World Cup 2006 Team Profiles: Group A

I will be taking a look at all 32 teams participating in the 2006 World Cup, doing a team-by-team capsule, organized by group. The first group will be Group A, which includes 2002 Semifinalists and host team , their neighbor and rival , and a group of Western Hemisphere teams..

Germany
World Cup Appearances:
16th Appearance; 13th Consecutive
Best Finish: 3-Time Champions (1954, 1974, 1990)
Players to Watch: Michael Ballack, MF; Miroslav Klose, F; Jens Lehmann, G

Notes:

Germany is the second-most prolific national team in World Cup history, only second to Brazil. They come into the 2006 World Cup as the favorite in their group to advance and coming off an impressive showing in the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, losing to those very Brazilians 2-0 in the semifinals. They enter this tournament as the host country, which bodes well for them. In the history of the World Cup, every host country has at least advanced to the elimination round.

The German chances rely heavily on the health of Michael Ballack. The 29 year-old midfielder plays for Bayern Munich in the German league, but it’s his international play that has given him this status with the team. He’s played 65 international games for the Germans and has tallied 31 goals in that span. He’s considered to be one of the few players, at least in the eyes of many international analysts, to be of the caliber of international superstar. He is definitely comparable to names like Juan Riquelme in and Wayne Rooney of . Ballack carried the Germans in 2002 and they expect him to do much of the same again this time around. It will remain to be seen how he fares with the calf injury that has bothered him after originally hurting it in a friendly against

Columbia
about two weeks before the beginning of the World Cup.

If he cannot go, they will rely on a lot of players who are solid, homegrown in many cases, but may not have the international experience or notoriety that Ballack has. A man to watch up front, however, is Miroslav Klose. The second leading scorer in the 2002 World Cup, Klose sat out last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup with an injury, but is fit again and looks to be dangerous. He’s got great ability to play the ball in the air, and that leads him, along with his ability to position himself well inside the penalty area, to score quickly and often.

Another huge development is the change in goal. Oliver Kahn, a mainstay for the Germans in international play, has been benched in favor of Jans Lehmann, and it will remain to see how he can fair. Having 33 games internationally has helped his development, as has playing in the English Premier League with Arsenal, but it remains to be seen if the move from Kahn to Lehmann will pay dividends.

If Ballack can come in healthy, he will team with the young up-and-coming Germans to lead them deep into the elimination stage. If not, however, I don’t know if they have enough scoring, even with Klose, to make a run at the title.

World Cup Appearances: 3rd Appearance; 2nd consecutive
Best Finish: Last Sixteen (1990)
Key Players: Paulo Wanchope, F; Gilberto Martinez, D

Notes:

The Costa Ricans are making themselves a fixture around International circles. Although only recently having success in international play, they have made quite an impression in the recent World Cups. In in 1990, they were able to win twice in the group stages against strong European teams on European soil, a task that is not that easy to accomplish.

This World Cup they will have a chance to surprise a few critics who do not believe that they have what it takes to overtake the likes of the other three clubs in their group to win a spot into the elimination round. But they look to show that they are better than the average qualifying rounds they played to arrive in .

They are lead up front by their biggest star, Paulo Wanchope. Easily the best player on this team and the focus of most of the opposing defenses, Wanchope has the international experience and the goal-scoring prowess to lead this Costa Rican team to a favorable showing in the World Cup. He’s scored 45 international goals, not bad for a two-sport star growing up. He played on the Costa Rican basketball team in the 1993 Central American tournament, but he returned to his country and chose soccer, and I’m sure that the Costa Rican fans are happy he did so. Wanchope played almost eight years in English leagues, but his European and Asian soccer commitments were short due to his unwavering commitment to and their national team. He has returned to his home country and is getting ready for the World Cup. Wanchope has the blend of speed and agility mixed with the relentless goal scorer’s mentality that can spell trouble for teams who sit idly by and watch as he does his work.

Meanwhile, an underrated player on the back line may be the key to the Costa Rican team. With the prolific strikers of the world in , it will be up to defensive play to dictate those who can survive in the group stages. Gilberto Martinez leads the defense of . He has been the heir apparent to the Costa Rican backline from Ronald Gutierrez. His physical marking and strength is going to prove very important with strikers like Klose of Germany and Zurawski of Poland.

