Everything is relative. The same enterprise can succeed or fail, depending on its competitive environment. That’s why understanding one’s position in the market is important, because then the right strategy becomes clear. Should one play like a leader or challenger or follower? Or it may be best to reconcile oneself to being a niche player, if the field is crowded with giants.
Nothing illustrates this better than the football World Cup where 32 qualifiers are divided into eight groups. Not all the groups can be equal in strength. So the World Cup 2014 draw held on Friday, to determine the composition of the groups, was vital for each one of those 32 teams.
Considering that the game is played in over 200 countries, none of the 32 that qualify for the quadrennial showpiece event can be termed a pushover. Nevertheless, there is still a wide gulf between the likes of Spain and Brazil on one hand and Australia and Algeria on the other.
Since the first round is played in a league format within each group, a team’s chances of making it to the round of 16 get enhanced quite a bit if it finds itself in a relatively weak group. Conversely, even strong teams dread being in the ‘group of death’, the strongest of the eight groups.
This time it is Group B which has the death tag. It has both the winner and runner-up of the last World Cup – Spain and Holland. What’s more, a dangerous Latin American side, Chile, which plays fast and attacking football, will be snapping at their heels. So neither Spain nor Holland can take their advance for granted, because only two out of these three strong teams can go through. As for the fourth team in this group, Australia, they might as well go home. Or they can play like a disruptor with nothing to lose – as normal football would be pointless – and harbour hopes of toppling two of the three giants to end up at No.2. And then what? They would meet hosts Brazil in Rio for a knockout game in the next round. Like I said, Group B is the worst place to be.
For the other teams in this group too, it’s complicated. Chile, which could have got through easily from most other groups, now find themselves in the role of a challenger, needing to upset Spain or Holland. As for Holland, they will have to decide whether to play their normal attacking game or fall back into a defensive counter-attacking mode as they did in the 2010 World Cup final against Spain. Even Spain will have to be on the ball from the word go to top the group – any slip-up could land them in a premature encounter with Brazil in the next round.
Another group that has a similar configuration is Group D with two strong European teams, Italy and England, mixing it up with a tough Latin American unit, Uruguay. England, like Holland, are at risk of being eliminated early.
The Latin American giants, Brazil and Argentina, unlike their European counterparts Spain, Holland, Italy and England, can have a nice warmup without stretching themselves to the limit in the first round. Argentina has Iran, Nigeria and World Cup first-timer Bosnia to contend with in Group F, which should be a walk in the park. Brazil have a slightly tougher Group A on paper, but two of their rivals, Mexico and Cameroon, are teams in decline. The tough opponents are Croatia, who gave a good account of themselves in the last World Cup. But the red card suspension of their playmaker Mario Mandzukic in the last game of their qualifier round is a big blow, because he will miss the entire first round. Brazil’s thoughts will therefore be more on their possible second round opponent – Spain or Holland or Chile.
Two traditional European footballing nations who will have things relatively easy are France and Germany. The French seem to be the luckiest, what with Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras in their Group E. Germany have slightly tougher opponents in Portugal, Ghana and the USA in Group G, but again Portugal and Ghana haven’t had a good run in recent times – so the group looks stronger on paper than it may be in reality.
That leaves two groups with no real star power. Group H has Belgium, South Korea, Russia and Algeria, while Group C has Colombia, Japan, Greece and the Ivory Coast. The teams here will be as good as playing in a different league, compared to the challenges faced by the teams in the Group of Death and Group D.
Looking at likely routes to the semi-finals out of all these groups, it does seem like Argentina have the easiest run. Topping their group ahead of Bosnia, Nigeria and Iran should be a cinch, in which case they will next play the runner-up from Group E, Switzerland or Ecuador. After that, the quarter-final opponent would probably be either Belgium or Portugal. They certainly have an easier path than their arch rivals from Latin America, hosts Brazil. Maybe, by the end of this World Cup, the Shakira ditty from the previous World Cup, ‘This time for Africa’, will have to be morphed into ‘This time for Argentina’. Or will there be a Samba, after all, as most of the world will be hoping?