Ryan Pierse/FIFA/Getty Images
That was one final not to remember. And now it's done. This African World Cup, which faked us out by briefly becoming the "South American World Cup," revealed its true NATO character come the semifinals. Above all, this was the World Cup of Parity, in which Switzerland beat Spain, Serbia topped Germany, and Italy was tied by New Zealand, which even brought on an investment counselor, amateur Andy Barron, as a late substitute.
There is plenty I will not miss. The Jabulani was the Ford Pinto of footballs. Even NASA proved beyond all scientific doubt that FIFA and adidas' dastardly offspring had handcuffed play. And the vuvuzelas. I hope there is some truth to the rumor that the sound technician who invented the vuvuzela filter that muted the omnipresent waspish rasp on our television feed is up for a Nobel Prize for science. Enjoy the sound, America. The vuvuzela is poised to become the latest thunderstick-esque fad to infiltrate your stadia.
The World Cup is in the books, and here are 10 things we will miss with all of our hearts at Off The Ball.
1. The final frontier: The African World Cup
The first moment of the World Cup was also among the most outstanding. The opening ceremony announced the long overdue arrival of World Cup football to the continent of Africa. Before the host South Africans kicked off against a fluent Mexico team, the Bafana Bafana tumbled out of the tunnel, and even the most cynical eyes, yet to be Jabulani scarred, were filled with tears.
Step up, Mr. Siphiwe Tshabalala, to spank home a blast that sent a continent into ecstasy. Cue Archbishop Desmond Tutu to shuffle around his executive box in abandon, even momentarily waking up Joe Biden from his soccer-induced slumber. The long-term legacy of the tournament is yet to be seen, but if the next FIFA president wants to bring the World Cup to a new continent, he will have to tackle Antarctica. (Good news, England. That will be a proper winter World Cup.)
2. The World Cup of Twitter
The World Cup used to have a rigid news cycle, refreshing itself roughly once a day with the publication of the morning paper. Twitter made following the torrent of information a round-the-clock job, changing the very way we watch football. Come game time, Michael Davies, my partner in blog and pod, would be in the same room as a television set yet would barely glance at it, preferring to monitor the Twitter feed scrolling at nosebleed pace on his cell phone.
And why not? Everyone was on it. Even Sepp Blatter (@seppblatter):
Please message me with your comments and questions about football and FIFA's work, I'll try to answer as many as I can. 11:01 AM Jun 10th
Our hands-down favorite digital philosopher was Herculez Gomez, who became the U.S. team's diarist. Here are Herculez Gomez's Twitter Greatest Hitz:
• Wonder what Shakira is doing right now... what are the chances she is thinking of me? hmmmmmm.
• Lebron to Miami!?!(Gulp) My Lakeshow just pee themselves a bit... just a bit.
• Shakira... Yes please. How do I meet her? Am I even worthy? Sch-wing!
• What an amazing day.. I have never been so close to Wild animals before.. I even was allowed to play with the lion cubs.. ridonculous!!
3. World Cup of teams trumping individuals
Nike hit a bum note. Its "Write the Future" campaign overemphasized the role of individual players in this sport. Few stars excelled at this tournament. This was a World Cup in which team play won the day, a truth proved by the performance of the mighty All Whites of New Zealand, a throwback to the amateur roots of the World Cup. The Kiwis arrived dreaming of scoring a single goal, and left as the only unbeaten team in the tournament. With his seventh-minute strike against the Italians, Shane "Smeltzy" Smeltz demonstrated why he is worthy of the nickname "Super Striker." While I was unable to persuade my wife to honor the enormity of his achievement by naming our son born on June 20 after Shane, the striker received his true reward when English Premier League team Fulham was poised to make a big-money move for his services. Sadly, the rumor proved unfounded. Smeltz is now on his way to Chinese team Shandong Luneng.
4. The kids are all right: The World Cup of youth development
Was there a more admirable team than Germany at this World Cup? In the run-up to the tournament, the Germans lost one starter after another to injury, including captain Michael Ballack. A slew of young, inexperienced individuals were drafted in to plug the gaps on the starting XI, including Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil. The team proceeded to play brave, sweeping, ambitious football. Its success was a tribute to the Germans' visionary youth development program and the nation's willingness to invest in the future. Telling stat: Germany has 34,970 coaches who hold UEFA's specialist licenses. Spain has 23,995. England has just 2,679. This German team will be among the favorites come 2014.
5. Was this the World Cup's single greatest moment of skill?
German midfielder Mesut Ozil cooly plays keepie uppie with his chewing gum, never cracking a smile as he proves his world-class pedigree.
6. USA! USA! USA!
How long will we have to feast on that goal and the spectacular piece of commentary by Ian Darke, the Poet Laureate of this World Cup, which accompanied it: "You could not write a script like this!"
The U.S. team had the nation in the palm of its hands from the Slovenia game until its demise. A nasty habit of spotting opponents early goals was ultimately its undoing. The Americans returned home after the defeat to Ghana and will now have four years to agonize over the missed opportunity of a wide-open bracket they played themselves out of far too soon.
Bob Bradley's team played with an energy and determination that made it one of the most likable teams in American sports. More should be expected of the Yanks in 2014 and beyond. Two elements appear critical to the sport's development: Heavy lifting must be applied to untangle the grass roots of the game and assemble a comprehensive youth system (see Germany). And a successful bid for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup will give the growing American fan base a marquee event on home turf to build toward. (Sign up now.) My highest hope for the legacy of Landon Donovan's goal is that across this country a handful of elite athletes currently 8 or 9 years of age witnessed the strike and will be inspired to work on their games so they can lead the line to victory come 2022.
7. Best indicator this was not going to be your World Cup
The referees announced they had undertaken a crash course to master 20 swear words in your language.
8. The World Cup of non-football copycat storylines
OK. Most were annoying. First, Paraguayan swimsuit model Dallys Ferreira offered to "make love to each member of the Paraguay World Cup team" if they lift the trophy, adding, "The players know my pledge still stands. Women from my country are ardent, and to be honest, I'm more ardent than most. I take no notice of societal norms." Before we knew it, Larissa Riquelme offered to have the World Cup tattooed on her ample bosom before running naked through the streets of Paraguay if they were victorious. Then Dutch porn star Bobbi Eden offered her services to anyone who followed her on Twitter should the Netherlands win. Of course, they did not. But she now has over 110,000 followers.
Thankfully, the ladies were eventually shoved out of the media spotlight by wise animals. Paul the octopus had his 256-1 prediction odyssey, and then Mani the Singaporean parakeet and Lin Ping the Thai panda crashed the news cycle and followed suit.
The only one of these trumped-up media phenomenon (OK, besides Paul; he was pretty cool) that actually won me over was the fuss surrounding German coach Jogi Low's lucky cashmere V-neck. The tasty number was ultimately auctioned off for charity, but when the "Jogi Bonito" clothing line arrives on these shores this fall, I will be first in line.
9. Maradona: The genius of a madman
Like him or loathe him, Diego Maradona was one of the most fascinating storylines of this World Cup: two watches, one polyester job-interview suit, a crucifix and a quarterfinal walloping. The action at his news conferences often trumped that which unfolded on the field, such as an off-the-cuff validation of his own heterosexuality ("I like women! I'm dating Veronica. She is 31. She is blonde. She is very pretty!). His "What's the matter with you, Schweinsteiger, are you nervousshhh?" deadpan in a fake German accent stands as one of the great misfires in tournament history, burnishing his reputation as Argentina's No. 1 even while undermining his status as a competent manager.
10. How do you say "mazel tov" in Spanish?
Even more fun than watching Spain at this World Cup was watching Spanish commentators watch Spain. Their ebullient reaction was in marked contrast to that of surly coach Vincent del Bosque, who barely demonstrated a smidgen of emotion throughout. His team's achievement was epic, especially as it lost its first game yet recovered to overcome a tradition of mental fragility by playing with precision and steel.
A beautiful pregame piece in the Spanish daily Marca captures the enormity of its achievement: "Lo que soñamos desde niños" -- "what they dreamed of as children." Photos of the present squad are contrasted with shots taken back when they were youngsters. Sadly, there are none of Carles Puyol. And somehow, Sergio Ramos looks older as a kid than he does today.
I am a firm believer in Albert Camus' claim that "All I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe to football." Siphiwe Tshabalala, Luis Suarez, Robert Green, Mark Van Bommel, Diego Forlan, Nicolas Anelka, Landon Donovan, Asamoah Gyan, Thomas Muller, Felipe Melo, Fernando Torres, People's Rooney, Rooney's Rooney and Shane Smeltz have all collectively taught us a lifetime of lessons about human triumph, failure and motivation.
I have loved every second of this World Cup, and the conversations Michael Davies and I have had with many of you over e-mail and Twitter. And the good news is, we have to wait only 1,419 days until Brazil 2014.
