By Mike Woitalla
Colombia returns to the World Cup for the first time in 16 years with a collection of talent that rivals its teams of the 1990s – even if it lost world-class scorer Radamel Falcao to injury. Ivory Coast is Africa’s highest-ranked team. Japan is the only one in this group ever to reach the second round of the World Cup. And Greece booked its Brazil ticket by finishing second in a group of mostly minnows and downing Romania in a playoff.
Had Falcao, who scored nine goals in qualifying, not gotten his knee mangled by an amateur player in the French Cup, Colombia would be talked about as darkhorse to win the while thing. But Coach Jose Pekerman’s team is still a good bet to battle for the group crown with Ivory Coast, which finally got a break in the draw. Les Elephants, in their first two World Cup appearances of 2006 and 2010, had to cope with the Netherlands and Argentina, and Brazil and Portugal. Swashbuckling Japan got a taste of the second round in South Africa 2010. Little is expected from Greece, the weakest European team at this World Cup.
Our picks: 1. Colombia 2. Ivory Coast 3. Japan 4. Greece.
Group C Schedule
June 14 in Belo Horizonte
Colombia vs. Greece (ABC, Univision/UDN noon ET)
June 14 in Recife
Ivory Coast vs. Japan (ESPN, Univision/UDN 9 p.m. ET)
June 19 in Brasilia
Colombia vs. Ivory Coast (ESPN, Univision/UDN noon ET)
June 19 in Natal
Japan vs. Greece (ESPN, Univision/UDN 6 p.m. ET)
June 24 in Cuiaba
Japan vs. Colombia (ESPN, Univision/UDN 4 p.m. ET)
June 24 in Fortaleza
Greece vs. Ivory Coast (ESPN2, UniMas/Galavision 4 p.m. ET)
Rosters: Colombia | Greece |Ivory Coast |Japan
MOST LIKELY TO SCORE. Los Cafeteros have a duo that could help ease the loss of Falcao. Jackson Martinez, known as “Cha Cha Cha” for his celebrations, scored 29 goals in all competitions for Porto this past season while Carlos Bacca struck 21 times for Sevilla. Yaya Toure scored four goals in six qualifiers for Ivory Coast and was the EPL’s third leading scorer with 20 goals for champion Manchester City. (Can 36-year-old Didier Drogba add to his record 65 goals for Les Elephants?) Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) and Keisuke Honda (AC Milan) are the Blue Samurai’s big names but look out for Shinji Okazaki, who scored 15 goals last season in Germany for Mainz, was Asia’s leading scorer in World Cup qualifying, and struck against Mexico and Italy during at the Confederations Cup.
LA VESPA ON THE WING. Colombian Juan Cuadrado, while scoring 12 times for Fiorentina, was rated one of Serie A’s top wingers, dribbles dazzlingly and is being courted by Barcelona. Former Colombia coach Francisco Maturana says, “When things get tangled up, Cuadrado can take your breath away.” Fiorentina teammate Luca Toni dubbed Cuadrado "La Vespa" for his bursts of acceleration.
THE SURPRISE COACH.Sabri Lamouchi, at age 42, is the youngest of the 32 World Cup coaches. He’s also the most inexperienced, not having coached until his surprise appointment to take charge of Ivory Coast ahead of qualifying play for the 2014 World Cup just months after Francois Zahoui had taken Les Elephants to the Africa Cup of Nations final, which they lost on penalty kicks to Zambia. Lamouchi, born in France to Tunisian parents, played for France at the 1996 European Championship and his clubs included Auxerre, Inter Milan and Marseille. He was working as a TV commentator when he was called by Ivory Coast, which he guided through an undefeated qualifying campaign.
VIA PHILLY. Colombia keeper Faryd Mondragon, at 42 the oldest player at the World Cup, and defender Carlos Valdes played for MLS’s Philadelphia Union. Mondragon, now with Deportivo Cali, played 29 games for the Union in 2011. Valdes, 29, played 67 games for the Union in 2011-12. He currently plays on loan to Argentina’s San Lorenzo.
Off the Post
HOW COULD THEY FORGET? Within a week of winning the English Premier League title with Manchester City, Toure threatened to leave the club because no one wished him a happy birthday during the championship celebration party that coincided with his 31st birthday.