Saturday, June 07, 2014

Are You Ready For Some Futebol? Jordan and Paolo Preview the World Cup (Providing Help for Neophytes Like Me)

On Thursday, June 12, the 2014 World Cup kicks off with a match between host country Brazil and Croatia.

I am not certain I will watch the game, but if I can, I will.

Not because I love soccer, or outside U.S. shores, football. (And in the Brazilian tongue of Portuguese, futebol.)

I'm really not an aficionado, not in the sense of avidly following a 90+ minute game that may well not even include a single goal.

With apologies to the billions who fervently love soccer--including, as featured below, two of my best friends--the game itself kind of bores me.

That said, I love the culture of soccer and how it--and the World Cup--unifies the world likely more than anything else.

So while I will not be watching every minute of every World Cup game, I will closely follow the tournament and relish what I do see.

This is in large part due to two of my closest friends, who are huge soccer fans.

Jordan, my best friend since kindergarten, is still a big baseball fan as we were growing up, but now watches much more soccer. Pretty much everything I know about what's happening in "football," whether in the English Premier League, Europe's Champions League or elsewhere, is because of his enlightening me.

Paolo, who I met at work in 2008, has not only lived in a good number of participating World Cup countries, he played soccer at Harvard. And as he did with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, he will be traveling to Brazil for all of the final matches--at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro--and perhaps a few others.

From www.fifa.com/worldcup/
So rather than trying to bluster my way through a half-fast World Cup preview cobbled from other sources of information, I just asked them for their help.

With hopes, in part, to enlighten rather casual fans like myself, what follows are their answers to my questions, with almost no editing on my part.

I'll simply add that I want Argentina to win because of superstar Lionel Messi, and not knowing any better, will even pick them to win. But Jordan and Paolo's predictions are undoubtedly much better than mine.

1. Best guess, who wins?

Jordan: Brazil. It's awful tough to discount the home field advantage. Assuming Brazil make it out of their group they do face possibly the toughest first round of 16 game. They will have to play one of Spain, Netherlands, or Chile. Yikes.

Paolo: Tough one. Spain COULD repeat, Brazil is home and formidable, but I'm worried about the Germans.

2. Three other teams that could win it all:

Jordan: Argentina, Spain, and Germany.

Paolo: Just the three I named, anything else would be considered a major upset. Super outside shot? Belgium and Argentina.

3. Who do you want to win?

Jordan: Argentina. Mostly because of Messi. Spain would be my second choice. They are already reigning two-time Euro champions and reigning World Cup champions. Three consecutive major titles is unprecedented but a fourth would be another order of magnitude of incredible.

Paolo: Spain

4. Which teams may do surprisingly well?

Jordan: Hmm. I guess South Korea and Japan. If either gets out of their group that would be a surprise possibility. Also I guess if Switzerland can win their group they would have a good chance to make it to the quarterfinals. It may sound weird but Italy could surprise. They never seem to be mentioned with the favorites but they have a chance to go very far. Unfortunately they lost Riccardo Montolivo to a broken leg in the friendly against Ireland. That could hurt them.

Paolo: Belgium, Croatia, and I really think the U.S.

5. Which teams may do surprisingly bad?

Jordan: The team that is pretty popular to call overrated is Belgium. I might overrate them as well. They have a bit of a "Golden Generation" happening right now but I think the reason I (and others) may overrate them is that they have a ton of very good to great players playing in the Premier League (Fellaini, Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Mirallas, Kompany, Lukaku, Hazard, Chadli, Mignolet (even though he's a back-up), and Dembele, They also have possibly the best goalkeeper in the world in Courtois) so a lot of people are very familiar with them.

Belgium are in the easiest group but they don't have a ton of international experience. If they come in second in their group they will probably face Germany in the round of 16 and that would likely end their tournament. If they win their group they could well face Portugal which isn't a walk in the park either.

Paolo: Mexico and England.

6. Assess the U.S. chances. Do you agree with the exclusion of Landon Donovan?

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Jordan: I could well be wrong but I expect the U.S. to be defeated heavily. Their defense looks like a shambles to me and I could see especially Germany and possibly Portugal putting a big score on them.

I probably don't know enough about the U.S. team to say if leaving Donovan out was the right move or not. Klinsmann (the U.S. head coach) knows better than I do though, that's for sure.

Paolo: If the U.S. loses respectfully vs. Germany (enabling goal differential to apply as a possible tie breaker), they need to draw with Portugal and beat Ghana. That possibly gets them into the second round. Once there they can upset anyone to get to the quarters.

Regarding Donovan, he was out of shape and I think he didn't set a good example. He's probably the greatest American player of all time, but he lost out to a youth movement.

7. Which teams should casual fans pay most attention to?
 
Jordan: That's a tough one. It sort of depends why someone is watching. If you can pick a team to root for that can help. Casual fans can't really tell much about the quality of play, and the quality of play is not always great, partly due to the players not playing together very much and partly because a lot of teams in the World Cup play a tight and cagey game. It's a huge deal and no one wants to make a mistake so a lot of the play can end up being pretty cautious.

France has some fantastic players and they can be exciting. Sometimes they implode but they can't implode any worse than they did in 2010 because that would be impossible. They left Samir Nasri off the team because he is a wanker, which made me laugh because I don't care for him. Nasri's girlfriend, upon finding out he had been left off the team, went on twitter and insulted the French team's manager, for which he is suing her. Ha ha.

As for style of play Chile might be the best team to watch. They're crazy. They go after people. It's very unfortunate that they are grouped with both Spain and the Netherlands which really limits their chances of advancing, but anything is possible. They are very, very good and I could see them taking second in their group behind Spain.

Argentina has superb attacking talent (including Messi of course) and a suspect defense which is an entertaining combination.

