By Mike Klein
With the few non-artificial snowflakes of Vancouver 2010 having long since melted, it’s time to look at this year’s really most-important sporting event, the football World Cup beginning this month in South Africa.
The World Cup is a one-sport Super Olympics, eclipsing the O-Games’ disciplinary breadth with its unparalleled fan fervor and journalistic over-analysis, and the economic paralysis caused by the billions of people worldwide who will drop their tools for the duration of its 62 matches. Anyone who’s tried to hail a cab or buy a meal in any European or South American city when the national team is playing knows exactly what I mean.
I first became a football fan in 1982 in my native Chicago; I call the sport “football” because I now live in Europe and prefer to avoid the mockery associated with the use of the word “soccer” there. (When I lapse and call it “soccer,” the response is “saaahhhccer…that’s a girl’s game, isn’t it?” offered back in a flat, fake-American accent.)
Football wasn’t easy to see in Chicago circa ‘82—the World Cup was offered only in tape delay on a newly minted, Spanish-language UHF station with dismal reception. I didn’t have to wrap the antenna in foil but I did have to stay up until 2 a.m. to watch the likes of Irlanda del Norte and Corea del Sud. I vividly remember Italy’s Paolo Rossi, who was the event’s best player, and Argentina’s Jorge Burruchaga, who had the best name. (Forget about “goooooooooool!” Try“Buuuuuurrrrrrrrruuuuuuuuchaaagaaa!”)
I watched that World Cup on the basis of a Chicago Tribune sportswriter’s recommendation, following the U.S.’s biggest-ever international sports victory, the ice-hockey win over the USSR at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Wrote he: “Did you like the U.S.-USSR hockey game? Well, the World Cup is just like that. Every match.” I couldn’t pass on that. Still can’t.
In this World Cup, the U.S. will open its play with a potential “Herb Brooks moment” against England, a perennial power in the sport. (Brooks, for the uninitiated or non-American, was the coach of the Commie-beating hockey team of ‘80). The England match will be the U.S.’s first in its four-nation, round-robin group, the other two members being Slovenia and Algeria.
While most commentators think the U.S. will lose to England and beat Slovenia and Algeria, group play is extremely hard to predict. Part of this has to do with expectations; in countries where football is the only sport that matters, the main goal is to out-perform them, which usually means reaching the 16-team, single-elimination round. In 2002, Ireland came home to a parade for making the round of 16, while higher-touted England made the quarterfinals and returned to a sequestered section of an out-of-the way airfield.
This drives tactics. Underdog teams (i.e., most of the 32 in the field) typically play defensively, hoping to keep things close enough to luck out a low-scoring tie or victory. Sometimes it works: Greece, which is in the current field, managed to win the 2004 European Championships with an entirely defensive approach, conjuring up just enough goals to move through the tournament. Its example is not lost on other teams, particularly America’s group rival Slovenia, which has a similar roster makeup.
This World Cup won’t be all defense; there will be some spectacular players, the kind that people watch the sport to see. Brazil, as usual, reloads rather than rebuilds, and one could make up a viable Cup contender from the players it’s leaving behind. One such is the former World Player of the Year Ronaldinho, who didn’t merit a spot on its bench.
England’s Wayne Rooney, still nursing a dodgy ankle, is expected to be ready to contend for the “Golden Boot,” the award for most goals scored in a tournament, along with Argentina’s Lionel Messi, whose club team is Barcelona, and Ivory Coast and Chelsea’s Didier Drogba.
Little is expected of host South Africa, particularly after a deal to have Matt Damon come in and captain its team was scrubbed after Damon kept picking up the ball and running with it. Still, in a lackluster group with Uruguay, Mexico and long-in-tooth France, it could make the next round.
Here are a few other predictions:
1) U.S. Draws With England, Then Slips Against the Slovenes
Even in its dismal 2006 Cup showing the U.S. managed a draw against eventual-champion Italy. In a similar vein, the U.S. will do what it takes to get a point from England in their first match, shocking the American public. However, post-draw euphoria will be short-lived as tough, defensive-minded Slovenia grinds out a one-nil upset, sending the U.S. into an all-or-nothing match against Algeria, with Algeria carrying the vociferous support of the Arab and Muslim worlds.
2) D = Death
My vote for most competitive group is Group D, comprising Germany, Serbia, Ghana and Australia. While the Germans are favorited, they are a beatable side. Ghana is one of the best African teams and will have strong home-continent support, and the Serbians never have been known to lack fighting spirit. Further, Australia is a real wild card—indeed, one of the more interesting pre-tournament exhibition matches will be between Australia and the U.S.
3)The New Zealand All-Whites Will Become the Surprise Package
Australia’s defection to Asia for qualifying left New Zealand as the remaining “power” in the Oceania group, even though New Zealand had to go into a playoff with Bahrain for the last position on the World Cup table. Success in the playoff has the country in a frenzy for the “All-Whites” (in chromatic contrast to the country’s long-time rugby stalwarts, the All-Blacks), and an agreeable pairing with Slovakia and Paraguay, along with defending-champ Italy, puts NZ within a couple of good results of the second round.
Not an adventurous projection, I know, but there’s simply no one out there with the talent or consistency to be seen as a credible challenger to the Samba Kings. Of the 18 World Cups contested since 1930, Brazil has won five, and unless the unexpected occurs (and I hope it does), on July 11 it’ll win No. 6, beating Spain in the final.