The world festival of football soccer begins today, so I thought I’d give you some notes about what to watch for.

Are there Texans in the World Cup?
Two: Clint Dempsey (Nacogdoches) and José Francisco Torres (Longview).

How will USA play?
With a hybrid 4-4-2 alignment. Like most national teams, ours plays with four defenders. Then there are four midfielders behind two strikers. Whereas England plays two central midfielders plus two wingers and Brazil plays with two defensive midfielders plus two attacking midfielders, USA plays with two defensive midfielders (Michael Bradley and one of Ricardo Clark, Benny Feilhaber, or Torres) and two attacking midfielders/wingers (Landon Donovan and Dempsey) who have the option of either coming to the center of the field and trying to distribute the ball to an open shooter or taking the ball to the sidelines and trying to cross in from the wing. Donovan and Dempsey seem to be most effective in these roles.


The two strikers will be Jozy Altidore and either Edson Buddle or Robbie Findley. Team USA had most success last year at the Confederations Cup using the size and strength of Altidore opposite the speed of Charlie Davies. When Davies was injured in a life-threatening car accident last fall, it was assumed that we couldn’t replace him. Now it seems Findley’s speed plugs into Davies’ role in USA’s offense rather nicely. Nevertheless, we may see Buddle start instead of Findley because of his superior scoring touch. If that’s the case, then Buddle and Altidore are both strong enough and mobile enough to switch off roles as the speed guy and the size guy.

USA vs. England
England bulldozed its way to qualification, yet few prognosticators are picking the Three Lions, and a recent poll showed a scant 4 percent of British fans believing England would lift the trophy. That’s probably because England fans and the press have gone insane waiting 44 years for a repeat of England’s 1966 World Cup victory. Remember how dysfunctional Boston Red Sox fans were before the 2004 World Series victory? It’s kinda like that in England right now. They’re afraid to hope, and giving too much weight to England’s blah performances in the warm-up matches leading up to this tourney. Not that England doesn’t have holes (especially in goal), but they’re still eminently capable of putting together a run, and manager Fabio Capello is one of the best coaching minds around.

On the field, England are unsettled by injuries. Starting defensive midfielder Gareth Barry is with the team but won’t be able to play the opener against us, which means that Steven Gerrard — who has been playing on the left side for the national team — might have to move to the center. He often mans the middle of the field for Liverpool, but he’s a more offensive-minded player than Barry, and England needs a guy who can break up the opposition’s attack. Can Stevie G do this unfamiliar job? Also, starting central defender Rio Ferdinand will miss the tournament with a hamstring problem. This means that remaining central defender (and girlfriend poacher) John Terry will have to partner with either Jamie Carragher or Ledley King. They are all sturdy, valiant, experienced, smart defensive players, but none of them are very fast, which means England could be vulnerable on the counterattack, especially to speedy attackers like Donovan or Findley.

England will still have a huge edge in talent over us, and our shaky defense has never had to deal with any forward like England’s Wayne Rooney. The Manchester United man has speed, imagination, and finishing ability to go with the strength and determination of a bull, and you should be scared every time he gets the ball and runs at USA’s defense. Even when he doesn’t have the ball, Rooney is still a scoring threat because he has gotten very good at jumping and heading the ball at goal, despite being only 5’10”. (Charmingly, the 24-year-old credits his male-pattern baldness with increasing his goal total.) Rooney has matured a great deal in the last six years, but there are still concerns about his temper and his penchant for picking up unnecessary cards. USA’s players have all said that they aren’t going to try to rile him into doing something stupid. They’ve gone out of their way to say this, which is why I suspect that’s exactly what they’re going to try to do. We’ll see if it has any effect.

One thing we’ve got going for us is our goalkeeper, Tim Howard. Historically, England has produced great goalkeepers, but they don’t have anybody top-class right now. Howard, on the other hand, is a stalwart presence for Everton in the English Premier League, and I rate him as one of the top five goalkeepers at this tournament. If he were English, he’d immediately start for them. A great goalkeeper is a great equalizer, a way for a less-talented team to have a puncher’s chance against a better team. We may need him to be absolutely brilliant. He can do that.