JOHANNESBURG -- For the first time in my life I walked into a sporting event decidedly undecided. A few weeks ago, I rooted hard for the Richmond Flying Squirrels against the Akron Aeros (who, had they ceremonially changed their mascot to the Hammers, just might have kept LeBron in Ohio) in a Double-A baseball game. But, getting off the plane in Jo-burg Sunday morning to fulfill my duties as OTB's foreign correspondent I thought, "I kinda like Spain. And I kinda like Holland."
So I went into Soccer City and waited for a team to choose me.
Before I could choose, I had to sit through a Shakira concert. Anyone who knows me knows that pomp and circumstance is not my thing. But, to paraphrase Bono, sometimes "you get stuck in a moment and you can't get out." So I watched the entire closing ceremony, which was essentially 50 kids in last-year's Kanye outfits dancing on a laser light show projected from above on a 5,000-square meter slip 'n' slide. As far as major sporting event spectacles go, this ranked somewhere between China's 2008 artistic masterpiece and Canada's 2010 "Let's stick Wayne Gretzky in the back of a Chevy pickup and drive him down the backroads of some Vancouver suburb."
Then Fabio Cannavaro arrived, looking all sorts of dapper, but a little too pleased to be handing off the Cup, like a Miss America whose nude photos got released online and now can't wait to pass off the crown.
Joseph S. "Uncle Sepp" Blatter strolled onto the pitch, and then Nelson Mandela cruised in. And the man looked spectacular. His smile might have been the singular moment of this World Cup. I, Producer/Slovakian Dave, choked up.
Africa. World Cup. Uncle Sepp, for all his faults sure got this right. It wasn't perfect ... but it kind of was.
It was clear at the gates that Spanish fans were outnumbered 2.5 to 1 in the stadium. As any of my family or friends can tell you, I am nothing if not a hater of the home team. Spain 1, Holland 0.
Uncle Sepp granted us one replay -- showing the teams leaving their buses. The Dutch came first, all 23 of them wearing headphones. I instantly imagined a mash-up of the 23 worst house music songs of all time and decided to enlist Rog to go inside the minds of the Dutch roster to intuit each man's "last bus tune." Then the Spaniards got off there buses. Only two* of the 23 were wearing headphones. I've lost enough sports games to know this was a good omen for Spain. Spain 2, Holland 0.
* Sergio Ramos and Carles Puyol. Perfect.
Then some poor footie lover sprinted dead across the field in a once-in-a-lifetime effort to touch the World Cup trophy, only to receive a vicious throat punch about an inch short of his goal. It was so analogous to Holland's World Cup history that I felt bad for the Oranj. Spain 2, Holland 1.
Holland came out in all orange, Spain in all navy. I was in Amsterdam during Euro 2000 and my brother went to Tennessee that fall so I've always had this weird admiration for the Dutch football side and the Vols. A Saturday in Knox-Vegas is more similar to a weekend in Amsterdam than many in either town would care to admit. Spain 2, Holland 2.
The teams rushed the field for warm-ups, headphones left behind. The loudspeakers abruptly blared Beyonce's "All the Single Ladies." At the far end of the pitch, the Spanish huddled in a formation that reminded me of Drew Brees' pregame Saints huddle. The Dutch, meanwhile, were doing the karaoke warm-up perfectly in sync with the song. It was the least masculine thing I've ever seen. Spain 3, Holland 2.
The really nice Afrikaner next to me kept saying, "Let's go The Netherlands." Something about his insistence on calling it "The Netherlands" got me. I mean, this was every 12 seconds. Spain 3, Holland 3.
Both national anthems were sublimely succinct. The weird thing was, every Dutch fan knew every word and sang along. Every Spanish fan around me was totally faking it. Spain 3, Holland 4.
At this point, I was sick and tired of how the Dutch are both from Holland and "The Netherlands" and that a large portion of their fans seemed to be from sumvhere elsche. The Spaniards might not know their anthem, but they were definitely from Spain. Spain 4, Holland 4.
In early June, Rog picked Spain to lose the World Cup. In mid-July, he predicted them to win. He couldn't lose. And neither could Shane Smeltz Junior Bennett, as a Spanish victory would send New Zealand a posthumous victory as the only undefeated World Cup team. Go Shane! Go New Zealand! Go Africa! Vamos Espana! Spain 5, Holland 4.
I chose my side a moment before kickoff and as I watched the physical brutality unfold, I hoped for no one to score. I told my new Afrikaner friend Don that I'd like to see it go to extra time, and he agreed. "But no penalties," Don said. "That would be a shame." When Andres Iniesta scored, he was the only Dutch supporter around not screaming offside.
Satisfied in his narrow defeat, Don led the postgame cheers for the Spanish conquistadors. What more can you ask for in a World Cup of Parity? Spain 1, The Netherlands 0.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
I have been finding it hard to sleep the past two nights. Chalk it up to the combination of a new baby, the anticipation of the two massive games of football that await us, and the looming realization that after the final whistle Sunday, the joyous cacophony of the 2010 tournament will all be over.
Yes, I did say two massive games of football. The crafty John Oliver may have clambered aboard our OTB pod and claimed that there is "no more meaningless event in sport than the World Cup third-place playoff. Not just in football; sport. Two sides that do not want to be there, seeing who's going to be humiliated the least." But I cannot help feeling fondness for the game. For sure, one team is always embarrassed to be playing and rests half of its players. But the other squad is traditionally highly motivated, taking the field with something to prove but without the pressure of an elimination game. Goals flow and the whole match is played with the spontaneity of a secret Beck gig or an impromptu Seinfeld stand-up appearance.
This year, Germany has been ravaged by the flu virus that has quietly wormed its way around the tournament. Philipp Lahm, Lukas Podolski, and even coach Jogi Low have been hit, the latter no doubt shivering feverishly yet fashionably in a styling electric-blue pair of pajamas set off by a matching cashmere water bottle. The game may lack the low-charisma scoring phenomenon that is Miroslav Klose. Though the German is just a single clinical finish away from tying Ronaldo's all-time scoring record, he is suffering a back strain. The rest of his teammates sound miserable to still be in South Africa, wishing for a speedy exit so they can head for romantic-sounding vacation spots like Ferienwohnanlage Oberaudorf.
Uruguay, in contrast, appears eager for its curtain call. Watch for it to feed the ball to Diego Forlan who surely went to bed Friday night dreaming of a magical golden shoe being placed on his tootsies by that dashing fairytale prince, uncle Sepp Blatter. And dream he might. The third-place game is traditionally goal-stuffed. My favorite has to be 1958, when France rode its offensive-minded "Champagne Football" to a 6-3 win over West Germany, with Moroccan-born striker Just Fontaine driving home four goals to tally a record-setting single-tournament total of 13. Enjoy this YouTube clip, and you too can remember it as if it was yesterday.
And then, on to Sunday's final (1:30 p.m. ET, ABC). A tough one to handicap, as the South African World Cup has been so unpredictable. It is entirely fitting that the damned octopus has elbowed (tentacled?) Larissa Riquelme aside in the race to become the lasting symbol of the tournament. A World Cup in which some teams -- Argentina, Brazil, Germany, New Zealand -- have appeared world-beaters in one game, eminently fallible the next.
Strong cases can be made for both countries. The Dutch have maintained a perfect record in World Cup qualifying and tournament play. This candid video of their postgame celebration at a deserted Green Point Stadium, leading the singing with a few thousand hardcore fans is a delight (3:18: Arjen Robben is de-pantsed; 3:25 Mark van Bommel smiles a psychopath's smile) as they celebrate with the giddiness and innocence of an under-16 team competing in a regional tournament.
The Spanish have the chance to become the first team to lose their opening match, shrug it off, knuckle down and win it all. The Queen of Spain charged into the team locker room postgame, almost catching her hero, a sheepish Carles Puyol, with his pants down. Look carefully and see how the sight of television cameras fast approaching makes Gerard Pique instinctively think about ripping off his top to give Her Majesty the bare-chested beefcake look.
The game itself will be a fascinating clash of styles. The Dutch have invested in a weld-tight defense, relying on the fast-paced improvisational magic of their front three to conjure goals. The Spanish crack crisp passes around every quadrant of the field. Normal teams defend by preventing opponents from scoring. The Spaniards simply forbid them to touch the ball. So mesmerizing and distinct is their style that even Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, nicknamed "Pythagoras in Boots," has come out for Spain: "I am Dutch but I support the football that Spain is playing."
Both teams will have the opportunity to re-write their nation's World Cup narrative. The Dutch hope to discard the title of the best team never to win the trophy, earned after cruelly losing consecutive finals in the 1970s. Their 1974 Cruyff-led Total Football side lost the plot after squandering the lead against arch-rival West Germany. In 1978, the squad was overwhelmed by the passion and mind games of the Argentines. The Spanish have never reached the lofty heights of the final. Their preferred World Cup pattern is to dazzle early, only to melt once they are in the spotlight. Victory would allow them to add to the Euro 2008 title and prove definitively they are peerless winners, not world-class chokers.
