I could easily blog 1,500 words on all 32 of the teams in the World Cup, but since I don’t want to drive my editors insane by forcing them to read all that verbiage, I’m confining my preview of the whole tournament to 1,500 words. Here, in a Q&A format, are some pointers on what to watch for in the month ahead.
How will USA do?
As other experts have noted, this tournament catches USA at a tricky time, as its old guard (Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley) and one world-class player in his prime (Michael Bradley) are trying to integrate with a bunch of youngsters (Matt Besler, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Jozy Altidore). Even though this USA team is the most talented one we’ve ever sent to the World Cup, the group we’ve been drawn into is so tough that we might still fail to get out of the group stages. An opening loss against Ghana will effectively leave us needing wins in the remaining games against Portugal and Germany, which is not where we want to be. We may need to wait until that Copa América here in 2016 to really see what Team USA will ultimately become.
You didn’t answer the question.
If I had to pick, I’d say Germany and Portugal are the teams that advance from our group. However, as an American, I hope for a better outcome.
Who are the favorites?
Everyone seems to be picking Argentina and Brazil, partly on the grounds that no European team has ever won a World Cup in South America. This ignores the fact that only one World Cup has been held in South America in the last 50 years. Brazil does have home-field advantage and players like Neymar, Oscar, and Daniel Alves to run an unorthodox, slashing, un-Brazilian attack. I don’t know if I trust Argentina’s goalkeeping, but they have the best set of finishers in the world (Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio “Kun” Agüero), and winning the World Cup on Brazilian soil would extend a giant middle finger to their archrivals for the next 100 years. Still, I’m going with Spain. People have written off La Roja before, and they just keep winning, so I’m sticking with them until I actually see someone knock them out. Also, Germany is still out there, and they’re still good.
Any dark horses we should know about?
Chile continues to attack in insane numbers, led by goal-scoring threat Alexis Sánchez and midfield general Arturo Vidal. (In an earlier post, I compared Bradley to Croatia’s Luka Modrić, but that’s wrong. Vidal is the international player who most resembles Bradley.) Bosnia-Herzegovina has a similar all-offense philosophy and the advantage of a relatively soft group, so they could make some noise. (More on them later in this post.) Still, the hipster team I like best is Belgium, which is dripping talent at every position. Historically, Belgian teams are dull and defensive, but the Red Devils are going to go out and try to outscore the other guys, and in Eden Hazard, Moussa Dembélé, and teenagers Romelu Lukaku and Adnan Januzaj, they have the talent to do it. Honestly, I fear the Belgians even more than I fear the Germans.
Boo, hiss! Every single soccer pundit is talking up those three teams! They’re not dark horses, they’re barely even light gray! I thought you were supposed to be some sort of expert.
Okay, fine! How about Switzerland? They’ve got a slick midfield operator in Gökhan Inler, dangerous threats on the wings in Albanian immigrants Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, and a fine finisher in Josip Drmić. Their starting fullbacks are all-world Stephan “The Swiss Express” Lichtsteiner on the right and Ricardo Rodríguez on the left, an unusually large player for the position who always looks like he’s about to fall over but has serious finesse skills on crossing and free kicks. The central defensive pairing of Philippe Senderos and Johan Djourou will scare no one, but this Swiss team might actually be fun to watch. England is supposed to be a superpower and not a dark horse, but expectations are low for this team, and coach Roy Hodgson has stocked the roster with speedy, talented youngsters Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley, and Raheem Sterling, not to mention assured midfield distributor Jordan Henderson. If he turns the kids loose on the slowing defenses of Italy and Uruguay, and those kids aren’t overwhelmed by the occasion, they could surprise people. Colombia has been written off, too, after leading scorer Radamel Falcao failed to recover from his ACL tear in time. However, their forward corps (Jackson Martínez, Carlos Bacca, Teófilo Gutiérrez, and Adrián Ramos) is deep enough to replace him in the aggregate, and they’ve got tremendous fullbacks in Pablo Armero and Juan Camilo Zúñiga, and right winger Juan Cuadrado bombing in crosses from the wing.
That’s better. Which of the sport’s superpowers will disappoint?
I get a bad feeling about Netherlands. They’re missing Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart due to injury, so their main offensive cogs are Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie, two injury-prone players who also happen to detest each other. The defense is even shakier than it was in ’10, too.
Besides USA, is there any other country we should be rooting for?
Ecuador is playing on in memory of Christian “Chucho” Benítez, who was their leading goal-scorer in World Cup qualification before he suddenly died of a heart attack last year. Ivory Coast is captained by 36-year-old Didier Drogba, who may retire when this tournament is over. That doesn’t mean he’ll disappear, though — he’s an intelligent, passionate, socially aware man who has poured much of his athletic fortune into building hospitals and schools in his native country. He may very well become president of Ivory Coast one day, but it’d be great to see him and fellow Ivorians Kolo Touré, Yaya Touré, Didier Zokora, and Gervinho enjoy one last hurrah on the pitch, especially since The Elephants got screwed by the draw in 2006 and 2010, the only other times they’ve qualified for the World Cup. The Elephants seem like a fun bunch of guys, but even they aren’t as likable as Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose country and players emerged from the genocidal hell of the early 1990s to get here. The Muslims were massacred in such numbers that the country no longer has an Islamic majority, and yet most of the players on this team are Muslim. The Dragons will have a huge cheering section in St. Louis, where many Bosnian refugees settled, and where striker Vedad Ibišević grew up. With playmakers like Miralem Pjanić running the offense and huge finisher Edin Džeko stalking the box, this country is far more likely to make noise on behalf of the Islamic faith than Algeria or Iran.
Anybody we should root against?
Greece, for sticking to the same boring defensive tactics that won them Euro 2004. France, for the disgrace they made of themselves four years ago, although only two players are still left from that team. Most hateable is Russia, for the oligarchs and plutocrats running the country, for their stifling of free speech and freedom of the press, for their laws oppressing homosexuals, for a racist and homophobic fanbase, and for that whole “invading the Ukraine” thing that they did a few months ago. The most unlikely choice is Brazil, not because the team or the nation necessarily deserves our scorn, but because a Brazil flameout might force the government to respond to its disgruntled citizens’ demands for better services. It also might force FIFA president Sepp Blatter to rethink the way the organization hands out hosting privileges.
Didn’t Blatter just say that anybody who criticizes him is a racist? Do you really think public embarrassment will work on him?
You’re right, forget what I just said.
Is there anything better than old, rich white guys accusing everybody else of racism?
Kittens and ice cream.
Who else should I keep an eye on?
The aforementioned Luka Modrić, one of the world’s finest midfielders on a distinctly average Croatia side. Marvel at his laser-guided passes and his toughness despite his small frame. Japan continues to boast mesmerizing creative playmakers like Shinji Kagawa and blond-dyed Keisuke Honda. Italy’s Mario Balotelli and Uruguay’s Luis Suárez are both great goal-scorers with a tendency to behave insanely on the pitch (and in Balotelli’s case, off it as well). They’ve kept their noses clean in that regard for a while now, but they could blow up, or they could scorch opposing defenses. Goalkeepers never get enough attention, either, so watch for the World Cup winners in Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon and Spain’s Iker Casillas, plus France’s Hugo Lloris, Germany’s Manuel Neuer, Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois, Bosnia’s Asmir Begović, Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama, and our very own Howard.
Is it gonna be fun?
It’s gonna be epic. It always is.