Brazil is always a must-watch but they do not play with the kind of flair that they have long been famous for. They are a little more workmanlike but they are still pretty awesome.

Paolo: Spain, Germany, Italy, Belgium

8. What will be the toughest group(s)?

Jordan: Group B is insanely brutal. Groups D and G after that. Groups C and H seem to be the most wide open as to who will advance.

Paolo: The U.S. are in the group of death (Group G, with Germany, Portugal and Ghana)

9. Please remind/enlighten us casual observers how World Cup play is formatted, in terms of the group stage and advancement from there.

Jordan: There are 8 groups--labeled A through H--of 4 teams each. A team plays one game against each of the three other teams in their group. 3 points are awarded for a win, 1 point for a draw. After the 3 games, if teams are tied on points the first tiebreaker is goal difference. The second tiebreaker is goals scored. The top two teams in each group advance to the round of 16. Teams that come in first place in their group are matched up against a team from another group that came in second. Once it gets to the round of 16, it is just a straight bracketed knock-out tournament.

10. Which games in the group stage are you most excited to watch?

Jordan: The order in which the games are played has an effect on this. Ghana v U.S. play their first game against each other on June 16th. That one is huge. If the U.S. can win that game they actually have a chance because their third game is against Germany. If Germany already have the group wrapped up by then that could benefit the U.S.

In theory England v Italy in the first game could be one to watch but it could end up being the type of game where neither team wants to take any chances and a 0-0 draw is a likely result. Also, it is being played in the jungle in Manaus and the heat will probably be a big factor.

Spain v Netherlands is massive. Two of the biggest teams. Argentina v Bosnia-Herzegovina could be a goal-fest. Serious attacking forces and not the best defenses could mean a chance of a lot of goals. Chile v Australia could be a big time beatdown (with Chile doing the beating down).

Otherwise we just need to wait until the third game of each group when we will know all the possible permutations.

Paolo: U.S. vs Portugal

11. Cite a good handful of players that fans should note besides Lionel Messi (Argentina) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal).

Jordan: Kerzhakov (Russia), Rakatic (Croatia), Pogba (France), Matuidi (France), Shaqiri (Switzerland), Sanchez (Chile), Di Maria (Argentina), Hazard (Belgium), Lukaku (Belgium), Pjanic (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Neymar (Brazil), Oscar (Brazil), Paulinho (Brazil), Gotze (Germany), Reus (Germany), Muller (Germany), Sterling (England), Sturridge (England), Barkley (England), YaYa Toure (Ivory Coast), Wilfried Bony (Ivory Coast), Joao Moutinho (Portugal), Guarin (Colombia)

Some players that would qualify but for serious injury concerns: Falcao (Colombia), Suarez (Uruguay), Diego Costa (Spain)

Not a comprehensive list by any means but here are some major players that come to mind who are out with injury: Montolivo (Italy), Benteke (Belgium), Montes (Mexico), Edwin Valencia (Colombia)

Paolo: So many. Look for the young U.S. striker Aron J├│hannsson, also don't sleep on Iniesta (Spain)

12. What are some compelling storylines, whether about country rivalries, FIFA, coaches in trouble, etc.?

Jordan: The most compelling storyline has to be a combination of the upcoming (and continuing) civil unrest in Brazil and the despicable corruption of FIFA. I'll admit I don't even know close to all of the details and won't try to list the things I am aware of here. Perhaps Paolo has a more informed perspective. What I do know is that FIFA is utterly corrupt and I believe its president, Sepp Blatter, should be in prison.

Especially where events like the Olympics or the World Cup are involved there is always a massive amount of corruption and human rights violations involved.

This is an article about the kind of corruption to which I'm referring, and I will be reading this book as
soon as I can get my hands on it.

On the sporting side, the second game of the group stage between  Uruguay and England and the possibility of Suarez facing many of his Premier League opponents and also many of his teammates at Liverpool is fascinating.

Also, Coach Jurgen Klinsmann taking the U.S. to face Germany.

Paolo: Brazil will be considered a disaster if they don't get to the at least the semi-finals, same for Spain and Germany.

13. Please cite any helpful resources for following the World Cup; television outlets, websites, apps, media coverage, etc.

Jordan: Every game will either be on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC. All games will also be available streaming on ESPN3.

This link shows all games and the American broadcast outlet on a daily basis.

I tend to stick to the U.K. for most of my information, mostly the Guardian and the BBC.

I listen to a quantifiable butt load of podcasts. Some of them are:

The Guardian, Football Weekly

World Soccer Talk (they are also doing a series with individual episodes devoted to previewing each team)

Second Captains - This is an Irish podcast and I'm not sure what the extent of their coverage will be and it may be interspersed with Gaelic football and hurling.

Men In Blazers - For me, this is the most entertaining podcast of all, though it may not be everyone's cup of tea as it has a lot of inside jokes and therefor may not seem to be the most informative, but I think it is the funniest.

Also, the FotMob app has real-time soccer scores from around the world, so should be a good resource for those who just want the scores. There is also FotMob.com.

Paolo: FIFA.com; FIFA.com/worldcup

(Seth: This Grantland.com article provides more in-depth tips for following the action, but could be helpful for non-full-time football aficionados.)  
 
Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro
14. Paolo, what games will you likely be attending?

Paolo: Have tickets to semifinal, the third place and final games Secured. May scalp a quarter final if possible.

15. Anything else not covered above.

Jordan: I'm sure I could go on but I decided to keep it brief.

And there you have it. Enjoy the action and all the communal aspects of the World Cup.

Many thanks to Jordan and Paolo for providing great insight. And if Argentina doesn't win, well, don't cry for me. I won't be betting on it.

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