The Idiot and Non-Idiot's Guide to the 2010 FIFA World Cup
By now, you've probably heard of a little something starting tomorrow at 10AM EST called the World Cup. Here's what you need to know:
The World Cup is hosted every four years, with South Aftica acting as the host nation this time around. As such, this is the first time the World Cup is being hosted on African soil, which, obviously, is a huge source of pride for the entire continent. 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.
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...
And speaking of England, you have had heard that England will be playing the USA on Saturday. Logic dictates that England, fielding perhaps their finest team ever (more on that later as well) should beat the US, but I'd like to remind our former colonial overlords that we beat your asses in 1783, beat 'em again in 1815, and once more in 1950, so keep up the trash talk, Limeys, because we're fixing on spanking your asses all over the pitch again. America! FUCK YEAH!!!
Here now is what you need to know about a handful of the 32 teams chasing the coveted World Cup trophy:
The 2 Teams Everyone's Picking 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. But I hate Brazil with the passion of a thousand exploding suns (what can I say, I'm the son of Argentines, and we're taught to hate the Brazilians with their pansy-assed yellow jerseys and their pretty but selfish football), and nothing would please me more than to see them lose at any stage of the event. Plus, this current squad, even with thoroughbreds like Kaka, Luis Fabiano, Robinho, Daniel Alves, etc., is eschewing free-flowing, individual football for a more team-oriented, defense-first style, which is like the Yankees forgoing the long ball and playing hit-and-run ball...either way, this new style, while shedding positive results, runs counter to the Brazilian style, and that might cost them. They won't win this year, bank on it.
Spain - The best team in the world right now wasn't always the best. In fact, Spain has been the most notorious bunch of underachievers the game has ever seen. It seems like when Spain is in the thick of things at the World Cup, their thoughts move away from the pitch and onto filling their bellies with paella and vino tinto under the Iberian sun. But that won't happen this time around; even if superstar striker Fernando Torres isn't 100%, they still boast a superb attack spearhead by the best midfield duo alive in Xavi and Andres Iniesta, plus another super striker up front in David Villa. 2010 may be the year La Furia Roja finally wins it all.
The 5 Teams That Have Good to Excellent Chances of Winning, Or: It Shouldn't Come As Any Surprise if They Win or Don't Win it All:
Germany - There's a long-standing cliche about the Germans, how they're efficient, well-organized, and tenacious. That cliche stems from the truth: no matter the score, Germany never quits until the final whistle is blown, and if you've got a lead against the Germans late in the game, you better make damn sure you put 'em away. Just ask France. Or England. Or Argentina. This time around, Germany's got a ton of injuries to bear, the biggest being to team captain Michael Ballack. But Ballack's understudy Mesut Ozul is ready to assume his place, and strikers Miroslav Klose and Lucas Podolski give every defensive line they've faced nightmares. Regardless of the injuries, Germany will always be Germany on the pitch, and they'll find a way to get past their inefficiencies and earn a hard-fought victory. They're the anti-Brazil, not flashy, but they get results.
Italy - Winners of the last World Cup, Italy comes into this World Cup as an aging team; their average age is 32, which is ancient in football years. They're boosted by lucking out in the group draw, matched against opponents they shouldn't have a hard time with, but, yes, age is a huge negative, and against a faster-paced squad, even their vaunted tactical superiority may be put to a test they'll likely fail. Still, there's a ton of talent and experience, and with the excellent goalkeeper Gianluca Buffon minding the net, Italy could prove the naysayers wrong.
Argentina - This will be the most talked-about and scrutinized team coming into the tournament. They boast the best player in the world in Lionel Messi, an embarassment of riches in the forward position with Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Diego Milito, and Sergio Aguero, and a solid midfield core in Javier Mascherano, Juan Veron, and Angel di Maria. So what's the problem? Diego Maradona's the problem, that's who. The man many consider to be the best player ever (myself included, no surprise) has proven to be comically and heartburn-inducing inept at coaching, and his off-pitch antics (which include diva-like demands, running over the leg of a reporter and insulting said reporting in the process, and crudely requesting the media to "blow him and keep blowing him") has proven embarassing, as Argentina barely qualified for the World Cup. But being the mad genius he is, his antics may actually help Argentina; by keeping the media's attention off the team, Messi could further assert his current state as the game's best, spurring Argentina deep into the tourament.
England - This will be the second-most talked-about and scrutinized team coming into the tournament. England are like the Boston Red Sox, before they finally won the World Series in 2004. Every time England comes into the tournament, the pundits will declare this to be the best team the Three Lions have ever fielded, and like those miserable failure Red Sox, England finds thrilling and exciting ways to fail at the World Cup. The Sox had Game Six; England has the quarterfinals against Germany in 1990. All kidding aside, this is a terrific team, and, yes, it's the best team England has ever fielded, but it comes at a price; key defensive specialist Rio Ferdinand is out of the tournament, Ashley Cole may not be at 100%, and their goalkeeping situation (Joe Hart vs. Robert Green?) hasn't been solidified yet, but solid veteran savvy from Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard says a lot, and world-class striker Wayne Rooney (who looks like a hooligan, and has the mouth and temper of one) pretty much scares the shit out of anyone; his tenacity is perhaps second to none. Plus, manager Fabio Capello has instilled a team-first attitude, and he's got further incentive to win it all; he would be the first foreign-born coach to lead a team to WC victory.
