Seven questions for the World Cup
When the world talks about the most important soccer tournament that mankind has ever known, they are referring, of course, to one event and one event only. But since Arsenal has already won the 2014 FA Cup, we can turn our attention to that other championship they're going to be playing in Brazil.
I'll be heading off for South America soon to witness the glorious madness that is the World Cup, and as I prepare for the month-long bikini-and-caipirinhas festival, I have asked and answered seven questions -- one for each game a team must win to hoist the trophy -- that I will now share with you, whether you want me to or not.
1. What will happen if Brazil doesn't lift the cup on its home soil?
Our story so far: Manager Luiz Felipe Scolari has taken on a task of even greater potential misery than his previous ride on the Chelsea coaching carousel. Having already led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title, Big Phil came back for an encore that began with great promise this past June at home in the Confederations Cup.
Conjuring up the ghosts of their five fabled World Cup-winning sides -- OK, four, since they won pretty ugly in 1994 -- Brazil strolled through the tournament, culminating with a 3-0 romp over defending champion Spain. But if the soccer was sublime, the political clamor around it was unsettling. The protests decrying cost overruns and systemic corruption have only intensified in the past year, all of which makes the pressure on the Brazilian national team immense.
Much of it will land on the slender shoulders of the 22-year-old boy wonder, Neymar, who will quickly learn that opposing defenders are far less impressed with his fashion sense than his Brazilian Vogue cover partner, Gisele Bundchen. Fast, tricky and fearless, Neymar creates havoc whenever he has the ball, but he needs to be the focal point of the attack to strut his skills.
In a subordinate position, as he was this season at Barcelona playing with Lionel Messi, he tended to drift in and out of games. Should he do that in a yellow jersey over the next month, Brazil will fall, and so will reputations, careers and possibly even the government. The only icon left standing will be Pele, mainly because he is the most Teflon-coated athlete since Michael Jordan.
What should legitimately terrify the Brazilians is that they are probably not even the best team on their own continent, and if Argentina steals the trophy, they'll be measuring the seismic repercussions for decades to come.
Spoiler alert: Despite the carnival atmosphere and adoring crowds, the Samba Boys might not be dancing at the end, although they will probably provide the tournament's most pulse-quickening entertainment.
2. What's the least the U.S. must do this summer to be considered successful?
Our story so far: Unlike Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain, countries for which expectations are cripplingly high -- nothing less than a place in the World Cup final will suffice -- the overwhelming assumption is that the U.S. won't advance much past the customs gate.
Even manager Jurgen Klinsmann has publicly declared it is "not possible" for the USMNT to win the World Cup, which is a little like saying that Spurs won't win the Premier League title -- a truth so apparent that to utter it is to waste precious oxygen.
Let's be realistic: Simply surviving the "grupo da morte" would be a staggering accomplishment. It's not that the U.S. is a bad team; rather, they are just an ordinary one matched up against a superpower (Germany has never failed to advance out of the group stage and has won three World Cups), a superman (there's a reason that Cristiano Ronaldo always tears off his shirt after scoring a goal, and it's not just to show off his Man of Steel abs) and a super hex (not only has Ghana eliminated the United States from the past two World Cups, but its most celebrated witch doctor is claiming credit for triggering Ronaldo's recent knee injury).
None of these three will honestly be shaking in their magenta boots at the prospect of taking on the Americans, who for all their athleticism, physicality and fortress mentality, simply lack the world-class skills of their opponents. By leaving home their most technically gifted player, Landon Donovan, to mull over the wisdom of last year's four-month vision quest in Cambodia and catch up on his Nietzsche, Klinsmann is essentially saying that past glories count for nichts in the new American soccer identity of his team.
This U.S. squad combines the exuberance of youth (John Anthony Brooks, Aron Johannsson, Mix Diskerud and Julian Green are all 23 or younger); the battle-tested prowess of his three veteran leaders (Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard); and the European panache of his Jurgen-Americans (seven players have dual citizenship, five from Germany). In other words, Klinsi's Kinder should start to jell just in time for the 2018 World Cup.
Spoiler alert: Three close contests, including a couple of draws, would be a notable set of results, and there's no way that the Nietzsche-loving Donovan is ever going to grasp the concept of nihilism.
3. Which team will surprise the most over the next month?
Our story so far: My instinctual response is the Ivory Coast. Their group is Charmin-soft, as Colombia, Greece and Japan don't have the same experience and talent as the Elephants. Conventional wisdom dictates that an aging golden generation (except, of course, for England, whose GG had so many false dawns it could have been a "Twilight" novel) has one more run left in it. Plus, any team boasting former Arsenal killer Didier Drogba (Gervinho was an Arsenal killer, too, albeit of a slightly different kind ...), and current Gunner assassin Yaya Toure is a force to be reckoned with.