A uniform quirk
There’s no shortage of online features rating the look of all 32 teams’ World Cup uniforms. (Actually, 31. North Korea still hasn’t unveiled their jersey. What a shock!) However, not too many observers have noticed this about USA’s group: All four teams in Group C wear white jerseys as their primary uniform. Unlike American pro sports teams, soccer teams don’t change their jerseys according to when they’re at home or on the road. They have a primary jersey and a secondary one in a case such as this, when both teams have similar colors. Usually, the road team wears its change uniform while the home team keeps their customary colors. The World Cup, though, is neutral ground for all four of these teams. In the past, FIFA has flipped a coin before each game to determine which team gets to wear their primaries. We figure to see each team’s alternate jersey at some point: England (red), USA (blue), Algeria (bright green), and Slovenia (dark green). It’ll be interesting to see which country will be wearing its whites when England play USA tomorrow. By the way, there’s a similar situation in Group H, where Spain, Chile, and Switzerland all typically play in red uniforms.

Notes on other teams’ tactics
The British writer Jonathan Wilson (whose book about the history of soccer tactics, called Inverting the Pyramid, I just finished reading) recently detailed how many teams are adopting formations with only one striker. The European championships two years ago saw a rise in teams that fielded five midfielders behind the one striker: two defensive mids, two wingers, and one playmaker trailing the frontman. Historically, this alignment leads to dull, ultra-defensive play, but the wrinkle in 2008 was that the wingers were dribbling inside to shoot on goal instead of heading for the corners to cross. This resulted in some delirious attacking soccer, and it was practiced variously by Spain, Germany, Netherlands, and Croatia. The Russians were particularly devastating with it. Success breeds imitators, so we can expect even more teams to play with this system.

If you’re a tactics geek, you need to check out this indispensable website, which has detailed breakdowns of the starting lineups and alignments of all 32 teams.

Looking for a dark horse?
You actually don’t have to look any farther than USA for an intriguing underdog. If that’s too easy, how about Serbia? Group foes Germany and Ghana have both lost their best player to injury (more on that later), and the Serbs have a rock-solid defense behind some nice attacking players, and the leadership of all-conquering midfielder Dejan Stanković. The only potential weakness I see is in goal, where starter Vladimir Stojković is struggling to come back from injury and has never inspired confidence even when fully healthy. His backups are even shakier. Still, they’re good enough to give any opponent pause.

Who will do better than expected?
For some reason, everybody’s sleeping on the Dutch. There are sound reasons for this. Goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg is distinctly average, and their defense may be at an all-time low. Yet their group is relatively easy, and they’ve got serious firepower in silky attacking midfielder Wesley Sneijder, dangerous winger Arjen Robben, and unorthodox striker Robin van Persie. Of course, Robben is made out of glass and Sneijder and van Persie appear to openly despise each other. The Dutch have a history of chemistry issues and imploding when the going gets tough, but after seeing Spain shed the “choker” label two years ago and the Indianapolis Colts finally win a Super Bowl, I have to believe that one of these years things will fall into place for a country that keeps producing sumptuously talented players. Why not this year?

South Africa continues to battle its high crime rate, and we’ll have to see if visiting soccer fans are victimized on a large scale. The country is painfully aware of this problem, and there was a brief panic in last year’s Confed Cup when the Egyptian team members were robbed of their valuables at their hotel. The panic subsided when the thieves turned out to be local prostitutes whom the Egyptian players had invited to their rooms.

That highlights another problem. Hookers always do a booming business around the World Cup, but this year there are concerns that sex slavery may be an issue. Hope that’s not the case.

If you watched last year’s Confederations Cup, you probably heard an incessant noise that sounded like a cloud of angry bees over the stadium. That’s the sound of the vuvuzela, the plastic trumpet that South Africans have been employing as noisemakers. That sound will be a constant at the games this year, as the fans will play those trumpets regardless of what happens on the field. And you thought Thunder Stix were annoying! Seriously, FIFA did the right thing in refusing to clamp down on the instruments; it’s an important part of local color. It’ll be interesting to hear what happens during Nigeria’s games — traditionally, Nigerian fans bring drums to the stadiums and play them as a backdrop to the action on the pitch. Maybe the instruments will compete.

