World Cup Preview, 2014

Mesut Özil and Angela Merkel

Group A

Brazil:

What better host for the World Cup than Brazil, king of soccer, resurgent economic power, known for vibrant culture and passionate fans? Alas, the bloom is already off that rose. There have been construction delays, construction deaths, and concerns about misappropriation of funds. A recent poll revealed that 60 percent of Brazilians opposed hosting the Cup, and president Dilma Rousseff’s popularity has dimmed in the face of widespread protests. Even modest aspects of the bid have flopped. The caxirola, a colorful percussion instrument intended to be Brazil’s answer to the vuvuzela, has been banned from stadiums because fans were using it as a projectile weapon.

Things look more encouraging on the field. The hosts are the presumptive favorites, boasting an exciting blend of experienced players and young talent. At last summer’s Confederations Cup, Brazil steamrolled the competition, winning all their games and crushing defending world champion Spain 3-0 in the final.

But doubts remain. Anything less than a win will be seen as a failure. The last time Brazil hosted a World Cup, in 1950, they were overwhelming favorites but lost to Uruguay in the final, deeply wounding the national psyche. Brazil’s most famous playwright described it as “Our Hiroshima.” Moacir Barbosa Nascimento, the keeper whose mistake allowed Uruguay to score the winning goal, became a national pariah. Women would point him out to their children as “the man who made all of Brazil cry.”

Barbosa was black, and his failure helped give rise to a lingering prejudice in Brazil against black goalkeepers. It took half a century for Brazil to field another one. In a recent interview, star forward Hulk was asked about the Maracanazo, and instead of brushing off the question with a platitude about how past results do not matter or pointing out that he was born some thirty years after the game in question, Hulk admitted that yes, he had watched tape of the game, it weighed on all the players’ minds, and he would do all he could to avoid making the fans that sad again. If I had to pick a winner, which I do, I would pick Brazil.

Croatia:

Croatia qualified over Serbia, winning the first ever game between the two countries. So, in a way, their World Cup is already a success no matter what happens in Brazil. Croatia has a good team but will miss veteran defender Josip Simunic, who was suspended after leading fans in a racially charged salute linked to the fascist puppet regime that ruled Croatia during WWII. His lawyers blamed the suspension, and the failure of his subsequent appeal, on “The Greater Serbian Lobby.”

Mexico:

Mexico enters this World Cup in disarray, having barely qualified from the confederation where they have traditionally been (along with the US) the dominant team. Chicharito Hernandez, theoretically one of the team’s best two strikers, had a miserable club season and will come off the bench. Carlos Vela, the other one, is in self-imposed exile from the national team after a fantastic season that showed just how much the national team could use his talents. He appears to be sulking after having been fined and suspended for bringing prostitutes to the team hotel in 2010.

Cameroon:

Cameroon’s most prominent players are either past their prime or rusty. The team exited in the first round last World Cup, and there is no reason to suspect they can do better this time around. Cameroon has a history of introducing innovative uniforms only to be told by FIFA that they can’t wear them. According to FIFA, the world is not ready for really cool-looking sleeveless uniforms or incredibly stupid-looking one-piece uniforms.


Group B

Spain:

The defending champion, Spain has a very real chance of becoming the first team to defend their World Cup title successfully since Brazil in 1962, and the first European team ever to win a World Cup held in South America. They still have more talent and depth than any other team in the world.

But Spain has trouble dealing with pace and very physical teams, as demonstrated in their loss to Brazil last year in the Confederations Cup final. Spain’s homegrown strikers have also declined to such an extent that the team’s best hopes currently rest on recently naturalized Brazilian Diego Costa. This makes Spain one of four countries bringing naturalized Brazilians in their squad to the World Cup, along with Portugal, Croatia, and Italy. What makes Costa different is that unlike the other naturalized Brazilians playing for adopted countries, he was good enough to play for Brazil—and indeed the Brazilian team made overtures—but he chose to play for Spain instead. Costa ought to enjoy his trip back to Brazil this summer. Depending on how things shake out, he may never be permitted to visit again.

Netherlands:

In 2010, the Dutch overperformed and made the final. However, lightning does not strike twice unless you are notoriously unlucky Shenandoah National Park Ranger Roy Cleveland Sullivan—in which case, it strikes seven times between April 1942 and June 1977. The Netherlands will probably end up playing Brazil in the second round and will probably lose.

Chile:

Skillful, talented, and fun to watch, Chile had the poor luck of drawing Spain and the Netherlands in their group. Still, they are capable of pulling off a shock and eliminating one of the favorites. Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal, when asked to explain his recent good form, said, “Why am I playing so well? Well that’s simple, because in my role I’m the best in the world. Many try to imitate my style, but I want to say one thing—I’m the best in the world.” So they shouldn’t lack confidence.

