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2019 FIFA WWC: My Prediction for the FINAL, And Third-Place Playoff Too

ettie

I have to say this Women’s World Cup has been excellent. It won’t break the attendance record set by Canada back in 2015 but it has already surpassed the 1 million mark. The support for the teams has been outstanding with the various football federations shouting their support and some of the biggest male football stars supporting their teammates. Play has also been excellent as there’s American Alex Morgan and England’s Ellen White chasing the golden boot with six goals each. Also there’s only been four expulsions: only one of which was an instant red. So this is a Women’s World Cup France should be very proud of.

THIRD-PLACE Playoff:

Few people are willing to make a prediction for the Third-Place playoff, or the match I call the ‘bronze medal match.’ However I’m one who is willing. Here’s how I look at it:

Head-To-Head Stats:

England and Sweden have faced off against each other 24 times before in the past. Sweden has won thirteen times, England won three times and they drew eight times. Their last match against each other was on November 11, 2018 which Sweden won 2-0.

Team-By-Team Analysis:

England fixedEngland: Women’s football has really grown a lot since England finished third at the last Women’s World Cup. The team they fielded looked like one that could pose the best challenge to the United States. Unfortunately it was not to be as the US beat them 2-1. To add insult to the injury, the US’s Alex Morgan appeared to do a tea-sipping gesture after scoring the winning goal. Many have taken this to be an insult to the English.

It’s difficult to say if England will win. They will have a lot of their top stars like Ellen white and Lucy Bronze ready to play for the game, but Millie Bright won’t be after her double-yellow red card. Phil Neville knows that he will have to get his team ready for the match on Saturday. England have already gotten this far. Perhaps they can give their team one last feat.

Sweden FixedSweden: Before the semifinal, I’m sure most of you predicted Sweden to beat the Netherlands. I mean Sweden had the clout. They’ve been to every Women’s World Cup since it began in 1991. They’ve finished in the Top 3 three times before. They’ve even beat the Netherlands way more often than they lost to them. However things did not go according to plan. Before the match, Fridolina Rolfö received a second yellow card during the match against Germany which meant she will miss the next match. The Netherlands turned out to be a more formidable opponent than they expected. Regulation play resulted in no score. Then there was the goal from Jackie Groenen in the 99th minute. Then there was the shocking injury to Kosovare Asllani where she was carried off on a stretcher.

Sweden came to the tournament with a lot of energy. They won big and were able to rebound after a loss to the United States. Their trip to the WWC semifinal was not easy as they overcame teams like Canada and Germany that had bigger expectations. However they were brought to a halt by the Netherlands in the semifinals. They could win the third-place match or they could lose it. It depends if their players are all in top condition and they attack more than they did on Wednesday.

My Prediction: England have the star strikers, while Sweden has a strong team unit. Sweden will have a one-woman advantage in this game after Bright’s expulsion. Asllani may not be recovered from her injury, but Rolfö can be brought back in play. I will predict Sweden to win 2-0.

THE FINAL

FIFA WWC

This is it. The final for the Women’s World Cup. One team has been their four of the previous seven times and won three times including the last contest in Canada. The other team is only competing in its second Women’s World Cup and won its first-ever knockout match right here in France. So this is quite the quantum leap for the team. So here’s the low-down:

Head-To-Head Stats:

The USA and the Netherlands have met only seven times before. The only time the Netherlands won before was their first meeting all the way back in 1991. The last time the two squared off against each other was in 2016.

Team-By-Team Analysis:

United_States_SoccerUnited States: The United States is the team that is most expected to win this Women’s World Cup. They’re the defending champs from 2015. They’re ranked #1 in the World. They have some of the biggest stars in women’s football who are seen as trailblazers. However they have also earned naysayers too. It all started when they won 13-0 against Thailand and celebrated after each goal. Many thought it was disrespectful. Then Megan Rapinoe made headlines for taking a knee during the play of the Star-Spangled Banner. She followed that by saying she won’t be going to the White House to a reporter. Most recently, Alex Morgan made England fans mad when she celebrated her game-winning goal by doing a tea-sipping gesture. Despite the negative press, they’ve delivered each time. They’ve won all their games, scoring 24 goals and only conceding three.

The only barrier I can see the US would have en route to winning the Cup is them being overconfident. They’ve played very well: better than any other nation. However they showed in their Round Of 16 game against Spain they could give it all away. They won 2-1, but on two penalty kicks from Rapinoe. They did come back in the QuarterFinals against France winning 2-1. However they should not go to the Final thinking they’ll roll over the Netherlands. The Netherlands has surprised all their major opponents here in France. For the US to win, they have to be on the ball and take the Netherlands seriously.

Netherlands FootballNetherlands: Before Women’s Euro 2017, people did not expect much of the Netherlands. Why should they after they finished in the Round of 16 in Canada 2015 and failed to qualify for the Olympics? However they surprised everybody by winning all their games and would win the final by beating Denmark 4-2. This made it the first Women’s Euro since 1993 that Germany didn’t win! Here at this Women’s World Cup, expectations were good but not that big. Canada was expected to top Group E, but the Netherlands did it by winning all their games, including beating Canada 2-1. Then in the Round of 16, they were pitted against Japan whom they lost to in Canada 2015. This time the Netherlands won. They were pitted against Italy in the quarterfinals and won 2-0. Then came Sweden who was more expected to win the game. It started with nil-nil after regulation, but a goal from Jackie Groenen in the 99th changed it all. Now it’s the Netherlands in the final.

What can I say? The Netherlands have silenced their critics. Especially those who dismissed their win at the Women’s Euro as host-country luck. These past six matches show that the Netherlands have earned their place in the WWC Final. However the United States team has more seasoned players and have consistently shown to be a stronger team unit with more know-how of the game than the Dutch players. Now don’t get me wrong. I think the Netherlands can win against the USA, but they will have to play like they’ve never played before, both as individuals and as a team unit, and take advantage of any American weak-spots once they find them.

My Prediction:

I hate to side with the majority so instantaneously, but I think the United States will win this 4-1. I hate to peeve off Oranje fans, I could be wrong, but the Netherlands simply making it to the final already shows how much women’s football has improved there.

And there you go. That’s my prediction for the Final of the Women’s World Cup, as well as my prediction for the third-place match. To think it will all be decided by Sunday. What a month it’s been!

 

 

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2019 FIFA WWC: My Predictions For The SemiFinals

Womens Cup

It does seem odd that I post my predictions for the semifinals on Canada Day, especially since Canada is out of the tournament. In fact the two teams that Canada lost to in France, Netherlands and Sweden, are squaring off in the second semi-final! Sometimes I think that sends a message of how good Canada was as a team; that the teams they lost to got this far. We shouldn’t forget that both teams beat other top teams in the knockout rounds too; Netherlands beat 2015 finalist Japan in the Round of 16 and Sweden beat 2016 Olympic champs Germany in the quarterfinal. Other top teams like Australia, Brazil, China and France are out too. Pele always says: “Football is a box of surprises.”

WWC SemisAnyways enough of who are out of the tournament and let’s focus on the four that are still standing. The US is the only one of the four that have won the Women’s World Cup in the past, two have been to the semis at least once before, and one team is there for the first time ever. Three have won all of their games in this WWC while one had a loss in group play to a team that’s also in the semifinals. Both semifinal matches will take place at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais in Lyon: the same venue that will hold the final for the Cup. So here’s a look at the four teams in both semifinals and my predictions:

SEMIFINAL #1: England vs. U.S.A.

Head-To-Head Stats:

The only time the US and England met head-to-head at the WWC was back in 2007 which the US won 3-0. No doubt after that, England decided to get better. In the past five years, the two meet five times before: four of those times at the new She Believes Tournament. Of the five times, England won once while the US won three times. Their last meeting was at this year’s She Believes Tournament. England won the tournament, but drew against the US 2-2. The US was the only team England didn’t defeat.

Team-By-Team Analysis:

EnglandEngland: This makes it only the second time England has reached the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup. The only other time was back in 2015. England’s appearance in the semis allows Great Britain to qualify a women’s team to the Tokyo Olympics. England won all their games in the Group Stage with Scotland being the only team to score a goal against them. England especially wanted to get revenge on Japan whom they lost to back in 2015. England continued looking like a tough team to beat with 3-0 wins against Cameroon in the Round of 16 and Norway in the quarterfinals. England have been earning their strong share of supporters like Wayne Rooney, Prince William, various BBC personalities and even the public with chants of “It’s coming home!” Many English who never cared about women’s football in the past are now paying attention!

England have been looking like a strong opponent all tournament. However they do have their imperfections. They’ve lost to major opponents early in tournaments. Also they’ve had losses to top-ranked teams in the past 12 months. England will have to be on-target if they’re to win here in France.

United_States_Soccer

United States: In all eight Women’s World Cups, the United States has been present. In all eight Women’s World Cups have they made it as far as the semifinals. In the Group Stage, they appeared invincible in their 13-0 win against Thailand and continued looking impressive with a 3-0 win against Chile and a 2-0 win against Sweden. Then in the knockout rounds, the US appeared to lost its edge after a 2-1 win over Spain in the Round of 16: both goals being penalty kicks delivered by Megan Rapinoe. Also it was Rapinoe who made the most controversy when she took a knee during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner and even said in an interview about a White House-dinner if the team wins “I’m not going to the ******* White House.” It was an intense three days between the whole fiasco and their game against France. The team had since stood with Rapinoe and what she said. What happened against France was the team responded with a 2-1 win: both goals scored by Rapinoe.

The US came as the team with the most expectations to win and has been one team that has best delivered so far. However this World Cup is all about endurance and who is the strongest at the end. The US went all out in the Round of 16 but appeared to give way when they played against Spain. They can’t afford to do that in their semifinal against England on Tuesday. Not after how well England has been playing. Don’t forget they went easy at the 2016 Rio Olympics and found themselves out without a medal.

My Prediction: Last time England played the US, it was this year in February and the result was a 2-2 draw. I anticipate the game will be a 1-1 draw with the United States winning on penalties.

SEMIFINALS #2: Netherlands vs. Sweden

Head-To-Head Stats:

This is the first time the Netherlands and Sweden will meet on the Women’s World Cup stage. They met once before at the Women’s Euro in 2017 where host-nation Netherlands beat Sweden 2-0 in the quarterfinals en route to winning the championship. In total, Sweden has beat the Netherlands more often in the 21 previous times that they met: ten times in total. Six times the Netherlands won while five games ended as draws.

