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Group E Preview: France 'gift' makes it surprise favorite
by Paul Kennedy, June 7th, 2014 3:41AM

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TAGS:  france, honduras, world cup 2014

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By Paul Kennedy

Many chided FIFA for seeding Switzerland, but it is the only team to have beaten Brazil in the last 16 months. The group favorite, though, is France, which is much improved under Coach Didier Deschamps, captain of its 1998 championship team. Ecuador and Honduras, both coached by Colombians, complete the group.

Prediction
The pressure will be on France in two years when it hosts Euro 2016 but for now the Bleus don't have any great expectations. After sneaking into the finals with a 3-2 playoff series win over Ukraine, France received a "gift," according to L'Equipe, when it was drawn into Group E with Switzerland, the weakest of the eight seeds, Ecuador and Honduras.

In 2010, France imploded when it finished last in its group without a win, the second time in eight years that happened after it reached the final four years earlier. This time? The chemistry is better as Coach Didier Deschamps, who captained France a record 58 times as a player, passed on a bunch of malcontents, notably Samir Nasri.

The Bleus feature two starters from Real Madrid's European champions, Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane, and 21-year-old midfielder Paul Pogba, whose eventual transfer from Italian champion Juventus might break a world record.

Our picks: 1. France. 2. Switzerland 3. Honduras 4. Ecuador.

Group E Schedule
June 15 in Brasilia

Switzerland vs. Ecuador (ESPN, Univision noon ET)
June 15 in Porto Alegre
France vs. Honduras (ESPN, Univision 3 p.m. ET)
June 20 in Salvador
Switzerland vs. France (ESPN, Univision 3 p.m. ET)
June 20 in Curitiba
Honduras vs. Ecuador (ESPN, Univision 6 p.m. ET)
June 25 in Manaus
Honduras vs. Switzerland (ESPN2, UniMas/Galavision 4 p.m. ET)
June 25 in Rio de Janeiro
Ecuador vs. France (ESPN, Univision 4 p.m. ET)

World Cup:
Complete Rosters




Back Story
THE NEW SWITZERLAND. Like in much of Western Europe, immigration is a hot-button topic in Switzerland, where a controversial referendum to curb immigration narrowly passed in February. One in four Swiss residents are foreigners. Hundreds of thousands of them came from the former Yugoslavia after the Bosnia War and following NATO military intervention in Kosovo.

They've been a big boost to the Swiss national team, the only team to beat Brazil in the last year. When the Swiss won, 1-0, in August 2013, five of the starters in their front six were the children of immigrants from the former Yugoslavia. Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri, 22, and Borussia Moenchengladbach’s Granit Xhaka, 21, both born in Kosovo to parents of Albanian descent, are the team's stars. Valon Behrami, a third Kosovar born to Albanian parents, is the veteran of the group, having played in the last two World Cups.

Blerim Dzemaili
is an Albanian from Macedonia, and Haris Seferovic is a Bosnian. Also on the Swiss World Cup team are Admir Mehmedi, another Albanian from Macedonia, Mario Gavranovic, a Bosnian-Croat, and Josip Drmic, a Croatian. (Another Croatian-Swiss, Ivan Rakitic, stars for Croatia.)

Player you'll know soon enough
ANTOINE GRIEZMANN. Griezmann, who moved to Spain at the age of 13, didn't play in France's World Cup qualifying campaign because he was serving year-long suspension.

Griezmann, whose 16 goals for Real Sociedad this season, was caught breaking curfew in November 2012, taking a taxi from Le Havre, where the France U-21s had a match scheduled two days later, to Paris, 110 miles away, along with four other players.

His ball skills and quick acceleration make him at 22 one of the most exciting French players to come along in recent years -- and with Franck Ribery now out of the World Cup one of its key players.

Trivia
I KNOW YOU! When Ecuador and Honduras square off in Curitiba, both teams will be familiar to the opposing coaches. Honduras boss Luis Fernando Suarez coached Ecuador at the 2006 World Cup, and Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda, another Colombian, took the Catrachos to the finals four years ago.

The only other coach who previously coached a team he'll face at this year's tournament is, of course, U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann (Germany in 2006). Five other coaches have previously gone to the World Cup with other teams.

U.S. Connection
COVERING ALL THE BASES. Roger Espinoza
covered all the bases of the American soccer spectrum after moving with his mother and three siblings at the age of 12 from his hometown of Puerto Cortes in Honduras to Denver and joining his father, who was working construction.

He played at Regis Jesuit (high school), Colorado Storm (youth club), Yavapai (junior college) and Ohio State (college) before moving on to MLS with Kansas City in 2008. Espinoza says he didn't know anything about college soccer but credits his youth coach, Rafael Amaya, for making it.

"They never saw me play," he says of his college coaches, "but they took me because Rafael recommended me."

Also: Hondurans Jerry Bengston (New England), Victor Bernardez (San Jose), Marvin Chavez (Colorado) and Oscar Boniek Garcia (Houston) all play in MLS. Andy Najar (Alexandria, Va., Edison High School) was 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year with D.C. United and now plays for Belgian champion Anderlecht.

Off the Post
TOUCH OF HOME. Most of the lodging requests of the four Group E teams were straightforward: access to high-speed Internet and television networks from back home on cable. Ecuador requested that a basket of Ecuadoran bananas be placed in each player's room every day.

The oddest request came from the French. France is famous for its bar soaps, but Lance reported that the French national team staff asked that liquid soap, not bar soap, be placed in all bathrooms at the Hotel JP, the team hotel in Ribeirao Preto.

No need to worry about a player slipping on a bar of soap?


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