By Mike Woitalla
Argentina has home-continent advantage as it launches its quest for a third World Cup title, and first since 1986, in a group with World Cup debutant Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria, which disappointed severely four years ago, and Iran, winner of only one game in its previous three appearances
Besides host and neighbor Brazil, Argentina may be your best bet to lift the title. Lionel Messi’s supporting cast includes likes of Real Madrid’s Angel Di Maria, Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano and Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero. Coach Alejandro Sabella guided La Albiceleste through a qualifying campaign in which it finished first and clinched a ticket with two games to spare while Messi played his best national team soccer since debuting in 2004. Fighting for second place in the group will be Nigeria and and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Since going winless at the 2010 World Cup, Nigeria lifted the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations champion and went undefeated on the road to Brazil. Bosnia-Herzegovina qualified by edging Greece on goal difference in a weak group but has skillful attacking players in Edin Dzeko, Vedad Ibisevic and Miralem Pjanic. Iran’s only World Cup win came in 1998 when it beat the USA, 2-1, and Team Melli’s lack the firepower makes another win unlikely.
Our picks: 1 Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. Bosnia-Herzegovina 4. Iran.
Group F Schedule
June 15 in Rio de Janeiro
Argentina vs. Bosnia-Herze. (ESPN, Univision/UDN 6 p.m. ET)
June 16 in Curitiba
Iran vs. Nigeria (ESPN, Univision/UDN 3 p.m. ET)
June 21 in Belo Horizonte
Argentina vs. Iran (ESPN, Univision/UDN noon ET)
June 21 in Cuiaba
Group F: Nigeria vs. Bosnia-Herze. (ESPN, Univision/UDN 6 p.m. ET)
June 25 in Porto Alegre
Nigeria vs. Argentina (ESPN, Univision/UDN noon ET)
June 25 in Salvador
Bosnia-Herze. vs. Iran (ESPN2, UniMas/Galavision noon ET)
World Cup: Complete Rosters
MOST LIKELY TO SCORE. Messi enters his third World Cup with just one goal at the finals, his 88th-minute strike in a 6-1 win over Serbia-Montenegro in his 2006 debut. But La Pulga scored 10 goals in qualifying. His “disappointing” last season at Barcelona saw him score 41 goals in all competitions. Injuries limited Aguero to 23 appearances but he managed 17 goals for English Premier League champion Manchester City. Gonzalo Higuain scored nine goals in qualifying and comes off a 17-goal season with Napoli. Dzeko, Aguero’s Bosnian teammate at Manchester City, has scored in nearly half of the 108 EPL games he’s played in the last four seasons and has 35 goals for BiH in 62 appearances. Emmanuel Emenike scored four goals in Nigeria's Africa Cup of Nations title win last year and several key goals in qualifying.
Player Under Pressure
‘TINY’ IN GOAL. Sergio Romero won the 2007 U-20 World Cup and 2008 Olympic gold medal with Argentina, which might explain why Sabella keeps his faith in the goalkeeper who spent last season on Monaco’s bench. The 6-foot-3 keeper is nicknamed “Chiquito” (Tiny) because he’s shorter than his four brothers, including 6-foot-10 Diego, who played basketball at Florida State.
THE LATEST BALKAN SUCCESS. Bosnia-Herzegovina joins Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia-Montenegro and Serbia as former Yugoslav republics to have qualified for the World Cup since the break up Yugoslavia, which Bosnia-Herzegovina coach Safet Susic represented at the 1982 and 1990 World Cups.
PLAYERS. Iran defender Steven Beitashour, who was called up to the U.S. national team twice, was born and raised in California. He attended San Jose’s Leland High School, whose alumni include Pat Tillman. The 27-year-old played college ball at San Diego State and before returning to his hometown to play four seasons with the San Jose Earthquakes. He moved to the Vancouver Whitecaps this season.
Ibisevic, a refugee Bosnian War of 1992-95, moved at age 16 to St. Louis, where he attended Roosevelt High School and became the 2002 Soccer America Freshman of the Year at Saint Louis University. The 29-year-old has spent the last nine years of his career in the German Bundesliga and scored 10 goals last season for VfB Stuttgart.
COACHES. Stephen Keshi captained Nigeria at USA '94, its first World Cup, and then moved to Northern California. He played 16 games for the USISL Select League's Sacramento Scorpions in 1996 and his family still resides in California.
Iran’s Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz, coached MLS’s MetroStars in 1996 and served as a U.S. Soccer consultant in 1998, drafting “Project 2010,” a blueprint outlining the USA’s path to winning the World Cup in 2010. Connecticut native Dan Gaspar, Hartford University coach, serves as Queiroz’s assistant.
Off the Post
QUEIROZ’S LOW ROAD. After Iran hosted and beat South Korea in their first qualifying meeting, South Korea coach Choi Kang-Hee cited visa processing delays and poor training facilities when he promised to "make life painful" for Iran in their Ulsan rematch. After Queiroz didn’t get the apology he demanded, he pinned a gloomy-faced picture of Kang-Hee to his shirt and posed for pictures upon his arrival in South Korea. After a 1-0 Iran win that earned it a Brazil ticket, Queiroz pumped his fist and made what the Korean official called an “obscene gesture” at the Koreans, whose fans responded by showering the field with cans and bottles.