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Everyone in the world seems nervous

Ten days away from the start of the world cup and every soccer fan, or at least the writers, seem to be losing faith. No matter where you look, it seems every country is heading for trouble. Except, perhaps, the US, where as usual, barely a peep is heard about the national team. Ironically, they’re the team with the most to worry about.

Even Brazil seems rattled right now. Edmilson is off due to a knee injury. Ronaldinho claims to be so tired he can barely stand. They’re even worrying about how many sausages Ronaldo has been tucking-in. While everyone else is tuning up with actual national teams, Brazil is playing against children (under-21 sides from club teams). I guess they know what they’re doing, but even the fans of the undisputed best team in the world are getting concerned.

Most teams are still nervously tinkering with line-ups. Some of this is just to give the regulars a rest, and much of it is over-blown, but Germany is still desperately searching for a defense. Any idiot would know just to throw Ballack, Klose, and Schweinsteiger up front, but you’d think they’d have had the back sorted sometime before now. It doesn’t look like they can stop anyone. Klinsmann should have had nothing else to think about for months. Apparently, a California beach isn’t conducive to that sort of thinking.

England has the whole Rooney saga. That’s shaping up to be their next ’if only …’ excuse. As in ’if only the plane hadn’t crashed in Munich’ , ’if only Maradona hadn’t cheated’, ’if only Becks was healthy’. They pull a new one out every four years–some lame, some not. They do look a bit lost right now with Owen alone up front. They actually look a little better with the novelty act, Frankenst–er I mean, Crouch in there with him, but Sven is right not to trust that. So the tinkering continues there. Including throwing a 17 year old who doesn’t even play for his club team into the mix. They’ll be ok with or without Rooney–but only ok, and that’ll never be good enough in Blighty. They’re right to be worried.

Italy is being overwhelmed with the match fixing scandal. Practically everyone on the national team has a link to it. The consensus seems to be that that distraction is going to be too much for them, and they’ll quickly duck back home in shame. Maybe a proper problem like this is just what they needed to keep the focus somewhere else than on their game. The only other thing they’ve been whining about was that Luca Toni misses too many chances. He only led the universe in scoring–how many did they expect him to stick in? But, that’s the Italians. They have a habit of inventing disasters, maybe they’ll do better if they already have a real one. For ninety minutes they can just go out and play and forget about everything else. See if that works–nothing else was.

Anyway, it seems no one is comfortable right now. That’s as it should be. The tension is building, and suddenly everyone has doubts. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Here it Comes

The World Cup. In just a few short weeks, the greatest sporting event on earth is going to bring most of the planet to a virtual halt. London will be left to the tourists. Spaniards will skip their siestas. Even the French will be bothered. Germany will be mobbed. From the poorest tribal village in Angola, to the coca fields in Costa Rica, to the beaches of Trinidad, people will be tuning in to follow the fortunes of their country. To discover the one team that can rightfully boast of being World Champions. Playing a game the whole world plays, but an infinitely better competition than that other world-wide event also held every four years. In the World Cup, there are no races were the winner and loser is separated by smallest fractions of a second. No judges to decide who makes the prettiest circles on the ice. Just two teams of eleven men with strength, quickness, and sublime skill, going at it full speed for 90 minutes. There will be heartbreak, controversy, and just plain bad luck to moan over. Villains to jeer. New heroes to cheer. But, at the end, one country will reign supreme. Champions of the World in the one true, world-wide sport. The beautiful game. Soccer.

Sorry, it won’t be the US. Not this time. Their gaudy ranking of 4th or 5th in the world is frankly ridiculous. They had a surprisingly good showing in Japan at the last World Cup and then played nothing but minnows for the four years in between. They won’t get any respect in the rest of the world until they actually earn some. Mexico is not Brazil. Canada is not Italy. The US is a decent mid-level team that is about to get clocked by some powerhouses. Italy and the Czech Republic will advance from the group and the Americans will limp back home to the one country that will barely notice.

No matter, there’s still so much to enjoy. Pick a team, there’s one for every imaginable taste, and go along for the ride.

Brazil is the team that must be on everybody’s short list. They still boast the flashiest, most brilliant players. They’re sickeningly good. An absolute joy to watch if you’re a neutral, but 90 minutes of dread if they’re playing your team. They have the best player in the world right now in Ronaldinho. Their only problem is that sometimes they care more about putting on a show than winning one.

The host country generally fares well, so Germany has to get consideration. They have an easy group and a possible meeting with a beatable England in the second round, so they could be well on their way without breaking much of a sweat. They don’t have a lot of firepower, but close games on their home turf are likely to fall their way.

Surely, Italy can’t go on being snakebit forever. Their karma is awful, though, if you believe in such things, and it’s starting to appear that they do. Constantly playing for 1-0 wins is dangerous. Hopefully they’ve learned that by now. They are due for some good fortune if anyone is. But, the understanding is the refs will be legit in the Cup, unlike theirs at home. That could take some getting used to.

My heart belongs to England. That’s where I learned to love the game. Their Premier League is the most exciting in the world along with being the easiest to follow from the States. I would love to see them win. They won’t, though. Injuries are nagging their already delicate team. Most hopes were shattered with Wayne Rooney‘s foot a couple of weeks ago. Their young, superstar striker will likely play, but will limp around ineffectually, much like David Beckham did in the last World Cup.

Need a dark horse? Get on Portugal. Almost no one seems to be talking about them. Scolari is probably the best coach in the world, and this team is just rock solid throughout. He’s very good at taking a bunch of egos and getting them to play well together, and that’s what he has here. Figo in his swan song. The irksome, Christiano Ronaldo in what could be his break-out tournament. The always dependable Pauleta. They‘re going to be tough to beat.

The truth is, any of about 16 of the teams have a legitimate shot at winning it all. With a little luck, and a great game on a given day, it could happen for any one of them. Part of the thrill is that for about 10 of the other teams, it’ll be considered a huge triumph to make it out of the first stage, and a couple of them will. You have to root for tiny Trinidad and Tobago, and war ravaged Angola just for making it there. Iran will be there, but their women won’t be allowed to watch. Every match will have story. Kick back with the rest of the world for the month. See what all the fuss is about. 6 billion people are not wrong.