Because it’ll be winter in South Africa, some observers are expecting better soccer to be played here. The World Cup is usually held in the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, and teams often wilt in the heat. (The tourney held in the United States in 1994 is most often cited as an example of this.) On the other hand, Euro 2008 was played in Austria and Switzerland in summer weather that was unseasonably cool, and the result was one of the best international tournaments in years. World Cup 2014 will also be a winter tournament, because it’ll be played in Brazil. We’ll see if this translates to higher energy levels and more entertaining games.

England and Spain are the best two national teams at the moment, so a final between them seems like the most likely outcome. However, it’s far more likely that the actual final will be some other pairing. The best teams rarely emerge from a short tournament: Brazil came into 2006 as prohibitive favorites and crashed out in the quarters, France exited in the group stages in 2002 after being heavily tipped to continue their dominance. With the altitude in South Africa, the change of seasons, the balky pitches, and an African crowd amping up the atmosphere, the top teams are ripe to suffer accidents. That’s why it’s likely that either England or Spain or both will be felled by an off day, an opponent playing out of their minds, a penalty shootout, or simple bad luck. The same applies to all the other teams, only even more so.

Only a fool makes predictions in soccer, but it’s hard to resist the temptation to look like a genius ahead of time. So here’s one from me: At least one of the following countries will exit in the group stages: Germany, France, Argentina, or Brazil. These squads are variously plagued by injuries (Germany), idiot coaches (France and Argentina), and all-around bad juju (France), but what they all have in common is a tough draw. On paper, Argentina should easily outclass the other teams in Group B, but their opponents are all experienced teams who know how to put a disorganized team to the sword. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Brazil’s squad (though I worry about their aging defensive midfielders), but a few bad breaks against Côte d’Ivoire and Portugal could easily send them home faster than they’ve ever been out of the World Cup.

The World Cup All-Name Team
In honor of Chris Waddle, Locó, Vampeta, and Stig Inge Tøfting, here’s my all-star team made up of the best names at World Cup 2010:

GK — Johnny Leoni, Switzerland: Sounds like a gangster’s name from a 1930s Hollywood movie. “Sorry I ratted you out, Louie, but I owe a lotta money to Johnny Leoni.”
DF — Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Greece: It translates as “My name is more Greek than yours.”
DF — Martin Škrtel, Slovakia: Last name seems to be missing a few vowels.
DF — Gaetan Bong, Cameroon: Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
MF — MacBeth Sibaya, South Africa: Too bad he won’t be taking the field against Scotland.
MF — Yaya Touré, Côte d’Ivoire: He should think about forming a sisterhood with some divine secrets.
MF — Kaká, Brazil: His baby brother couldn’t pronounce his first name, Ricardo, so he got this nickname. He’s so good that people stopped making fun of his name long ago, but still…
MF — Xherdan Shaqiri, Switzerland: Too bad you can’t play people’s names in Scrabble. This guy would get you 137 points, and that’s without any premium squares.
FW — Herculez Gomez, USA: If this guy scores a game-winning goal, brace yourself for Greek mythology-inspired headlines in this country.
FW — Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Mexico: We’ve got an Aztec god lining up alongside a Greek god.
FW — Shane Smeltz, New Zealand: He who dealt it…
Bench — Morgan de Sanctis, Italy (how many Italian guys do you know named “Morgan”?); Maynor Figueroa, Honduras (his first name is pronounced “minor”); Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany (his last name means “pig herder”); Danny, Portugal (where’s the rest of his name?); Georgie Welcome, Honduras (make yourself at home).
Coach — Huh Jung-moo, South Korea: Huh, I knew I’d forgotten something!

Miscellaneous links
Web designers take note: The Spanish newspaper La Marca has an awesome way of presenting the schedule of World Cup games. This circular format is so much more interesting than a grid or a calendar.

Fastbreak Futbol’s fun piece compares each team in the World Cup to a band or musical act, which means Brazil is the Beatles (boring but indisputable pick for the all-time greatest) and Italy is the Rolling Stones (aging but impossible to count out). My favorite comparisons are Denmark to Boyz II Men (peaked in 1992, still hanging around without anyone taking them seriously), Portugal to Britney Spears (wasted potential, but still dangerous), and Serbia and Slovenia to Jack White and White’s side project Dead Weather, respectively.

Stay tuned: I’ll be blogging throughout the tournament, offering up an All-Pretty Team, an All-Ugly Team, and an All-Hair Team. I’ll be commenting on the soccer, too.