Remember comedian Jay Mohr’s talk show on ESPN back in 2002? Of course you don’t. It lasted only 16 seconds, but that was long enough for him to get in the one line that pretty much captured how the good ol’ U.S of A. has felt about the rest of the world’s favorite quadrennial sporting event:
“So, I hear the World Cup started this week. In a related story, my stones itch.”
It’s not enough that we simply ignore the beautiful game, we go out of our way to abhor it, to knock it, to dis it every chance we get. Not only do we dislike the sport, but we’re pretty damn proud of it. So, why us? What does the rest of the planet see that we don’t? Who cares. I’m not going to give you some social diatribe of how ignorant Americans are when it comes to what floats the collective boats of the world. There are actually plenty of soccer fans in America. If sportswriter John Q. Jaded and his ilk want to brag of their indifference to Ronaldo, Ronaldhino, Beckham and Landon (Donovan – he hasn’t quite reached one-name status), let them. They can sit in their caves, throwing darts at T.O and Barry Bonds, while the rest of us try to enjoy some riveting international competition.
This column is for those of us out there who actually plan on watching some of the World Cup, but might not know a whole lot about the event, its history or some lingo of the game. This is for those of us who might not know the difference between a red card and a red light (a red card means you’re automatically out of the game, while two yellow cards equal one red card).
Let’s get some of that lingo out of the way first. The pitch is the field of play, a cap is an international game started and a GOOOOOOOOOOOOALLL is what it sounds like when a foreigner scores. Kidding. That’s the world famous call of Andres Cantor, the Latino announcer who we will no doubt be hearing on dubbed over highlights.
A striker is an offensive player, a fullback is a defender, and a midfielder links the strikers and fullbacks and serve both the offense and defense.
Let’s use them in a sentence:
Ronaldo, one of the top strikers in the world, made the most of his cap by scoring a brilliant GOOOOOOOOOOOOALL on the pitch. Or something like that. We’ll work on it. In the mean time, go here for more definitions.
The FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) World Cup has been played since 1930, when Uruguay won the first title. It’s greatest upset occurred in 1950, when a motley group of American dishwashers, mailmen and mill workers knocked off mighty England, 1-0. Brazil has won five times, the Germans (aka West Germany) and Italians three times each and the Argentineans twice. The United States has only been as far as the quarterfinals, going in 2002 in South Korea.
So, does the U.S. have a chance at winning this thing? Well, maybe and no. The Americans have made enormous strides since going 40 years between qualifying (from 1950 to 1990) and have actually reached the top 5 in the FIFA world rankings while dominating the CONCACAF. They bring their best team ever into the Final (what they call the main World Cup competition). However, as Lee Corso would say: not so fast, my friend. An article by John Henderson of the Denver Post compares FIFA’s rankings to the credibility of the BCS and the CONCACAF to the Big Sky Conference. Maybe they’re not so powerful after all. They will definitely not be overlooked this time by the rest of the world, however.
Also, the Americans drew one of the toughest groups in the draw. They find themselves quartered with Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana in Group E. They would have to pull a major upset and get a little help to make it out of the group (where the top two advance), but it is possible. They knocked off heavily favored Portugal in 2002 and coasted into the round of 16 with a 1-1-1 record. On the other side of the coin, they could quite possibly go home winless.
Of course, Brazil is the heavy favorite. The brilliant Ronaldo (who is hurting), Ronaldihno and the ultra-experienced Seleção bring their pedigree and one-name wonders to Germany and expect no less than to take their sixth Cup back to Rio de Janeiro.
Host teams are always a force, as evidenced by France’s win in 1998 and South Korea’s surprising run to the semi-finals. In fact, host teams have won or played in the final nine times; so look for the Germans, led by Michael Ballack to go far. The Italians – if they can overcome a game-fixing scandal – are always formidable.
Second-tier contenders include France and Portugal, both looking to rebound from disastrous 2002 performances in which they failed to reach the second round, despite being heavily favored. France, in fact, didn’t even bother to score a single goal. Look for les Bleus, with a healthy and soon-to-be retiring Zinedine Zidane, to be much stronger. Also, many are predicting big things for the Spaniards, Czechs and the hooligan-wild English (by many I mean me).
Naysayers always contend that the World Cup is a showcase for pansies who flop like fish to the ground anytime they’re slightly grazed by an opponent’s essence – let alone their foot. Bonnie and Clyde didn’t go down as fast when bullets hit them, they’ll contend. Well, they may be right, but according to a BBC story, FIFA is ordering an NHL-style crackdown on fouls (including diving) with stiff penalties for referees who fail to adhere to standards.
So there’s a primer to start getting you ready for the the biggest event for the world’s most popular sport. Enjoy the next month, and, if you need any more incentive, some bars and pubs could be opening as early as 7 A.M!