Australia:

Like the US, Australia prioritizes other sports over soccer and takes interest in the sport for however long their team survives in the World Cup. This time around, a difficult group and aging star players should allow Australian fans to get right back to cricket and rugby.


Group C

Colombia:

Touted as a potential dark horse, Colombia finished second in South America during qualifying. Unfortunately, their top scorer and best player, Radamel Falcao, was unable to recover from injury in time for the World Cup. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos had visited Falcao in the hospital (in Portugal, a country Santos had no other reason to visit) post–knee surgery to wish him a speedy recovery. This is a perfectly acceptable use of a head of state’s time, and one I wish more American presidents would adopt.

Greece:

Greece still has a number of players who starred on their European Championship-winning team in 2004. That team was known for their extremely defensive and unattractive style of play. Being ten years older and slower has not made their players more exciting to watch.

Ivory Coast:

Last World Cup, the Ivory Coast was viewed as the African team with the most potential to make a splash at the first tournament held in Africa. Unfortunately, a tough group and an injury to star striker Didier Drogba kept them from making it out of the first round. The team is a little bit weaker this time around, but their group is easier and they still have the talent to make a run.

Japan:

A few of the Japanese players are very good. Most are not.


Group D

Uruguay:

Uruguay’s best player is Luis Suarez, who was once suspended for ten games for shouting racial abuse at another player and has also been caught biting another player on two separate occasions (a different player each time). I do not believe Luis Suarez is a racist or a cannibal. He is simply a fanatically competitive, high-functioning sociopath. In life, this kind of personality has its drawbacks. But for a professional athlete, it’s ideal. If Suarez can play well and refrain from biting or racial taunting (or at least refrain from getting caught), Uruguay will go far.

Costa Rica:

Mediocre players and a tough group should send Costa Rica home early. Fortunately, their home has thousands of beautiful butterflies.

England:

At this point one knows what to expect from England at a major tournament. The midfield will struggle to find an appropriate balance. The team will exit some time before the semifinals, probably in the round of sixteen. British pundits will search for answers. This search will involve using the phrase “as the inventors of the sport” and will arrive at the erroneous conclusion that the influx of foreign players into the English league has prevented English players from getting the proper chance to develop.

Italy:

After a disastrous World Cup in 2010, when Italy exited in the first round without a win in three games (even though one of those games was against New Zealand), the team has successfully rebuilt. They found a new coach and some new players, and respectable results followed. They should make the second round.


Group E

Switzerland:

There is no hard evidence that Switzerland receives preferential treatment from FIFA, and perhaps they do not. That said, FIFA is based in Switzerland, the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, is Swiss, it is widely alleged that FIFA is corrupt and bases many of its decisions on under-the-table money transfers, it is widely accepted that Sepp Blatter is corrupt, and the Swiss certainly seem to do rather well in ‘random’ draws. Switzerland qualified out of a ‘randomly’ selected group in which the next best team was Iceland, which has never qualified for a World Cup and has a population of 300,000, not including invisible elves. FIFA’s largely arbitrary computer ranking system subsequently seeded Switzerland over countries such as Holland (who were finalists at the last World Cup), and Italy (winners in 2006) despite the fact that Switzerland’s last notable soccer achievement was a silver medal at the 1924 Olympics.

Ecuador:

Ecuador was 7-0-1 (wins-losses-draws) playing at home during World Cup qualifying. They were 0-4-4 on the road. Ecuador plays their home games in the Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa in Quito, at an elevation of 9,350 feet. This World Cup will be held at sea level.

France:

Over the past four Cups, France has alternated between making the final (1998 when they won, 2006 when they lost to Italy) and combusting in the first round (2002, 2010). The French public has alternated between rabid support for the team and racially tinged condemnations of the players’ lack of patriotism and effort. According to the law of alternation, France is due a good World Cup. But another way to construe those results is to say that France can reach the finals with Zinedine Zidane, and French fans can rally behind an immigrant when that immigrant is Zidane. When he is injured (2002) or has retired (2010), the team plays poorly, and the French public’s attitude toward Arab and black players more closely resembles the French public’s attitude toward Arabs and blacks in general.

Honduras:
You may be wondering, given Ecuador’s record at sea level, just who Ecuador could beat without the advantage of playing on top of a mountain. The answer is Honduras.