But I'm afraid the 36-year-old Drogba, despite still being held in awe in his own country -- he reportedly helped broker the peace in Ivory Coast's five-year civil war -- is a shadow of the human battering ram that only four years ago made him the most feared striker in the Premier League.
Meanwhile, Toure, perhaps the most dominant midfielder in the world, seems too emotionally fragile to carry the Elephants much past the group stage, from which they have failed to advance in the past two World Cups.
Nope, the team that will rise from the ashes of burned expectations will be one with excellent technical skills, a strong familiarity with the climate and a huge debt of gratitude to their despised regional rivals, the United States.
Spoiler alert: Viva Mexico! Oh Jurgen, why didn't you tell your players to take their foot off the gas during the final qualifier against Panama and not open the back door for Mexico to sneak in? How embarrassing will it be if El Tri surges under fiery coach Miguel Herrera and makes it out of their group -- something they've done in their past five tournaments -- while your boys are on the first plane home?
Worse, what if Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez finds the goal-scoring mojo last seen hiding in the vicinity of the Manchester United bench and combines effectively up front with the dynamic Oribe Peralta? It's entirely conceivable that Mexico could blaze their way to the quarterfinals, and their rabid fans might even hold up signs saying "Gracias Estados Unidos" instead of hurling coins and insults at their American saviors.
4. Which Lionel Messi will show up?
Our story so far: No matter how much he preens, pouts and pontificates, everyone on the planet not named Cristiano Ronaldo knows that the Little Flea is the world's greatest player. Well, at least when he's wearing the colors of Barcelona. Something strange, however, happens to Messi when he pulls on the blue and white of his country at a World Cup. It's as if the weight of expectations is so heavy as to tamp down his extraterrestrial gifts.
Astonishingly, the Greatest Argentine to Ever Play -- sorry, Diego -- has scored only once in the World Cup, an irrelevant effort in a 6-0 thrashing of Serbia in 2006. Since then, he's hit every post imaginable, had keepers make the sickest saves of their lives and even sometimes performed badly enough to feature in the Manchester United lineup.
But after being played out of position at the last World Cup by then-manager Maradona, Messi now has a real coach, Alejandro Sabella, who has decided to build the team around the four-time world player of the year, just as Carlos Bilardo made El Diez the fulcrum of Argentina's cup-winning side in 1986. Because Maradona almost (pardon the expression) single-handedly lifted the trophy for Argentina, he is still beloved by his countrymen despite a rap sheet of bad behavior that even Charlie Sheen admires. The same cannot be said of Messi, who is somehow viewed as being more Spanish than Argentine. Given that the pathway to jingoistic love seems to lie in the direction of either testing positive for drugs or winning a World Cup, here's hoping for the latter.
Spoiler alert: Just put Messi's name on the Golden Ball as the top scorer in Brazil this summer, and once and for all engrave his name in the pantheon of soccer immortals alongside Pele and Maradona. But hold off inscribing "Argentina" on the trophy thanks to a vulnerable defense and dodgy goalkeeping that will ultimately prevent them from winning their third World Cup.
5. Will England lose on penalties in the quarterfinals?
Our story so far: Once upon a time, when men were men, fouls were called only for compound fractures, and the ball rarely touched the ground, England's Dream Team won the World Cup. That was in 1966, and ever since, the Three Lions have been the Dream-On Team. Has there been a tournament in the intervening 48 years in which the English media didn't predict heroic things for their nation's brave, strong, stoic, bold and any-other-clichéd-homage-to-English-fortitude-you-care-to-drop lads before a World Cup?
It is safe to say then that, in terms of the quadrennial showcase, England is where hope goes to die. It traditionally gurgles its last breath in the quarterfinals with yet another psyche-destroying, penalty-kick-shootout loss -- although in 1990, they confounded everyone by losing that way in the semis.
So it comes as something of a shock that the usual giddy hyperbole has been conspicuously absent in the run-up to this tournament. Perhaps it has to do with the 66-year-old manager, Roy Hodgson, who might be a lot of things, but ebullient isn't one of them. He has quietly gone about his duties, replacing the aging, stagnant and underperforming core of the team with a bunch of exciting young players who lit up the Premier League last season.
So fare thee well, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, "Cashley" Cole, Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe; your ancient crocodile tears upon exiting the tournament prematurely will be missed. And welcome to Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson. Of course, there are a few well-known holdovers to bridge the generations -- future MLS All-Star Frank Lampard, the rejuvenated Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard and the former "English Pele," Wayne Rooney -- and much will depend on how they mesh with Roy's Runts.
