By now, you’ve probably heard of a little something starting Thursday, June 12th at 4PM EST called the World Cup. Here’s what you need to know:
The World Cup is hosted every four years, with Brazil acting as the host nation this time around, the 20th World Cup staged. Without question, the World Cup is the biggest, most anticipated sporting event ever. The World Cup dwarfs every single sporting event out there: the Olympics are fun, full of pomp and pageant, but unless you’ve got a hard-on for track-and-field or figure skating, chances are people watch just for the sake of watching. The Super Bowl, until recently, has been swallowed whole by hype and commercialism – more often than note, the game itself is a sidenote to the circus-like atmosphere before and during the game. March Madness may come close, but it’s an extremely far close. The World Cup is a completely different beast of sorts. It’s the only event that truly brings people from different ethnic and national backgrounds together. Daily occurences literally grind to a halt, as people gather in pubs and bistros and public parks to watch the matches – it’s no surprise that productivity declines during the one-month duration of the World Cup, and, frankly, no one really seems to mind.
This isn’t just some tournament that the soccer haters love dismissing (and if you come across one of the haters who complains about how boring the game is (kick ’em in the crotch. With a cleat, if possible), but a full-scale transcendental experience. I mean, when was the last time the Super Bowl prevented a civil war? True story: when Ivory Coast qualified for their first World Cup in 2006, their star player Didier Drogba dared his people to lay down their arms and give up the bloody civil war that tore his nation apart for decades. And his people did heed his call and finally ended their long civil war. Yes, football can be a catalyst for peace.
Anyway, the 32 teams in the tournament play for this lovely trophy.
Kinda ugly, ain’t it? Sorta like some goof of a sculpture that some mad Danish sculptor slapped together and called it “art” and is now fetching thousands of bucks at a SoHo gallery. Yeah, it’s ugly. But it’s the most coveted trophy in the sporting world.
Each of the 32 teams in the World Cup are split into 8 groups of 4 teams, Groups A through H.
You may have noticed a skull and crossbones, with the words “Group of Death” written on the Group G panel. Every World Cup always features a Group of Death, in which three highly-ranked teams are placed in the same group, but only two can progress out of the Group Stage. For the USA, this is both a sign of respect and a giant fuck you. Respect in that they’re rated highly enough not to be considered pushovers against the likes of Germany or Portugal. But a fuck you in that they’re placed in the same group with Germany and Portugal and their own personal bogeymen, Ghana, who have eliminated the US from the last two World Cups. To make matters worse, the US will travel nearly 9,000 miles across Brazil’s jungles to play their three group stage matches. Fuck this…Katniss Everdeen had it easy; this is the real Hunger Games.
There are actually three Groups of Death in this World Cup: the aforementioned Group G, but also Group B – Spain, the reigning champions, the Netherlands, and Chile are three top-tier teams – and Group D, which features three former World Cup champions – Uruguay (1930, 1950), Italy (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006), and England (1966).
The top two teams in each group advance to the knockout rounds, essential a win-or-go-home process, until a winner is crowned. Here’s where the drama really takes place; the knockout rounds have produced some great moments of drama, upsets, and controversy. Because these games are do-or-die, several will end up being decided by penalty kicks. Basically, each team sends one player to convert a penalty kick; the team that converts the most kicks wins the match. This may seem strange to those who don’t follow football, but the penalty shootout is a nerve-wracking, heart-stopping, and completely cruel process that tests the nerve, mettle and skill of both the penalty taker and the goalkeeper whose job it is to stop that kick from going into the goal. As a note of worth, some nations, like Italy and Germany, do well in the penalty shootouts; England, on the other hand…
The tournament runs June 12th (with host Brazil facing off against Croatia) to July 13th, when the final is played at the Maracana in Rio. This World Cup promises to be exciting and intriguing. The World Cup returns to Brazil, the spiritual home of soccer, amidst turmoil. Civil unrest, protests, and strikes will continue to serve as an all-too-real backdrop against the action taking place inside the stadiums. No nation embodies the passion for the sport as much as Brazil does – soccer is literally religion throughout the nation, its players the apostles preaching the gospel to enthralled choirs throughout the globe – but the people are nonetheless angry at the billions of dollars spent by the Brazilian government – some estimates claim as much as 50 BILLION! – money which the people fell, rightfully, should have been spent on building more schools, more hospitals, and improving social programs and current infrastructure. While the protests don’t necessarily have everything to do with the World Cup and all the money invested in it, the fact that an egregious amount has been spent, and very little invested by FIFA, the sport’s governing body, is almost the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Regardless, once the matches begin, all of Brazil’s eyes will be on La Seleccao and the tournament itself.
