KL: Hello, everyone, and welcome once again to the Fort Worth Weekly World Cup tournament preview. America is out of the big dance, but there’s still plenty of entertaining stuff to take in, and what are you gonna do, watch the NBA Finals? This year’s feature will be different, because instead of the clueless mouth-breather whose questions I’ve been answering at every major tournament, I’ll be talking to G.P. Kennedy, our resident British expat and Liverpool fan who grew up steeped in a soccer culture.
GP: Welcome to my first World Cup living stateside. In England, it is traditional at this juncture so close to the start of the tournament for the most casual soccer fans to begin taking an indecent level of interest in the dietary habits of England’s players and the fashion sensibilities of their partners (hideously referred to as WAGs: Wives and Girlfriends), while the rest of Europe arranges street parties and casually disregards our soccer team. Gleefully distanced as I am from the forensic furor in England, it is great to have the opportunity to cover the tournament with my sagacious colleague, Kristian.
KL: You’re so kind. Why don’t we start with England? Who starts in goal, and are you concerned that scoring machine Harry Kane looked a bit peaked at the end of the English Premier League season?
GP: Jordan Pickford starts in goal for England. He plays for Everton FC, an EPL outfit akin to *insert name of sports team nobody cares about or ever takes notice of*. My only concern about Kane is that he appears to be an overgrown child lost in time from World War II, in which case he might feel at home in “modern day” Russia. On a slightly more serious note, England’s team features a veritable “Who’s he?” of inexperienced guys and second-stringers, with one or two quality players.
KL: You’re a typical England fan, selling your team short (and a typical Liverpool fan, dissing Everton like that). Here in America, we can only dream of an attacking threat like Raheem Sterling or a fullback like Kyle Walker. I don’t see England winning this, but they’ve got a workable group (Belgium, Tunisia, Panama) and enough talent up front to trouble the top teams. Now, here’s a crass but unavoidable question: Which teams do you like to win this?
GP: Seriously, though, Kristian. England fans have been banging on about a “golden generation” of players since I was knee high to a grasshopper. What international success has the team had? Zero. Nothing crass about your question, since it is the one all fans ponder at this point. Looking at how the bracket is likely to develop, the final may well feature the winners of the Brazil/Belgium/Germany half versus either France or Argentina … probably … possibly. If you gave me $5 and forced me to place a bet, I would go for Germany in a repeat of 2014.
KL: Germany is always a solid choice, but is it me or does their offense look slightly less scary than it has in this past decade? France’s offense is worth drooling over, and they can beat anyone if their heads are on straight (which there’s never a guarantee of). I’m eyeballing Spain, though. They cleared out their aged veterans in midfield (Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fàbregas) and replaced them with some comparably talented guys like Isco, Marco Asensio, and Koke. Plus, goalkeeper David de Gea can snuff out the best offense.
GP: Germany is the obverse of England, in soccer. They find ways to optimize the team and win by any fair means. While England has specialized in conspiring to lose when least expected.
KL: Do you have a favorite to pull off a surprise like Costa Rica did in 2014 and Uruguay did in 2010?
GP: Sentiment compels me to tip Nigeria to escape from the toughest group of the tournament and shock France in the Round of 16. Realistically, Mexico is long overdue a run at the World Cup, and I will not be surprised to see them finish second in their group behind Germany and eliminate Brazil in the Round of 16. From there the El Tri could well face Belgium, so … it’s possible they advance to the semi-final against Portugal/Spain/Russia. So, yeah, Mexico could go deep.
KL: This American is happy to cheer for Mexico, knowing they don’t cheer for us. (It’s the same attitude England fans have toward Ireland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.) Me, I’m intrigued by Egypt, but I’m compelled by Senegal, with badass Kalidou Koulibaly manning the backline and the attack led by your Liverpool guy Sadio Mané, who can torch any defense with his speed. The Teranga Lions lit up World Cup 2002 and haven’t been back since, but I like the look of them. Now, which teams do you think will be disappointing? I’ll take this one first: Argentina always has a chance with Sr. Messi on the pitch, but their No. 1 goalkeeper just tore his ACL and the defensive pairing of Nicolás Otamendi and Federico Fazio doesn’t scare me. Also, Belgium has Roberto Martínez as their coach, which means that a defensive lapse is never far away. I hope I’m wrong, because Martínez is a nice guy and the Red Devils have as much talent as anyone, but I’m not confident.
GP: England will be disappointing, but only to their fans, who perennially raise their hopes beyond all reasonable expectations. Fans of every other nation know that the England team does nothing in the finals. Brazil historically does not travel well, and they could flop. I like the look of Belgium, but the whole may be less than the sum of the parts.
KL: I’m actually higher on Brazil than I was four years ago, now that their offense is less Neymar-dependent. At this World Cup, I’ll be watching for goalkeepers playing like midfielders distributing the ball: Pickford, de Gea, Manuel Neuer (Germany), Thibaut Courtois (Belgium), Hugo Lloris (France), and Mat Ryan (Australia), who’s not to be confused with the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback. What about you? I’m sure there’s a certain Egyptian at your Liverpool team whom you’re anxious to rhapsodize over.
GP: Look, if you are worried about Kane appearing jaded, Kristian, then Mohamed Salah — the hottest player on the planet this past season — is a study in tiredness. He looked completely spent in the last few games of the regular season and was anonymous in the Champions League final before being heinously fouled out by Spanish scoundrel Sérgio Ramos. I back Messi to finally shine on the biggest stage and be player of the tournament. Goalies need to slow their roll on trying to be midfielders and concentrate on catching or deflecting the football, by the way (says the Liverpool fan still smarting from the Karius-tastrophe).
KL: Feel your pain with Ramos and Karius, but when Salah is on his game, he gives opponents that same helpless feeling that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo do. Egypt will be tight defensively, but they’ll go as far as Mo takes them. I’ll also be watching Peru, which is at its first World Cup in 36 years and has some capable attackers in Jefferson Farfán and José Paolo Guerrero (who had his suspension revoked after a cup of coca tea made him test positive for cocaine). And I know you won’t want to hear this, but Iceland is legit, and their “Viking clap” celebration is the most spine-tingling expression of player-fan solidarity in all of sports. On the Russia beat: England’s Danny Rose (who is black) has told his family not to come because of his racism concerns. What do you think, G.P.? Do you think the Russians will behave themselves with the nonwhite and gay fans?
GP: Dude, I watched from a stool at Upper 90 as Iceland beat England and laughed mightily. There will almost certainly be some ugly scenes. Russian soccer has the same kind of racist “ultras” that have plagued Italian soccer for years, and these guys who follow the host nation spike their bigotry with homophobia and xenophobia. Sadly, soccer may not be the biggest story at times throughout the tournament.
KL: The Russians are generally good at faking the whole “welcoming the world” bit for Olympic Games, but we’ll see if they can keep it up all month. It’s time to sign off, soccer fans, but G.P. and I will be trading off World Cup coverage like this on our blog for the tournament’s duration, so stay tuned. We’ll be like Men in Blazers, except it’s too damn hot to wear blazers.