Team-By-Team Analysis:

Netherlands Football

Netherlands: Isn’t that something how a team that has only competed in their second Women’s World Cup is now in their first-ever semi finals? Actually the Netherlands’ woen’s team was not taken too seriously until they qualified for their first Women’s Euro in 2009. There they finished third and showed that the women’s team has a lot of promise ahead. Back when they made their WWC debut in Canada 2015, they finished in the Round of 16 losing 1-2 to eventual finalists Japan. However the Leeuwinnen have really taken off in success. Back in 2017 when they hosted the Women’s Euro, they won! They would also continue their winning way by topping the 2018 Algarve Cup (based on stats). The Netherlands would be the team that toughed it out in the FIFA playoff rounds for qualifying for this Women’s World Cup.

The Netherlands have overcome a lot to be in this semi. They were successful in winning all their games in the Group Stage, got revenge on Japan 2-1 in the Round of 15 and beat Italy 2-0. They have overcome a lot to prove their Euro win was no fluke. However they have had a history of losing out to key opponents. They’ve lost to teams like Spain, Norway and Poland in the last eighteen months. The Netherlands have done very well together, but they will have to be on if they are going to beat Sweden in the semifinal.

SwedenSweden: While Netherlands are rookies at being in the WWC semifinals, Sweden have been there before. Three times to be exact with the last time being a third-place finish in 2011. Like the US, they’ve also competed in every Women’s World Cup. Here in France, they’ve been showing a lot of great team play and a lot of great play together. That has helped them in every game and even surpass major favorites like Canada and Germany. The one thing about Sweden is that needs to continue its team strength or else it will fall apart. And it has fallen apart in major tournaments in the past, like WWC 2015 and Euro 2017. This game could be Sweden’s triumph or Sweden’s choke.

Sweden are a team that know how to rebound when you least expect it. At the 2016 Olympics, they received their biggest defeat in the team’s history by losing to Brazil 5-1 in group play only to draw against them in the semifinals and defeat them in penalty kicks. Sweden would go on to the gold-medal match, but lose to Germany. The funny thing is it’s at this very Women’s World Cup where they got their revenge on Germany: in the quarterfinals with a 2-1 win. Here’s another thing to chew on: Sweden lost in the quarterfinals of the 2017 Women’s Euro to the Netherlands. Will they get revenge here? And if the US win their semi, will Sweden get revenge for group play by beating them in the final?

My Prediction: Sweden may have won against the Netherlands more often, but Oranje have won their last two meetings. Netherlands may ave won all their games, but Sweden have performed better as a team. I predict Sweden to win 2-1 in added extra time.

And there you have it. Those are my predictions for the 2019 Women’s World Cup semifinals. Hard to believe the final is just six days away! May the best team win!

 

 

World Cup 2018: My Prediction For The Final, And Third-Place Playoff Too

Final

I know most of my picks for the Group Stage panned out while some didn’t. I know I was very good at predicting the Round Of 16 and QuarterFinals but was off a bit. Also I know I got both SemiFinals wrong. Nevertheless I’m not worried. If the BBC’s Mark ‘Lawro’ Lawrenson can have a 52% success rate and still keep his job, I’m pretty comfortable right now.

Anyways the last two big matches will be contested this weekend. Here are my reviews of the two big matches:

The 3rd-Place Match for the bronze medal will be contested Saturday the 14th in Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. The Final for the Cup will take place at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

THIRD-PLACE PLAYOFF REVIEW:

The 3rd-Place Match for the bronze medal will be contested Saturday the 14th in Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. Often you wonder who normally wins the 3rd-Place Match? The team who most feels they have one last thing to prove? Or the team that’s the least disheartened? Whatever the situation, it should make for an interesting match. Especially since both teams met in the Group Stage in Group G. Here’s my review of both teams.

Past Head-To-Head Results: England and Belgium have squared off 22 times before. England won 15 times and Belgium won only three times including here in Russia 1-0 in group play. They drew four times in the past. As for World Cup play, their other two games were a 1990 Round-of-16 win for England and a 4-4 draw in 1954.

BelgiumBelgium: The Red Devils should be admired. They are a collection of marvelously talented players in their own right coming together to give Belgium one of their best World Cup performances ever, if not the best. They proved to be a top challenger for the final, but the goal from France’s Unmiti in the 51st minute ended their World Cup dreams. Nevertheless the Belgian team here have the chance to give Belgium it’s best-ever World Cup finish. Belgium’s best finish ever was 4th in 1986. Here’s the chance for them to win a 3rd-place match. An excellent chance to revive the #RedTogether spirit.

They have the advantage since they met England in group play and won 1-0. They can do it again. However they did show vulnerability in their game against Japan when they trailed 2-0 with 25 minutes to go. They did do an excellent job of coming back to win. However their luck ran out when they faced France. Their top players are still in excellent form in this ‘marathon’ of a competition, but they have to function together if they want to win this.

England fixedEngland: They came in 2018 with a new team and a new determination based on past humiliations. They came with a fairly young coach with experience playing in a World Cup. They came from the various teams of the Premier League with a lot of established talents and a lot of young rising talents. They came with the hope of winning England’s first World Cup since 1966. They delivered one of their best group stage showings in years. They delivered England’s first-ever win of a World Cup game on penalties after losing the previous three. They came with their fans chanting It’s Coming Home (in reference to the Euro 1996 theme song). Then it ended in the semifinal against Croatia. They began strong with a goal from Kieran Trippier in the 5th minute. However they were losing it after Ivan Perisic equalized in the 68th minute. It was Mandzukic in the 108th minute that took the match for Croatia and brought an end to the #ItsComingHome phenomenon.

However the 3rd-Place Match can give England one last thing to prove. This is only England’s third time to the Top 4 of the World Cup. The team has done an excellent job of putting their Premier League differences aside and play as one unified team. Gareth Southgate has done an excellent job of coaching and has successfully help Team England overcome many past adversaries and many weaknesses the team had for a long time. That gives England an advantage leading into the match. However England hasn’t fully overcome their habit of choking at big events. Sure their finish here will be their biggest since 1990, but they can blow it if the team don’t come together and deliver the same play they delivered over this past month. This was no ordinary Three Lions here in Russia 2018. This was a new Team England that had a lot to prove and did prove a lot.

My Final Verdict: I know Belgium beat England in the group stage, but this is a new match. The game will go to the team that has the best team tactics and functions as one. I’ll say it will be Belgium winning 2-0.

THE FINAL

Whos Next

Which team will be next?

I know for my review, you will see me repeating a lot of what I wrote for my SemiFinal review. There’s a purpose. Because all they went through will be coming to this moment. Making it to the final is no easy journey. It’s also not just about having a great team of assembled talent. It’s about having your team together, it’s about them delivering each and every time, it’s the ability to protect from racked up injuries to players, it’s the ability to endure mentally… basically it’s a month-long marathon. A game of survivor.

The World Cup has all these games to basically narrow it down to the very two to play in the Final to decide the Cup.  Of the two teams that made it, one made it to the Final twice before and won 20 years ago, while the other is playing in the Final for the first time ever. So without further ado, my review of the World Cup Final:

Past Head-To-Head Results: Croatia and France have played each other five times in the past. Both teams drew twice. France has won the other three games, including the 1998 World Cup semifinal 2-1.

FranceFrance: France is a nation whose football greatness really only started to take off in the early 1980’s. It was in Mexico 1986 that France got its first-ever Top 3 finish. They would fail to qualify for the next two World Cups, but would host in 1998 and would go on to win. Some say France’s team of 1998 was the best World Cup team since Brazil in 1970.

They’ve had a lot of ups and downs since. In 2002, they suffered the ‘curse of the defending champion‘ and not only failed to advance past the group stage, but failed to even score a single goal. They would come back in 2006 and appeared to be on their way to a second World Cup, but Zidane’s head-butt to an Italian player and subsequent red card in extra time in the Final marked the end of their chances right there. Then the disastrous 2010 which I talked about in my Semifinal write-up.

However it was the 2014 World Cup that showed a ray of hope for the French team. They were out in the quarterfinals to eventual champions Germany, but the team showed a big improvement and promise for the future with young players like Pogba and Griezmann. France played host to Euro 2016. There they delivered the best showing of all teams en route to the Final for the Cup. Unfortunately they lost to Portugal 1-0 in added extra time.

Here in Russia, Les Bleus has delivered the best showing of all teams.  They may have had the only 0-0 game of the World Cup so far, but all their other games were wins including all their knockout games, and all in regulation time. The #FiersDetreBleus phenomenon has taken them this far. France appears to have the best chances with players like Pogba, Griezmann, Giroud, Payet, young gun Mbappe and their goaltender Hugo Lloris who claims the loss at Euro 2016 really changed him. They look like the team that best has what it takes to win. However they could easily just let it go the same way they did in Euro 2016. If you remember their Round-Of-16 game against Argentina, they conceded three goals. They’re lucky they scored four to win. They all have to be together as a unified unit ready to play hard if they want to win the biggest match of their lives.

CROATIA footballCroatia:

“Everybody cheers for David. Nobody cheers for Goliath.”

-Wilt Chamberlain

Croatia comes to the World Cup final as the underdogs. They also come as the first country with a population of under 5 million to qualify for a World Cup final since Uruguay back in 1950. They come as the biggest underdog story in decades. Already the hashtages of #Vatreni , #FlamingPride and #BudiPonosan have been big hits. However it was very hard and with a lot of heartache. It started with a 3rd-place finish in their first World Cup back in 1998. It was finally a chance for Croatian football to define their identity now that they were free from Yugoslavia. However it was a struggle since. The next four World Cups were cases of a failure to qualify in 2010 and out in the Group Stage the other three times. After the 2010 World Cup failure, Croatian football was about to make a comeback. They may have been out in the Group Stage in 2014, but there was promise shown by players like Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic.

Croatian football unfortunately was also given a big black eye in the last few years thanks to the irreverence of certain fans. Certain Croatian fans were known to shout racist slurs, wear Nazi symbols, and cause violent incidents during matches. The most noticeable was during the Euro 2016 match against the Czech Republic where flares were thrown onto the field. The Federation HNS and the National Team paid the biggest price by facing sanctions and fines from both FIFA and UEFA including having to play ‘closed’ matches. However after Euro 2016, Croatia has made strides to get tougher with fan behavior.

Here in Russia, The Blazers, or Vatreni, were brilliant in group play as they won all three of their games. Their biggest luck came in the Round of 16 against Denmark and the QuarterFinals against hosts Russia as they drew 1-1 and 2-2 respectively, only to win both in the penalty shoot outs. Then came their semifinal against England. The game went into 1-1 in regulation only for Mandzukic to deliver the game-winner in added extra time. There have been calls from many for Croatia to be disqualified since that match, but the alleged controversies have been proven false.