The game, by the way, will end 1-0 to Spain. If this ruins it for you, here are five elements to watch for and enjoy:
1. Spanish smurfs versus Dutch elbows
Andres Iniesta and Xavi, both 170 centimeters, are two tiny dancers who propel the Spanish midfield. The Dutch will lie deep and attempt to break up their rhythm. Mark van Bommel, that midfield Master of the Dark Arts, revealed the Dutch game plan: "We will have to break their midfield and stop their playmakers from playing." John Heitinga is an unsung hero, an admirably maniacal defender who lurks behind van Bommel, coiled to hit anybody who manages to elude his clutches. This collision may well determine the pace, style and outcome of the game.
2. Dutch pace against tentative Spanish defending
Dutch forwards Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt have demonstrated efficiency and pace on the counterattack, storming the flanks and manufacturing a remarkable ratio of goals to chances. If Spain has a weakness, it is its fullbacks. Sergio Ramos, cavalier on the right, is often out of position. Joan Capdevila is not the paciest left back in the world. If the Dutch can manage to tear the ball from Spanish feet, their plundering raids may crack the Spanish wings.
3. The Golden Shoe: A battle within the battle
When I watch David Villa play, I smell Drakkar Noir. In my imagination, Wesley Sneijder perpetually sports a leather jacket with the collars flipped. Both are tied for the lead in the race for Golden Shoe, which should add an edge to their combat Sunday. Another striker to watch is Dutchman Robin van Persie. A gifted, intelligent yet petulant performer, hampered by injury, he has had a quiet World Cup and will, for good or bad, be primed to explode.
4. Will England be disgraced one more time?
This tournament, already host of several WWE-caliber refereeing muck-ups, may be due one more massive mistake. Referee Howard Webb, a former policeman from Yorkshire, received a lukewarm vote of confidence from his wife, Janet, when she told the world's media, "I don't know how he does it. He can't take charge of his own children. I don't know how he manages it on a football pitch." Webb is the only Englishman who has performed well on the field at this World Cup. This could change Sunday.
5. What legacy will the World Cup leave for South Africa?
The opening ceremony made many tear up, as the World Cup finally came to the African continent. Then Siphiwe Tshabalala smote the opening goal, triggering a manic dance of joy from Desmond Tutu and heralding a month-long African celebration. What will the long-term impact of the tournament be? The national transport and stadia infrastructure have undoubtedly been upgraded. Up to 150,000 jobs were created, though most appear short-term in nature. UBS predicted the South African GDP will rise between 0.5 percent and 2.2 percent. The extent to which foreign investment will be attracted to flow into South Africa is yet to be seen.
Perhaps the legacy of the tournament will be simpler but still powerful. In Africa, a continent rife with factionalism and hostility, soccer has risen to become a potent symbol of hope and healing. Social projects like Search For Common Ground abound. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit produces a ratings-smash soccer-based soap opera called "The Team" in a dozen African nations. The show follows the exploits of a pan-tribal football squad to explore delicate social, cultural and political challenges that beset the oft-disunited societies. If life follows art, and the soap opera's storylines foreshadow the fate of Cote d'Ivoire, Congo or Kenya, football might help the continent to continue rocking with joy for many years to come.
Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images
So a re-enactment of World War II has been averted. Germany's elimination Wednesday means Sunday's Spain-Netherlands final lacks a conveniently fresh conflict for bad-taste puns and analogies in the run up to the game. The Eighty Years' War from 1568 to 1648 -- you know, the one that led to the overthrow of Philip II of Spain and the creation of the Dutch Republic -- just doesn't cut it. Which means the two teams will have to rely on their own spectacular yet imperfect soccer histories for prematch fighting talk.
When it comes to World Cups, Spain and the Netherlands have been glorious although not victorious. Their performances traditionally have followed a pattern: start flamboyantly only to evaporate. Spain melted as soon as it entered the spotlight. The Dutch preferred to turn on each other, in-fight and self-combust.
While both teams have steadily improved as this tournament has progressed, neither has consistently played statement-making football. The Spanish crave possession, shuffling short, sharp, zigzagging passes in all areas of the pitch. The Dutch have mothballed their traditional high-octane, ABA-style, all-out offense, prioritizing a defensive rigor and relying on the individuality of their world-class forwards to plunder the required number of goals from surprisingly few chances.
The Netherlands' style has been clinical and effective, yet not recognizably Dutch. As a soccer nation, the Netherlands traditionally has preferred to live and die by the spirit of individualism. Writer David Winner described this phenomenon in his articulate analysis of Dutch football culture, "Brilliant Orange," suggesting its roots lie in Calvinism, which promoted order and tradition even while encouraging devotees to ignore their priests and study the Bible to form their own conclusions. These values created a society in which authority was always questioned, leading directly to a soccer team on which, as the cliché goes, there are always 12 coaches.
Dutch football has long been this way. Gaunt, rakish Johan Cruyff, the Jedi-like fulcrum of 1974's Total Football team, challenged authority everywhere he found it, famously demanding a tailor-made Dutch uniform with just two stripes instead of three, because he was sponsored by Puma and the jerseys were made by adidas. In 1994, ESPN's own Ruud Gullit ditched the team after arguing with his coach about the appropriate strategies to cope with the blazing heat of summer in the United States. The side's 1996 Euro campaign was famously undermined when a leaked photograph shockingly revealed all but one of the team's black players ate at a separate table.
The Dutch story always has been one of preternatural talent meshed with petulance and arrogance, and you do not have to probe too deeply to see it in this 2010 squad. Case in point: Giovanni van Bronckhorst's stonking 42-yard drive that set the Dutch on their way to semifinal glory. As the replays savored the shot from every angle, Michael Davies, my partner in blog and pod, honed in on superstar Arjen Robben, who was hovering in front of the Dutch captain as he lined up to shoot. In the time the ball traveled from boot to net, the bald speed merchant's face portrayed a panoply of emotions ranging from "Pass ... pass ... I'm open" as Gio initially jogged forward to "Who the hell do you think you are, disobeying my orders?" as he prepared to fire. We moved quickly through "Do you know who I am?" to "Just wait 'til we get back to the hotel and the wedgies are doled out!" to an astonished "Bloody hell! Good for you for learning from me in training" as the ball crossed the line.
And so the Dutch will have had four long days to prepare for the final, 96 hours in which to confront the glory that might lie ahead and the self-inflicted failure that has plagued them. Coach Bert van Marwijk has admitted his players are "not the best of friends." Preserving their team spirit until the final whistle might prove as great a challenge as the Spanish possession game or the ruthless finishing of David Villa. If voices are raised and street-fighting sounds break out in the Dutch team hotel, check the hotel rooms in this order:
Robin Van Persie versus Wesley Sneijder
If soccer players didn't train, the world would be a much more peaceful place. In the run up to Euro 2008, Van Persie leveled Sneijder with the kind of studs-up challenge English commentators affectionately refer to as "a reducer." Then-coach Marco van Basten attempted to throw the Dutch media off the scent, laughing off reports of any incident and questioning the motivation to fabricate such a story -- until the media gave him the URL to Sneijder's personal website on which the incident was meticulously detailed.
A simmering feud was born, one that was guaranteed to reignite whenever the team regrouped, always around the most grave, global issues like who would take free kicks. And who should be removed late in the game -- see the Slovakia game, in which a frustrated and substituted Van Persie publicly berated van Marwijk and demanded Sneijder be yanked in his stead.
Sneijder has made it clear to the players and the media that all free kicks within scoring range are his personal chattels, although Dutch Kremlinologists were shocked to see him permit Van Persie to line one up against Uruguay. Perhaps he should not have been so generous. Van Persie proceeded to thrash it against the wall.
Mark van Bommel versus Mark van Bommel
There are few more incendiary characters currently in world soccer than this destructive midfielder, a self-confessed "vulture" who has mastered the art of running into players and maiming them whilst acting innocently (here, a glorious elbow to Lionel Messi's head), as well as the subtle variation of running into players and getting them booked. One of the many marvels of this Dutch campaign is how van Bommel has been able to foul so many players so cynically yet escape yellow cards. The solitary caution he received thus far was at the end of the semifinal for the innocuous act of booting the ball away in injury time, when, like many in the stadium, he believed the final whistle had just blown. But van Bommel always has had a short fuse and perpetually seems to be playing a game within a game -- one in which only he knows the rules -- revolving around subtle snubs, perceived slights and scores to be settled. Watch him in the final: studs up, elbows sharpened, ready for a battle of attrition or an all-out war, one moment of madness away from a red card and leaving his side with 10 men.
