Every four years, 32 nations come together, politics are thrown out the window, and soccer reigns supreme. The World Cup is undoubtedly the greatest sporting even in the world. Contrary to many American beliefs, soccer is the most popular sport in the entire world, with the World Cup as its pinnacle. It’s hosted usually in one, but at times in two neighboring countries.
This year South Africa is the host nation, the first African country to host the World Cup. In the three years building up to the tournament, all FIFA-recognized nations go through a qualifying stage based on geographic region. The 32 triumphant teams make up the field for the tournament, always staged in June and July. Those 32 countries are then split into eight groups compiled of four teams each. Group play consists of each team in the group playing the other three members of the group, with three points for a win, one point for a draw and zero points for a loss. The top two teams from each group advance to the round of 16. From here on, the tournament becomes single elimination.
If a team wins its group, it will then play the 2nd place team from another group as its reward for coming in first. Next are the quarterfinals, semifinals, third-place game and, ultimately, the final. The winner earns the title of World Cup Champion - the top country in the world.
Going into each tournament, there’s always a lot of debate as to who is the favorite to win the whole thing. This year, the favorites are Brazil (currently ranked #1 in the FIFA World Rankings) and Spain (2008 European Champions). The next tier of favorites includes Italy (Reigning World Cup Champions), Germany (staunch defense and mental toughness mixed with tons of World Cup experience), France (currently stuttering, but 2006 World Cup Finalists), England (where soccer originated), Argentina (team of FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi) and Holland (creators of the style “total football” - oozing creativity and free-flowing soccer).
My personal pick for this year’s World Cup title has to be Spain. La Furia Roja are reigning European Champions and stacked with talented players. Although they have a penchant for underperforming at the World Cup (zero World Cup titles), I think based on their performance at Euro 2008 mixed with all of their player’s current form with their clubs since then, they have a recipe for success.
I’m also making this prediction based on the assumption that their talismanic striker, Fernando Torres, will be fit for the beginning of the tournament. Torres, along with other key squad members such as Cesc Fabregas and Xavi Hernandez, have experienced a lot of injury problems toward the end of the most recent club season and will be vital to Spain’s success. My guess is the final will be where Spain and Brazil collide, resulting in a final matchup to die for. Both countries play attractive attacking styles that are more than easy on the eye.
The U.S., however, will find itself feeling successful just to get out of its group. It’s been paired with England, Algeria and Slovenia. England will definitely be the favorite going into the tournament, with the U.S. presumably left to battle it out with the other two nations. It would seem a simple task for the U.S. to triumph over lesser-known Algeria and Slovenia on paper, however, none of the games at the World Cup are ever played on paper. Players come to the World Cup full of the pride that comes with wearing your country’s colors and wanting to impress on the grandest stage in all of soccer.
The United States goes into South Africa with a lot of questions, and the answers will be provided starting June 12th with their opening match against England. Will Oguchi Onyewu recover successfully enough to anchor the back line? Does Michael Bradley have enough ability to compete with the best in the middle or the park? Will Jozy Altidore turn potential into goals? And lastly, can Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey combine to provide the U.S. with that little something special that only the great players can do at the highest level?
Unfortunately, I’m not sure if that will end up happening. I’ve been underwhelmed in their performances leading up to the tournament and still find too many holes in the starting 11. However, I’ll let my nationality bias my prediction and say the United States will progress to the round of 16 via finishing second in their group, before bowing out to either Serbia or Germany (Winner of Group D).
Player(s) You Simply Can’t Miss
Every World Cup, stars emerge from many different countries and this is my list, providing one star player from each of the eight groups.
Group A: Giovani Dos Santos (Mexico): Dos Santos is an explosive, left-footed attacker for Mexico. He provides pace, trickery on the ball and an eye for goal. He broke into the first team at the famed club Barcelona at just 17 before an unsuccessful transfer to the English club Tottenham. With the way Mexico plays, he will see a lot of the ball, giving him all the opportunities he needs to shine in South Africa.
Group B: Lionel Messi (Argentina): Messi is currently the best player in the world and is looking to use South Africa to put his name in the talk as one of the greatest ever. Hailed by countryman and coach Maradona (considered one of the top two greatest players of all time) as the greatest Argentine yet, Messi needs to prove that he can replicate his scintillating club form at the international level to justify such claims. Untouchable on the ball, Messi is another left-footed magician with the ball at his feet.
Group C: Steven Gerrard (England): Recently named captain of the Three Lions, Gerrard will be one of the most complete players in this World Cup. As captain of his club, Liverpool, Gerard has shown he possesses a great work-rate, passing range, leadership and the ability to score from distance. He will be a key to England’s run for the title.
Group D: Nemanja Vidic (Serbia): The first defender on my list, Vidic has proven to be one of the best center backs in all of world football with his club Manchester United. He combines size, strength, tackling ability, positional awareness and both defensive and offensive aerial ability for Serbia. He will be their rock at the back at this summer’s World Cup.
Group E: Arjen Robben (Holland/Netherlands): On a team of great short passing, Robben is the Netherlands X-Factor. He provides them with a player who can attack defenders 1v1, with the ability to score and create goals on his own. Left-footed, but often lined up on the right side of midfield, Robben keeps defenders on the backs of their heels with the potential to get to the end-line and serve deadly crosses with his right foot, as well as the ability to cut inside and unleash venomous shots with his left.
Group F: Gianluigi Buffon (Italy): Long considered one of the top two goalkeepers in the game, Buffon is the heart of a rock-solid Italian defense. He was the top goalkeeper at the 2006 World Cup as Italy was crowned champions. He combines great hands, size and athletic ability with unparalleled organization and distribution.
Group G: Luis Fabiano (Brazil): One thing that all the great Brazilian sides of the past have in common is a great center forward spearheading their attack at the World Cup Finals. Fabiano has taken over as the new striker for Brazil this World Cup. He has big shoes to fill, taking over from the likes of Ronaldo, Romario, and most notably, Pele. Fabiano might not be as flashy or widely acclaimed as those aforementioned greats, but he brings great finishing, size, speed and a knack for scoring important goals to a team loaded with talent, but needing goals to get out of this World Cup’s “Group of Death.”
Group H: David Villa (Spain): Villa isn’t the biggest name on this deeply-talented Spain squad, but he most certainly has earned his place in the starting 11. Largely overlooked by showing loyalty and continuing to ply his trade at debt-stricken club Valencia, Villa is perhaps ready to claim the title as world’s greatest striker in this year’s World Cup. Recently transferred to Spanish giants Barcelona for a reported 40 million Euros, Villa will be looking to justify that astronomical price tag while leading Spain to World Cup Glory. Silky smooth on the ball, equal striking ability with both feet, composed finishing and great movement off the ball are what make this forward so great.
Favorite World Cup Memory
Lastly, my favorite World Cup memory was waking up at around 2 a.m. during the summer of 2002 to watch Brazil’s triumph in Japan/South Korea in that year’s World Cup. The combination of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho was unbelievable to watch and really pushed me to play that much more to improve to get to where I am today.