For one month every four years, the entire world stops for one event: the FIFA World Cup.
While Americans slowly pull their heads out of the sand of international sports (for all the talk of the Super Bowl’s popularity, it doesn’t even register in comparison with the World Cup), the rest of the world is focused on one tournament between 32 nations from all six continents that guarantees four years of bragging rights or outright shame, depending on the outcome. The biggest reason to watch this summer? You never know what will happen.
Nobody could have imagined that World Champion France, who had dominated international play for the better part of a decade, would so disastrously crash out of the tournament in 2002 without scoring a single goal. To add insult to injury, the French were were firmly beaten by former colony Senegal in their opener. Similarly, nobody expected Turkey or co-host South Korea to be anything other than cannon fodder for the big boys, but they too shocked the world, finishing third and fourth, respectively.
Set to begin on June 11, the tournament will be hosted by Africa in its most developed nation, South Africa. This fact alone has caused some controversy since its announcement, with many arguing that the funds spent preparing for the games could be put to better use through social spending to combat major problems like one of the world’s worst AIDS epidemics, but that discussion is for another column.
Don’t know a damn thing about the U.S. team, let alone the current state of the world’s game? Fear not, Americans! This could well be our tournament. The last decade of American soccer has given hope that this could be our best showing in a tournament that we have failed to leave a lasting impact on, despite stunning the world by advancing to the quarterfinal phase of the tournament in 2002.
Although we are the nation with the most global influence, we have become the international whipping boy of the true world sport, our achievements in 2002 being chalked up to freak chance (despite beating powerhouse Portugal and archrival Mexico along the way). This is our chance to show the world that we have finally established a legitimate soccer tradition, and hopefully rub their noses in it.
So what can we expect from the biggest sporting event in the world? Does the U.S. have a chance? Won’t Brazil just win anyway? Who even qualified? Let’s look at the first round, group by group. Eight groups of four teams make up the first round, with each team playing all group members once and the top two from each group advancing to the next round.
South Africa, Uruguay, Mexico, France
Made up of host South Africa, European power-house France, U.S.-arch rival Mexico and perennial underachievers Uruguay, Group A won’t have a single boring game as each team fights to get through. The tournament opens June 11 with South Africa taking on Mexico in what could be a thriller.
Host South Africa will need everything its fans can give to avoid being the first tournament host to not make it out of the group stage. Their star player is the attacking winger Steven Pienaar from England’s Everton, known for his precision crosses and devastating set pieces. Although soccer is the second fiddle to South Africa’s national sport rugby, expect the locals to get behind their team in the loudest way possible.
Uruguay constantly underachieves on the world stage given its talent, and is a far cry from the team that beat Australia to qualify for the cup in 2006. The team is led by Atlético Madrid’s striker Diego Forlán, who at age 30 is probably participating in his last tournament.
Mexico, which managed to make it out of the group in 2006 only to fall to Argentina, looks confused and disjointed coming into the tournament, with a squad composed largely of young starlets untested on the world stage like Deportivo La Coruña’s attacking midfielder Andrés Guardado and error-prone stalwarts like FC Barcelona defender Rafael Márquez. While it does have a decent amount of talent, Mexico may well implode against South Africa, no doubt aided by the plentiful vuvuzelas, which you will need to get used to. These plastic horns sported by almost every South Africa fan sound like a swarm of angry bees and caused havoc at the Confederations Cup in South Africa last summer.
This leaves France — winner in 1998 and runner-up in 2006 — a team that could prove to be the tournament’s biggest flop if it starts out on the wrong foot. France is the enigma team: It could fail to score a single goal and finish in the bottom of the group like in 2002, or it could make a run to the final like in 2006. It’s anyone’s guess. With a world-class but aging captain in FC Barcelona’s Thierry Henry and a coach who is universally despised in his own country, France will probably warm up slowly, but likely won’t face a real threat, save Mexico if it can manage to get its act together. Expect France to make it out of the group in first, only to falter in the next round.
Predictions: (1) France, (2) South Africa, (3) Mexico, (4) Uruguay
Daily Nexus soccer columnist Andrew Nossiter will be dishing out his group-by-group World Cup predictions every Thursday, so stay tuned!