Dirk Kuyt versus Robin Van Persie
Poor Dirk Kuyt, undoubtedly the Beaker of this Dutch football squad. Energetic, well-intentioned, functional, selfless, desperate to be loved. A stiff who has come to personify the grafter personality of this effective Dutch side.
Before a Jabulani had been kicked in anger, he found himself dropped from the team. Not by van Marwijk but by the strong-headed Van Persie, who had the bright idea of announcing his personal preferred starting XI to the Dutch media, a lineup that included Robben, Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart, but no Kuyt. It was an act akin to bullying the schoolyard weakling.
Cue media sensation forcing the vulnerable, defenseless Kuyt to stammer feebly, "Everyone is entitled to an opinion. That's good. Dutch players like to think and talk about football. But at the end of the day, the team manager decides."
No sooner had these words left Kuyt's lips than he undoubtedly left the news conference and signed up as a charter member of Team Sneijder in the divided Dutch dressing room.
Arjen Robben versus the world
I rarely turn on naturally bald athletes. Our kind have to stick together. But Arjen Robben has tested the patience of teammates, opponents and American first-time viewers to the limits at this World Cup. Plenty of players dive. Robben leaps, flings and bounds. These momentum-breaking theatrics have haunted his past (he once promised the media, "Next year you won't write about me diving again") and have inhibited his play at this tournament to such an extent that his coach was forced to make this unconvincing statement: "He doesn't do it deliberately. Arjen is incredibly fast and creative. He faces up to opponents, and you do fall or get pushed. Maybe he has done things in the past that he shouldn't but he has learned and doesn't do it anymore."
Can the Dutch keep it chill? Here's some unsolicited advice for coach van Marwijk: Make sure this feel-good smash hit is faintly audible all over the team hotel. It's a 1984 musical sensation recorded by a Dutchman so talented ESPN hired him.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
6:35 p.m., Embassy Row offices, crap part of Soho.
As I wait for LeBron to "write the future" of the NBA and for Spain and the Netherlands to re-enact some long-forgotten 16th-century naval battle on a Joburg pitch, I can't help but feel a nagging void in my stomach. For days the source of this void has eluded me, but after an ill-advised Bikram yoga session on the street in front of my office, the void's source revealed itself: the prospect of a Maradona-less future. The Argentina coach was subdued and sportsmanlike after his country's defeat at the hand of the Germans. In his postgame remarks, he hinted that he might leave his post as coach of the national team. As grim as that is for the legions who found endless joy in his sideline antics, it means we still have a chance to lure him to the NBA. New York City has "C'mon LeBron"; perhaps it's time for Off The Ball to start our "Vamos Diego" campaign. With help from our readers, here is the five-point plan for bringing Maradona stateside.
1. There is only one Maradona-ready franchise.
We need a franchise with the perfect mix of world-class facilities and abject desperation set within a cosmopolitan, socially liberal area with a large and affluent Spanish-speaking population. The abject desperation excuses Miami, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix. The New York-area franchises have their chosen coaches firmly in place. There is only one franchise that could literally do its legacy no harm by trying the Maradona experiment: the Los Angeles Clippers.
2. Hire a succession of attractive women to be Diego's personal "attaché."
If ever there was any doubt to Diego's sexual preference he laid that to rest during this World Cup when, after gleefully smooching his players, he told reporters, "I still prefer women. I am dating Veronica, who is blonde and 31 years old." The Clippers will keep this legendary lothario motivated by adding a steady rotation of Hollywood's finest out-of-work actresses to the company payroll. And while they're at it, they should set up a BP-sized escrow account for the potential avalanche of sexual harassment suits.
3. Surround Maradona with some of the best minds in the NBA.
OK, so there is precious little evidence to suggest that Maradona knows much about basketball. We know he likes the sport. But is that enough to coach an NBA team? The easiest solution is to hire some of the best pure assistants in the game, guys like San Antonio assistant/offensive savant Mike Budenholzer (mentor to Argentina's finest basketball export, Manu Ginobli) and Houston Rockets strategic wizard Elston Turner (who helped Argentine Luis Scola grow into a legitimate threat). By turning the X's and O's over to the hoops experts, Maradona can focus on his true talent: inspiring players and entertaining fans.
4. Build a roster full of Maradona worshipers.
While a quarterfinal exit is hardly a success by Argentine standards, it does help to remember that Maradona turned what a few months ago looked like a massive disaster into a nice run. The conclusion here is that Maradona coaching experiments work only when the players buy into the cult of Diego. With the possible exception of Chris Kaman (who might have picked up some footy love during his turn as a German Olympian), the Clippers' roster is in need of a serious overhaul when it comes to Maradona IQ.
Now, I'm not committed enough to this theoretical construct to go to a place so dark as the mind of a Clippers executive, but I'll give the roster a rudimentary updating without consideration for real-life constraints like, say, willing trade participants, salary-cap parameters or players with self-destructive impulses strong enough to compel them to sign on the dotted line of my brave new Maradonian world.
PG -- Ricky Rubio. The soccer-obsessed Spaniard's Twitter account is awash in World Cup tweets. You want him in the NBA? Tell him Diego has come to liberate him from the bleak prospect of long Minnesota winters sharing the ball with Jonny Flynn.
SG -- Manu Ginobli. An offer the NBA's perennial Most Valuable Argentine can't refuse: Spend your golden years starting for your boyhood hero. A nice free-agent pickup for the Clips.
SF -- LeBron James. The Clippers have until 9 p.m. ET Thursday to enact the hire Maradona strategy if they want to land the King.
PF -- Marc Gasol. With Pau entering his prime for the Lakeshow, the Gasol family would gladly pull a modern-day Beverly Hillbillies and split M-town for Hollywood. This Barcelonan is already a prolific rebounder and has All-Star talent and upside.
C -- Yao Ming. There is no surer path to heartache than through the bad feet of a big man. But somewhere in those size 18 boots rests a direct link to nearly 20 percent of the world's wallets. The prospects of a Gasol/Ming twin towers tag team is too tempting to resist.
G -- Leandro Barbosa. The Brazilian Blur might not be the best sixth man in the game any longer but still provides great speed off the bench.
G -- Goran Dragic. A Slovenian spark plug who grew up playing soccer and was a revelation during this year's playoffs; a rising star at point guard who will battle Rubio for the starting nod.
F/C -- Luis Scola. The crafty Argentine vet always finds a way to win (loads of Spanish League Cups and an Olympic gold medal) and now seems to have his NBA game in place.
F -- Yi Jianlian. The young heir apparent to Yao's mantle is off to a rough start. Yi could use some of Diego's special brand of psychological reinvigoration.
G/F -- Carlos Delfino. Delfino is a versatile bench option and more home-country talent for Maradona to help build team unity.
C -- Fabricio Oberto. Another Argentine bench player who can give you quality minutes and who can keep his good buddy Manu entertained.
F -- Al-Farouq Aminu. A nice-looking prospect from this year's draft, he may or may not like soccer but he is supposedly descended from Nigerian kings, so how could he not fit in?
These guys love the beautiful game and together would reach nearly every key growth market in the world. And they'll take care of the India demo once the Bhullar brothers hit the lottery in 2014.
5. Give the Clippers the old Expos treatment.
Much like the Expos, who traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for 22 home games the year before they left Montreal, the Clippers need to hit the road. The Clippers must get a Christmas Day home game against the Lakers in one of their many former hometowns, the appropriately named San Diego. Within five years they'll be in San Diego full-time in a new arena and by 2018 every San Diegan schoolchild will believe the town was named after Maradona. The Clips should also have annual regular-season "homestands" in strategically relevant cities. Twice a year they could play three-game sets in Buenos Aires. They could also get back-to-back three-game homestands in cities like Shanghai, Tokyo, Mumbai, Barcelona, London and Rio de Janeiro. With about 12 international home games every season and a roster of global talent led by one of the world's most famous sportsmen, the Clippers will be the franchise that leads basketball into the future.
With these five steps in place, Maradona to the NBA is a lock. As an Argentine legislator told The Associated Press when suggesting the erection of a Maradona statue in his homeland, "When it comes to Maradona, the results are not important." Clippers, the future is yours. Vamos, Diego!
John Macdougall/Getty Images
Gary Lineker, the legendary English striker turned mediocre British broadcaster once joked, "Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and at the end, the Germans win." He said this when Germany had been decades-long masters of a grind-you-down brand of football that was relentlessly consistent. Including 2010, the Germans have advanced to the semifinals six times in the past eight World Cups. But since 2006 they have radically recast themselves as purveyors of an optimistic brand of football relying on movement, intelligence and precision that is impossible not to admire. Even more remarkable: In 2010 their success has been achieved despite crippling injuries to their midfield and defense, and the haunting suicide of their first-choice goalkeeper. As an Englishman, it has been hard to admit at times that the Germans are a marvel. Yet, I have enjoyed every second of the below.
