This is the fifth of eight World Cup group previews as the days tick away to the tournament opener on June 12 in São Paulo between Brazil and Croatia. For comprehensive World Cup coverage, bookmark this page.
- Group F (Wednesday, June 5)
- Group G and H (Thursday, June 6)
Switzerland (8th the in FIFA Rankings) | 1st in UEFA Group E | 9-14-6 all-time
Ecuador (28th) | 4th in CONMEBOL qualifying | 3-4-0 all-time
France (16th) | 2nd in UEFA Group I, defeated Ukraine 3-2 in playoff | 25-18-11 all-time, one-time champion
Honduras (30th) | 3rd in CONCACAF Fourth Round | 0-3-3 all-time
140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
Does the "home-hemisphere advantage" really exist, or will young, European talent prevail?
DAVID AND GOLIATH
Since 1998, France have lurched from World Cup glory to abject failure and back again on a quadrennial basis. If the pattern holds, it’ll be a good time out for Didier Deschamps’ men, especially after the 2010 debacle. Switzerland are the seeded team, but the group’s bona fide stars can be found on the French roster, and they’re the favorites this time around.
On the other side of the coin, Honduras are back on the world’s biggest stage and up against it once again. They made their bones in South Africa by conceding only three goals in three games, including a 0-0 clean sheet in their group finale against none other than Switzerland. The problem? They didn’t score themselves, and it’s hard to say the likes of Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly will fare any better this time around.
If you’re itching to see some of the world’s best young talent, you could do a lot worse than tuning in to watch France and Switzerland on June 20.
Switzerland bring three 21-year-olds who won the U-17 World Cup in 2009, a group highlighted by Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder Granit Xhaka. Bayern Munich star-in-the-making Xherdan Shaqiri (we’ll get to him in a second) is only a year older.
France’s youth corps is highlighted by Juventus’ Paul Pogba and precocious young winger Antoine Griezmann (again, stay tuned). Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho and Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane are also in the mix on the defensive side of the ball. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention somewhere that Karim Benzema and Patrice Evra will likely all be on the field for this game.
|June 15 | 12 PM||Switzerland||Ecuador||Estádio Mané Garrincha, Brasília|
|June 15 | 3 PM||France||Honduras||Estádio Beira-Rio, Porto Alegre|
|June 20 | 3 PM||Switzerland||France||Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador|
|June 20 | 6 PM||Honduras||Ecuador||Arena da Baixada, Curitiba|
|June 25 | 4 PM||Honduras||Switzerland||Arena Amazônia, Manaus|
|June 25 | 4 PM||Ecuador||France||Estádio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro|
Karim Benzema, F, France: With Franck Ribery ruled out, Benzema (right) is now one of only five players on this France team with 30 caps or more of international experience, and will be counted on to lead the French attack in Brazil. He scored nearly a goal every other game in La Liga this year and contributed five goals in Real Madrid's triumphant run in the Champions League. A classic No. 9, he is known for his athleticism and lethal finishing inside the area, and will be a handful for any of the defenses he comes across.
Editor's note: Franck Ribery was originally named to France's squad and listed here instead of Benzema, but was ruled out of the World Cup through injury on June 6.
Xherdan Shaqiri, M, Switzerland: The 22-year-old found his presence on the field for Bayern Munich in the 2013-14 season curtailed due to minor injuries and Bayern’s sickeningly deep roster, to the point where he may push for a transfer. But that won’t keep the spotlight from falling squarely on the attacking midfielder in Brazil. He is a born playmaker who can threaten from any position on the field, deliver the killer ball, and has a mean shot from distance.
Antonio Valencia, M, Ecuador: Eight years on from emergence onto the world stage at age 20 in Germany 2006, Valencia now captains his country as they look stand tall on their own continent. A right winger blessed with outstanding pace and technique, Valencia will be key to stretching opposing defenses in a speedy attack opposite Jefferson Montero.
Maynor Figueroa, D, Honduras: Los Catrachos will have to lean heavily on their experienced defense to gain any sort of traction in Brazil, and few are more seasoned than Figueroa, who plays his club ball for Hull City in the English Premier League. The hard-nosed defender will likely feature at center back in Brazil alongside Víctor Bernárdez, who is more capable in the air.
THE NEXT BIG THING
French wide man Antoine Griezmann has managed to avoid the spotlight for most of his five-year professional career, but that is all but certain to change come this summer.
Having moved from France to Spain’s Real Sociedad at the age of 14, he debuted for the club in the Spanish second division four years ago and has since developed into one of the most feared attackers in La Liga not named Messi, Ronaldo or Costa.
The 23-year-old displays many of the typical characteristics of a winger – pace, close control, and incisive passing ability – but his upbringing in one of Spain’s most renowned youth systems, ability to drift inside unnoticed and lethal play in front of goal help make him so much more than that. He's fresh off a 16-goal haul in La Liga, and though he’s only played three times for Les Bleus, it's unlikely to deter Deschamps from unleashing him, especially after he scored his first international goal against Paraguay on June 1.
Ecuador and Honduras will be much more accustomed to playing in the sticky conditions than France and Switzerland, but perhaps just as valuable will be the South and Central American teams’ experience contrasted with the European teams’ young legs. Honduras lined up against the likes of Spain, Chile and Switzerland in the 2010 World Cup and return 10 players, including three quarters of the starting backline and their goalkeeper; Ecuador return five players from their 2006 World Cup squad.
What German-Americans are to the USMNT, Swiss-Albanians are to Switzerland. Five Swiss players, including Shaqiri (pictured right) and Xhaka, are from ethnic Albanian families who migrated to Switzerland from Albania and the former Yugoslavia either before they were born or while they were children. It’s no surprise, though – Switzerland has four official languages and features players of Bosnian, Croatian, Spanish/Chilean, Ivorian and Cape Verdean descent.
SIX DEGREES OF MLS
The Honduran side is chock full of MLS connections, with four players currently plying their trade in the league: Bernárdez (San Jose Earthquakes, pictured right), Boniek García (Houston Dynamo), Marvin Chávez (Chivas USA) and Bengtson (New England Revolution).
Additionally, winger Andy Najar came up through D.C. United’s academy system before being sold to Belgian club Anderlecht (and recently returned to RFK Stadium). Midfielder Roger Espinoza took a similar journey, drafted out of Ohio State by Kansas City in 2008 before moving to England’s Wigan Athletic in 2013.
There are no other MLS players in the group aside from Honduras, but Chivas USA midfielder Oswaldo Minda was initially named to Ecuador’s preliminary roster before missing out on the final cut.
Editor's note: Minda has since been named to Ecuador's squad as a late replacement for the injured Segundo Castillo. He could face Chivas USA teammate Chavez on June 20.
Ecuador and Honduras will find the conditions in Brazil more favorable than their European counterparts, but it won’t be enough to slow down the two young, talented teams from the other side of the Atlantic.