And to think Yugoslavia never qualified for a World Cup final ever in its existence! Croatia comes with the least star-studded team here in this stage of the World Cup. The key to Croatia’s success is for players like Modric, Perisic, Rakitic, Lovren, Mandzukic and Danijel Subasic to play as one functioning team. Many can easily dismiss Croatia’s success because of luck in the knockout rounds, but truly it is the team unity of the players that have got them this far. Croatia however has shown weakness of their own. The fact that they won two of their knockout matches in penalty shootouts shows they can come short on delivery. Whatever they’ve been holding back or just not delivering on in past games, it won’t work against a team like France. Croatia has a strong midfiled, but France’s midfield has proven more this Cup. Croatia’s team will have to play a lot harder if they want to win the Cup. If they do win the Cup, they will do it through their first-ever victory over France, at the very least.

My Final Verdict: Both teams have been performing well and with a great sense of team unity, but I have to pick France to win 3-1. It’s not just in terms of past performance, but also because of the brilliance of the players individually as well. Plus the fact the referee for the match will be an Argentinean won’t help Croatia too much.

And there you go. My look at the teams playing for both the match for the bronze medal and the Final to win the World Cup. Let’s sit back and watch history be crowned.

World Cup 2018: Semifinals Predictions

WC2018 Final Four

Hard to believe a little more than three weeks ago, the action was just starting. Now it’s winding down with the biggest action of all getting closer and closer. But before we can have the final on Sunday the 15th, we need the semifinals to decide the two that qualify. In both of the semifinals we’ll have won team that won a World Cup in the past and another team whose best result ever was making it to a past semifinal. All four teams are from European countries and and four never made it past the quarterfinals at the last World Cup. This will be the first World Cup since 1966 that will have a completely different Top 4 from the last.

Here I will do my review of the teams and also make my predictions. I hope I do better here than when I predicted in 2014. And to think I thought Brazil would win over Germany in 2014! After Germany delivered their ‘7-up,’ I sure felt dumb!

Without further ado, here’s a look at the four teams that will be in the semifinals and my prediction for each one:

SEMIFINAL #1 – FRANCE vs. BELGIUM

Head-To-Head Stuff:

France and Belgium have played each other 73 times. France won 24 times, Belgium won 30 times, and 19 were draws. At the World Cup, France faced Belgium only twice in a 1938  match and 1986 in the match for 3rd place, and France won both times.

Team By Team Analysis:

FranceFrance: The current French team is an example of a team that arose from the ‘ruins’ of football. Some of you may remember the 2010 World Cup. If it was not France’s worst-ever performance, it was France’s hardest World Cup trip ever. The trip started on controversy as they had qualified thanks to a fist-aided goal from Thierry Henry in their qualifying playoff match against Ireland. Then at the World Cup 2010, striker Nicolas Anelka was fired from the team after an obscenity-laden dispute with manager Raymond Domenech. A boycott of training from players in response and a lecture from the French sports minister paved the way for France’s eventual loss in their last game. The team returned home in disgrace and the president of the FFF resigned, as did coach Domenech. It would be another six years for Domenech to accept another coaching job.

What happened after would be quite the rebound. They would continue to have difficulty at Euro 2012 by going out in the quarterfinals to Spain 2-0. Then Dider Deschamps, who was part of France’s World Cup-winning team of 1998, assumed the position of head coach and would give France quite the turn-around. The turnaround however was not an overnight success, but more of steady progression. It started at the 2014 world Cup where France bowed out at the quarterfinals after losing 1-0 to Germany, but promise was noticed. The team gave an improved showing of play and Paul Pogba was named Top Young Player of the Cup. Then came Euro 2016 which France was host nation. Until France lost in the final to Portugal 1-0 in extra time, France had delivered the best show of teamwork during the tournament and had the top scorer with Antoine Griezman scoring 6 goals. Olivier Giroud and Dimitri Payet also scored 3 goals of their own.

Excellence has continued for Les Bleus here at the World Cup and they look as one of the teams that can best win the Cup. Kylian Mbappe and Griezmann have three goals each. On top of that, they only conceded four goals. They’ve reached the Last 4 for only their sixth time. France has shown a lot of strength and a lot of team unity. There’s even talk Mbappe may win the Young Player award. It’s hard to pinpoint a mistake this last while. However they were rather conservative in the group stage. They did come alive in a big way in the knockout round but they did concede three goals against Argentina. They were lucky they delivered four. They will be facing a Belgian team that has become one of the more exciting teams of the Cup and will need to deliver.

BelgiumBelgium: Belgium is another example of a team that took a long time to develop. This is only Belgium’s 13th World Cup but many are already calling this team the best Red Devils ever.

In the past, Belgium would only go as far as the group Stage or 1st round at the World Cup. Success for Belgium would come starting in the 1980’s when they made it past the opening stage for the first time in 1982 and then to the semifinals for the first time ever in 1986. Their 4th place finish in 1986 ranks currently as Belgium’s best World Cup finish ever. However they would struggle to repeat as they would find themselves out in the Round of 16 or the Group Stage during the next four World Cups. Then would come failure to qualify for the World Cups of 2006 and 2010, even after they recruited famed Dutch coach Dick Advocaat. They would even face a rock-bottom 66th ranking on FIFA list in 2009. They would miss qualifying for Euro 2012.

Red Devils 2002

In 2002, a Belgian magazine published an article about young rising footballers. Count the number of Red Devils here in Russia!

Then came coach Marc Wilmots who himself played for team Belgium at four World Cups. He brought a new sense to the team. He found talent in players like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku to name a few and was able to get them to perform well as a team function. They’d go through straight wins in World Cup qualifying and would find themselves ranked 11th on FIFA’s list and a heavy favorite to go well at the World Cup. At the 2014 World Cup, they finished in the quarterfinals which was their second-best result ever. 2015 was their breakthrough year as they hit #1 for the first time ever on FIFA’s rankings. However they would face difficulties as they’d only make the quarterfinals at Euro 2016 losing to Wales 3-1. That’s when they then hired Spanish coach Roberto Martinez. The Belgian team has not lost a game since September 2016 and have come to Russia delivering straight wins to the semifinal.

No doubt they have a lot to win their semifinal against France. Their straight wins have shown for it. However they did show weakness during this World Cup. If you remember their Round-Of-16 match against Japan, they were trailing 2-0 into the 2nd half. It wasn’t until the 69th minute Belgium scored and then go on to win 3-2. That was quite a comeback. And a close call. However Belgium can’t afford to pull stunts like those any longer as they’re getting closer and closer to the Cup. They’re en route to becoming the best Belgian team ever and they need to stay en garde.

My Final Verdict:

Okay, you will now want me to make a prediction for this match. I think it will be a case of the match drawing 2-2 with Belgium taking it in a penalty shoot out.

SEMIFINAL #2 – ENGLAND vs. CROATIA

Head-To-Head Stuff: England and Croatia have squared off seven times before. England won four times, Croatia won twice and one was a draw. This will be the first time England and Croatia will play each other in a World Cup game.

Team By Team Analysis:

EnglandEngland: England has always been a subject of frustration. The Three Lions have only won a single World Cup: back in 1966 when they hosted. They have had difficulties whenever they’ve made it to the knockout rounds as they’d frequently expire in the quarterfinals or face elimination when the game ends up in penalty kicks. In fact England has been 0 for 3 at the World Cup for penalty kick matches. Then there are the embarrassments at the two most recent World Cups by expiring to Germany in a highly controversial 4-1 in the Round Of 16 and then failing to advance past the group stage in 2014. It always seemed like the case where the team is full of talent but they just couldn’t play well as a united team. Possibly they didn’t leave their Premier League rivalry at the door?

Southgate

England coach Gareth Southgate consoles Colombia’s Mateus Uribe after he missed his penalty shot (right). Southgate knows what it’s like to miss a crucial penalty (left; during Euro 1996).

In 2016, right after they lost to Iceland 2-1 in the Round Of 16, they hired a new coach in Gareth Southgate who played for team England at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. They put in a lot of investment into young rising talent like John Stones and Harry Kane and goaltender Jordan Pickford. The work paid off as England qualified for the World Cup top of their group. Here in Russia, the Three Lions gave their fans a lot of relief as they won two games in group play and qualified for the knockout round. This marked the first time since 2010 they qualified for the knockout round and the first World Cup since 2010 that they won a game. Then came the big test against Columbia. They drew 1-1 against a team that was missing their star James Rodriguez and had to go to penalty kicks. Gulp! Instead they won the shootout 4-3 and their penalty kick curse was finally lifted. This marked their first win of a World Cup knockout match since 2006. The irony being Southgate missed a critical penalty against Germany in the Euro 1996 semifinals, when England was host! Then their quarterfinal against Sweden turned up a win of 2-0. This would mark only the third time England would reach the Top 4 of a World Cup and the first since 1990.

England bring to the semifinals a lot of top players and a better sense of team unity. Some say they may actually have what it takes to win the Cup. However they could also have what it takes to give it away too. Before their 1-1 draw to Colombia, they lost to Belgium 1-0. They will have to play right and not try to give anything away. Especially since they have a lot of rising talent to work with. A second World Cup has never been so close in a long time.

CROATIA footballCroatia: Croatia is another case of a team whose struggle is also paying off here in Russia. Croatia came to be in the early 1990’s after the nation of Yugoslavia fell apart in a brutal civil war. Soon after Croatia declared independence in 1991, they fielded their own national team. However they would have to wait until after the 1994 World Cup for them to play internationally. They played their first World Cup in 1998 and surprised everybody by finishing third, beating out big names like The Netherlands and Germany in the process.

One thing about Croatia’s success in 1998 was that much of it was due to players who used to play for Yugoslavia. After 1998, Croatia worked to develop their own football identity and struggled along the way. They found themselves out in the group stages of 2002 and 2006. Then they’d fail to qualify for 2010. Between 2010 and 2014, they’d undergo two coaching changes. However 2014 showed signs of improvement for Croatian football with the development of talents like Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic. The talent was there and they were back on the World Cup scene, but they still had to struggle as they again failed to advance past the group stage in 2014. Further difficulty came when Croatia lost in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016.

Croatia’s struggles were not just on the football field, but in the stands as well. In the past ten years, Croatian fans developed a reputation of being some of the most obnoxious in Europe with incidents like shouting racist taunts, showing off swastikas and throwing flares. The most notable being the game against the Czech Republic during Euro 2016 when flares were thrown onto the field. Sanctions against the Croatian team have come from UEFA and FIFA in the result of the team being fined money, the team losing game points in qualification play, and even the team having to play ‘closed-door’ games for a period of time.

