Wednesday, June 7, 2006

World Cup Preview

With the Major League's credibility as a sport hanging by a thread no thanks to steroids and unchecked free agency, the Texas Rangers basically on cruise control in the NL West, and the Houston Astros blowing up before Roger Clemens even throws a ball, it's time to look elsewhere for summer sports to write about. (Yes, we're going to talk NBA Finals, but I'm saving that for tomorrow)

Thankfully, this summer, we at least have the World Cup to follow.

That's right, the World Cup, the only time in the U.S. sports calendar where one can actually watch soccer and not have to feel shame for doing so.

For my generation, I know that a lot of our parents signed us up for soccer when we were between 7 and 10, so even though we don't play anymore, the World Cup conjures up images of happier times for a lot of us.

Plus, it's a big worldwide event.

Most people in the U.S. may not know how offsides works, or what it takes to get a foul called in soccer, but then most people don't know what a "Yurchenko" or "triple lutz" is either, yet we watch the Olympics every 4 years.

The Big Stories

Overt Racism at Soccer matches. Much has been made in the press here in the U.S. about the overt displays of racism at European soccer matches, which I think comes as a shock to most Americans, because Americans seem to regard Europeans as either "enlightened" or "overly politically correct" depending on which side of the political fence you land on.

But it does happen, particularly because Europe has been homogenous for so many years of their history, and have suddenly had to deal with the mass influx of people wanting to enter rather than leave. Of course it doesn't help that facist parties in Europe appear to be on the upswing.

FIFA, the soccer bigwigs, have promised to deal with racist behavior using a range of penalties, including stripping a team of points. It remains to be seen how they will enforce this, and whether or not the penalty applies to similar cases, say, Iranians making any sort of anti-Semitic signs or chants. (German officials have already let one prominent anti-Semite from Iran into the country, who knows how many more could arrive? Hopefully the Iran crowds will have enough Iranian-Europeans to mitigate this sort of thing.)

Plus, to a certain degree, there's an issue of freedom of expression involved. Players of all races get catcalled for poor performance. If that player is of color, will that cause a team to lose 3 points? Will teams get docked points for making noise about a referee's call if that referee is not of European descent.

Should be interesting to follow as the tournament progresses.

Non-European teams in Europe - Just as European teams never seem to win when the tournament is played in the Americas or Asia, only one team from outside Europe has won a European-hosted World Cup (Brazil in 1958).

However the second could happen this year, as many of the traditional European powers (England, Italy, Spain, Germany, France) have serious questions going into this World Cup, whether from injury, lack of chemistry, tactical issues, or disappointing results. Also, many top leagues in Europe have tried to get talent wherever they could, and as a result, the development of native-born players has suffered.

South America and Africa have been huge beneficiaries of the European talent importation, as they not only have their best players playing against the best in the world, there is more space in their national leagues for development of young talent. It's also made it easier for their national teams to adjust to European styles of play.

Also, the CONCACAF region (the one the U.S. is in) managed to place a record 4 teams, and 3 of Asia's biggest soccer powers, Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia managed to qualify. Both Japan and South Korea, mind you, are coming off great results from the last World Cup.

That said, certain factors may work against the non-European nations. Second-tier soccer nations in Europe (Croatia, Czech Republic, Portugal, and Serbia-Montenegro) are also benefitting from the international search for talent by top European leagues in the same way that South America and Africa have been. So while the top teams may be suffering, the European contingent is still deep.

Also, thanks to upsets in the African qualifiers, Africa is probably fielding it's weakest contingent of teams ever. No offense to fans of Angola, Togo, or the Ivory Coast (whom, as Bono likes to remind us in the ESPN ads, enacted a cease-fire so everyone can watch the national team play), but they're not South Africa, Nigeria, or Cameroon and they don't scare people. (Ghana and Tunisia, with rosters that have European-based players, are a different story).

The U.S.A. and Group E

Many long time members of Sam's Army are looking at this group and probably having bad flashbacks. Back in 1990, when the U.S. began qualifying for the World Cup on a regular basis, the U.S. was placed in a group with Italy and Czechoslovakia. Needless to say, the U.S. did not fare well.

This time, the U.S. has a chance to extract a measure of revenge.