Much has also been made about whether or not Brazil was actually ready to host the World Cup. Two of the stadiums planned had to be scratched because they could not be completed on time, and there are worries that several others are not 100% fully operational. Just yesterday pictures were released of the pitch at the stadium in Manaus, in the Amazon jungle. Frankly, its in a horrible condition, and groundskeepers are said to be working around the clock to get it to match condition. A lot will be written and said about Brazil’s World Cup readiness; the team is ready, but the host nation may not be. Expect delays and the occassional snafu.
Here now is what you need to know about a handful of the 32 teams chasing the coveted World Cup trophy:
The 2 Teams With the Best Chance to Win The Whole Shebang:
Brazil – Brazil is to football what the Yankees are to baseball: the standard bearers. Brazil’s won the WC a record 5 times, and all signs point to Brazil winning a 6th. La Seleccao is doubly motivated to win: they want to win at home, and they want to exorcise the ghosts of 1950, the last time they hosted the World Cup, and lost in the final. It’s a psychic wound they’ve never seemed to have gotten over. Young starlet Neymar leads the charge, and much is being asked of him. It’s as if the entire weight of the world is on his slim shoulders, but he’s embraced that burden. Whether Brazil, with their youth and talent, can overcome their inexperience is what’s being asked of them.
Argentina – The one team Brazil fears the most. Bearing the most fearsome attack in the game, Sergio Aguero, Angel DiMaria, and Gonzalo Higuain define lethal, carving up defenses and scoring almost at will. And then there’s Lionel Messi, the game’s best player. He’s won every major personal award, and won countless trophy with his club, Barcelona, but a World Cup is the elusive trophy. Messi’s already considered one of the greatest to ever play; should Argentina win, and Messi enjoy a terrific tournament, it would be difficult to not consider him the best ever. A showdown in the final versus Brazil looms, which is perhaps what FIFA, and anyone who loves the game, would want.
Three That Can (But Won’t) Win the World Cup:
Spain – The reigning World Champions and defending two-time European Champions haven’t lost a major tournament in 6 years. La Furia can make the claim to being the Greatest Team Ever. But they’re older, and the fear is most teams have finally figured out how to defend their tiki-taka offense (essentially, possession-based, short-passing, death-by-a-thousand-papercuts ball movement). Still, there’s much to be said about experience, and no team is as experienced as Spain. Many of their stars – Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, Diego Costa – are back and ready to make a long run. The question for them: no European team has ever won a World Cup hosted in the Americas; will Spain break that hex this time around?
Germany – There’s an oft-repeated quote from legendary England striker Gary Lineker: “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” It’s almost become a cliche that the Germans will always find a way to win. It’s in their DNA: grind it out until the final whistle blows. Die Mannschaft in recent years has eschewed the methodical, organized, highly disciplined approach for a more open, free-flowing football, and the results have been, shall we say, a little mixed. Yes, they’re highly entertaining, and Germany will always advance deep into any tournament, but they haven’t won a World Cup since 1990, and some questions about injuries to key players – Manuel Neuer, Phillip Lahm, and Bastian Schweinsteiger are all nursing some serious injuries – and some unexpected defensive frailties leave many to wonder if this will be their year. All signs aren’t pointing to yes. Then again, the Germans have proven us wrong before.
Italy – What to expect from Italy has been precisely the same thing to expect from Italy for nearly a century now: a steel-trap tight defensive foundation, beautiful passing, and lots of counterattacking football. The Azzurri is notorious for getting off to slow starts, then finding a lethal rhythm come the knockout stages. However, they’re paired with Uruguay and England in the group stage, and getting out of the group isn’t a guarantee. If they can keep both Uruguay and England off the scoreboard and let silky-smooth playmaking assassin Andrea Pirlo and striker Mario Balotelli (who, depending on the day, can either play like he’s the best player in the world, or look lethargic and distracted, and sometimes both in the same match) do their thing, Italy will go far. If.