Things have improved greatly for the Croatian team. There has not been a major incident of ‘hooliganism’ since Euro 2016. The team has also played like a strong team unit here in Russia by winning all their group stage games and qualifying for the knockout stage for the first time since their golden year of 1998. In knockout play, the Croatian team have won all their matches in penalty shootouts. This makes it the second time Croatia has made the Top 4 at the World Cup. Croatia has played very well. Especially with a surprise win over Argentina. However they have shown some weak spots in their knockout games. Unique how they’re a team with the least ‘stars’ but have beaten out teams with big names. Their team unity has taken them this far, but they will need it more than ever here in the semis and they have to be on guard if they want to win.

My Final Verdict:

Sure, Croatia has changed a lot since their last game against England in 2009. But England has changed a lot too. The careless mistakes we commonly see from England in major international play are not as present here. I don’t want to rely on sabermetrics completely, but I think England will win 3-1.

And there you have it. My look at the upcoming semifinals and my predictions. We’ll see who the real winners are on Tuesday and Wednesday.

World Cup 2018: Group Stage With One Game To Go

Russia 2018

Already in these past eleven days, all 32 teams played their first two games. Already some team’s fates are determined as six teams know they’ve qualified for the knockout round and eight teams know they’re going home after they play their last game. The fates of the remaining eighteen are still unclear and they will have to rely on their play in the last game in order to determine if they’re among the remaining ten to advance or among the other eight that will head home earlier than they hoped. With each group’s games both taking place simultaneously, you can bet each team will need to play like they mean it.

Here is a group-by-group breakdown of those who made it (with countries who are guaranteed to advance in bold), those who will be leaving soon and those who still have a chance. Hyperlinks with each group are to my original review:

Group A: This is as basic as game statistics go about right now. Two teams won both their games which of course means the other two teams lost. The two that won their two games already know they’re advancing. That’s as basic as it gets. This is the only group that has it that way. The two teams that won both their games are Russia and Uruguay. One of two groups that already has decided both of their qualifiers.

Monday’s game of Russia vs. Uruguay will be a case of the final standings. They know they’re qualifying. The game will be about who qualifies as first and second. Russia could finish first by simply drawing. Their goal differential is big enough. Uruguay will have to win if they want to finish first as both their wins were 1-0.

Since Egypt and Saudi Arabia lost both their games, it’s pretty clear in their match against each other on Monday, it will be a game for pride.

Group B: Group B is a group that’s hard to explain. The only definite thing is it’s over for Morocco. As for qualifiers, no definite ones with three teams still having a chance. Portugal and Spain both have the best chances after their 3-3 draw against each other and 1-0 victories in their following games. Both would not only have to win in their games (although they could still qualify even if they both draw), but if both win, goal differential would have to decide 1st and 2nd.

However don’t count out Iran. They may rank 3rd right now with a win and a loss– their win being their first since 1998– but beating Portugal will mean they would qualify. If Spain loses their game against Morocco in the process, Iran could just come out on top! Goad differential would have to decide between Spain and Portugal for the second berth.

What can I say? Game 3 will have to decide it all.

Group C: Right now one team, France, is guaranteed to qualify based on their two wins. Also one team, Peru, is guaranteed to go packing for home after Tuesday’s game, whether they win against Australia or not. Even if Denmark beats France on Tuesday, France still has enough game points to qualify, even if they would finish second and Denmark would win Group C.

The way things are right now, France and Denmark could draw and both teams would advance on game points, even if Australia beats Peru. Australia would still have a chance if they beat Peru and Denmark loses to France. However even as little as a draw against Peru would eliminate Australia’s chances from qualifying. Another case of Game 3 to decide the second qualifier, as well as the final standings of all teams.

Group D: That’s all it took. It just took Croatia’s 2-0 win over Nigeria and 3-0 win over Argentina to have them qualify for the Round of 16 for the first time since their 3rd-place finish in 1998.

Croatia is in a healthy position to finish first in Group D as Iceland would have beat Croatia to have a chance at qualifying. And Croatia is as capable of losing to Iceland as they are to beating them. Both teams won a game against each other in World Cup qualifying. Actually the other three teams all have a chance to qualify, no matter how slim. Even Argentina, despite their big loss to Croatia. Argentina’s big loss does put them at the bottom with the harshest of chances to qualify. They would not only have to beat Nigeria, but Croatia will have to beat or draw against Iceland. Messi’s fourth and possibly final chance at winning a World Cup depends on all that. Nigeria could still qualify with a draw against Argentina, but a win will guarantee them qualifying should Iceland actually defeat Croatia. That’s Game 3 for you. Sometimes chances are not worth taking.

Group E: Group E is a lot like Group B where two teams have a win and a draw, one team has a win and a loss, and one team has two losses which guarantee elimination after Wednesday’s game. The team that’s definitely eliminated is Costa Rica. They may have been the Cinderella story of 2014, but the clock struck midnight here in Russia for them. Even if they beat Switzerland, it’s over.

Any of the other three teams–Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia– can qualify, depending on the results of their games on Wednesday. All three also have chances to get eliminated too. Brazil could draw against Serbia and it would guarantee qualification for them. However Serbia would have to win over Brazil to guarantee qualification on their side. They could still qualify if they draw against Brazil and Switzerland loses to Costa Rica 2-0 or 3-1, but why take a chance? The only way Switzerland could still qualify after losing to Costa Rica is if Brazil loses to Serbia 2-0 or 3-1 as Brazil has an edge with their goal differential. A draw against Costa Rica would guarantee qualification for Switzerland, whether either Brazil or Serbia wins.

Brazil could still qualify if they simply draw against Serbia, but the only way for Brazil to qualify if they lose to Serbia is if Coast Rica beats Switzerland, and as long as their loss to Serbia isn’t that huge of a margin. Whatever the situation, Game 3 will be a case where all three eligible teams will have to play it like they mean it.

Group F: This is the one group where there are no definite qualifiers, but no teams definitely eliminated either. All four teams still have a chance to qualify and it will completely rely on the outcome of the final game on Wednesday. Game 3 could have a case where there are two teams with two wins and a loss with the other two teams having a win and two losses. It could even be a case of one team having three straight wins and the other three teams having a win and two losses and goal differentials deciding the second qualifier. Of course draws could change all that, but right now none of the teams are eliminated and all still have a chance.

Starting with Mexico, they have the best chances of qualifying after their 1-0 win against Germany and 2-1 win over South Korea. However they could be eliminated if they lose to Sweden 2-0 or 3-1 and Germany wins 2-0 or 3-1 to South Korea in the process. That would be the case of three teams with two wins and a loss but one doesn’t qualify. And it has happened in past World Cups.

Germany and Sweden both have a win and a loss as well as two goals for and two against. However Germany leads Sweden for the second-place spot because of the head-to-head result. I have to say that goal by Tony Kroos in the 95th minute was definitely something Germany needed to stay alive and have healthy chances of qualifying to the knockout stage. Otherwise they would’ve risked being the fourth of five defending Cup champions this 21st century that failed to advance. Nevertheless they still risk missing out not just if they lose to South Korea, but even if they draw and Sweden ends up winning over Mexico. It’s still possible Germany will fail to advance past the opening round for the first time since 1938. Like Germany, Sweden would have to win over Mexico to have the healthiest of chances to qualify. Qualifying via a draw could only happen if Germany draws too and Sweden’s draw is bigger: such as Sweden-Mexico 2-2 while Germany-South Korea 1-1. Whatever. It’s too complicated to tell! But they know they need to play like they mean it.

Finally there’s South Korea. It’s easy to think they have the best chances of getting eliminated with losing both games, but they still have a chance, despite it being a slim one. They not only have to win over Germany, but Mexico has to beat Sweden in order for the Koreans to qualify. A slim chance is still a chance possible. And the Koreans could do it since they will have a one-man advantage on Wednesday. The fates of all will be decided that Wednesday. Sure, it was awfully long for me to describe, but the group is that tight right now.

Group G: Group G is like Group A where the two qualifiers are already decided thanks to both England and Belgium scoring two wins and both Panama and Tunisia losing to both teams in the process. This is especially happy for England as the first win was England’s first win of a World Cup match since 2010. Definitely a big upper after a dreadful 2014 showing. The big surprise is that both England and Belgium share the same goal differential with eight for and two against. Their game on Thursday will be just to decide who finishes first and who finishes second. A draw, god forbid, would require the team of the first goal to take first place, or some other FIFA law if the draw happens to be nil-nil. Glad to see no nil-nil draws yet this World Cup.

It may be all over for Panama and Tunisia but their game on Thursday will be for pride. Panama will try to win their first game ever while Tunisia will try to win their first game since their debut in 1978.

Group H: Another group with no definite qualifiers and three teams that still have a chance at qualifying. When I made my predictions, I looked back and wondered if there would be any African teams or Asian teams that would have a chance of making it past the group stage. My predictions didn’t make it look so. However Japan and Senegal are the two teams that have done the best play with a win and a draw each. Japan is especially noteworthy as they delivered the first victory by an Asian team since 2010. The That 2-2 draw where Japan played Senegal was tight. Their games on Thursday will have to decide their final fates. Colombia endured a 2-1 loss to Japan in their first game, but really picked themselves up tonight after their 3-0 win over Poland. That win helps keep Colombia in contention for qualifying. It all depends on their game against Senegal. They would have to win as Senegal has the advantage if they draw. And who knows what will happen in the game of Japan vs. Poland. Both Senegal and Japan have the luxury of qualifying even if they both draw in their final matches.

The only team that has their World Cup fate already decided is Poland. They lost 2-1 to Senegal and 3-0 to Colombia and that means it’s over for them. They could win against Japan for their national pride. If Japan does lose, the only way Japan could qualify is if Senegal beats Colombia. Game 3 is almost always make or break.

And there you have it. This is how qualifying stands for the knockout stage of the World Cup right now. These next four days will seal the fates of all teams not just for who qualifies, but how they finish in their group. Don’t forget it’s not just about getting a berth by finishing in the Top 2. It’s also about the two qualifiers’ group finish as it will decide which game they play in and determine who their opponent will be. Too complicated to explain it all. Still exciting to watch the action unfold.

2018 World Cup Group Stage: Draw Time

World Cup Draw

It’s right there on FIFA’s website on how much it took to determine the 32 qualifiers for next year’s World Cup: thirty months, six confederations, 209 teams, 868 matches played, and 2454 goals scored. All 31 available berths up for grabs were decided by November 15th. December 1st was the day to decide the four teams for all eight groups for the World Cup.