The Czech Republic, whom the U.S. faces on June 12, has been plagued by the injury bug and several of it's stars may be out. And while they did beat the host Germans recently, Italy is one of the oldest teams in the tournament, they are lacking in depth, and the last anyone saw the Italians in a World Cup, they were finishing second to Mexico in group play and getting beat by South Korea. It also doesn't help the Italians mentally that Italy's soccer federation is in the midst of a gambling scandal. Plus, the Italy-U.S. Game is in Kaiserslautern, home to the largest concentration of U.S. citizens in Europe thanks to nearby Rammstein AFB, making it the closest thing the U.S. will have to a home game in Germany.

That's not to say those games will be walkovers for the U.S. They're both going to be very difficult games for the U.S., and neither is going to go down without a fight, but those games are very winnable.

And then there's Ghana, who is younger, faster, and more athletic than any team in this group.

But the U.S. has one of it's best teams it's fielded since 1990, and Bruce Arena has this team better prepared mentally for a World Cup in Europe than his predecessor, Steve Sampson, did. In 1998, Sampson, like many coaches who worry too much about big game pressure, completely switched his tactics right before the start of the World Cup, and isolated his team from family, friends and injured team members. Naturally, the players were tight and the U.S. finished dead last. Four years later, Arena didn't make disruptive strategy changes, allowed the players to bring family, allowed injured team members to travel with the U.S. team, kept the team generally loose, and the U.S. actually made the quarterfinals. Arena plans to keep that same policy this time around.

The problem is the U.S. needs to win this group, not finish second, if they intend to make a serious run at a World Cup and finally stake a claim for soccer in America. Second place means playing Brazil, likely the champions of Group F. First place means playing either Croatia, Australia, or Japan and avoiding Brazil until the semifinals. While that still means playing Brazil, there's a huge difference in perception between making the second round and making the semifinals in terms of winning over the American public at large.

While second place in this group is likely, first place may be out of their reach. Ghana is most likely going to be the star of the group based on pure talent and athletic ability, and they can out hustle the U.S. and a depleted Czech Republic. Plus many of the "Black Stars" play in Italy and won't be intimidated by facing the Italians.

Group E Projection:

1. Ghana 2-0-1 (7 points)
2. U.S. 1-0-2 (5 Points)
3. Italy 1-1-1 (4 points)
4. Czech Republic 0-3-0 (0 points)

The rest of the field

Group A

Yes, World Cup hosts Germany have a rookie coach in Jurgen Klinsmann, and an inexperienced international squad, and they've been less than impressive in their runup against World Cup qualifiers Japan and Italy, but the Germans have been placed in a pool of teams that have their own issues, so a group win should be no problem at least.
If anyone has a chance to unseat Germany, in this Group, it's Poland. They were one of the highest scoring teams in the preliminary matches, and they're a little more than motivated after a disappointing 2002 Cup. They've got four years of pent up frustration to take out on the rest of the world.
Costa Rica comes in with one of the oldest rosters in the tournament, and a 3-match losing streak. It's doubtful they will improve on that come tournament time.
Ecuador, making it's second straight World Cup appearance, qualifield largely because they held serve at home in high altitude and won it's only road game in the high altitude of La Paz, Bolivia. Sadly, Ecuador is not scheduled to play in the Bavarian Alps once.

Group B

I'm picking Paraguay to be the surprise winners of this group. While Jose Luis Chilavert is no longer in goal for Paraguay, Justo Villar could very well be the next great Paraguayan netminder. Plus, this time the Paraguayans have something that previous Paraguayan teams didn't have: talent, depth, a bona fide scoring threat (Roque Santa Cruz), and a playmaker, (Nelson Valdez).
England, probably the most scrutinized and second-guessed team in the world, has waited with baited breath to see if striker Wayne Rooney has recovered enough from a hamstring injury. While he's "fit to play", that doesn't necessarily means he's 100%., and that first game against Paraguay's going to be brutal if he isn't at full strength. Still, they should make the second round.
While Sweden looked very impressive in World Cup qualifying, they went 0-1-2 in their warm up matches, all against non-qualifiers. As with any championship, you have to be playing well at the right time, and the Swedes need to turn it up a notch.
While Trinidad and Tobago will probably get waxed in all 3 games, MLS fans will probably recognize the name of Trinidad forward Stern John, who played 2 seasons with the Columbus Crew, and combined with Brian McBride to form one of the MLS's most effective forward duos in the league's early years.