Rooney, in particular, will need to resemble the hard-charging pitbull who ran riot at the 2004 European championship rather than the jaded, injury-prone Manchester United star whom Paul Scholes famously criticized as "worn out" when saying recently that he peaked two years ago.
Certainly, there have been no peaks in Rooney's World Cup career. He has failed to disturb the scoreboard operator in either of the past two tournaments, and despite the electrifying form of Sturridge and Sterling this past season, Wazza will have to score goals for England if they're to get out of a very difficult group, let alone reach the quarterfinals.
Sadly, they can't count on the will-sapping heat and humidity of Brazil to slow down any of their opponents -- especially Uruguay, whose transcendent strike tandem of Luis Suarez (even on one leg) and Edinson Cavani should be oblivious to the climate. With any luck, however, the excessive moisture might accumulate in the luxuriant beard of Italy's midfield maestro, Andrea Pirlo, and weigh down the brilliant but no longer mobile 35-year-old.
With a less-than-dominant Pirlo, England has a puncher's chance against the Azzurri, who always do better than expected at the World Cup, having won it in 1982 and 2006, when they flew under the radar right up to the semifinals.
Spoiler alert: The Three Lions will unleash a mighty roar, but ultimately they will tamely leap through ringmaster Pirlo's flaming hoop of defense-shredding passes. Then, Mario Balotelli, who recently got engaged, will unload the mother of all bachelor parties on England by scoring a brace and revealing two separate idiotic messages to his fiancee on his undershirt.
6. Can Spain win a second World Cup in a row?
Our story so far: The first World Cup I ever attended was in 1982 when I traveled to Spain with my father. I didn't have a national team to root for back then since the United States had failed to qualify for the tournament, so my dad bought me a red jersey with yellow trim and anointed me a Spain fan.
This happened long before La Furia Roja were any good. In fact, I got to see them play only one game in that tournament, a stunning 1-0 upset loss to Northern Ireland that eliminated the host country in the second round. I had to wait until the 2008 European championship to actually see Spain win anything, but ever since, they have been the pre-eminent team in the world, capturing the World Cup in 2010 and the Euros again in 2012. If they should triumph in Brazil, they can lay claim to being the best national team ever.
So why, despite Spain being ranked No. 1 in the world, are so few experts picking it to repeat?
Well, there's the conventional poppycock about no European team having ever won on South American soil. First of all, it's been 36 years since the World Cup was even held there, with Argentina lifting the trophy in 1978, much to the delight of its ruling junta, which went to great lengths to guarantee victory. And secondly, it's doubtful that the bane of most non-South American teams -- the oppressive heat -- will have any real impact on a side that doesn't depend on lung-bursting runs to go from defense to attack. That's because the Spanish have a style of play dedicated to keeping the ball for long periods of time, thereby not running themselves into the ground.
It's called "tiki-taka" and was pronounced dead this year, as its chief proponent, Barcelona, failed to win anything for the first time in a decade. Opponents reportedly figured out a way to successfully combat the metronomic, one-touch passing triangles, disrupting them with high pressure and quick counters. And let's not forget that the mythic pass masters are all four years older and, in some notable cases, like the diminutive 34-year-old linchpin, Xavi, slower than an octogenarian matador.
But Spain is so stacked in the midfield that even without Xavi at his mesmerizing best, La Roja's engine will keep purring right along. Andres Iniesta, aka "El Ilusionista," a man who can spot seams in an opposing defense invisible to all other balding mortals and scored the winning goal in the 2010 final, is only 30, even if he looks 10 years older. And Sergio Busquets is that rare defensive midfielder who blends combativeness with creativity.
Plus, Spain has the luxury of actually fielding an honest-to-goodness striker (Diego Costa) this time around, having used Cesc Fabregas as a false nine at Euro 2012 rather than watching in horror as Fernando Torres sent another sitter into orbit.
Spoiler alert: The player leading the Spanish line, Costa, is struggling for fitness, but as he showed for most of the La Liga season, he is money in the box when healthy. However, the Atletico Madrid striker will have more than his lingering injury to shake off. As a dual citizen of both Brazil and Spain, he chose to represent the latter in the World Cup, thereby ensuring a less-than-warm reception from the hosts throughout the tournament.
Now, if only I could still fit into my 1982 jersey ...
7. Finally, how do you say, "Hey, bartender, what's the closest beer you have to Stella Artois?" in Portuguese?
"Opa, Garçom, o que é a coisa mais próxima que você tem a Stella Artois?"