The wisdom of experience
For all that has been written about the German youth revolution (and I will add to that below), the veteran striker Miroslav Klose has been a scintillating revelation. After scoring only three goals for Bayern Munich, he has banged in four in four World Cup games. Jogi Low was derided in some quarters for selecting him in the first place. Many suggested Klose was too old, unfit and unmotivated to make a difference. But dusted off for South Africa, with a couple of magical motivational words from Don Jogi, and he has turned into the equivalent of the German Greased Lightning. Enjoy Klose, a remarkable striker who makes the hard things -- finding space in the crowded terrain of the penalty area -- appear effortless.
One consistent elimination round presence has grown on me. Manager Jogi Low's baby-blue cashmere sweater -- which is not a boy-band T-shirt as I incorrectly reported earlier -- has now been dubbed "Germany's miraculous sweater" by Bild, which claimed even the über-rational Low believes it may harbor magic power. "I am not really superstitious but (deputy coach) Hansi Flick and others basically forced me to put it back on -- it gave us four goals at each of the matches," he told reporters. A take on footballing fate which ranks up there with former French manager and King of Crazy Raymond Domenech, who once claimed, "I am not superstitious; it brings bad luck."
Sadly, I have yet to read a report on why Low and Flick, two fully grown men, insist on wearing identical garb, as though they were two overdeveloped twin toddlers. And yet they look awfully cute and wholesome on the homepage of upscale designer Strenesse. Bild reported that true German fans have journeyed deep into enemy territory, invading the neighboring Netherlands to grab hold of the $250 item in a blue named "Jogi," according to the manufacturers, who also make it clear that "those willing to sacrifice authenticity for comfort can purchase cotton or mixed-blend look-alikes."
The backing of a prophetic cephalopod
Spare a thought for poor Paul, the prognosticating German octopus, who has correctly predicted the results of every one of Germany's games thus far, becoming one of the unlikeliest media darlings of the tournament in the process. The eight-legged oracle has chosen Germany in every elimination round game ... until now. The cream of the world's media, holding their collective breath, swarmed Paul's tank as he tentatively extended a tentacle to select a winner of the Spain-Germany semifinal clash -- picking Spain. A decision so shocking to some in the German media that they futilely tried to cover it up.
Now join me, if you can, in imagining the fear that must have gripped Paul's octopus-mind at this delicate moment. And before you jump in and tell me that evolutionarily humans and octopi diverged roughly 700 million years ago, know that I spent a very sleepless Tuesday night engrossed in a Consciousness and Cognition Journal essay entitled "Cephalopod Consciousness: Behavioral Evidence." To cut a long story short, octopi have sizeable brains. What a decision for Paul: to lie, pick Germany, and be forever ridiculed as an octopus who merely thinks he can tell the future. Or to tell the truth, pick the enemy and demoralize those you love. Paul, rest easy. Come Thursday evening, you will be on display at a sushi bar. But you still have your integrity.
A true appreciation of the game at the highest levels
Joe Biden, you are our vice president. You are witnessing history: The first World Cup game to be played on the African continent. Your hosts score a scorching goal, making the syllables Siphiwe Tshabalala a household name. How do you look? Earplugs in place, blanket on lap, staring off into space like a great uncle at a baby-naming while barely aware why you are there and wondering what day is Meatloaf Night back at the retirement community. Compare and contrast to German chancellor Angela Merkel, who squirmed in ecstasy after every German quarterfinal goal. Until we have a leader who loves the game like that, the semis may be a stretch, America.
Jurgen Klinsmann, the former star player and manager of Germany's 2006 World Cup team, dazzled in studio at this World Cup as he calmly yet confidently predicted at halftime that Germany would comprehensively dismantle Argentina in the second 45 minutes. Online, he detailed the methodological national blueprint that has spawned such talents as Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller on BBC.com. It makes for fascinating reading from both an English and an American perspective.
Can this strategy be modified for the U.S.? The appointment of the iconic Claudio Reyna as youth technical director bodes well. The strategy he develops for "Zone 1," the term for 6- to 12-year-olds, over the next 12 months will be illuminating. But relax, America. The cavalry may already be on its way. Cristiano Ronaldo has just tweeted news he has fathered a baby boy. His Li'l Penny, so to speak. Rumor has it the mother is reputed to be an American, which augurs well for the U.S. team come 2030. If he is anything like his dad, we may be able to draw on the services of a highly coveted star who looks sensational oiled up in a pair of undies on the front cover of Vanity Fair ahead of the tournament, but then fails to deliver big time.
The Off The Ball 2010 World Cup of WiffleParity Semifinal Preview
4th of July. America.
Well, Davies, our dreams of an all 'Guay final are shattered. We lobbied hard but it is not to be. Decency won the day in these quarterfinals. The world will undoubtedly be worse off for not bearing witness to Diego Maradona and that saucy Paraguayan swimsuit model with the built-in life preservers running naked around the streets of their respective capitals. Thousands of horny teenagers will have to make do by Google imaging both (with safe search off) to get their kicks. But on the football front, forget the "World Cup of Cliché." Farewell, the "World Cup of South America." This World Cup has ceased being a World Cup at all, morphing into the Euros, with special guest Uruguay. You and I have nothing to do Monday other than play golf at The Bridge with James Frey (you) or hang out on street corners looking for trouble (me). So let's look back at what has happened thus far and make big, bold, futile predictions about what will occur over the next week: Both the run up to the final and The Big One (our favorite), aka the third place playoff.
Decency won the day in the quarters, Rog? Decency? If an intentional, game-winning handball off the line in the final seconds of extra time of a World Cup quarterfinal is your idea of "decency," then I'm not sure I even know who you are anymore. The special guest at EuroSpringyTurfhiffleSoccer 2010 should have been Ghana, the country that had my father and mother at "Hello." The country where I started life as a twinkle in their eye (puke), the country with the more heavily tatooed Boateng brother. Moreover, Rog, I have had an active weekend. I am in training to defend my men's singles title at the Easthampton Tennis Club, I have a mentally demanding golf match (most likely from the blues) at The Bridge against "The Hypnotist," James Frey, and there has been a lot of sport on television. Also, today I destroyed my iPhone while completing a minor act of heroism -- long story. But bold predictions? Bold predictions? They, even more than repeating rhetorical questions, are my Achilles heel. But Rog, I'm still in the process of wearing through my last deodorant application, so please, go ahead with your bold predictions.
Davies, I too feel sorry for the Ghanaians. But if Asamoah Gyan had toe-bunged the resulting penalty into the back of the net, we would not have a Luis Suarez "Devil or National Hero?" debate to bang on about. Instead, Gyan gave my player of the tournament, crossbar, an easy save. Now he's being linked to a transfer to Everton for his sins. Above and beyond, this is the "World Cup of Collective Endeavor." One in which united displays have trumped individual performance. Just ask Ribery, Ronaldo, Rooney or anyone who appeared in Nike's doomed attempt to "Write the Future" and prove there is, against substantial evidence to the contrary, an "I" in team. Back in 1986, Maradona's Argentina was able to ride his transcendent individual performance to victory. In 2010, it relied on passion and individual talent and came undone. Youth, discipline and commitment are the hallmarks of this World Cup. Which are all traits of the electrically, scintillatingly egoless Germans. Can anyone stop them, Davies? Tell me they can ...
You're still avoiding your predictions, Rog. But your noncommittal stance has sufficiently battered my deodorant's final resistance, rendering me finally fit to cipher the remaining four matches.
The Germans will not beat themselves
I'm reading "The Gathering Storm," a fantastic summer read -- Churchill's memoirs of the buildup to and early days of WWII. An amazing man, an amazing writer and a great friend of the pod. Churchill called the diabolical threat poised by the Germans "The German Menace" and he said this with abundant respect. Ruthlessly efficient, organized, coordinated, powerful, fast, fearless, decisive and merciless. And this is how they play football, too. They might be beaten next weekend, they might even be beaten this week, but one gets the feeling they won't beat themselves and someone's going to have to play awfully well just to contain them. Just like the Allies, the victory can only be attained by maintaining air and naval superiority, because in a ground war their cavalry and counterattack is just too strong. In football terms, this means that teams have to get in behind them and maintain their supply lines, not too much distance between defense and central midfield. Lots of balls into the box from the wings. They will kill the artful Spanish, imaginative Dutch or their old friends the Uruguayans on the counter. They must not get sucked in.
I like this, Davies. I too have found the Germans riveting to watch, but just know that you do run the risk of coming across like a high-brow version of The Sun recycling all that World War II imagery. One question though: This has become the "World Cup of Bandwagons." The German one (sponsored by Audi) appears bigger and more fuel-efficient than the others put together. But I think of you as a man with a keen eye for human weakness. Do Jogi Low's menschen have any tender spots?
Oh, Rog, for an older man, you still have a lot to learn about the world.