Qualifying for the World Cup is already enough of a battle. The respective continent’s confederations contested their matches and conducted their own qualifying format for deciding their qualifiers for the World Cup. There were even two countries that qualified via a ‘wildcard’ berth where they’d have to play a team from another continent twice. The thirty-two qualifying countries were all decided more than two weeks ago. The qualifying rounds made a lot of news for those that qualified, but those that didn’t got a lot of news of their own too. The second-round qualifying matches for the CAF saw two of Africa’s best-ever teams–Nigeria and Cameroon– pitted against each other. Only one can qualify and it ended up being Nigeria. Another surprise was the Ivory Coast being surprised by Morocco and Ghana being overtaken by Egypt. Asia didn’t have many surprises, but Qatar finished last in the Second Round group. Not good since they will be hosting in 2022. The CONMEBOL almost saw the non-qualification of Argentina, but they recovered to win their last game and qualify. Instead the most shocking non-qualifier was 2015 and 2016 Copa America winner Chile which was third the day before the final game for all teams.

The biggest shockers in qualifying came from the CONCACAF and Europe. On the last day of CONCACAF qualifying, all the USA needed to do to qualify was beat Trinidad and Tobago in their last game. It was something they could do as Trinidad would finish last of the Final 6. Instead the USA lost 2-1. That was enough for them to kiss their qualification chances goodbye as Panama beat Costa Rica 2-1 to qualify and Honduras beat Mexico 3-2 to earn a berth in the interconfederation playoff against Australia. Europe had some of the biggest shockers as The Netherlands didn’t even qualify for a UEFA playoff round and Italy thwarted their playoff against Sweden losing 1-0 the first game and a scoreless draw the next. Russia 2018 will be the first World Cup since 1958 in which Italy didn’t qualify and only the third World Cup ever with Italy absent!

Now enough of this World Cup’s also-rans. On with those that qualified. Twenty of the 32 teams for Russia 2018 played in Brazil 2014. Brazil makes it 21 for 21. All former World Cup winners except for Italy will be present. The team with the longest absence making a return to the World Cup stage in 2018 is Peru whose last World Cup appearance was back in 1982. There are only two countries that will make their World Cup debut in Russia: Iceland and Panama. Iceland is especially noteworthy as it has become the first nation with a population of less than 1 million to qualify for a World Cup! Actually there aren’t even half a million people living in the nation of Iceland so that makes it even more remarkable.

Now onto the draw. The draw was held Friday at 18:00 Moscow time at the Kremlin. Legends from all eight countries that have won the World Cup in the past were present: Laurent Blanc, Diego Maradona, Gordon Banks, Cafu, Miroslav Klose, Fabio Cannavaro, Diego Forlan and Carles Puyol. Gary Lineker was host of the event and Russian legend Nikita Simonyan was also part of the event, Vladimir Putin was defintely in attendance, an d the Igor Moiseyev Ballet provided the performance before the draw.

Now onto the actual drawing. In the past, FIFA has organized the pots to give appropriate correlation with continents and availability. FIFA wants the eight groups of four to be a case of no more than two European teams and only one team of the other confederations. There are fourteen European teams (UEFA) including host Russia, five South American teams (CONMEBOL), three teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF), five African teams (CAF) and five teams from the AFC (Asia and Australia).

FIFA wants to create better parity among the groups for this World Cup. FIFA doesn’t want a case of two or three top-ranked teams in a group as only two can advance past the Group Stage. We all remember the dreaded Group D of 2014 which consisted of three top-ranked teams. This time around FIFA decided to break the draw into four pots of eight. The pots are all based on the teams’ FIFA World Ranking as of October 2017, regardless of continent. The only exception being Russia as the host nation is always automatically in Group A. Here’s how the pots break down with their confederation listed and their ranking in brackets:

POT 1:

  • Russia – UEFA (65)
  • Germany – UEFA (1)
  • Brazil – CONMEBOL (2)
  • Portugal – UEFA (3)
  • Argentina – CONMEBOL (4)
  • Belgium – UEFA (5)
  • Poland – UEFA (6)
  • France – UEFA (7)

POT 2:

  • Spain – UEFA (8)
  • Peru – CONMEBOL (10)
  • Switzerland – UEFA (11)
  • England – UEFA (12)
  • Colombia – CONMEBOL (13)
  • Mexico – CONCACAF (16)
  • Uruguay – CONMEBOL (17)
  • Croatia – UEFA (18)

POT 3:

  • Denmark – UEFA (19)
  • Iceland – UEFA (21)
  • Costa Rica – CONCACAF (22)
  • Sweden – UEFA (25)
  • Tunisia – CAF (28)
  • Egypt – CAF (30)
  • Senegal – CAF (32)
  • Iran – AFC (34)

POT 4:

  • Serbia – UEFA (38)
  • Nigeria – CAF (41)
  • Australia – AFC (43)
  • Japan – AFC (44)
  • Morocco – CAF (48)
  • Panama – CONCACAF (49)
  • South Korea – AFC (62)
  • Saudi Arabia – AFC (63)

As you can tell by the pot arrangements, they’re trying to make the contest as balanced as possible. In addition, FIFA knows the top seeded teams are Team 1 in each group–host nation being Team A1– but FIFA still wants a drawn ball in all cases to make it official, even drawing the order of the last group team drawn. That explains all those red balls at the beginning of the draw; to make defaults official. Confederation rules still apply as far as maximums per group. Pot 1 had six UEFA teams and Pot 2 had four. It could have been a case where four groups could have reached their maximum two for UEFA teams by the time Pot 2 was all drawn out. Instead it was just two groups with UEFA berths completed. Drawing teams and placing them in the right groups was not as hard and tedious as I had anticipated. In the end, all eight groups had their teams drawn and allotted with only minor complications which were sorted out with ease:

GROUP A:

  • Russia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Egypt
  • Uruguay

GROUP B:

  • Portugal
  • Spain
  • Morocco
  • Iran

GROUP C:

  • France
  • Australia
  • Peru
  • Denmark

GROUP D:

  • Argentina
  • Iceland
  • Croatia
  • Nigeria

GROUP E:

  • Brazil
  • Switzerland
  • Costa Rica
  • Serbia

GROUP F:

  • Germany
  • Mexico
  • Sweden
  • South Korea

GROUP G:

  • Belgium
  • Panama
  • Tunisia
  • England

GROUP H:

  • Poland
  • Senegal
  • Colombia
  • Japan

So those are the groups for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It makes for some interesting analyses. The draw usually tries to make for the host nation to have an easy time qualifying to the knockout phase. Russia has a good group with only Uruguay looking to be a real threat to them. Group B is most interesting not because of the challenge of the teams, but of the geography: Spain, Portugal and Morocco! The draw was aimed so that there could be better parity among ranked teams, but there are possibilities of a ‘Group Of Death’ or two. First bet is Group D; Croatia and Iceland are underdogs that can cause a surprise, and Nigeria meet Argentina for the fifth time out of six World Cups. The second potential Group Of Death could be Group F with Germany and Mexico plus possible upsets coming from either Sweden or South Korea.

And there you go. That’s the Final Draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The teams now have six months to prepare themselves and be among the top two to advance. Lots of excitement guaranteed.

2017 Grey Cup Preview

105th-Grey-Cup-Festival

It’s Canadian tradition during the last Sunday of November. It’s Grey Cup Sunday. This will mark the 105th contesting of this momentous event. Once again, the final is East vs. West. Interestingly it’s like a rematch of the 2012 Grey Cup. It will be the Calgary Stampeders vs. the Toronto Argonauts.

First Time For TD Place; Seventh Time For Lansdowne Field

This will be the first time the TD Place Stadium, which was completed in 2014, will host the Grey Cup. This will be the seventh time for the field. It hosted five times before as Lansdowne Park between 1925 and 1988. It hosted once as Frank Clair Stadium in 2004. The older stadium was able to field more spectators in the past. TD Place normally has a capacity of 24,000 but it will expand to 36,000 for the Grey Cup. Shaw Cable is the main sponsor for the event. Freedom Mobile will be sponsoring the halftime show which Shania Twain is slated to perform.

And Now The Game

For the second straight year, the Calgary Stampeders will represent the West while Toronto will represent the East. It’s easy to predict the Stampeders to win, but don’t forget they were the heavy favorites last year. The Argonauts could pull the same upset the RedBlacks pulled last year.

stampedersWEST: CALGARY STAMPEDERS

Last year, the Stampeders led the CFL in game stats and entered the Grey Cup as the clear favorites, only to be surprised by the Ottawa RedBlacks in overtime. That’s considered by many to be the biggest upset in Grey Cup history.

This year, they find themselves in the same position: the best team in the regular season and the favorites to win.

Despite leading the regular season, they did show some weakness in the team such as losing the last three season games. Some say they simply gave it away since they knew they’d be tops anyways. Even their 32-28 win in their West Final against the Edmonton Eskimos would be in question as they had a convincing lead at the start of the final quarter only to give nine points away.

Calgary has their strengths and their weaknesses. Their strengths were the most present throughout the season. On top of that, they won both their games against the Toronto Argonauts. I know there are no guarantees in sport, but it’s hard to see Calgary losing the Cup this time around.

Toronto ArgosEAST: TORONTO ARGONAUTS

Calgary had the best performance this CFL season. Toronto’s, on the other hand, was nine wins and nine losses. Actually all but one team from the West had better win-loss stats than Toronto. It’s hard to believe Toronto came out on top of the East. That just goes to show how far ahead most of the West was this season.

Many people predicted that the Grey Cup would be an all-West game, but Toronto prevented this from happening by beating the Saskatchewan RoughRiders 25-21 in the East Final. Admit it. We all want the Grey Cup to be an East vs. West affair.

Even Toronto’s win in the East Final showed they do have some issues as they almost gave it away thanks to some strong last-quarter play from Saskatchewan. It took a last-minute touchdown from Cody Fajardo to save the Argos. If they look to win against the Stampeders, they can’t give anything away and play like they’ve never played before this year.

My Prediction

I feel that Calgary will win the Cup 40-15. They’ve been the best team this season. Plus I feel after the shock and humiliation of losing to the RedBlacks last year, I think they will want this more than ever. Plus I feel winning on the RedBlack’s home field will make this extra-sweet.

And there you go. That’s my preview of the 105th Grey Cup. Kickoff is 6pm Ottawa-time Sunday. May the best team win!

Brazil’s Olympic Legacy

Brazil Olympic

Brazil’s athletes have won a total of 108 Olympic medals in 14 sports.

