Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Look for the second part of this column, with breakdowns of groups E through H, in Thursday’s paper.
And so it begins — the FIFA World Cup 2014 kicks off this week with Brazil vs. Croatia on Thursday. For those of us who measure life in four-year increments, mostly students, Olympians and soccer fans, another one has just flown by. It seems like just yesterday we were gearing up for South Africa and wondering if stadiums and infrastructure would be ready. I seem to remember a strike or two looming on the horizon as well! Some things never change. Our kids were an earlier version of themselves and we were, too. Now he we are, four years later and another adventure is about to begin.
The infrequency of World Cups and their global prominence gives them a gravitas seldom found in annually held sporting events. The best players in the world may only get to play in one, a couple or, in the case of those from smaller nations like Gareth Bale from Real Madrid and Wales, none.
Chances have to be relished and seized. A young superstar like Brazil’s Neymar may take it for granted that there will be more to come but nothing is certain in the world. Want proof? Ask Theo Walcott the England and Arsenal star, taken to the World Cup in Germany in 2006 as a 17-year-old who never got onto the field, out of form in 2010 and left off the team and now tragically injured and out of this trip to Brazil. These things are fleeting.
WATCHING FROM AFAR
I’ll be watching from home as well. As the kids get older and their activities take preference, the travel budget is more geared towards ski camps and club soccer events than trips to Brazil.
Still, with the wall-to-wall, multi-platform coverage offered by the various media outlets, it will be harder to avoid than to find. Just this Sunday, the New York Times featured Neymar, of Brazil, on the cover of the Style section and Cristiano on the cover of the Magazine. One of the real joys of a World Cup is the random places that one ends up watching a game, often with complete strangers.
I look forward to finding a new spot or several to watch games as I follow my kids back and forth to Denver, entertain guests and head to Seattle.
Workplaces will no doubt suffer a drop in productivity as games are broadcast on computers and phones throughout the work day. No middle of the night viewing this time — the games will be on at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. mountain time.
Here is a breakdown of each group through the eyes of a social studies teacher and coach on summer break.
Group A: Group A features the odds on favorite and host country Brazil, matched up against Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon. This is a fascinating group with teams from four continents. Brazil has only hosted the tournament once, losing to Uruguay and sending the country into a funk that they didn’t break out of until a young Pele ushered in their era of dominance that started with a win in Sweden in 1958 and was followed up by wins in 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002.
I’ll be rooting for our neighbors, Mexico to get out of this group in second place to make my players at Battle Mountain High School and so many of our friends here in Eagle County happy, though I won’t forget to remind them about the woeful qualifying campaign that they had. Mexico are only in the World Cup because of a late goal by U.S. player Graham Zusi in our very last qualifying game that put Panama out and Mexico in.
Don’t overlook Croatia, however, with the diminutive and skillful Luka Modric pulling the strings in midfield, as he does for Champions League winners Real Madrid. Cameroon also recently tied Germany in a friendly, 2-2 and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Group B: Group B is a blockbuster of a group, featuring the two finalists from 2010, Spain and the Netherlands, as well as a very good Chile side and the plucky Australians.
The Aussies are always in with a chance due to their immense pride, huge traveling support and nationalism. I remember seeing them play in Kaiserslautern, Germany, in 2006 where they were only a few minutes away from getting a shock result against the Italians and sending them home early. The fans reminded the Italian, “Azzuri,” throughout the game of the consequence of the match by singing, “You’re blue, you’re white, you’re going home tonight.” A late penalty put Italy through and they went on to win the World Cup!
Be sure to watch Chile play in this World Cup. They feature an up tempo, fast, pressing style where they try to win the ball back in the other team’s end rather than sit back and try to counter attack as many other teams will do.
Spain rules the world as it has at no time since the Spanish Armada sailed and the conquistadors plundered South America. Can they repeat that dominance? It seems like this era is starting to fade as Barcelona slipped off the top of the Spanish Liga and the Champions League, but don’t tell Xavi, Iniesta and company as they seek to become the first team to repeat as World Cup Champions since Brazil in 1962.
The Netherlands seek to redeem themselves, not from a poor tournament in 2010, but from a poor showing in the final, most notable for the disgraceful sight of Nigel De Jong planting his studs in the chest of Andres Iniesta, who survived that assault and went on to score the only goal in the final. Look for Spain and Chile to advance.
Group C: C stands for chance, and each of the four teams in group C has an equal chance of advancing. The quick, technical and nimble Japanese team feature Shinji Kagawa, whose underutilization by David Moyes at Manchester United may have contributed to the manager’s firing less than a year into a six-year contract after his ill-fated attempt to follow the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson.
At least Kagawa will be fresh, unlike other worn out European superstars after a 10-month season. Ivory Coast feature two of the great players in the tournament. Didier Drogba, who led Chelsea to a Champions League title in 2012 and now plies his trade in Turkey. Yaya Toure at times looked like a man playing against boys this season as he led Manchester City to the Premier League title. Toure physically dominates midfield and can score on occasion as well.
Colombia will miss Radamel Falcao but have a collection of exciting young players and the benefit of playing on their home continent. Greece are never fancied as a favorite but are collectively strong and rode a wave of determination, luck and national pride to a European championship in 2004. I’m picking Japan and Colombia to advance from this group.
Group D: D is for dare to dream as, no doubt, England fans will do as they seek once more to bring back the glory of their win on home soil in 1966. They will be fortunate to just advance out of a group that features 3 former World Cup winning teams, this time as they have been drawn against Italy, Costa Rica and Uruguay.
In a bygone era, the sun never set on the British Empire, their Navy, “Rule Britannia!” and all that, but in World Cups, they don’t travel well. The further a World Cup is from home, the worse England tend to do, highlighted by their last World Cup in Brazil in 1950 when they lost to the mighty United States!
Despite introducing some bright young players, like Everton’s Ross Barkely, it will be tough for them in the heat of the jungle in Manaus. Italy had a disastrous World Cup in 2010, failing to win a game after winning the whole thing in 2006. They feature, the coolest man in the tournament, the imperious Andrea Pirlo.
Uruguay will seek to advance far enough to break Brazilian hearts again, as they did in 1950. They have the credentials to do it, having advanced to the semifinals in 2010, and featuring two of the most dangerous forwards in Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez, the talismanic Liverpool legend, who led the Premier League in scoring and tying for the most in Europe this season with Cristiano Ronaldo. While perhaps not 100 percent fit, having suffered a knee injury at the end of the season, this might be the best forward pair in the tournament. England fans will have to wait another four years as Italy and Uruguay advance from this group.
David Cope teaches social studies and coaches the boys and girls soccer teams at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards.