Friday, June 09, 2006

OLA....OLA, OLA, OLA!

So, here we are: The World Cup. As promised, I've called upon Stats, a true soccer expert, to give you a preview of this year's Cup. Before turning it over to him, however, I have a couple of things to cover:

1) I'd like to organize a WAD viewing of the U.S.' first game on Monday for all of you in Atlanta. I was thinking somewhere in midtown. Probably Jocks and Jills on 10th. Email me if you are interested. I'll post futher details on Monday based on the emails I receive.

2) I promised Stats I would edit his preview, but I lied. I didn't touch it. So, what appears below is simply Stats Raw. That sounds like something Jim Rome would say, so I know Stats will love it!

3) Listen, I'm not ashamed to admit that all talk of soccer that doesn't involve the United States absolutely bores me to tears. That being said, a lot of people love soccer no matter who is playing, and that is why the World Cup is such a huge deal. As a sports fan, I may not really get it, but I sure as hell respect it. As for me, however, the only three questions you will hear me ask during The World Cup are a) When does the U.S. play?; b) Are the French out yet?; and c) Are the Iranians out yet? That's about as deep as I can get when it comes to soccer. But, hey, I'm trying.

So, without further ado, here's Stats Raw on The World Cup:

After 4 years, the World Cup is around the corner. I'm sure you're sick of hearing that it's the most watched sporting event in the world. Even those who dislike soccer feel compelled to watch the Copa Mundial... but why? It's for one simple reason - it's the ONLY major team event where undoubtedly THE BEST of the world are represented in one tournament. Sure, David Stern is making amazing strides at turning the NBA into a world game, there is a World Hockey Championship, and this past year we witnessed the greatness and joy that is the World Baseball Classic. But you cannot definitively say each nation in the world is given a chance to compete in these sports (or even know they exist). Granted, it's doubtful the next Albert Pujols is sitting around somewhere in Kenya, but who knows? If 15 years ago someone told you perhaps the best player in the NBA would be some Polish-German named Dirk, you'd probably tell him to get lost. So, any fan of sport, of competition in general, is compelled to witness this mega-event pitting the best of the best against each other, where every party no matter how small was invited to the dance. After 4 years of qualifying, only 32 remain.

If I haven't lost you yet, here's a breakdown of the groups and some predictions. First of all, the World Cup is 2 stages- beginning with a group stage, where the 32 teams are divided into 8 groups. Each group plays a round-robin tournament against the other members of its group. The top 2 from each group advance to the 2nd round of 16, which follows the traditional one-and-done play-off bracketing. These groups were set up by some bureaucrats similar to the manner done with March Madness, so they are often very questionable.

Group A: Germany, Poland, Costa Rica, Ecuador

Germany, the host country, drew perhaps the easiest group on the way to the round of 16. Anything short of finishing first in this group will mean coach Juergen Klinnsman will be looking for a new job. It's not so much that the Germans are really one of the better teams in the tournament- it's more to do with the fact this group is just that weak. Poland should prevail in the 2nd position. Costa Rica should fight with Poland to advance with Ecuador bringing up the rear.

Group B: England, Sweden, Trinidad and Tobago, Paraguay

Another relative no-brainer is England emerging #1 here. England is the always trendy pick to win by many "experts" (but they usually fall flat- think the Gonzaga of the World Cup). Sweden should advance but look for Paraguay to put up a fight for 2nd. Trinidad and Tobago will be able to tell their grandchildren they got to play in the World Cup.

Group C: Cote d'Ivoire, Netherlands, Serbia-Montenegro, Argentina

A fun thing for soccer fans to do after the draw is to debate which group is the toughest to predict, the group where anyone could go home, the "group of death". A lot of have said that title belongs to Group E (the US group), but this one is downright nasty as well. The favorites to advance are the Netherlands and Argentina, each with a storied history in the sport among the world's elite. But in the words of Lee Corso, "not so fast my friend". The Ivory Coast lost the African Cup in penalty kicks, and anyone who's watched the past few World Cups knows there always seems to be an African team that comes out of nowhere to make a run deep into the 2nd round. Very similar to some WAC or Mountain West team doing just well enough that the BCS is forced to give them a bid. And if you haven't been watching the NBA over the last 10 years, the Balkan countries can produce some mean athletic talent, and it's no different in soccer. Argentina or Netherlands will win this group, but the one that doesn't won't advance, behind either the Ivory Coast or Serbia-Montenegro. How's that for a prediction - one that might get you shot in Buenos Aires, and won't get you many freebies in Amsterdam.

Group D: Angola, Iran, Portugal, Mexico

Our neighbors to the South (and West, North, East) should battle with Portugal here for 1 and 2. I'll say Portugal squeaks by Mexico for the number 1 spot, in a tiebreaker. The rest is academic. Iran will be sent home cursing the Israeli plot to keep them out of the next round, and Angola would be happy with a single draw in group play.

Group E: Ghana, Italy, Czech Republic, United States

Whoever set up the groups must like America like Shalloway likes Bush.
George W. Bush, that is. This group was not what America wanted to hear. Kind of funny that Mexico is just a hair better than the US and they landed the crap group that they did, and the US got stuck here. But oh well, if the US makes it out, it will be greater the accomplishment. I really don't need to say much about Italy, who are always a team often picked to win it all. What can you say? All their players play for the top teams in Europe and they have arguably the best domestic league in the world. I can't say anything negative because I know the Wad's family might read this page, and I don't want to get whacked. The Czech's are the number 2 team in the world according to FIFA (which stands for federation international football association... I think... or at least that sounds good). The United States is actually number 5 in the world, which, to make a point, is like the Tennessee Volunteers getting a 2 seed in this years NCAAs. A more accurate ranking for the US is probably 10. Ghana, in all honesty, I know nothing about, besides the fact at least one African team makes a run at it each year, so you can't count them out. In order for the US to advance, they'll need to definitely beat Ghana, and probably win against either Italy or the Czechs, and possibly even draw the other game. This group will be very tough, I see a lot of 1-0 and 1-1 games. Which actually favors the US, because they lack the skill to score an abundant amount of goals but are strong in the defense and in goal.

Group F: Japan, Croatia, Australia, Brazil

Not much to say here. Brazil is the favorite to win it all, though a South American country hasn't won the World Cup on European soil in ages (I've heard some say never, others say back in the 1940's or earlier, I'm too lazy to look it up, point is, for our purposes it's never happened. This group is actually a lot tougher than they might appear to most. Croatia is probably the favorite to land the #2 slot, and they have some tremendously talented players. However, Japan has made strides in both the domestic and international arena in the last 15 or so years, and many believe the Aussies have their most talented team ever. Brazil, and then a logjam for
2nd- this might be one of the more interesting groups to watch. It might come down to who loses by the least to Brazil (the first tiebreaker is goals differential).

Group G: Togo, South Korea, France, Switzerland

Believe it or not, much like Tony Parker, the French can ball. I don't know if they will have Longoria quality on the sidelines, but they should win this group. This is the farewell tour for perhaps the best player over the last decade or so, Zinedine Zidane (a French born Muslim - not quite as interesting as Roberto Baggio, captain of the '94 Italian side, who was a Zen Buddhist). South Korea is a tough team with a lot of international experience and should get the 2nd spot. Just because the Swiss are European and surrounded by soccer powerhouses doesn't mean they are good. Just because nobody knows where Togo is does mean they will suck, however.

Group H: Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Spain

I'm calling my first "upset" in this group, if not for the only reason being I haven't gone out on a limb yet, and conservative predictions are for wimps. Picking an upset is great, by the way, because even if you lose, you can win if your team just puts up a good fight. Especially if you can bullshit as well as the Wad and argue that a 20 point loss in the NCAA tournament was a "lucky game" where the favorite should have gone down. I'm picking Ukraine to win this group. Why not? I can't pick the Saudi's. And forget Tunisia. That leaves the Ukraine. Spain seemingly chokes in every big tournament. I still like them to finish 2nd, and who really cares about the Saudi's and Tunisia.

Closing note- Don't be surprised if the World Cup, to put it frankly, sucks, and many of the "better teams" fall flat on their face. It's interesting in the short history of the aformentioned other "world championships", we've seen Canada get knocked out of hockey, and America lose in baseball and basketball. The fact of the matter is, like those competitions, these are pro players whose primary concerns are with their club teams and paychecks. You can argue that this is different, that this is about history and nationalism, but deep down the same strain of "why should I risk my ass in this BS tournament" exists for the players here as well. One could argue the level of play in major club competitions in Europe is superior to the World Cup- much like one could argue the NBA finals champion could probably beat a quickly assembled team of "elite"players.

But that doesn't mean the World Cup can't be enjoyable. The fun is in watching players from countries like Ivory Coast, a country torn by war, forgetting that to play. Teams like Iran, a country entangled in geopolitics and targeted by the world community, forgetting that to play.
Fans from all over the world, many whose teams didn't even qualify for the World Cup, meeting in Germany to celebrate with others who love the game.

Proven champions making their last farewell, and unheard of teenagers seeking to prove themselves to the world. These are the things that make the World Cup great, and why it should be watched.


WAD Note: I don't know about ya'll but that last part almost got me a little choked up. Very Jim Nantzesque. Very nice work all around Stats....Rack 'em!