Friday, June 11, 2010
W is for the World Cup
When I was a kid, I didn’t believe in soccer. I thought it was a game that we sometimes played at school, and while it was it fun enough, it was just a temporary diversion from the real sports we played.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned the truth. I learned the truth about soccer around the same time that I realized there is a difference between patriotism and xenophobia, America isn’t the center of the universe, the government is filled with crooks, and my television set doesn’t really care about my well-being. It came as quite a blow.
What am I getting at? I’ll be blunt: Americans have been deceived. Not only does soccer exist, and not only is soccer a real sport, it’s THE sport. (Now, I’m not saying it has to be YOUR sport, but it is without question the world’s favorite sport.) Despite the smear campaign against soccer that has been put on by American sports media since forever, soccer is the game that the rest of the world reveres the way Americans revere basketball, football, and baseball . . . combined.
And it’s not just because they’re “all a bunch of stupid foreigners.” Trust me. I used to think that too (By the way, foreigners think our disliking of soccer is proof that we are hillbillies. . . . Oh, the misperceptions). It took me years to clean out of my head the hate ingrained in me by my culture and to accept that soccer is really, really cool. And the World Cup? It is nothing short of the best sports tournament in the world. So, to help all my readers who know little about soccer or the World Cup, I have made a list of ten things to know going into this year’s tournament.
1) Everything I just typed is true. Soccer is cool, and the World Cup is the best sports tournament in the world. Let that sink in for minute. . . . Are you letting it sink in? . . . Okay, let’s move on.
2) Like all sporting events, it’s only fun if you care. There is no better way to care than to realize that to most of the countries involved these games are way more important than the Olympics. For all the reasons we love the Olympics, we should really love the World Cup. These games literally impact international relations (more on that in a bit). And if nothing else, keep in mind that these nations take the results of every game very seriously. Many foreigners don’t call soccer “THE sport,” they call it “everything.” Sad but true.
3) The best (and usually most exciting) team in the world is Brazil. They play soccer the way the Harlem Globetrotters play basketball, and they have won more Cups than anyone. However, this year they are playing a more defensive style, which is making their country irate.
4) If you’re betting on the Cup, it is usually a safe assumption to assume that Brazil and Germany will go far. Since 1950, either (or both) team has been in the final of every World Cup except two. And those two times, one of them took third. This year, Germany doesn’t look as solid, but that hasn’t mattered in the past . . .
5) The best teams to have never won it: Netherlands and Spain. Netherlands is notorious for being super-talented and then underachieving in the tournament (having failed in two finals). Spain is a favorite this year alongside Brazil.
6) Even though England has won it (1966), they act like they are the most cursed team in the world. Their famously over-excitable media goes nuts during the World Cup. While England has a great team this year, they always expect to blow it in the big games. Think city of Cleveland multiplied by ten. Preparing for their opening game against the U.S., the English media has been especially arrogant. Much like they were the last time these two teams played (1950), the Brits are belittling the Americans every chance they get and they expect to beat us easily. By the way, the U.S. won that game 60 years ago.
7) America’s soccer program is on the rise, but we aren’t there yet. Remember how Butler got to the National Championship game this year during March Madness? Before the tournament, it wouldn’t have been inconceivable for them to go there. But do you know anyone who actually put them there on their brackets? Me neither. US Soccer is the Butler of the World Cup. They could, but they probably won’t. U.S. players to watch: Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley. Possible surprises: Jose Torres, Herculez Gomez, Edson Buddle, and Robbie Findley. (By the way, my favorite American player is Clint Dempsey. Check him out below.)
8) The World Cup is always controversial. There have been multiple incidents involving “shady” refereeing. Too many to detail in this blog, but just know that many teams have had good reason to feel cheated—because they were cheated! Also, there was the time Maradona used to his hand (um, that’s illegal in soccer) to score the winning goal. There was the time Germany lost on purpose to screw over Algeria. Then there was the time a Kuwaiti official stormed the field and demanded a French goal be overturned (and remarkably it was). And there was the time Mussolini had the Italian players stand and hold the fascist solute until the French home crowd stopped booing them. Remember, this isn’t just about soccer; for many it is about it’s everything—politics, country, pride, everything.
9) Lionel Messi is a househould name everywhere but in the States. Why? Because he is the world’s best soccer player. This also makes him the most famous athlete in the world right now, believe it or not. Sorry Tiger, LeBron, and Usain. Other stars to make yourself acquainted with: Wayne Rooney (England), Christiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Kaka (Brazil), and almost everyone on Spain’s team.
10) The host nation has advanced out of group play in every World Cup in history. Never before has the streak been in more doubt than in this tournament. South Africa is on a roll right now, but few believe they can advance. Speaking of a team with little hope, let’s discuss North Korea. A country that has kept itself isolated from the entire world (not to mention reason), North Korea come out to play in the World Cup. Because of the nature of the country, nobody really knows what to expect from them. They are in a group that has three other very good teams (including the 1st ranked Brazil team and the 3rd ranked Portugal team), so they probably won’t advance. But you never know. While we’re here, the format of the tournament goes as follows. 8 groups of 4 teams. Everyone in a group plays each other once and the top two go on to a single elimination tournament.
My Prediction: I think England or Spain will win the tournament, and while I expect the U.S. to advance out of group play, they will at most win one more game. And I hope more than anything I am wrong.
Today’s recommendation: Immerse yourself into the World Cup and have some fun this next month. If you want more, here are some things to Google: the significance of the number 10, Argentina’s coach Mardona, and key World Cup injuries.