By JP Pitcher
With the month-long World Cup starting June 11th in South Africa, it will be important to know what exactly is going on, especially because it will be all over the news until mid-July. It’s the most watched sporting event in the whole world, so don’t get caught in the dark and take this opportunity to impress everyone by your soccer knowledge. To put this in perspective, 715 million television viewers watched the 2006 World Cup Final between Italy and France, compared to 151 million viewers for this year’s Super Bowl. Obviously, this is a big deal. First, let’s start with the basics of the tournament:
• There are 32 teams separated into 8 groups of 4 teams.
• In the first round, called the “Group Stage”, each group plays a round-robin style tournament, guaranteeing each team at least 3 games.
o A win is worth 3 points in the standings; a tie, 1; a loss, 0.
• The top 2 teams from each group advance to the “Knockout Stage”, where the World Cup turns into a 16-team single elimination tournament. Like March Madness, but with countries!
• The winner has bragging rights for four years until the next World Cup
The USA is looking to put themselves on the map as an elite soccer team, but they have a lot of work cut out for them in order to do this. Between 1954 and 1986, the US did not even qualify for the World Cup. This long drought brought dire consequences to the popularity of the sport in the country. While there are surely quite a few diehard soccer fans in the States, our country’s love for soccer does not even come close to being comparable to soccer’s popularity abroad. With this in mind, the US has played with a chip on their shoulder over the past decade. Their slogan, “Don’t Tread on Me”, which Nike uses on much of the national team’s apparel, signifies this. (Don’t Tread) In 2002, the Americans advanced all the way to the Quarterfinals, which was the furthest they had ever gone in the World Cup. The last World Cup in 2006 was not as kind to the US, as they were unable to advance out of the group stage. There is reason for excitement this year, mainly due to the States’ strong showing in the 2009 Confederations Cup, advancing to their first international Finals appearance but losing a heartbreaker to powerhouse Brazil 3-2.
US Players to Watch
The US is led by midfielder Landon Donovan (Link), who has 42 career international goals, the most in US national team history. His midfield mates DaMarcus Beasley (Twitter) and Clint Dempsey (Link) will also be key to whatever success the US has in South Africa. Goaltender Tim Howard (Link) has been the starter for the national team since Coach Bill Bradley took over 2007, so hopefully that experience will allow him to be comfortable on the world stage. These veterans will play an integral role in how far the team advances, however the US does have some young talent that will have a huge impact, most notably 20-year-old striker Jozy Altidore (Twitter). Altidore recently sprained his ankle in a training session, but the coaches have assured everyone that he will be 100% for England on June 12th. This is a very good sign for the States, because he is arguably the team’s most talented goal scorer behind Donovan.
This year, the US finds themselves in Group C with England, Algeria, and Slovenia. England is the clear favorite in this group, and the US will face them in their first game of the tournament on June 12th in a rematch of the Revolutionary War. England boasts some of the best players in the world in Wayne Rooney, John Terry, and Steven Gerrard. While a tie against England would be a moral victory for the US, it will be seen as a big disappointment if the US does not qualify for the Round of 16 by placing in the top 2 in this group. One can conclude this by looking at the latest FIFA rankings, which places England at #8, USA #14, Slovenia #25, and Algeria #30. While Slovenia and Algeria are no slouches, the 2010 World Cup would be a failure for the US if one of these teams advanced ahead of them.
Who else is there to root for just in case the Americans get bounced early from the tournament? Here’s a brief run-down of the favorites so you can choose your rooting interests appropriately:
Spain: Many experts’ favorite, Spain is the reigning 2009 UEFA Cup Champions and have some of the best players in the world, including Fernando Torres, David Villa, and Xavi. They were placed in a weak group and should be a lock for the Round of 16, but just reaching the knockout stage would be a huge letdown. Remember, the US beat Spain 2-0 in the Semis of the 2009 Confederations Cup in a huge upset.
Brazil: One of the favorites every year, the always-flashy Brazil boasts the best overall talent in the world and have no glaring weaknesses at any position. Their coach did face a lot of scrutiny for leaving star Ronaldinho off the roster, so it will be interesting to see how things pan out for the #1 ranked squad.
Argentina: Having perhaps the best player in the world in Lionel Messi could be enough for Argentina to make a serious run in the tournament. They had some trouble even qualifying for the World Cup though, so there are some definite question marks that could cause a lot of crying in Argentina.
Netherlands: Their bright orange jerseys may be a fashion no-no, but their play could sometimes be considered a masterpiece. Ranked #4 in the latest FIFA rankings, they have turned into the trendy pick to win the whole thing. I’ll believe it when I see it, but they will surely be fun to watch.
Germany: Germany does not have the flashiest players, but their inspired team play gets them deep into tournaments consistently. If there is one thing that anyone has learned from watching soccer over the past few years, it is to never count the Germans out. They are solid.
Portugal: Many women will surely root for Portugal simply for heartthrob Christiano Ronaldo, who happens to also be the most expensive player in the world. While Portugal does not have the same overall talent as some of the other premier teams, they definitely have the pieces in place to make an exciting run deep into the tournament.
Italy: Champions of the last World Cup in 2006, Italy has not looked sharp in their most recent international appearances, mainly in the 2009 Confederations Cup. Either way, I can guarantee no team wants to face “the Azzuri” and their strong defense early in the tournament.