The Dark Horses, or: They’re Not Really Much of a Surprise, But It’ll Surprise Everyone If They Win the Whole Damn Thing:
Belgium – You can’t be a dark horse anymore if everyone’s expecting a huge result out of you. But that’s where Belgium is at right now. For years a footballing remote outpost, the Red Devils have emerged with an abundance of talent – Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku, and Marouanne Fellaini all play at the highest levels for some of the biggest club – and have been playing lights-out football for the past couple of years. They’r primed to make a deep run through the tournament, but the question remains: how will they fare when they’re being challenged? We shall see.
Uruguay – Uruguay love to make things difficult on themselves: they had, for all intents and purposes, a horrible qualifying run, and only made it to the World Cup by walloping Jordan in a two-leg playoff. But Uruguay play best when their backs are against the wall. Right now, they’re heavy favorites, led by
racist cannibal the fearsome and electrifying Luis Suarez, and the equally dangerous Edison Cavani. La Celeste can score in bunches, that’s for sure. All is riding on Suarez’s recenty repaired knee, but knowing how gargantuanly competitive he is, he’ll be ready, and so will Uruguay.
Chile – Playstation-style football. Chile reminds you of one of those run-and-gun college basketball teams, the kind that run up the scoreboard and chuck up 50 three-point attempts a game. Chile plays one way: all out. They’re going to live by the sword, and die by it. But, dear God, this team is so much fun to watch. However, superstar midfielder Arturo Vidal is out for the first match (although it’s against Australia, and they’re practically creampuffs – sorry, Aussies!), and whether he’ll be ready for the second, crucial match against Spain remains to be seen. They’ll advance out of the group, but not much further than that.
England – The words “entertaining” and “England” often never go hand in hand. But the Three Lions have ditched the plodding, long-ball approach and embraced the fast-paced, physical game currently employed in the English Premier League. The result: England’s fate is in the hands of the kind of young talent that would make any hardened coach drool. Manager Roy Hodgson has turned this time over to youngsters like Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana, and Ross Barkley, creating some tempered excitement around this team. But the knock on England is they always find a way to fail spectacularly. England may or may not make it out of the group stage, but come 2018, when the next World Cup is held in Russia, England may very well be dominant. Or not.
Portugal – If any team during this World Cup embodies the notion of one superstar and a supporting cast, it’s Portugal. Take Cristiano Ronaldo, two-time Ballon d’Or winner and mega-superstar, out of the picture, and Portugal doesn’t qualify for the World Cup. Ronaldo’s nursuing a right knee injury, but he’s been cleared to play. And as long as he’s on the pitch, Portugal remain a big threat, with Ronaldo terrorizing defensives down the right wing.
France – Les Bleus were the embarassment of 2010, imploding spectacularly on and off the pitch. They can only be better this time around, so expectations are much higher for this World Cup. Even without star midfielder Franck Ribery, who’s been ruled out of the tournament due to injury, France is still loaded with talent, like Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud, and Paul Pogba, who’s primed to make a big splash in Brazil.
USA – OK, let’s face it: Jurgen Klinsmann’s comments about the USA not winning the World Cup comes as a surprise to no one, except idiots like Michael Wilbom. Yes, they’re placed in one of the Groups of Death, and getting out of that group will be a huge measure of success for this team. Bear this in mind: this is the strongest US team that’s ever appeared in a World Cup, but to lose to Germany and Portugal is nothing to be ashamed of. They may be able to get some positive results and surprise, but, honestly, Klinsmann’s building this team for the next World Cup. He’s stockpiled it full of young, hungry talent that may be raw right now, but four years from now, they will be a major force to be reckoned with and will do so serious damage in Russia. You read it here.
GROUP STAGES (in order)
GROUP A: Brazil, Croatia
GROUP B: Spain, Chile
GROUP C: Colombia, Ivory Coast
GROUP D: Uruguay, England
GROUP E: France, Switzerland
GROUP F: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina
GROUP G: Germany, Portugal
GROUP H: Belgium, Russia
KNOCKOUT STAGES (Win and advance, lose and go home…)
SECOND ROUND OF 16
Brazil def. Chile
Spain def. Croatia
England def. Colombia
Uruguay def. Ivory Coast
France def. Bosnia-Herzegovina
Argentina def. Switzerland
Germany def. Russia
Portugal def. Belgium
Brazil def. England
Spain def. Uruguay
Germany def. France
Argentina def. Portugal
Brazil def. Germany
Argentina def. Spain
Spain def. Germany
Argentina def. Brazil
(I reserve the right to be spectacularly wrong about my predictions…)