Karma is a B word
Despite everything I wrote above, you can't help feeling that German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer might just get a karmic payback for his blatant dishonesty against England. He knew very well the ball had gone over the line. Unfortunately, in soccer, no one even expects him to do the decent thing. But it was a goal and he knows it. And he didn't look super secure against Matthew Upson's header. I think he could still have a wobble. But don't get me wrong, I like Neuer. He looks the way I want German players to look -- a throwback German. Meanwhile, you've just got to think that Uruguay is due for an audit by the karmic equivalent of the IRS after Suarez's intentional handball off the line denied Ghana its rightful place in the semis. I see a wrongfully disallowed goal or highly questionable sending-off in the Uruguayans' future. And it will make me happy.
Here, Davies, you and I agree. There will be one more cataclysmic refereeing decision, serving to turn off American audiences by making the biggest football tournament in the world have the integrity of a WWE title fight. If I were a betting man, I would guess former policeman-turned-ref Howard Webb will be somehow involved, besmirching the name of the last Englishman standing at this World Cup (who isn't calling the game for ESPN).
But please don't get all down on my Uruguayans. They were last massive in 1950 and their return to prominence gives me hope that the Sears catalog, Bill Haley and the Comets, or the English football team may return from mothballs to reclaim their rightful place as cultural juggernauts. Besides, their postgame celebrations remind me of every Jewish wedding I have ever been to.
Rog, I've been to my share of Jewish weddings, including producer Dave's, but none like that. More importantly, you are still woefully light on prognostication, so here is another one for you.
Post will not be upstaged by crossbar
After the crossbar's stunning penalty save from Asamoah Gyan, the post did his best to regain his place in the spotlight with his three-assist goal for Spain against Paraguay. Look for these two to continue to go at each other in the semis, final and The Big One.
Agreed. Post versus crossbar is the game within the game within the game.
Davies: Roger, you are killing me with kindness here. Let me pull out an old trick to get you worked up.
The Jabulani and springy turf will not be upstaged by the woodwork
We have not seen the last of a WhiffleSoccerSlamBall-assisted goal in this tournament.
Michael, we have video evidence to vindicate my skepticism of the Jabulani. But your incessant haranguing over the state of the South African turf has worn me down. The World Cup has been undoubtedly all the poorer for the lack of sizzling free-kick action (each one is guaranteed to either bank 30 feet over the bar or to hit the wall if the player attempts to keep it low) but I have been relieved that the words Jabuani, vuvuzela and vuvuzela filter have dropped out of everyday conversation as really tasty footy has prevailed. Now if only you would take the turf out of the equation.
Fine, Rog. No more turf. But be forewarned:
I cannot possibly be trusted to forecast the semis
We were so bad at predicting the quarters we should abstain from predicting the semis to protect the innocent. So instead let's analyze the possible finals.
Holland versus Spain would be a battle of 16th-century proportions
This is the final I would love to see. A matchup so not of the modern era. It should be played by men in tights and ruffles and tunics with silly beards and wooden ships with eight sails and 50 cannons. It is a total contrast in styles and soccer-religious belief. It is the simple, but highly creative, revolution unleashed by the Reformation versus the indulgence, riches and baroque tendencies of Rome. Total football versus papercut football. Expansiveness versus intricacy.
This would be epic in both the football sense and the psychological dimension. Two fluid sides with histories of brittle self-confidence and mental implosion when the words "World," "Cup" and "Final" are mentioned contiguously. The changing room toilets will see a lot of action ahead of this clash. For Spain to reach the final, it will have to find a player other than David Villa who is willing to score. Although the reaction his goals elicit from the fair and balanced Spanish commentating team is charming. I particularly like how the chunky one keeps spanking himself in the face with the microphone. More of that please.
Holland versus Germany would be ugly
The English don't like the Germans. But the Dutch really don't like the Germans. They share a border and a very long history. A few years back I was in a meeting with some Dutch and German colleagues. My German colleague, a lovely and talented woman, made the very innocent point that the Dutch could not expect that the TV shows that work in Holland will necessarily work in Germany, because Holland is a small country with only one major city -- Amsterdam. Cold as ice, one of my Dutch colleagues, a lovely and talented man, stared right through her and dryly pointed out: "We used to have Rotterdam."
This is the one I am rooting for. A repeat of the 1974 final, where Johan Cruyff's Total Football side scored off a penalty on its very first attack. They stroked the ball around the field, playing keep-away, without building on their lead and neglecting to score a second goal. Twenty-four minutes later, the Germans equalized and proceeded to smother Cruyff. The rest of the game, according to the Guardian, was as if "somebody had ploughed over a tulip field" before Gerd Muller, the stocky German goal machine with the uncanny knack for scoring ugly but critical goals, bundled home the winner in typical style. As the ball trickled across the line, Dutch commentator Herman Kuiphof recognized the national trauma it was about to trigger, comparing the goal, and the game, to the Nazis' surprise 1940 invasion of Holland with a few now-legendary words of helpless horror: "They [the Germans] have tricked us again!"
If Uruguay makes the final it is not a fairytale
It is an injustice, and will be rectified by God.
Nonsense. See Gyan's move to Everton, above.
In my heart: Germany over Spain; Holland over Uruguay; Holland over Germany.
In my head: Germany over Spain; Holland over Uruguay; Germany over Holland.
But those aren't predictions, Rog, they are statements of subjective fact.
Rog: And that is why I love to work with you, Michael Davies. You are a prophet with a part-time gig as a producer of really good television quiz game shows.
Holland over Uruguay (in a game closer than you would think.) Germany over Spain (feeling penalties on this one. No chance, Spain.) Uruguay to win the coveted third spot. Germany to win it all. Which means New Zealand will remain the only undefeated team in the tournament and Shane Smeltz, great friend of the Pod, will have enormous satisfaction. And as you know, when he is happy, I am happy too.
Davies: As am I, Rog. As am I.
Saturday, 5 p.m., Bridgehampton.
Random Thoughts on Saturday's Action: Europe 5, South America 0
So perhaps this isn't the Southern Hemisphere World Cup after all
Germany demolishes Argentina, Spain eeks out a win against Paraguay (which seems like the only way they can be beaten) and to think, just seven days ago we were all talking about South American dominance. And now, only Uruguay, by hook and by crook, have made it to the semifinals. Come on, Europe! Or as Joe Scarborough reminded us yesterday -- come on, NATO!
Ultimately, Don Fabio has had a good week
There's an old adage that a week is a long time in football. And after the backlash to the backlash, the loveable, tempestuous, authoritarian Italian (father issues) has already been retained by the FA, reputation intact, to build a "new England" with an infusion of younger players. Then Germany demolish Argentina 4-0, making even England's spiritless loss to "new Germany" look good by comparison. What if Lampard's goal had counted? At 2-2, anything could have happened. Stand up, Stuart Pearce. Sit down again. Did you sit down before? Then stand up.
Argentina tricked us
We had anointed them as champions. We had praised their free-flowing style. We almost had Maradona coaching in the NBA. But they tricked us, because this was the first time they had to play defense and they looked as slow and outmuscled as England did against the Germans. Chemistry and spirit can only take you so far. They were technically taken apart. And what exactly was Maradona's plan beyond baiting Bastian Schweinsteiger in the build up? The young pig farmer wasn't the least bit nervous. Actually, he and his young German Superfriends, aided by their distant, older relatives from Poland, took you boys apart. Only my partner in blog and pod, The Rog, was not fooled. He's a very old man, and he is very wise.
Messi succumbed to the virus
He still looked good. Even my 5-year-old daughter thought so, immediately asking me the name of the Argentina No. 10 after gasping at a little shimmy which wrongfooted Philipp Lahm on the touchline. But 30 shots in this tournament and not a single goal. We might need to check his chest to see if he's been seeing Wayne Rooney's waxologist.
The Germans are now soccer's top model
And everyone will talk about trying to imitate their training, formation, playing style, unselfishness and individual strength. "Find me a Klose" is being yelled by club chairmen, owners and federation presidents all over the world right now. And while you're at it find me a Muller, a Schweinsteiger and an Ozil. But we can't all be Germans. We do not all have Poland. And they haven't won it yet. But I'm just starting to salivate at the thought of a Germany-Holland final. Is there a combination of words that convey bitter, seething hatred more than 'bitter, seething hatred"? In Dutch, I think they say "Bitteren Seethingen Ccccchhhhhhhatred."
Sometimes you have to really love football
That's if you want to sit through a whole game like Paraguay versus Spain on a beautiful sunny day. Thank God David Villa scored and we avoided 30 more minutes of extra time and another completely, arbitrary shootout. Thank you Ian Darke for making it moderately entertaining, at one point referring to the heroic performance of the Paraguayan defenders as "a lot of stars in stripes."