Group F

Argentina:

Argentina has quite possibly the best player in the world in Lionel Messi. They also have so many talented strikers that Carlos Tevez, who would start for almost any other team in the world, did not even make the squad. If the rest of the team were this good, Argentina would be one of the favorites. Unfortunately the defense is of such poor quality that coach Alejandro Sabella admits, “Sometimes, I have to cover my face when the opponents are attacking.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina:

This may not be the most politically sensitive proposal, but let me say that if Yugoslavia were to be reunited, its soccer team would be amazing. Bosnia and Herzegovina, playing in its first ever World Cup as an independent nation, has a number of dynamic, talented attacking players and, in a relatively easy group, could well advance. Croatia has a deep and talented midfield. Serbia failed to qualify but has one of the best defenses in the world. Add three or four decent Montenegrins and Macedonians, plus one good Slovenian goalkeeper, and you have a team that would surely contend to win the whole thing.

Iran:

In 2009, seven Iranian players wore green armbands in support of the Green Movement during a game against South Korea. Conflicting reports suggested those players had either been banned or encouraged to “retire” from the national team. However, many of them went on to play for the national team again. It is unclear whether no sanction was actually issued, or if Iranian officials had a change of heart. That’s about as interesting as Iranian soccer gets.

Nigeria:

The defending African champions should vie with Bosnia for second place in the group. Nigeria won their group at both the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, and in each case was unlucky not to make the quarterfinals. The team has regressed in recent years, though, and has yet to match either their results or quality of play from the 1990s.


Group G

Germany:

The Germans have a good blend of veteran stars and exciting young players. They are probably third favorites after Brazil and Spain. German teams traditionally play with pace, power, and efficiency, but this squad also features a rather un-German amount of flair and creativity. Much of this is due to star playmaker Mesut Özil, whose tendency to vacillate between anonymity and game-changing magic is more typically Dutch or Argentine. Özil is of Turkish descent, and Angela Merkel occasionally shoehorns him into awkward photo ops in order to demonstrate her commitment to multiculturalism. In the photos, Özil, who resembles Buster Keaton, always looks puzzled and just the slightest bit uncomfortable. In fairness, that may just be his default expression.

Portugal:

Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo, when asked why opposing fans and players seem to single him out for abuse and resentment, said, “because I am rich, handsome and a great player.” Another reason could be statements like that one.

Ghana:

For the past two World Cups, Ghana has eliminated the US. Also for the past two World Cups, I have gotten in touch with Ghanaians I played soccer with in college, assured them of a US victory, and had to eat my words. Look for history to repeat itself on the field and on my Facebook page.

USA:

The draw was unkind. We are in a group with the top-ranked team in the world in Germany (this is according to FIFA, but still), the team with the player recently named the best in the world (Cristiano Ronaldo), and the team that always beats us (Ghana). In addition, our best player (Michael Bradley) left a European club team where he was playing at the highest level for the comforts and inflated salary of the MLS, our team captain (Clint Dempsey) did the same, and our top striker (Jozy Altidore) had a comically inept season. Consequently, coach Jurgen Klinsmann, whose new contract runs through 2018, seems to be treating this World Cup as practice for the next one, cutting established players like Landon Donovan and Clarence Goodson and filling out the squad with teenagers.


Group H

Belgium:

The only noteworthy thing about Belgian soccer used to be the Ebony Shoe, an annual award of questionable taste given to the best black player in Belgian soccer. This could be an African playing in Belgium, or a Belgian of African descent. Recently, the Belgian team has had a renaissance, and their current squad is packed with star players from top teams across Europe. These include multiple Ebony Shoe winners as well as players who were ineligible for the Ebony Shoe because Belgium did not create a creepy award to reinforce their otherness. Belgium should be quarterfinalists at least.

Algeria:

Algeria has not won a game at the World Cup since 1982.

Russia:

This will be Russia’s warm-up before they host in 2018. If the Sochi Olympics were the sporting event where everyone learned about Russia’s gay rights issues, the 2018 World Cup could be the sporting event where everyone learns about Russia’s attitudes towards black athletes.

In the past few years, Russian fans have bid farewell to a departing black player with a banner festooned with bananas and sent an open letter to Zenit St. Petersburg, a major Russian team, stating, “We’re not racists, but we see the absence of black players at Zenit as an important tradition.” This past year, CSKA Moscow fans chanted racist slogans and made monkey noises towards visiting Ivorian midfielder Yaya Toure. CSKA Moscow then responded to Toure’s official complaint by releasing a fabricated quote from their own Ivorian player, Seydou Doumbia, saying that there were no chants during the game and that Toure simply had an overactive imagination. An embarrassed Doumbia felt obligated to go against his employers and reveal that he had said no such thing.

Republic of Korea:

Korea requires all male citizens to do two years of military service before the age of 30. This includes professional athletes. Athletes can earn exemptions for achievements such as winning an Olympic or Asian Games medal or going far in the World Cup (as Korea did in 2002). On the one hand, this robs the team of players in the prime of their careers. On the other, few things motivate an athlete like trying to avoid a massive pay cut and relocation to the DMZ.

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