Brazil: It’s rare to not see Brazil on the contenders list. As five-time winners of the coveted Cup, the Samba Kings seem to have a pedigree of excellence born into their players, demonstrated by the likes of Pele, Rivaldo and Ronaldo. This year’s crop (featuring Kaka, Alexandre Pato and Maicon to name a few) is as deep and talented as ever.
England: As soccer’s birthplace, England would be expected to be perennial contenders for the sport’s greatest competition, right? Wrong. Traditionally, England has been an underperforming squad, save their 1966 World Cup triumph, which took place in England. Not qualifying for the UEFA Euro 2008 tournament has thus far provided extra inspiration to new manager Fabio Capello and his squad.
Spain: Coming off a European title at UEFA Euro 2008, Spain will need to evade upstart squads like matadors eluding angry bulls. A big red target on their uniforms may not be enough to stop perhaps the most technically-skilled team in the entire tournament, however. With a midfield that has a tough time finding a place for Cesc Fabregas, arguably the best player in the English Premier League, Spain will be more than a tough out for hungry opposition.
Argentina: The two-time world champions stuttered through qualifying and had to clinch their spot via a narrow playoff win over Costa Rica. Soccer legend Diego Maradona has struggled as manager, failing to get the best out of a highly talented team that includes star forward Lionel Messi. The pressure lies heavily on the South American giants, who will feel relieved to advance past group play.
Portugal: Despite finishing fourth in the 2006 World Cup, Portugal’s place in this year’s tournament wasn’t confirmed until the last day of European qualifying. Brazil and Ivory Coast will test Portugal’s defense, which must cope with the absence of injured fullback Jose Bosingwa. Real Madrid winger Cristiano Ronaldo scored just once in the 10-game preliminary phase, and will have to do much more if his country is to survive the “Group of Death.”
Ivory Coast: Led by Chelsea duo Salomon Kalou and Didier Drogba, the Elephants boast one of the world’s most impressive strike forces. Drogba was the Premier League’s top scorer this season and will receive support from brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure, who play for Barcelona and Manchester City respectively. An African team hasn’t reached the World Cup quarterfinals since 1990, but Ivory Coast’s home continent advantage gives them an ideal Cinderella opportunity.
Players To Watch
Wayne Rooney: If the English striker could just reproduce the goals he’s scored for Manchester United this season, the Three Lions may be looking at World Cup glory for the first time since 1966. Rooney bagged 34 goals this year at the club level, almost single-handedly keeping United in the Premier League race. His scoring appetite and belligerent demeanor make him one of the competition’s most enjoyable players to watch.
Lionel Messi: At the youthful age of 22, this guy’s already achieved legendary status around the world. Almost unanimously considered as the game’s best player, Messi has it all: dazzling foot skills, blistering pace, finishing ability and an impressive trophy cabinet, having won three domestic titles and two European Cups with Barcelona. Sure, he’s only 5-foot-7, but you wait and see him run rings around defenders this summer.
Maicon: Inter Milan’s tireless Brazilian is probably the world’s best fullback. Not only has his defensive presence been essential in the club’s run to the Champions League final, but he also has the attacking ability to make runs into the box or roam on right wing and cross the ball for attackers. Maicon’s 25-yard juggle-and-volley last month was perhaps the goal of the year.
Best Group Matches
U.S. vs. England – June 12: Any fan of being an American should cancel all plans on the 12th. In both teams’ first game of the tournament, the US has a chance to shock the world and stick it to the Brits, Revolutionary War style, while England has a chance to establish themselves. The game is also a rematch of what is considered to be the greatest upset in the history of soccer, when the US defeated England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup. Bear enough significance for you to watch? We hope so.
Germany vs. Ghana – June 23: History shows that fortune favors home teams in the World Cup. Although Ghana is thousands of miles away from South Africa, they can rely on the fact that the South Africans will be rooting for any other African nation. While no African team has ever made it to the final four of the World Cup, this would be the year due to their obvious advantages. Consistent Germany will be on red alert for this collision of new and old.
Brazil vs. Portugal – June 25: The classic matchup of the colonizer vs. the colonized. Brazil may have inherited their spoken language and Catholicism from formerly mercantilist Portugal, but the Brazilians may teach a lesson in soccer to the Portuguese on June 25. Should Portugal decide to deploy winger Cristiano Ronaldo on the left side, a masterful clash between Ronaldo and Brazilian right fullback Maicon will ensue.
TEAM U.S.A.: Four months ago, the United States’ chances at the World Cup seemed to be dwindling with long term injuries to striker Charlie Davies, midfielder Clint Dempsey and defender Oguchi Onyewu. Now, after the three integral players have made quicker-than expected-returns, the U.S. looks poised to make a run past the group stage. A fairly favorable group draw (including world power England, decent Algeria and mediocre Slovenia) has excited US pundits. A prime combination of youth (Davies and striker Jozy Altidore) and experience (midfielder Landon Donovan and captain Carlos Bocanegra) give this team hope to advance to the knockout stages. Last summer’s Confederation’s Cup victory over then number one ranked Spain shows why the US is for real. Now, if they can only stay healthy.
The rest was written by Andrew Goble.
How To Watch
1. Follow a Team: The massive amount of games can be daunting, but choosing a team can make it easy to hop right in. Brazil and England are good choices to watch awesome skill, but the U.S. will fight until the very end.
2. Watch the Top Plays: Have the attention span of a football fan? Check out SportsCenter or ESPN.com and just get the summary of each day; if you’ve never watched a game, it’s sometimes better to start off with the highlight reel. Trust us, you’ll be hooked in no time.
Why Americans Should Care
Somewhere in the midst of the 2006 World Cup, as the U.S. soccer team desperately tried to make it into the knockout rounds like they did in 2002, I had the holy grail of 13-year-old ideas. While the United States was still crazy about soccer, I would, ever-so-sweetly, ask my mother if we could go to the World Cup in 2010. It was four whole years away; how could she say no? (Answer: A lot of ways)
She said yes. I don’t know how, and I don’t care, but I was going to the World freaking Cup. And in the last four years, after sacrificing countless vacations and convincing my parents I wasn’t going to be murdered in South Africa and hearing my friends call me a “spoiled (b-word),” it has always been in the back of my head.
And here’s why: Besides being a showcase of the greatest soccer players in the world, the World Cup is one of the biggest cultural events ever. It is rare that people from every part of the world come together; think of it like a U.N. meeting, but with slightly more drunk hooligans. Forget nuclear discussions and political divisions–the only arguments here will be over whether to call it soccer or fútbol.
Perhaps most importantly, American fans will be there to watch great soccer. In the 2002 World Cup, the U.S. made it to the “knockout rounds,” a huge stride for a blossoming program. 2006 proved a little more difficult. The U.S. tied the eventual champion Italy but didn’t make it out of the initial group rounds.
A move into the final sixteen or even the final eight might be the push the average East sports fan needs to become a soccer addict. Sure, a smattering of Manchester United and Arsenal fans litter the school, but it is nothing like football or baseball. Critics have always talked about this “tipping point,” and the year has come. Beat England in the first round, and the country becomes infatuated with diving headers and slick dribbling moves and glorious upper-90 “rips.”
But if we lose? Another four years that the U.S. soccer fans have to continue being the lonely minority, and an even longer 17-hour flight home for me.