BY MIKE KLEIN
In assessing the world’s take on the World Cup, the once-every-four-years football* festival that reconvenes June 12 in Brazil, the words of Bill Shankly, a Scotsman and long-passed manager of the Liverpool football club, are apt. “Football isn’t a matter of life and death,” he said. “It’s more important than that.” (*I use the term “football” instead of “soccer” because to do otherwise would mark me as a lightweight in these matters.)
With that, a few observations:
As an expat American living on KLM flights between Amsterdam and Copenhangen, nothing would warm my heart more than an unexpected strong World Cup performance by the land of my birth. The reason is simple. During the year, when I am involved in football-related banter, I invariably am mocked for my accent and origin and asked about the prospects of the “San Diego Patriots.” A good run by the U.S. men’s national team, better known to its Twitter supporters by the hashtag #USMNT, would alleviate my sense of disconnect and humiliation better than citing my adult-onset British passport as my right of entry into such conversations.
Unfortunately for me and “muh fellow Uhmericans,” legitimacy likely will elude us for another four years. That is because, following its first match against Ghana in the city of Natal, the #USMNT faces post-Natal depression with successive matches against superstar-heavy Portugal and powerhouse Germany while racking up the tournament’s highest number of frequent-flyer miles, making unlikely the prospect of its being one of the two teams that will advance from its group of four. A lack of stardust should breed caution among Yank partisans, with “star striker” (forward) Jozy Altidore having commanded mostly bench time at the club team, England’s lowly Sunderland. Nearly half of the American players ply their trade in the domestic Major League Soccer (MLS). It long has been said that “Brazil is the country of the future…and always will be.” The same can be said for the MLS, and the Yanks appear to be outgunned.
Despite 18 years of abject mediocrity, supporters think England’s questionable, one-goal home victory in then1966 World Cup final should earn the game’s birthplace an automatic berth in each Cup championship match, or at least automatic consideration as a top contender. But this year’s crew, while coached by the competent Roy Hodgson, lacks spark other than the perennially fearsome Wayne Rooney. Italy and Uruguay will contend with Enger-Lind (as Blighty is called by its throng of lager-fueled enthusiasts) for the two next-round places in Group D. Costa Rica seems the most-likely win for Hodgson’s crew.
A SWARM OF B’s
As I see it, the tournament’s three most interesting teams are Brazil, Belgium and Bosnia.
Brazil always is interesting because it reloads rather than rebuilds, having access to an infinite talent pipeline, and even the mockery that’s likely to fail on the nation for staging the event in mostly half-built stadiums shouldn’t deter enthusiasm once the samba gang takes the pitch. Veteran coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is back on the sidelines, guiding the usual plethora of fast, inventive players. The country’s second team could beat most countries’ varsities.
Belgium is an outside contender, enthusiasm in “de Hart van
Europa/la Coeur de l’Europe” being tempered by uninspiring results following the brilliant qualifying campaign that earned the Diables Rouges/Rode Duivels their first Cup berth since 2002. Belgium is long on stars, with defender Vincent Kompany the brightest.
Striker Edin Dzeko, Kompany’s teammate on the club-team Manchester City, the English Premier League champion, anchors Bosnia, the only country making its World Cup debut. While the lineup is think after Dzeko, the team has considerable public sympathy following its recent floods and a war, which while more than 20 years past is still in the front of many minds. I hope Bosnia’s tournament run will create a positive vibe for a misunderstood country that is one of Europe’s most attractive and interesting destinations.
NO TO THE NORDICS
A notable absence from this yrear’s Cup field will be the Nordic countries, fixtures in past events. Thanks to their teams’ failure to qualify talents like Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Denmark’s Christian Eriksen will be watching on their flat screens, with their horn-helmeted countrymen left to weep in their overpriced Carlsberg beers. Their color will be missed.
My longtime favorite international team is Holland, mainly because I found the players’ accents spellbinding when I started paying attention to the Cup in the 1980s, well before #USMNT started participating regularly. Expectations of this year’s squad are low, but top-shelf coach Louis van Gaal has a record of wringing the most from his available talent. Oranje’s first test will be a rematch of last year’s Cup-final defeat by Spain. That likely will set Holland’s tone for the rest of its campaign, although its remaining matches against weak Australia and Chile should mean a decent shot at the next round.
THE BELMONT (me again)—Don’t get carried away by California Chrome’s bid for the Triple Crown, which is scheduled to conclude Saturday (June 7) with the Belmont Stakes in New York. Since Affirmed last accomplished the triple in 1978, 12 colts have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to fail in the finale. Besides the race’s length of 1 ½ miles—a distance longer than 99% of American race horses ever run—CC will be facing fresher foes on a track over which he’s never raced. At likely odds around even money he’ll be a tough bet despite his ability.
As far as I’m concerned, the sooner racing dumps the Triple Crown format the better. Horse today are a fragile lot, neither bred nor trained to contest three long, hard races in a five-week period, and even trying them puts an animal’s career in jeopardy. I’ll be happy if CC completes the run unscathed.