 

Whenever an Olympic Games happens, I usually publish a blog relating to the host city or the host country. In this case, I’ll be focusing on Brazil’s past Olympic success and it has a lot. Brazil has won a total of 108 Olympic medals: 23 of them gold. That ranks them 33rd for all-time medals at the Summer Olympics. That’s also the most of any South American nation.

OFF TO A START

The very first Olympic Games Brazil sent an Olympic team to was the Antwerp Games of 1920 and they debuted with a bang, literally. Brazil won a gold, silver and bronze in various shooting events. The gold going to Guilherme Paraense in the rapid fire pistol event.

After the Antwerp Games, Brazil’s Olympic results consisted of woes up to World War II. They sent a 12-athlete team to Paris in 1924, a 67-athlete team to Los Angeles in 1932 which I will focus later on, and a 73-athlete team to the Berlin Games of 1936. All of which resulted in not a single medal won. Nevertheless there were some rays of hope. The biggest being from swimmer Maria Lenk. Just after finishing out of the final at her event in Berlin, she would set a world record in her event. She made history as the first Brazilian swimmer ever to hold a swimming world record. The Maria Lenk Aquatic Centre which was built for the 2007 Pan Am Games and will host three aquatic sports for Rio 2016 was named in her honor.

HARD TIMES FOR 1932

One of Brazil’s most famous Olympic stories is not exactly a positive one. It involved their Olympic team in 1932 as the world was going through the Great Depression at the time. Brazil was also hit hard during the Great Depression and their Olympic team were also feeling the heat. In order to raise funds for the team, the athletes would sell coffee beans at every port their ship, the Itaquicê, would dock at. Once the shipped docked at San Pedro, the authorities at the Port Of Los Angeles charged Brazil $1 for each athlete they let off the ship. The Brazilian team first let off the athletes with the best medal chances and swimmer Maria Lenk who would become the first Brazilian female to compete at the Olympics. However it wasn’t all over. The Itaquicê then sailed to San Francisco to sell more beans to fund the other athletes. It was successful enough to give the water polo, rowing and athletics athletes enough funds to compete. However the lack of funds meant 15 athletes could not live out their Olympic dreams and thus sail back to Brazil on the Itaquicê. The best result for the team was a 4th place in rowing.

SLOW BUT SURE IMPROVEMENTS

Adhemar

Brazil’s first Olympic great: triple-jumper Adhemar Ferreira da Silva.

After World War II, Brazil would get better in sports at the Olympic Games but it would mostly go unnoticed for decades. The biggest notice came in the men’s triple jump. Even before the Helsinki Games in 1952, Adhemar Ferreira da Silva held the world record in the men’s triple jump. In Helsinki, winning was an ease for da Silva as he won by almost 10 inches and set a new world record in the process. Da Silva would repeat as Olympic champion in 1956. Da Silva would prove himself to be one of the greats of triple-jumping as his career would not only include two gold medals but he’d also break the world record five times in his career. Da Silva would prove to be inspiring to Brazil as there would be two other male triple jumpers who would win Olympic medals and break the world record too.

Unfortunately for Brazil, Da Silva would prove to be Brazil’s only Olympic champion up until 1980. With the exception of a silver in the triple jump in 1968, Brazil’s Olympic teams after World War II would come home with nothing but bronze in that meantime. Sure they’d always have at least one medal but a single silver and the rest bronze was pretty much it from 1960 to 1976. It’s not to say it was all bad as Brazil would expand its abilities to win medals in other sports like basketball, swimming, sailing and judo.

A BREAKTHROUGH IN 1980

The boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980 may have kept other nations at home but Brazil didn’t cave into the pressure. Their participation at the Moscow Games boosted its sporting confidence. The team won its first gold medals since Da Silva: two in sailing. These Games would later open the doors to Brazilians in sailing as success would continue. Brazil has won a total of 17 medals in sailing: six of them gold. The team in 1980 would also win bronzes in swimming and triple-jumping.

1980 would prove to be a boost of confidence to their Olympians as more success would follow. Los Angeles in 1984 would be the stage for Joaquim Cruz as he won gold in the 800m: Brazil’s first gold in a running event. Brazil would also win an additional five silver and two bronze at those Games. Possibly making amends for 1932. Medals came in judo, volleyball, sailing, swimming and their first-ever men’s football medal: a silver. Up until 1984, professionals weren’t allowed to compete at the Olympics which meant Brazil could only send ‘diluted’ teams to the Olympics which kept them out of the medals. Professionals were allowed to compete at the Olympics for the first time in 1984 and it opened the floodgates to Brazil–although not completely– to send better football teams to the Olympics. Dunga was part of the silver medal-winning 1984 team.

The Seoul Games of 1988 would give Brazil additional success as the team would win a total of six medals including their first ever gold in judo to Half-Heavyweight Aurelio Miguel Fernandez. This would open the doors to other judokas of Brazil as Brazil has won a total of 18 Olympic medals in judo including three gold. Brazil having the biggest Japanese diaspora outside of Japan may have a lot to do with it. Additional medals came in sailing, football (featuring greats Bebeto, Careca and Romario) and athletics. One noteworthy medalist was sprinter Robson da Silva. He’s considered to be the best South American sprinter ever. His bronze in the 200m in Seoul came just five days after running in the 100m dash: considered by most to be “the dirtiest race in Olympic history.” Robson was actually one of two with the most justifiable cases of being clean athletes. I like what he’s always said: “Sure I didn’t dope and I didn’t win all that much, but I sleep well every night.”

1992 would only be a case of three medals in three different sports but it was still a good showing for Brazil as it was their second Games where they returned home with two golds: in man’s volleyball and in judo. The volleyball gold would be key as it would pave the way for future success for the Brazilian team at the Olympics.

1996 AND THE BRAZILIAN BREAKTHROUGH

As Brazil’s economy would grow over time, so would their athletic prowess. Ever since the 1996 Games in Atlanta, the Brazilian Olympic team would always leave each of the last five Games with at least ten medals or more. In fact 70 of the 109 total medals Brazil has won before the Rio Games were won in the previous five Summer Olympic Games. Atlanta was the very first sign of the Brazilian sports boom. The nation won a best-ever total of 15 medals including 3 gold. The introduction of beach volleyball led to Brazil taking the top 2 spots in the women’s category. They also had continued success in sailing, judo, football (featuring Ronaldo) and swimming but they also won their first ever equestrian medals as well as their first medals ever won by female athletes.

Scheidt Grael

Sailors Robert Scheidt (left) and Torben Grael show off their gold medals from Athens 2004. They are Brazil’s most medaled athletes. Both men have won five medals each, including two gold.

2000 was a case where Brazil didn’t win a single gold medal but still left Sydney with a total of 12 medals. Success continued in swimming, track, volleyball, judo, equestrian, sailing and volleyball. They sure made up for their no-gold disappointment in Athens in 2004 with five golds of their ten medals: their most golds ever. Actually it was originally four golds but a bizarre doping situation led to five. In equestrian show jumping, Rodrigo Pessoa finished second to Ireland’s Cian O’Connor. However it was later revealed months later that the doping sample from O’Connor’s horse went missing and was finally tested in November of 2004 resulting in a positive test. That bumped Pessoa up to Olympic champion: Brazil’s first ever equestrian gold medalist. Bizarre but glad it was finally set straight. Another example of Brazilian sportsmanship came in the men’s marathon. Vanderlei de Lima was leading the race when out of nowhere, an Irish defrocked priest hounded him and disrupted his run. Fortunately de Lima was able to get back to running and finish third. When he received his bronze medal, he was also given the de Coubertin award for fair and courageous play.

2008 in Beijing saw their Olympic prowess taken another step further as they won three golds and a best-ever 16 medals. First-ever golds for Brazil came from swimmer Cesar Cielo Filho and long jumper Maurren Maggi in women’s athletics. This was also the first Olympics where both the men’s and women’s football teams won medals: silver for the women and bronze for the men. London 2012 was another increase in the medal haul with a best-ever 17 medals including three gold. The women’s volleyball team repeated as Olympic champions but the biggest gold-medal surprise came from gymnast Arthur Zanetti on the rings as he won Brazil’s first-ever gymnastics medal: gold on the rings. The team also won three medals in boxing–their first since 1968–and Yane Marques became the first Brazilian to win a modern pentathlon medal when she won silver.

A footnote to ad: Brazil has competed in every winter Olympics since the Albertville Games of 1992. Their best result is a ninth in snowboarding back in 2006.

No kidding Brazil wants to give their home country something to be proud of. They will field a team of 465 athletes in 29 sports and they hope to give Brazil its best-ever medal total. The men’s football team has brought Neymar–who was part of Brazil’s silver medal-winning team in 2012– on the squad. Marta is back on the women’s squad. And a unique situation in sailing where two of Torben Grael’s children–Marco and Martine– are competing in the sailing events.

As the athletes in Brazil compete in Rio de Janeiro, they will compete with a sense of pride. They will also compete having a set of heroes they’ve grown up admiring and idolizing and hopefully create new heroes for the next generation. The stage will be set.

DISCLAIMER: I know the Olympics have been going on for a week and a half and Brazil has won a lot of medals but I chose to exclude the results in Rio for the sake of keeping this blog ‘evergreen.’

WORKS CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: Brazil At The Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2016. Wikimedia Foundation Inc.<Brazil At The Olympics>

WIKIPEDIA: Brazil At The 1932 Summer Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2016. Wikimedia Foundation Inc.<Brazil at the 1932 Summer Olympics>

Rio 2016: Seven Canadians To Watch

Canada Olympic

I admit I’ve come to accept it after the Sochi Olympics. Since the late-90’s Canada has become a winter sports superpower but field a very good Summer Olympics team. In past Olympic Games, both Canada’s summer and winter teams were on the same levels. Very often the summer team would outperform the winter team. That has changes since the late-90’s as you can tell by the medal totals with each Games.

However it’s not fair at all to say our Summer Olympic team is lousy. Here in Canada, we have a lot to deliver. The 2015 Pan Am Games and the recent World Championships in various sports have shown we have a lot of athletes in contention. Sure we only won a single gold out of our 18 medals back in London but we have a solid team this year. Sports Illustrated predicts Canadians to win a total of seventeen medals including four gold.