Penalties are becoming inadequate
And virtually unmakeable, or at least, less skillfully converted, because of the routine unenforcing of the laws of the game. Every goalkeeper moves before the ball is struck -- sideways and off his line. Which means it's often just a matter of luck. If the goalie guesses right, he's got a great chance of stopping even a decently taken penalty. If he doesn't, he won't even stop a horribly taken one.
Davies' Woodwork Inclusive Scoring System (TM pending)
Villa's goal sequence would have scored 1.3 goals under my new World Cup of WhiffleSoccerParity scoring system: 1.0 goal for the goal; .2 goals for the ricochets of both posts; and another .1 for the original strike off the post from Pedro that set up the goal. If we add pinball sound effects this could be a major improvement to the game and would even cut through the vuvuzelas.
Friday, 9 p.m.
Maybe it's because I picked Ghana to win or maybe it's because my parents met each other in Accra, thus creating the opportunity for my very existence (puke), but I'm not sure that the result of this match is exactly fair.
Ask yourself this: Is a scoring opportunity from 12 yards against a professional goalkeeper permitted to use any part of his body to save the ball an equitable trade for an intentional, goal-saving handball by an outfield player standing on the goal line against a header from four yards?
It is not. I think it should be like a goaltending call in basketball. The goal should have counted.
What value is the red card to Luis Suarez to Ghana when this is going to be the last kick of the match?
Not a lot. At the very least, shouldn't Suarez have been forced to save a penalty kick from four yards using any part of his body other than his hands or arms?
And anyway, is a penalty shootout, however dramatic and thrilling, a satisfactory way to end a World Cup knockout game? Or any game?
It is not. For those of you unfortunate enough to have been reading my World Cup blog since 2002, you know I've been consistent on this. But, finally, I have some solutions:
Six better ways to end a soccer game than a penalty shootout
Additional extra time with no goalkeepers
Obviously, this would give England, who have played this way for years, a massive advantage.
Cageless cage fight in center circle
Each team nominates one player. Fight ends when ref determines that one player is critically injured and not acting.
Managers play one-on-one in suits
I would pay anything to watch Maradona and Jogi Low go at each other. It would be a mess. Five minutes on the clock and nonstop scoring. Maradona might get off to a fast start but would be on his back, perhaps gasping for a cigarette, by the third minute.
National anthem sing-off
Vuvuzelas silenced, PA system turned up, both teams perform their national anthems with no musical accompaniment. Worldwide audience votes by text message in real time. Choreography optional.
Shots off the crossbar or post during regular time worth one one-tenth of a goal each
Would perhaps make penalties completely unnecessary. And finally we'd know for sure whether the post or the crossbar has had a better tournament.
Each team gets to introduce a live animal every five minutes in extra time
Do you pick an animal that can be trained to have soccer skills? Or a predator who might actually take a chunk out of someone's leg? Or is it a national animal? Eagles for America and Nigeria. Elephants for the Ivory Coast. Lions for England. Desert foxes for Algeria. Specially trained kangaroos for Australia you get the idea.
Anyway, congratulations Uruguay. You've made the entire nation of Holland extremely happy.
Notes from the last 10 minutes of Argentina's destruction ...
Jogi Löw picks his team even better than he does his nose. Martin Tyler said it best: "The game went according to his plan and we are watching a team of young men become world beaters before our eyes."
The German coach oozed confidence as he sauntered down the tunnel alongside his team sporting an electric blue V-neck plucked fresh from the closet to set a relaxed, sports-casual tone. Maradona repeated his traditional polyester suit job-interview look. 1-0 Germany.
The Germans opened clinically, determined to prove they were not nervooouussssh at all. In a matchup of dodgy but largely untested defenses, it was fitting the opening goal came quickly from a basic defensive lapse. World Cup poster boy Thomas Müller did the damage. The only surprise was more did not immediately follow. Miroslav Klose blasted over in the 23rd minute when a goal seemed likely.
Argentina was ragged, obsessed with claiming the slightest of ankle taps as limb-flailing fouls. Li'l Leo Messi appeared toothless. Swamped by the enormity of the pressure on his shoulders, he scampered deep into his own half, retreating ever deeper to find the ball. On the odd occasion the chance to shoot was manufactured, he was unable to calibrate. He will have another chance to etch himself into tournament folklore as a 27-year-old in 2014.
The first 20 minutes of the second half were the most exhilarating of the World Cup so far. At one point I swore I could hear the cheer of actual human voices rising above the droning vuvuzelas. Both teams took it in turns to tear each other apart. The Argentines were pouring forward in waves with Angel di Maria a blurring Modigliani on the wing. But the organized Germans always seemed coiled to strike. In the 67th minute, when the ball broke to Lukas Podolski open on the left, you could count the goal even before he slid it across to Klose to deliver the killer blow.
The Argentines were humbled. The only surprise was perhaps that they managed to end the game with 11 men. As German goal followed goal, Mick Jagger tried to quietly dispose of his Argentine scarf, and Angela Merkel wriggled in ecstasy.
Maradona departs and the World Cup loses one of its most flamboyant storylines. Perhaps his greatest achievement was that despite being oh-so-very bonkers -- after being briefly institutionalized he emerged to tell the Guardian, "There were people in there because they thought they were Robinson Crusoe and they didn't believe me when I told them I'm Maradona" -- he managed to create a stable team. But the pure passion he relied upon could only get Argentina so far. As the Germans clinically picked his midfield apart, he had no answer. I have grown so fond of El Diego and it will be interesting to see what he does now. The way his head bobbed manically to the Argentine national anthem made me wonder if he is still tested for drugs.
What has happened to the South American World Cup? Paraguay will grapple with Spain this afternoon. As my Paraguayan friend Rosanna says, "To dream is for free." The German youth revolution marches on. A lesson to those responsible for grassroots development in the United States. England fans exalt: Your team's performance was apparently not so dire after all.
What odds now on Jogi Löw rocking a mock-turtle neck in the semifinal?
Thursday, 6:15 p.m., Embassy Row Offices, crap part of Soho.
Last night, Rog, when I arrived home in the dark of night after a long flight in from L.A., I retreated to the solitude of my beloved Man Cave. From a cupboard filled with old boxing gloves and whiskey, I retrieved my dusty old crystal Jabulani ... and decided to take a peek into the future: Where will England's underachievers/national shamemongers be in four years' time? This is all scientifically indisputable.
Having played his last two seasons in MLS for the expansion Las Vegas Orient, David will make the four-and-a-half hour drive down the 10 to Hollywood. If soap operas are still around, he'll be on one. If not, he'll be like every other English chancer in L.A., shopping around his headshot and complaining about having missed out on the glory years when an English accent practically guaranteed at least a role as a gangster's assistant in a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Will play in celebrity football games with Rod Stewart and Robbie Williams. Will drink at the Cat and Fiddle.
Pushing 30, and having gained a good 25 pounds while playing professionally in Turkey, GlenJo (as everyone calls him after his somewhat painful Euro 2012 inspired rap album with Jermain Defoe) will be safely ensconced as England's backup right back. His game is less explosive but far more complete -- he is now just as bad going forward as he is at the back. But he has the hesitant throw-in down to a high art.
Ashley ... how could you?
Having cheated on his second wife, Elin Nordegren, the Leeds United defender is still good enough to play for England; in fact, he is the only left-footed English defender in England, but manager David Beckham just can't bring himself to pick him. The truth is, Posh is friends with both of his exes and just won't have it. Coach Becks decides that he'd rather go with no left back at all and play two right-footed players on the left side of midfield with their ankles tied together. The Sun calls this move: Becking Genius!
Retired from international football after sitting on the bench for three and a half years at Real Madrid.
On holiday with his family in Corfu after another solid season at Brentford. He was seen as being England's next great central defender, until someone realized that he was already 26 at the last World Cup and would be older than John Terry was in 2010 at the next one.
Player/assistant manager at Brentford, working on his badges, still going out with the lads. He writes a column for the Sun in which he slags off the current England team, the press, the manager and the fans as "a bunch of girls' blouses."
After retraining to be part of the UK men's gymnastics team at the London Olympics, he now regularly appears as the little half of the little-and-large variety/comedy/tumbling/juggling/unicycling act "Lennon and Crouchy" on the piazza at Covent Garden. The tourists love it.
After being roundly booed at Premier League grounds around the country, Lampard makes a dream move to Real Madrid and under Jose Mourinho wins three successive Champions League trophies. He is the undisputed captain of England under coach Becksadonna, leads them to the final of Euro 2012 where they are denied a last-second goal in extra time courtesy of instant video replay and lose on penalties to Montenegro.
After retraining to be part of the UK men's handball team for the 2012 Olympics ... see above under Aaron Lennon. Crouchy is the large half.
Mark Leech/Offside Sports/US Presswire
The new Wayne Rooney oddly resembles David Beckham.
