Friday, September 4, 2009

The World Cup in the Balance

If you care about the World Cup, you should be worried.

Sure, world power Italy hasn't scored in 270 minutes and is coming off a dreadful Confederations Cup. Ex-cupholders France look just terrible, and Domenech refuses to give the French youth a chance. But we're not worried about them. Why? Because France is steady in second place, and Italy remain top of their group, so it remains unlikely that either team will miss out on South Africa.

You should, however, be worried about Portugal and Argentina. Portugal sits third with nine points, behind an excellent Danish side, sixteen points, and a somewhat resurgent Hungarian side, thirteen points. The boys from Lisbon will be travelling to Copenhagen on Saturday, and the Danish defense has been remarkably stout through qualifying. Add to that the rumored extinction of the Portuguese striker, and Portugal should have a tough time of it.

Although the Portuguese have nationalized Brazilian striker Leidson, expected to start, they'll need to play a strong match to take a desperately needed three points. A World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo would take a lot of luster away from a tournament already beset with infrastructure and safety issues. Not having one of, if not the best player in the world, would be a nasty turn for FIFA and the world fans.

Not having both of the world's best players might kill the tournament off for many casual observers.

Messi and Argentina's position may be just as, if not more precarious, than that of the Portuguese. Currently fourth in CONMEBOL qualifying, the Argentines are flirting with a playoff against a CONCACAF team. And who else but Brazil is showing up to Rosario (where Messi played as a youth) looking to push Argentina further down the table. Though Brazil haven't won in Argentina since 1995 and look good at the top of the table, the rivalry between these two, and Dunga's need to prove himself in the big game mean sparks will fly on Saturday night. If that weren't enough, Argentina has blood in its eye since they were defeated by Brazil in the finals of the two most recent editions of the Copa America.

A look down the lineups should make everyone's mouth water, but this fixture could determine Argentina's chances at South Africa. A loss on Saturday might mean curtains on Maradona, and Argentina simply can't afford any instability this far into 2009. Kaka and Messi will both be on the field, with Tevez accompanying la Pulga and Luis Fabiano playing the "9" for Brazil.

Rosario was the setting for another classic match between the two sides in the 1978 World Cup, known as the "Battle of Rosario," and spectators hope that this year's edition meets those expectations. But were Argentina to lose, this one could be historical for all the wrong reasons.

This weekend could be a decisive one for Portugal and Argentina, and as such, a decisive one for the World Cup as a whole. Without the star power of Ronaldo and Messi the World Cup will have taken a serious knock before the first whistle even blows.

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