Group E: Czech Republic and USA
The real “Group of Death” at Germany 2006 turned out to be Group E, with all four teams still able to finish first or second going into their final matches.
As it turned out, the Czech Republic and the USA were the ones to bow out and were the two biggest casualties from the group stage, leaving Italy and African giant killers Ghana to progress.
The Czechs were ranked 2nd in the world by FIFA going into the tournament, but after they lost big target man Jan Koller through injury in the first half of their first match of the tournament things took a turn for the worse.
An early check out
Injuries and suspensions also played a part in the Czech demise, but great squads should able to work through those problems and although they looked like tournament favourites after their first up 3-0 win over USA, they didn’t live up to the hype and departed Germany two losses later.
In contrast, USA looked to be the biggest underachievers of the tournament after their loss to the Czechs, but they turned their tournament around admirably with a hard fought 1-1 draw with Italy and then a controversial 2-1 loss to Ghana.
Nothing can console a squad after bowing out in the first round, especially without a win, but coach Bruce Arena can be proud of his players for showing true grit and fighting all the way to the end.
Group F: Croatia and Japan
Outside the World Champions, Group F was a tightly fought contest with Australia, Croatia and Japan all still a chance for second spot going into their final matches.
In the end it was the Socceroos’ 3-1 come from behind win over Japan that was the difference, with the other two fixtures between the three teams both ending in draws.
The Croatians just don’t want to
The purists of the game would have picked Croatia to progress along with Brazil, as they finished undefeated in European qualifying atop a group that included Sweden, Bulgaria and Hungary.
Zlatko Kranjcar’s team looked the goods against Brazil in their first match, sticking it to the World Champs and only going down 1-0, however like the Czech Republic that was their best effort of the tournament as they went on to draw 0-0 with Japan and 2-2 against Australia to bow out without a win.
The Asian Champions weren’t without a chance going into the tournament, however many predicted that a first up win against Australia was required for the Blues to go any further, and although they led 1-0 up until the 84th minute, 3 goals in 8 minutes from the Socceroos broke the hearts and spirit of the Japanese.
Group G: South Korea and Togo
Group G was also a close contest, apart from Togo whose off field antics were enough to warn any gambler or tipster to stay well away from the African debutants.
The Sparrow Hawks started the tournament well, leading South Korea 1-0 at halftime before capitulating to lose their maiden World Cup Finals match 2-1 in what was a sign of things to come for the rest of the Cup.
South Korea can’t believe they’re
2-0 losses to Switzerland and France would seal Togo’s fate, but really with Coach Otto Pfister walking out on the eve of the tournament only to return on the eve of their first match, along with the long running pay dispute and player disquiet, the writing was on the wall for the Hawks long before a ball was kicked in anger.
The South Koreans had their destiny in their own hands going into their last match, and needed to defeat Switzerland to ensure their qualification for the second round.
However the Taeguk Warriors will be bitterly disappointed with themselves after coming from behind to beat Togo and stealing a draw against France, only to lose 2-0 to the Swiss, thus letting down millions of frenzied fans back home.
Group H: Tunisia and Saudi Arabia
The final grouping, that of Group H was also one where two teams were immediately singled out to progress, being the two European teams Spain and Ukraine, leaving Saudi Arabia and Tunisia as the final two non-advancing teams.
The Saudi Arabians have now not won a World Cup Finals match in their last six starts, drawing one and losing five, scoring just two goals in the process and conceding 19.
Another goal, another early exit
Coach Marcos Paqueta was seconds away from taking the Saudis to a memorable victory over Tunisia, only for it to be snatched away in a 2-2 stoppage time draw.
Tunisia won their first ever World Cup Finals match when they defeated Mexico 3-1 back in 1978.
Since then, the North African nation have not won a World Cup Finals match in the 11 that they have contested and only just scraped a draw this time around, against Saudi Arabia after leading 1-0.
It was a tough draw for both Arab nations in Group H, but with a Ukraine team stuttering on debut, the chance was there for rare glory.