – Spain, Russia

Who’s winning it all? Your dark horse?