Anyways you saw my focus on foreign contenders in Rio yesterday. Without further ado, here are the seven Canadians of focus:

Brianne Theisen-Eaton – Athletics: The last time a Canadian woman won a gold medal in track and field was in 1928 and that was the very first Olympics track and field events for women were contested! Canada was one of the best countries in women’s track and field in 1928 winning two of the five events and two additional medals. Yeah, what has happened since? Well the drought could very well be over. When Brianne Theisen graduated from high school, she went to the University of Oregon and it was the best decision. She represented Canada in London and finished 11th. She would later marry American decathlete Ashton Eaton and she’s been on a roll since finishing second at the last two World Championships. She also won the Goetzis HypoMeet this year with a points total that’s the highest of 2016 and has propelled herself as the favorite. She will face stiff rivalry from defending Olympic Champion and reigning World Champion Jessica Ennis-Hill and Worlds bronze medalist Laura Ikauniece-Admidiņa of Latvia. 2016 could just be Brianne’s year. Also look to see if Brianne and Ashton become the first married couple since the Zatopeks in 1952 to both win athletics golds in the same games.

Shawnacy Barber – Athletics: Canada is not known for its pole vaulters. Our last Olympic entry was back in 1992. Our only two medals in the men’s event came all the way back in 1908 and 1912. That can all change thanks to New Mexico-born Shawn Barber. He didn’t qualify for London at the tender age of 18 but his talent was obvious that year as he already broke the Canadian record. He has improved in both his vaulting heights and his competitive consistency over the years and even won the World Championship last year. He even vaulted six metres for the first time ever during an indoor meet this year. He will face challenges from defending Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie of France, American newcomer Sam Kendricks and even home-country threat Thiago da Silva. Whatever the situation, Barber is sure to deliver.

Brooke Henderson – Golf: Here in Rio there won’t be any new sports on the program but there are two sports that were part of the Olympic program in the past that were cancelled out. The two returning sports are Rugby, albeit in Sevens format, and Golf. Golf was contested at the 1900 and 1904 Olympics. The last Olympic gold in golf was won by a Canadian: George Lyon. Professionalism may have a lot to do with that. Since there’s now no such thing as ‘amateur’ anymore, it seems right that golf returns especially since it’s international enough. Canada has a strong shot at winning through 18 year-old Brooke Henderson. Already displaying a combination of talent, drive and youthfulness that has best been seen in the past through Se-Ri Pak and Nancy Lopez, Henderson has already won three LPGA events. Her last two– the KPMG women’s PGA Championship and the Cambia Portland Classic–came this June and propelled her to 2nd-place World ranking. She’s a heavy favorite to win in Rio but she will face challenges from World #1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand, latest American great Lexi Thompson and last year’s British Open winner Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand. Win or lose, Brooke has a bright future ahead of her.

Mark de Jonge – Canoeing: Until 2008, there were the 500m and 1000m events in flatwater canoeing for men. In 2012, the program replaced the 500m events with 200m sprints. That has worked for the advantage of Canadian kayaker Mark de Jonge. The Calgary-born Dalhousie grad won bronze in London the first Olympics it was contested. Since then, de Jonge has moved up in the ranks from silver at the 2013 Worlds to gold at the 2014 and 2015 Worlds. De Jonge will face challenges from France’s Maxime Beaumont and Sweden’s Peter Menning who finished second and third to him respectively last year. It could just well be de Jonge’s moment here in Rio.

Rosannagh MacLennan – Trampolining: Ever since trampolining has been introduced to the Olympic program in 2000, the Canadian team has left each Olympics with at least one medal. The women’s event has always had a Canadian medalist with Karen Cockburn winning 2000 bronze, 2004 silver and 2008 silver. In London, Rosie MacLennan became Canada’s first ever Olympic champion in trampolining. Rosie also had the bizarre distinction as being Canada’s only Olympic champion at those Games. Rosie has since won the 2013 World Championship and finished second the following year. She found herself out of the medals in 2015. She plans to return to her winning form in Rio but she will face the rivalry of 2015 champ Li Dan of China and two Belarussians: 2015 bronze medalist Tatiana Piatrenia and Hanna Harchonak. 2016 will be the arena for her to prove herself on top again.

Brittany MacLean – Swimming: Canada is known for its medal-winning swimmers. Sports Illustrated predicts Canada to win no medals. However one that could prove SI wrong is distance freestyler Brittany MacLean. The Etobicoke native who swims for the University of Georgia has a reputation in the distance freestyles with a 7th place finish in the 400 in London. However she was too injured in the 2015 season and had to miss out on the Worlds. This year, MacLean has the 6th-fastest time in the world in the 400 free and the 4th-fastest in the 800 free. Sure the distance freestyles are where Katie Ledecky is all the talk but Brittany MacLean just could win Canada’s first Olympic medal for a female swimmer since 1996. That feat could also be achieved by backstroker Kylie Masse or butterfliers Penny Oleksiak or Noemie Thomas. Actually Canada has its strongest women’s swim team in a long time. While the men’s team could only qualify ten swimmers. Looks like it’s the girls’ turn to shine.

AND ONE TEAM:

Canada’s Women’s Soccer Team: I’ll admit I didn’t review them when I did my pre-Olympic preview for London. And good reason why not. Back at the 2011 WWC Canada lost all three of their Group Stage games. However the turnabout the team made under the new coach John Herdman was evident as the team left the Olympics with the bronze medal. Their performance won the hearts of so many Canadians, I referred to them as ‘Our Girls.’ Canada has continued to show consistency with a quarterfinal finish at the 2015 WWC. Since then, the team have won most of their games losing only to Brazil, Denmark, USA and France. Canada won this year’s Algarve Cup and 19 year-old defender Kadeisha Buchanan was named the best player of the tournament. They’re not expected to win a medal in Rio but the team could just surprise the world again like they did four years ago.

And there you have it. My review of Canadian athletes to look out for in Rio. Notice that I reviewed the four Canadians Sports Illustrated predicts to win gold? Whatever the situation, I’m sure they’ll do our country proud.

 

Rio 2016: Fourteen To Watch

London Flame

The Rio Olympics is coming our way. Of course the media being what it is, it chooses to focus on all the bad news with the bad construction problems and the Zika virus and the slow ticket sales. The story of the Russian track team being systematically doped added to the fire and has led to scrutiny of the whole Russian team in recent weeks. However there have been tales of woe before past Olympic Games and they’ve gone off excellently so it would be fair to give Rio a chance. So without further ado, here’s my focus on thirteen to watch–eight individual athletes, a duo, and four teams:

Rio 2016

The Rio 2016 logo features three characters in the Brazilian colors in a triple embrace resembling Sugarloaf mountain.

-Katie Ledecky/USA – Swimming: You all thought Michael Phelps would be the top swimmer of focus in my blog, right? Wrong. He will be looked into in a focus on another swimmer later in my blog but now the swimmer of top focus here is the US’s next big swimming sensation: Katie Ledecky. As a 15 year-old, she competed in London as the youngest member of the US Olympic team. She won gold in the 800m freestyle and broke the American record along the way. Since then, she has become a distance freestyle ace with world records in the 400, 800 and 1500m freestyles along with World Championship golds in those events as well as the 200 free. She is poised to win gold in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles in Rio: a feat only achieved once before by American swimmer Debbie Meyer in 1968. Katie can even add a bonus gold with the 4*200m free relay. Her chances are good as her best time in the 800 this year is 12 seconds faster than the second-best and her top 2016 time in the 400 is 1.5 seconds faster than that of American teammate Leah Smith. However the 200 will be her toughest event to win as Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom’s 2016 best is less than .1 faster than Katie and just .12 behind her is Italy’s Federica Pellegrini: 2008 Olympic champion who finished fifth in London. Nevertheless it will be a brave attempt from the 19 year-old.

-Simone Biles/USA – Gymnastics: Women’s gymnastics has become a complicated sport ever since it was revolutionized by ‘pixies’ like Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci. It seems a gymnast’s career at the top is very short. It’s very hard to develop consistency especially with time encroaching. However one gymnast who can beg to differ is 19 year-old Simone Biles. She has shown a consistency in World gymnastics not demonstrated since Ludmilla Tourischeva back in the 70’s. In the past three World Championships starting in 2013, Biles has won fourteen medals including ten gold. She has also won the last three World all-around titles. Biles appears invincible but she does face rivalry from her own teammates Gabby Douglas (defending champ from London) and Laurie Hernandez as well as Russia’s Angelina Melnikova. Rio could just be the arena to crown her greatness in the sport.

-Ashton Eaton/USA – Athletics: There have only been two decathletes who have won back-to-back Olympic gold medals: The US’s Bob Mathias and the UK’s Daley Thompson. Ashton Eaton looks poised to become the third. He first burst onto the scene at the 2011 Worlds as a 23 year-old when he finished second behind his American teammate Trey Hardee. Hey, the US is known for their decathletes as they have won a total of 28 medals including thirteen gold. The following year, Eaton beat Hardee at the US Olympic Trials with a world record points total. Eaton went on to win gold in London as well as the last two World Championships. Eaton appears invincible having the year’s best result at the US trials but he does have rivals in Germany’s Arthur Abele and Canada’s Damian Warner who finished behind Eaton in second at the Worlds. Rio could just be the arena for a great to deliver.

-Usain Bolt/Jamaica – Athletics: What can I say? The ‘Lightning Bolt’ has proven himself to be the biggest thing in athletics since Carl Lewis. He has an unmatched streak at dominating sprinting in major events. It all started when he won the 100, the 200 and the 4*100 relay in Beijing in 2008 all in world record time. Since then every Olympics or Worlds he entered, he’d leave with golds in all those events each time with the exception of the 100 in 2011 where he received a false-start disqualification. Already people are ruling Bolt to achieve the triple-triple here in Rio. However it’s not 100% guaranteed. Bolt had to pull out of the Jamaican Olympic trials because of a pulled hamstring injury. He has since recovered well and even won a major 200 in London a few weeks ago. However the 100m has three runners that have a faster year’s best than Usain. Topping the list is 2004 Olympic champion Justin Gatlin. The 200m features four runners who ran a faster time this year than Usain’s 2016 best. Topping that list is American LaShawn Merritt: 2008 Olympic 400m champion. Win or lose, chasing Olympic history will make for an exciting show from a legend.

-Mo Farah/Great Britain – Athletics: Seven male distance runners have won both the 5000m and 10000m runs in the same Olympics. However one–Finland’s Lasse Viren– has done it twice back in 1972 and 1976. Mo Farah, A Somali who moved to the UK when he was eight, appears poised to duplicate Viren’s feat. Farah’s last loss of a major 5000 or a 10000 came at the 2011 World Championships. Since then he has taken gold at the 2012 Olympics and both the 2013 and 2015 World Championships in both events. There will be rivals trying to block his path like Ethiopian Muktar Edris, American Galen Rupp, his Portland training partner, and Kenyans like Caleb Ndiku, Paul Tanui and Geoffrey Kanworor. Whatever the situation, Farah’s pursuit will be one to watch.