Group C

When this group was assembled at the World Cup Draw, many labeled it the Group of Death. Now it's looking more like Argentina's group to lose.
Argentina is fielding it's youngest squad in recent memory. Aside from Hernan Crespo and Roberto Ayala, there aren't a whole lot of household names. At least not yet. Juan Riquelme inherits the #10 jersey, and while he's not Mario Kempes or Diego Maradona, he's a playmaker to be reckoned with. Riquelme's midfield mate Javier Mascherano helped Argentina win a gold medal at the Athens Olympics and is considered one of the best young players on this squad. And Lionel Messi is already drawing comparisons to Maradona.
This is the last World Cup for Serbia-Montenegro, as the last remnants of the former Yugoslavia are parting ways. But they may just get a parting shot in. On the pitch, they're a strong defensive team, which makes them dull to watch, but tough to play if you are facing them.
The Netherlands looked like strong contenders a week ago, then they lost 3 of their key players in a warm-up match against Australia, and are now on very shaky ground. Even if Philip Cocu, Wesley Sneyder, and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst return, their leg injuries will linger throughout group play.
The Ivory Coast has been a terrific "feel-good" story for this World Cup. We'd all like to see them do well simply because of all the internal strife that country has gone through. But, more than likely, the first-time participants are going to finish last because of a lack of "big game experience"

Group D

Mexico
or Portugal, basically, that's what Group D boils down to. Slight edge goes to Mexico because this team can really light up a scoreboard, and this group will come down to Goal differential
After a disappointing 2002, where they were posterized by Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley on the way to a disappointing finish, Portugal feels like it has something to prove. They were the second-leading scorers during Europe qualifying and are peaking just at the right time, winning all 3 warm-up matches.
While Iran was one of the strongest sides during Asian qualifying, they're really outclassed by the top 2 teams in this group.
Angola, I'm sure, would like to be known for something other than it's basketball team being on the wrong end of a Charles Barkley dunk. Sadly, the only thing people will remember about Angola's World Cup experience is that they got to play their former colonial masters, Portugal, once.

Group F

Brazil: 5 time World Cup champs, defending World Cup champs, defending South American champs, defending Confederations Cup champs, current world player of the year in Ronaldinho, stars at every position... How many more reasons do you want?
Out of the other 3 teams, Japan, the current Asian champions, are poised to follow up on 2002's second round appearance with experienced Europe-based players like Hidetoshi Nakata, Shusune Nakamura, Shinji Ono leading the team.
Croatia has been something of a disappointment since 1998, when they made it to the semifinals and Davor Suker won the scoring title. Most of the key players on that team have retired, so it's up to a bunch of new faces to return the Croats to glory.
Australia has been accused of using rough tactics after 2 yellow cards, 1 sendoff and 3 injuries to Dutch players in their 1-1 draw with the Netherlands, which is not the best way for the Soccerroos to start their World Cup, because now the refs will be watching more closely. Besides the chances of them improving on their 0-fer in the '05 Confederations Cup are a long shot at best.

Group G

France was a disappointment in 2002 after winning it all in 1998, but you can't keep Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry down for long. Les Bleus have been on fire in their warm-up matches.
South Korea blew through the last World Cup like a tornado, winning it's group, making the semifinals and leaving Poland, Portugal, Italy and Spain in their destructive wake.
Switzerland was thought to be a threat to move on, but they have had disappointing draws against the Ivory Coast and Italy recently.
Togo's chief tribal priest is predicting that his nation's squad will make the second round. Apparently they play soccer very differently in the astral plane.
Take that prediction with the same grain of salt as you would if Pope Benedict XVI made any sort of prediction about his native Germany.

Group H

Spain is the perennial bridesmaid of international soccer. They are always strong contenders in whatever competition they enter, but they never seem to win. Still, they've been blessed with a weak group and should win it outright on pure talent.
None of the rest of the sides have been all that impressive, but the Ukraine gets the edge because of their qualifying run and recent match results. And because of Andriy Shevchenko.
Tunisia and Saudi Arabia will be battling to stay out of the cellar. I leave it to you to figure out which is the worse of the two

Knockout stage

2nd round
Germany over England
Argentina over Portugal
Paraguay over Poland
Mexico over Serbia-Montenegro
Ghana over Japan
France over Ukraine
Brazil over U.S.A.
South Korea over Spain

Quarterfinals
Argentina over Germany
Mexico over Paraguay
France over Ghana
Brazil over South Korea

Semifinals
Argentina over Mexico
Brazil over France

Third Place
Mexico over France

Final
Brazil over Argentina
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