Netherlands - On paper, the Orange may very well have the best team, with just the right mix of talent and experience to finally capture their first title; Holland plays "Total Football", an attack-oriented game in which all players are equally involved in running the offense, and it's a gorgeous, attractive style, much like the Brazilian way. BUT...the Dutch are a bunch of cockblockers, always showing the goods, but never going all the way. Plus, their team chemistry, like it's always been, is awful: already, Rob van Persie is publically questioning why Dirk Kuyt is even on the team, and Wesley Sneijder pretty much hates van Persie. Additionally, their best player, Arjen Robben, is injury-prone, so guess what? He's going to miss their first match. If they can learn to get along, they'll go all the way, but the Netherlands have always seemed to be allergic to winning. Really. They're almost all OCD about needed to be lovable losers.
The Dark Horses Who Might Pull Off a Shock or Two (Or, Oops! Pow! Surprise!):
Ivory Coast - How far the The Elephants will go all depends on the aforementioned Didier Drogba, who suffered a broken arm last weekend during a friendly match. If Drogba is medically cleared to play, he'll provide a big boost to his team. If he's unable to go, Ivory Coast may find it difficult to advance past their group. On the flip side, they're often underachieved on the international side (they flopped miserably during last January's African Cup), and they're now managed by Sven-Goran Erickson, who may be the most overrated coach in history. Why this man is still finding employment as a manager is beyond me.
Portugal - To be honest, this is a drab and boring team, and key players such as Nani and Jose Bosingwa have been ruled out of the World Cup, but Portugal boasts perhaps the 2nd-best player in the game in Cristiano Ronaldo - you may have seen him preening on the cover of Vanity Fair lately - and that has to count for something. Ronaldo's got that rare ability to take a game by the balls, but the knock on him is, the bigger the game, the more he's prone to wilt under the pressure. But Cristiano Ronaldo comes into the World Cup with something to prove, and that may be enough to take Portugal far. I said may be.
USA - the US National Team has put together their strongest team yet, and there's no reason, baring injuries or lackluster play, why they can't progress far in the tournament. Several of their star players, such as Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and Jozy Altidore, have plied their trade overseas, so they've earned much-needed international experience. The problem is USA can be maddeningly inconsistent; the key to a successful run is to minimize their inconsistencies and actually bring the game to their opponents. They'll advance out of the group stages, and it's a good possibility they may advance far enough. So get behind 'em, people. America...FUCK YEAH!!!
Serbia - The darling dark horses right now. They're well-coached by former national team and Real Madrid star Radovic Antic, possess a strong wing attack, and they're anchored defensively by the bad-assed Nemanja Vidic - who's the subject of one of the best chants around - and the equally tough Branislav Ivanovic. Seriously, have you seen Vidic? He looks like he's rolled with some Serbian ass-kickers who've probably thumped a man or twelve. Having said this, Serbia looks like they may progress far in the tournament, or at least leave a few bodies in their wake.
France - Right now, there is no team more hated (especially by the entire nation of Ireland) more than France. Why? Because, a) they cheated their way into the World Cup, at the expense of Ireland, B) their coach, Raymond Domenech, is a complete clusterfuck of a manager, who'd rather consult tarot cards than his coaching staff with regards to tactics and lineups, and C) there's the not-so-little matter of star player Franck Ribery involved in a teenage prostitution scandal. They're on this short list because, well, they're France, but right now, they're such a mess that it's more likely they'll lose 2 or even all 3 of their group matches and head home in shame. But, then again, the French are always good at confounding expectations.
Chile - Want to see a team play the equivalent of a fast-break, shoot-at-will, breakneck-speed game? Then Chile's your team. They might give up a few goals, since coach Marcelo Bielso (aka "El Loco") prefers to play 3 defenders back, as opposed to 4, but their attack-attack-attack style promotes a lot of scoring chances, and goals, of course. They're the antidote for the haters who say football is boring: Chile is NEVER boring.
Uruguay - Most people, even those who follow football, don't remember that it was Uruguay who won the first World Cup, back in 1930, and in their home soil, nonetheless. They followed this with another victory in Brazil, against Brazil, in 1950. Since then...not much. This time around, their front two of strikers Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez will certainly get their scoring chances, but defensively they're a shambles. It's very likely they'll get out of their group, but not very far in the knockout stages.
South Africa - I'm only adding the host nation because of this very crucial factoid: no team that has hosted the World Cup has failed to advance out of the Group stages. Though the Bafana Bafana don't necessarily have the talent, they've got the hopes and dreams of a home country to carry them. Chances are they may not advance out of Group A, but, then again, no one thought the US would advance out of their group when they hosted the World Cup in 1994.
THIRD PLACE: Argentina
FOURTH PLACE: England
So there you have it. Starting tomorrow at 10AM EST, the insanity begins. Don't be shy, check it out. And I'll certainly keep you abreast of what's going on in future entries.