Goal is probably their biggest question mark. Alvaro Mesen is a solid goaltender, but it has yet to be seen whether or not he can consistently provide solid play against the best in the world. They are widely inexperienced in elite international play, not having much experience against teams other than the ones they played in the qualification stages. Mesen can turn it on, but whether he remains consistent will be the key.


World Cup Appearances:
2nd Appearance; 2nd Consecutive
Best Finish: Group Round (2002)
Key Players: Edison Mendez, MF; Augustin Delgado, F

Notes:

The “Other” Other South American team. No, folks, they aren’t the Brazilians, or even the Argentineans, but they are definitely a talented team from the region. The Ecuadorians moved up from the 71st ranking in the FIFA world rankings before South American qualifying to the mid-30’s by the time qualifying was over. They are a team that made their World Cup debut four years ago and scored a memorable win against , the team that placed third in the World Cup prior, in 1998. They also had the benefit of one of the best “home-field advantages” in soccer, scoring a remarkable 23 of their 28 qualifying points by going unbeaten at home in the higher altitude, even managing to defeat the defending WC Champions the Brazilians.

This Ecuadorian team is led by a good mix of young players hungry for World experience and cagy veterans who have played on the world stage. Edison Mendez, a midfielder who has been a fixture in the Ecuadorian lineup since 2000, is one of the key lynchpins for this team. His ability to head up field and create while also playing back and marking some of the opposition’s top midfielders makes him a two-way player that the Ecuadorians can count on. He netted the only goal in that victory over in the 2002 World Cup and has remained hungry for the return ever since. With the youthful talent getting better around him, and the veterans still hungry, this could be a good mix to get past the group stage.

Another mainstay of the Ecuadorian team that played in 2002 and could make an impact here. Augustin Delgado was the leading scorer for in the 2002 qualifying process, tied with Argentinean Herman Crespo for the continent lead with 9 goals. He also scored the first World Cup goal in the country’s history and had another 5 goals in qualifying for . The 6’1″ striker uses his body and good position to get inside of the box and make a difference in the ability of teams to defend the outside midfielders who like to push up and cause some confusion. They can also score goals in bunches, but can also get cold just as quickly.

The main question is whether a team that had problems winning on the road during qualifying will be able to win on European soil when traditionally teams from this side of the world have problems doing so. They need to prove early that they can win at sea level or away from the comfort of high altitude.


World Cup Appearances:
7th Appearance; 2nd Consecutive
Best Finish: 3rd Place (1974, 1982)
Key Players: Maciej Zurawski, F; Jacek Krzynowek, MF

Notes:

Returning to the scene of the crime is usually not a good idea, but for the Polish, they are now returning to the site of their team’s top soccer triumph in their World Cup history. Back in 1974, when the World Cup was last in , they rode their team to a great third-place finish, which they would go onto repeat in 1982 in . But now they are back in after an impressive qualifying run and the expectations, depending on who you ask, are either very high or not expecting much.

This team lost against during a home and away series but managed to win their remaining qualifying matches en-route to . They are led up front by Zurawski, who scored 7 goals in qualifying and is a great option up front. This strong striker who is dangerous with both feet can maneuver and create things in little space for the Poles and give them a legitimate world-class striker. He has scored only 15 goals in international play, however, and although he established himself as a scoring machine in the Polish league, his performance in qualifying was considered to be his “coming-out” party for the world. He will have to definitely step up in this World Cup in order for them to challenge the top of their group.

With a team that is lacking experience all around the field, they need players who have been there before both in the national stage and all over

Europe
to play well. Another such player is going to be the booming left-foot midfielder Jacek Krzynowek, who has the second most international games played with 59. He’s a strong left-foot shot who can also create in the open field and place the ball in pinpoint locations. He has an enviable skill set that many midfielders cannot lay claim to. Also, he’s familiar with playing in , playing for Bayer Leverkusen of the German league.

Like some other teams in the competition, they’ve got inexperience all over the field to deal with. A key component is the relative inexperience of their defense and their goaltending. Artur Boruc has only 18 international caps and almost backed into the job when coach Pawel Janas left off Jerzy Dudek, the 2002 keeper. If he can play up to par with some of the best the world has to offer, they’ve got the offensive ability to score often and win some games.

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