-Cate and Bronte Campbell/Australia – Swimming: Admit it. You get intrigued when you see a pair of sibling athletes either competing together or against each other. Enter the Campbell sisters from Australia who are at the top of the world in sprint freestyle. 24 year-old Cate is the one with Olympic medals–two bronze in 2008 and a relay gold in 2012–along with 100 free gold at the 2013 Worlds. 22 year-old Bronte won the 2015 World Championship in the 50 and 100 free with Cate winning silver in the 50 and bronze in the 100. However Cate that this year’s fastest times in the world in the 50 and 100. Bronte has the second-fastest in the 100 and fifth-fastest in the 50. Ah, don’t you wish sibling rivalry was this civil? However the Malawi-born Campbell sisters are not alone at the top. They will face challenges from Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom who also made the 2015 Worlds podiums in both events and 2012 Olympic champion from both events Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands. The Rio stage should provide for some fun drama. And after all that rivalry, the two could just team up for a gold in the 4*100 free relay!

-Laszlo Cseh/Hungary – Swimming: All eyes will be on Michael Phelps. He may have won it all with 22 medals over three Games including 18 gold but he’s making a comeback after a troubling time since London which included his second DUI arrest. Who’s also worth looking at is 30 year-old Hungarian Laszlo Cseh. When Phelps won six golds and two bronze in Athens, Cseh won 400 individual medley bronze. While Phelps won eight golds in Beijing, Cseh won three silvers. While Phelps won four golds and two silvers in London, Cseh won 200 IM bronze. In all cases, Phelps was the Olympic champion. Here in Rio, we have a different scenario. We have Phelps trying to get back his old form while Cseh appears to be in the best form of his life. Cseh has the world fastest times this year in both the 100 and 200 butterflies. Cseh is a heavy favorite for the 200 but he does face rivalry from Phelps, American Tom Shields and Poland’s Konrad Czerniak in the 100. Cseh has never been called ‘Phelps’ Shadow’ in his career but Rio could become the first Olympic arena to finally beat Phelps and win Olympic gold.

-Majlinda Kelmendi/Kosovo – Judo: 75 nations competing in Rio have never won an Olympic medal. Two nations–Kosovo and South Sudan– will be making their Olympic debut. Kosovo’s team will consist of eight athletes in five sports. Leading the team is 25 year-old judoka Majlinda Kelmendi. Back in 2012, Kosovo was not officially recognized by the IOC and Kelmendi opted to compete for Albania. Since then Kelmendi has won gold at the World Championships in the lightweight category in 2013 and 2014. She missed out on the 2015 season because of an injury but is poised for a comeback in time for Rio. She has already won this years’ European championship. She faces rivalry from Japan’s Misato Nakamura and Brazil’s Erica Miranda. Whatever the outcome, be sure she’ll do her country proud. She will also be the flagbearer during the opening ceremonies.

FROM THE HOST NATION:

Rio 2016

Vinicius, seen left with Rio Paralympic mascot Tom, is the 2016 Olympic mascot. Vinicius is a mix of Brazil’s mammals. Both mascots are to represent Brazil’s diverse people and culture.

Of course there is to be some focus on athletes of the host nation. I make it a priority as it makes some of my favorite Olympic moments with athletes winning gold or a medal in front of their home crowd. And in Rio, Sports Illustrated predicts Brazil to win 20 medals including six gold. The most medals Brazil has won in a single Olympics is 17 back in London. The most golds, five in Athens in 2004.

Focus on the two teams later. Here are the duo and individual of focus:

Isaquias Queiroz and Erlon Silva – Canoeing: Brazil has won Olympic medals in thirteen sports but canoeing isn’t one of them. In recent years, Brazil has fielded a canoeing duo who have emerged at the top of the world in the 1000m event. Isaquias won the Worlds in 2013 and 2014 in the individual 500m. Erlon was part of the bronze medal-winning 200m pair in 2014. However both were competing in events that won’t be contested in Rio. Leading to last year’s Worlds, the two were paired together and trained for the 1000m pairs event. They entered that event at the Worlds and won. They will face challenges from the duos of Hungary and Poland. They could just make Brazilian Olympic history here in Rio.

Fabiana Murer – Athletics: Brazil is not expected to win any medals in athletics, according to Sports Illustrated. Overlooked must be pole vaulter Fabiana Murer. She’s a 2011 world champion and she finished second at last year’s World but is known for Olympic choking. In 2008, she finished 10th. In 2012 she failed to qualify for the finals. 2016 looks to be a good year for Murer as she set a new South American record back in July. However she faces challenges from London Olympic champion Jennifer Suhr of the US, last year’s World champ Yarisley Silva of Cuba, last year’s World bronze medalist Nikoleta Kyriakopolou of Greece and American Sandi Morris who’s the only vaulter to have a higher 2016’s best than Murer as of now. Whatever the situation, the home country has her back.

TEAMS:

Refugee Olympic Athletes Team: In the past, you had to have some citizenship ties in order to compete at the Olympic Games. Refugees in the past have been overlooked as they were believed to have bigger problems than sports to deal with. Some would have to wait many years to represent the nation they’ve been adopted into. At the last Olympics in London, some refugees participated as Individual Olympic Athletes. IOC president Thomas Bach has taken note of the current worldwide refugee crisis by trying to break barrier for refugee athletes who want to compete at the Olympics. In March of this year, Bach announced his intention to create a team of refugees to compete in Rio taking into account the athletes’ sporting ability, personal circumstances and United Nations-verified refugee status. A $2 million fund created by the IOC was used to help train the athletes for Rio. At these Olympics, there will be ten athletes competing as Refugee Olympic Athletes. Five are runners from South Sudan who reside in Kenya. One is an Ethiopian marathoner who sought refuge in Luxembourg. Two are Congolese judokas living in Brazil and two are Syrian swimmers who have sought refuge in Belgium and Germany. They may not have much of a medal chance but they will already achieve victory by just competing at the Olympics.

United States Women’s Football Team: If there’s one team that one can call the class of the field, it’s the American women’s football (soccer) team. The US Women have won three of seven Women’s World Cups and four of the five Olympic gold medals. Those who saw last year’s Women’s World Cup know about how well the American women continue to play brilliantly. Here in Rio, fourteen women from last year’s WWC squad are part of the Olympic squad including stars Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo. There are also four newcomers including Mallory Pugh and Crystal Dunn. Since their WWC win, the team has won all but three of their matches since, losing only once to China 1-0 in a friendly back in December. WWC finalists Japan may not have qualified but it’s not to say the US won’t face some tough rivalry from China, France and even hosts Brazil. Nevertheless if they’re as brilliant together in Rio as they were in Canada last year, magic can happen again.

TRIVIA: Being WWC-holder is actually bad luck for the Olympics. In the previous five Olympics, no team that was the WWC-holder at the time has won Olympic gold. They’d make the Olympic podium, yes, but never the top step. Can the US break this bad-luck spell?

FROM THE HOST NATION:

Brazil’s Olympic Volleyball Teams: Football may be Brazil’s #1 sport. It’s safe to say volleyball is Brazil’s #2 sport. Ever since the men’s team won Brazil’s first ever court volleyball medal, Brazil has been on a roll winning a total of nine Olympic medals including four gold. They’ve also won 11 of the 30 Olympic medals awarded in Beach Volleyball including two gold medal-winning duos. Brazil is expected to dominate here. In beach volleyball, Brazil’s pairs won five of the six medals with only the men’s silver conceded to a Dutch pair. Brazil is not as dominant in court volleyball at the Worlds but the teams have what it takes to deliver as the women have won Olympic gold back in 2008 and 2012. Here in Rio, the women will face tough competition from the US and China who finished ahead of them at the 2014 Worlds. The men appear heavy favorites to win but they will face challenges from 2012 Olympic champs Russia and 2014 Worlds champs Poland. It could be possible the home crowd’s cheering could propel them both to win gold.

Brazil’s Olympic Football Teams: You’d figure Brazil, a country that has won a total of five World Cups, would have at least one Olympic gold in football, right? Wrong! It’s all because of eligibility rules in football over the years. Before 1984, footballers couldn’t even make a penny off their sport if they wanted to compete. That would allow the Eastern Bloc countries to field their best for the Olympics and propel them to the podium while World Cup-winning countries like Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy could only field ‘diluted’ teams to the Olympics which would finish in a shabby ranking or not make the Olympics at all. Brazil was able to qualify for six Olympics in that period but failed to win a medal.

In 1984, the Olympic door was open to professionals despite some restrictions or two. In 1992, professionals as long as they were 23 or under could compete. Since 1996, each squad had to have all but a maximum of three footballers under 23 with the other three being anyone they wanted. The opening of the floodgates to pros has boosted Brazil’s men’s team as they’ve qualified for six of the eight previous Olympic competitions and have stood on the podium five times. What they want here in Rio is to stand on the top step for the first time. In London, Brazil fielded a kit featuring a 20 year-old Neymar Jr. and won silver with Mexico taking the gold. Here in Rio, Neymar is back and the other 17 members of the Olympic squad are part of pro teams from Brazil, Spain, France and Italy. The Olympic squad may have finished third at the 2015 Pan Ams but the team has been consistent in friendly play over the last two years losing only to Nigeria back in March. Most of all, the team wants to return the football spirit to the country that left the nation broken-hearted at the 2014 World Cup and achieving shabby results at the last two Copa Americas. Whatever the situation, Brazil may just lift the spirits of their country.

Oh, did you think I’d forget the women’s football team? I didn’t. Women’s football isn’t as restrictive as the men’s competition. Every woman that competed at last year’s WWC is eligible to compete in the Olympics. As for Brazil’s women’s team, they have two Olympic silvers from 2004 and 2008. However they have had difficulties in the last major tournaments with losing in the quarterfinals at the 2012 Olympics and losing to Australia in the Round of 16 at the 2015 WWC. The team has since had their ups and downs with losses to the US, France, Canada and New Zealand they’ve trained hard under coach Vadao and have had mostly wins. Stars Marta, Formiga and Cristiane will be there. Hopefully the Brazilian women will be as victorious as their men and these Olympics here could be the arena for it.

And there you have it. Some of the athletes who to look out for at the Rio Games. Remember the gold medal does not go to the hardest worker, the most deserving, the most talented, the one with the most pre-Olympic accolades or even the best athlete. The gold goes to the one that’s the most there. And Rio will be the arena to decide the Olympic champions. These seventeen days will allow the athletes to “live their passion.” My review of Canadians to watch was printed the following day. Just click here.