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The 20th World Cup will kick off Thursday, June 12, in Sao Paulo when host Brazil plays Croatia in a Group “A” match. The Brazilians go into the 32-nation, 64-game tournament as an 11-4 favorite to lift the World Cup trophy for a record sixth time. Oddsmakers also have established Argentina as a 4-1 pick to win it, followed by defending champ Spain and Germany, both at 6-1. The United States is a 250-1 longshot. [June 11]
Comment: Here are predictions for Brasil ’14:
o Argentina will defeat Brazil in the final on July 13 at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium, site of Brazil’s nightmare 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the last match of the 1950 World Cup. This time, the Argentines will win an end-to-end thriller, 3-2, to capture its third world championship and its first in 28 years. Why? Because of Lionel Messi, who four years ago in South Africa played a part in several Argentine goals but scored only one. This time, the four-time FIFA World Player of the Year runs wild. Along with Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, the Argentine attack builds momentum against soft Group “F” opponents Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria, a momentum that only grows in the knockout rounds. In the third-place match, a banged-up Germany defeats an aging Spain … unless an outsider crashes the semifinals. Uruguay and Belgium are popular picks for that role, but Switzerland lurks.
o The U.S. will confound the experts, defy common sense, and advance out of Group “G”, the so-called “Group of Death”–and it won’t require a brutal tackle on Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. Juergen Klinsmann’s side has enjoyed an encouraging run-up to Brazil without suffering injury, and its considerable fitness level gives it an edge in the heat of coastal cities Natal and Recife and the Amazon jungle’s Manaus. Under Klinsmann the U.S. has become the attack-minded side it was not under then-coach Bob Bradley four years ago, and he has established a culture of winning, from placing first in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers to taking the 2013 Gold Cup to beating Italy in Italy. More important, he has instilled in his team the belief that it’s not just Germany that’s capable of a late miracle comeback. The U.S. enters its seventh straight World Cup without international stars, as usual, but as goalkeeper Brad Friedel, hero of the USA’s 2002 quarterfinal run, said in a recent interview, the Americans can do it as a team, if every player earns a 1-to-10 rating of 7 for every match.
o World Cup television viewership in the U.S. will dwarf the ratings numbers established at South Africa ’10. No matter where a World Cup is played, a World Cup game is scheduled to kick off in what is prime time in Europe, or close to it–the rest of the world be damned. With this being the first World Cup played in the Western Hemisphere in two decades, we Americans finally get reasonable game times: noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. EDT on most days. That’s a far cry from Korea/Japan 2002, when some games started at 2 a.m. on the West Coast. Meanwhile, greasing the skids is the fact that, with apps and expanded streaming services, this will be the most digitally interactive World Cup ever.
o ESPN/ESPN2/ABC has once again gone all-British with its play-by-play commentators. Ian Darke rightfully gets the choice assignments, including the final, but it will only influence more in the American soccer media to go Brit. A player, wearing a “kit” and a pair of “boots” and playing not on a field but a “pitch” will score two goals, which will be referred to as a “brace.” One goal will have been made possible by a teammate who, at “pace,” sends him an “inch-perfect pass.” That will leave the opposition “on its back foot” yet possibly inspire it into a “purple patch.” Anyway, look forward to another four-year period in which an increasingly number of Americans who know better refer to any singular thing in soccer as a collective: “France are,” “Uruguay are,” and the “Real Salt Lake are.” I are looking forward to it. Or we am looking forward to it.
o Americans who really, really don’t like soccer–that is, those who feel threatened by it–will dig in their heels even further over the next four weeks. Everyone from newspaper columnists and radio sports talkers to Internet commentators will call the World Cup a dull, overblown waste of time and make xenophobic remarks about the participating nations and their fans. But with each World Cup, their footing is growing more unsteady. Those cracks about foreigners and soccer can’t be so easily excused anymore, not with some of our cherished sports–like golf, basketball, hockey and tennis–now a virtual United Nations of participants. Those jokes about one-named Brazilian soccer players? See “LeBron,” “Kobe.” The argument that soccer in the U.S. is a game for kids? The estimated number of soccer players in this country has ballooned from 8 million in 1982 to 25 million today. Hard to believe that a few of those millions aren’t adult players, particularly when what we see at the local park doesn’t say otherwise. And the line about soccer and 1-0 games leaving Americans bored beyond belief? That kinda lost something with Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria four years ago. What’s left is the complaint that penalty kicks are ridiculous and the charge that players feigning injury make soccer players crying, whining wimps. PKs are ridiculous, and a Nobel Prize awaits the first person who figures out a better tie-breaker. As for the macho involved in playing soccer compared to more manful, manly and masculine American sports, you could start with the hundreds of thousands of soccer players recovering from concussions caused by head-to-head contact. Or ACL tears. Or you could go straight to last Saturday, when Italy’s Riccardo Montolivo and Mexico’s Luis Montes sustained broken legs–in friendlies.
o Finally, this official World Cup song will be forgotten three days after the Brazil-Croatia opener: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGtWWb9emYI
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