by Trevor Whenham
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In Group F at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, there is Brazil - and then there is everyone else. Brazil is not only the unquestioned class of Group F, but it is the oddsmakers favorite to win the entire tournament. Bodog has Brazil at 5/2 to take the World Cup Trophy, while Croatia is the next strongest in the group at 60-1. The rest the teams in Group F - Australia, Croatia and Japan -- all have something to prove. If all goes as expected with this group, these three teams will be battling it out for the second pass to the elimination rounds that will be awarded to the group (the top two teams from each group advance).
Australia will be playing in only its second World Cup and its first in 32 years. That last appearance was in Germany as well. The team failed to score a goal in that appearance and will be out to prove that they belong this time, despite just squeaking into the tournament this year on penalty kicks. They have incredible strength in coaching. Guus Hiddink was the coach of the Netherlands when they reached the semi-finals in 1998, and he led South Korea to the semifinals in 2002. He took over the Australian team in July of 2005 after a disastrous showing at the 2005 Confederations Cup. The team is much more of a threat with his magic touch guiding them.
Croatia was one of the bigger surprises in the 1998 World Cup in France where it finished third in its first World Cup since the country had gained its independence. The team's encore performance four years later was nothing short of a disappointment. Expectations were high, but the team hardly put up a fight against Mexico and Ecuador and went home after the first round. This time around the team is younger and hungry and out to prove that the 1998 result was no fluke.
Japan is playing in just its third World Cup. It was the first team to qualify this year and is looking to build on an appearance in the round of 16 at home in 2002. It may be a tall task for the team in Group F, because it is relatively new to this high level of international competition but this team is definitely on an upward arc. Japan will be looking to avenge a loss to Croatia in group play in 1998.
Brazil's dominance is unquestioned, but other teams aren't without hope against the powerhouse. Croatia managed a 1-1 draw in a friendly last year which will surely give them confidence that they belong on the same field. Japan fared even better. It looked like they were going to beat Brazil at the FIFA Confederations Cup last June, but Brazil fought back to secure a 2-2 draw. You have to look back a few years, but Australia has the best recent result against Brazil. It beat Brazil in the 2001 Confederations Cup.
Some of the most interesting storylines in this group come from the coaches. Zico, the Japanese coach, was a major star for Brazil in his playing days. The midfielder was the leading scorer of the 1982 World Cup squad and was World Player of the Year in 1983. He splits his time between Japan and Brazil, but he would unquestionably love to lead his charges to a victory against his homeland. He may never be able to go back to Brazil if he did, but he'd probably think it was worth it.
Hiddink also presents compelling storylines. The world will be watching to see if he can capture the same magic this year that he did in 2002 with a South Korean squad that far exceeded the potential it had on paper. He'll be looking to exorcise some personal demons as well. In 1998, Brazil beat his team from the Netherlands in the semifinals in a penalty shootout. To make matters worse, the upstart Croatians beat them in the third place match. He has to be relishing this opportunity to extract some revenge on both teams here.
Perhaps the most contentious game in Group F will be the Australia - Croatia match that will end the first round for both teams. Australia has three players of Croatian background on their team - Mark Viduka, Zeljko Kalac and Josip Skoko. Not to be outdone, Croatia also has three players on their side who were born in Australia - starter Josip Simunic and reserves Joey Didulica and Anthony Seric.