For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been nervous to almost to the point of terror at the start of the World Cup. I don’t know why other than it probably has something to do with being a DC sports fan, which after the past year or two would have pushed most sane people away from sports for ever.
Plus, I am sort of naturally averse to hype so seeing ESPN turn the hype up to 11 about soccer is both surreal and totally nauseating.*
But, now, after convincing myself that the USA, a team with massive and obvious defensive frailties can do anything other than underachieve**, I am ready to get this thing started.
I think the thing that bothers me the most is that there is really only one team outside the usual suspects of Brazil, Italy, Germany or Argentina that I see winning this thing and that’s Spain. I hope an outsider like my dark horses Ivory Coast, Paraguay, or Chile make a run but it’s hard to see it happening unless the Koreans pay off a bunch of refs again like in 2002 (yeah, I said it). It’s remarkable, at least in terms of winners, how much more predictable this tournament is shaping up to be compared to the average American sport’s playoff. This time around, for some reason, that kind of bothers me. I don’t know why, but it does.
Moving on, here are my thoughts on some of the contenders and pretenders at this World Cup:
Category I: The media might make them out as contenders, but really, they should be utterly thrilled if they make the quarterfinals.
England. They are beautifully setup to fail… again. I think that most of their best players (Gerrard, Terry, Ferdinand) will find that they peaked during the time England was unfortunately managed by an utter idiot (Eriksson) and England’s less obnoxious, but equally overpromoted version of Lane Kiffin, Steve McClaren. I’ll grant the believers that Rooney is in the best form of his life, but he’s coming in hurt, will surely get hurt again in South Africa, and there just isn’t enough attacking talent to support him. The midfield will give the ball away every five minutes or so and we’re going to see just how overrated and dependent on true talent (Drogba, etc) Frank Lampard is. I think this group of England players (other than Rooney) should’ve peaked after Eriksson left, but the dreadful hiring of McClaren wasted the best years of Gerrard, Terry, Lampard and Ferdinand. Go and find some video of England’s friendlies against Japan and Mexico. Watch them and try to tell me with a straight and sober face that England looks like a team that could get past the quarterfinals. You can’t. Now, does this mean that I think they’re going to lose to the USA in the opening game? Not necessarily.
France. I cannot wait for the next European Championships, when someone other than “the embattled Raymond Domenech” (C) every English speaking newspaper for last six years, will be able to get France and its still prodigious talent back where it belongs. The team has emotionally quit on Domenech so many times now that it’s hard to keep count. Look for them to play badly and then bomb out in the Round of 16 at best, but I really wouldn’t be surprised one bit to see them fall in the group phase.
Portugal. If you believe the English media, Carlos Queiroz rode Sir Alex’s coattails to more success than even the Neville family. So with him at the helm, and only Ronaldo, Nani, Deco (washed up) and some cut-rate Brazilians they naturalized during qualifying, can anyone expect them to get past the quarterfinals? Umm, no. Additionally, let’s not forget that this team struggled mightily in qualifying with a “run” to the playoffs featuring a home loss to Denmark*** and draws against Sorry Ronnie, but your puppet will be the only thing of yours showing up on finals day in Johannesburg.
Category II: The surprises, teams that will do better than the conventional wisdom says.
Serbia. Yeah, sure they completely crapped the bed at Germany 2006, but they’re still the Serbs who can always be counted on to push, shove, trip, and dive their way into the the group phase. (You can almost always count on them to try and commit genocide too, but that’s for another discussion.) Anyway, turning from their favorite activity to their favorite, erm, sport, in the three times they’ve qualified for the WC or Euros, they’ve gotten out of the groups twice. So, despite the disappointment of 2006, they’ve shown some ability. Plus, they cruised through qualifying despite a tough group including France and Romania. Mark my words, 6-foot-7 Nikola Zigic (going to Birmingham next season) will open some eyes at this tournament. It’s not like you can miss him.
South Korea. Without a doubt, growing up in Annandale, I have soft spot for the Koreans. Hopefully, I will be able to watch one of the games at one of the Korean churches in the area that will likely host crazed, noisy, red-clad events. If they can beat the Greeks, I could absolutely see them getting out of the group. Park Ji-Sung is one of the most underrated talents in Europe and group B could easily get totally shuffled up if Maradona’s Argentina start to implode.
Ivory Coast. Yes, yes, this is a “chic” pick right now, but Didier Drogba is one of maybe four or five players who could single-handedly change this tournament. I think he’s the single most talented striker in the entire tournament and that means something. He’s by far the best player any African team has ever had (including Essien in 2006) at a World Cup and he could, if he decides, nearly single-handedly beat 95% of the teams in this tournament. If both he and Kalou can get scoring, then they could be Africa’s first semifinalist. Yes, I know Sven is managing them as well, but with the Toures, Drogba and Zakora, this might be that kind of veteran, “roll the balls out there and let them play” kind of team he tends to succeed with. If Guus Hiddink were the Ivorians’ manager, I’d have then as semifinalists for sure, with Sven, I’ll simply go with a quarterfinal prediction.
Paraguay. Look, like virtually everyone who isn’t non-Paraguayan, I don’t know too much about these guys, but they absolutely strolled through South America’s qualifying process and that does mean something. Also, with striker Salvador Cabanas still recovering from a near-fatal shooting, this team has some serious motivation. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to face them in the group phase, and I suspect neither will their opponents.
Part II,featuring my contenders and disappointments will be up tomorrow.
* If you think the World Cup hype is bad, just wait until ESPN and Dana White stop making goo-goo eyes and make the inevitable big $$ deal for live UFC coverage on ESPN. I am not the biggest fan of the stuff, but watching the heads of all the old guys (Tony, Wilbon, Bayless, etc) explode over this will make it worth it.
** Because that worked so well with the Capitals this year… sigh.
*** And was it a loss all right, [ame=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRFQLtV_mHg”%5Dfeaturing a stoppage time equalizer and winner[/ame].