After his dissappointing performance in South Africa, Wayne commits himself to a complete fitness and cosmetic overhaul. He becomes the face and body of the P90X training DVDs in the UK and sheds 20 pounds, gains 10 mph and becomes an unstoppable force on the English, European and world stage. Unfortunately, the total body waxing, skin pigmentation, hair transplant, botox, nose job and cheek implants make him unrecognizable from the beloved young chav the country fell in love with.
Now working at SeaWorld in Florida perfoming juggling ball tricks at the "Super Seal Soccer Supper Show with Gazzer and Wazzer." Gazzer and Wazzer are usually seals.
Having never regained his confidence in goal for West Ham, and never been picked again for England, Rob decides to blog and pod for the 2014 World Cup for foxsoccer.com. "Drop the ball" becomes a runaway success, featuring guests like The Situation, Eric Wynalda and Chef Boyardee and the "total shirts" ranking system for teams and players at the World Cup.
Star of the Channel 5 documentary, "Whatever happened to Stephen Warnock?" Having completely disappeared after the World Cup, and having nobody notice until late 2013, Stephen turns up working as a bus driver in Cameroon.
Still completing the 2014 London Marathon. Though running at full speed, Gareth has just made it past the 25-mile marker 67 days after setting off from Greenwich Park.
Place-kicker for the CFL's Calgary Stampeders.
England's holding midfielder. Not quick enough to play on the wing but 10 times quicker than his predecessor, Gareth Barry, Milner trains in the holding role under assistant coach Owen Hargreaves at Man Utd.
"Manchester's Top Children's Entertainer" according the Manchester Evening News. "Former Chelsea, Manchester City and England speed merchant will make your children cry with laughter with his jokes, impressions (ask for Fabio Capello) and magic tricks. Also available as a triple act with London based little-and-large variety act, Lennon and Crouchy!"
Unintelligible analyst for ESPN. Even Steve McManaman doesn't understand him.
After disappointing sales of "Introducing GlenJo and Defoe," the Euro 2012 rap album he co-headlines with Glen Johnson, Jermain moves to New Zealand where he opens a dance academy with Shane Smeltz.
After making himself available for selection by proclaiming in the press, "Having only played three games in four years, I have never felt better," the 34-year-old England vice-captain sits out the whole World Cup with chronic left knee, right knee, right arm, left arm, hamstring, wrist, elbow, thumb, shoulder, neck, Achilles tendon, metatarsal and groin injuries.
Unloved by the English, the big man moves to New York and becomes my second in command in the TV business. After demonstrating an instant feel for the dark arts of game-show producing, Emile convinces ABC to buy a reimagined version of "The Joker's Wild" hosted by -- you guessed it -- Emile Heskey. It becomes the biggest thing since "Millionaire." I am fired and replaced by Heskey both as president of my company and as Off The Ball author. Roger publicly apologizes for ever questioning his abilities on and off the field and thus keeps his co-author job.
See Stephen Warnock.
England's No. 1 goalkeeper at the World Cup. Cracks the boys up in training with his Rob Green impression. Becomes the first goalkeeper to win the Golden Shoe with five penalties and three injury-time headers.
Builds a lair off an uncharted Polynesian island. A series of lucrative arms deals with third-world dictators (met through FIFA contacts) gives him the funding he needs to plot the downfall of the British government, the Football Association, Fleet Street and the players who questioned his authority. Hundreds are kidnapped in the dead of night and whipped for their impudence. Still loves listening to the pod in his downtime.
Notes from the last 10 minutes of Brazil's self-destruction
Watching Brazil was akin to witnessing a bully crumpling after being punched for the very first time. Brazil wrote the future and now lies on the tournament scrap heap alongside the likes of North Korea, Honduras and England.
The game itself was a testament to two things:
The unpredictability of football. For all the ink we spilled salivating over the prospect of a steely defensive matchup, all three goals could be attributed to defensive errors. Dutch defenders were caught napping as Robinho tiptoed through to open the scoring. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar (who looked as if he has been enjoying the joys of the breakfast buffet a little too much) whiffed on a cross he simply had to clear to give up an unnecessary equalizer and Brazil's suddenly suspect marking on a set piece left 5-foot-7 Wesley Sneijder free to head home the winner from point-blank range.
Football as a game of momentum. When Robinho collected Melo's through ball (on an embarrassing wreck of a pitch -- that pass bobbled, skidded and bumped past the Dutch defenders) and opened up his body to slide home the opening goal, it felt like an emphatic Brazilian rout was on. Brazil was physically dominant and the Dutch appeared overwhelmed. One gifted goal changed everything. Panic set in. The Brazilians, who had seemed so rigorous, efficient and professional, were overwhelmed by panic. Melo received a red card that everyone could see coming. And Kaka, poor Kaka, appeared almost Lampard-esque in his bewilderment. They never saw this coming.
Farewell, coach Dunga. Your wardrobe was very "substitute geography teacher" throughout. You handcuffed your team and promised a nation that football did not need to be beautiful. Only winning was beautiful. And you return a loser ready to be vilified. And not in a Fabio Capello-English media kind of vilification that melts quickly into a feel-good cuddle and a no-hard-feelings love-in. Your name will be forever blackened in Brazilian football history.
For the Dutch, Arjen Robben was a delight as the most tenacious, throbbing cranium in world soccer. Perhaps the sight that will thrill Dutch fans and those climbing aboard the Heineken-soaked bandwagon the most was to see their petulant Nos. 9 and 10, Robin van Persie and Sneijder, parading together around the hacked-up turf to celebrate victory. If the hatchets have truly been buried, Holland must be feared.
AP Photo/Matt Dunham
Thursday, 4:18 p.m., Pizza Hut, Midtown.
I have spent a large chunk of the last four days scrubbing my face raw, desperate to remove the remnants of the Stars and Stripes face paint, which seemed like such a good idea at the time but has now cast a faint stain over both of my cheeks. The sting of this procedure hurt a lot less than the unspeakable dual U.S./England ouster that preceded it. But, it did give me plenty of quiet time to focus on picking a new team to cheer for with all of my little heart ahead of the quarterfinals of this, the World Cup of Parity.
For me, the singular glory of this tournament, aside from the effervescent verse of World Cup laureate Mr. Ian Darke, has been that many of the sides are hitting their stride right when it counts. As we approach the business end of the World Cup, and the battle to qualify for OTB's favorite game, the third-place playoff, there are five or six squads who will be tucking themselves up in their South African hotel rooms Thursday night, dreaming sweet, credible dreams of winning it all come July 11. Even better, virtually all of them (Brazil aside) have glaringly obvious weaknesses. When the World Cup kicks off again on Friday, prepare for one game after the next to be cliché-ingly referred to as "good enough to be the final." Unless it has Paraguay in it.
Articulate cases can be made for getting behind each team. You are all blessed to live in the world's greatest democracy, so make your own choices. Tweet them to us at @rogbennett and we will report back as to which team is officially, definitively, America's Team.
Pros: A forbidden love for an Englishman perhaps, but there is so much to admire about this German outfit. Starting, literally, with its outfits. It takes a bold man to sport the synchronized Tweedledum/Tweedledee combos Jogi Low has rocked in harmony with assistant coach Hans-Dieter Flick. Believe me, Michael Davies and I have tried. But the more I see of them, the more I dig it. Laugh now. We will all be wearing Der Jogi Low für Menschen line come fall.
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
It must be a German thing.
A second marvel is the youth system that has spawned both Thomas Mueller and Mesut Ozil. Mueller is a technical wonder. The fact that a little over a year ago he was playing for the Bayern Munich reserves in the regional league suggests there is much to the German grassroots infrastructure that both the U.S. and England systems can learn from.
Cons: The German youths destroyed England clinically, demonstrating little in the way of apparent emotion. This game against Argentina appears to be different. German fans have been left to parse Bastian Schweinsteiger's lip-shaking news conference outburst in which he revealed a pain still searing in the wake of the 2006 World Cup clash between the two teams. That game, which Germany won on penalty kicks, culminated in a spot of Argentinean-induced fisticuffs, an event Schweinsteiger admitted he could not get out of his head. Diego Maradona wasted no time before unleashing some Phil Jackson-grade mind games suggesting Schweinsteiger's comments indicated the Germans were lacking in confidence. There is only one thing I know for sure about the unpredictable world of football: Do not mess with Maradona. There can be only one winner. Just ask Pele, who always seems to come off second-best in their surreal, long-running war of words. Irrespective, I find it hard to cheer for a team whose big tabloid pregame press cycle is dominated by stories of a prognosticating octopus.
Pros: I love this team and I don't care who knows it. I adore the human way its strengths and weaknesses, like those of its coach, are on display for all to see. I watch in wonder as plucky Li'l Leo Messi takes the field to renew his joust with tournament history and our craven desire to etch his name into the pantheon of World Cup greats. I adore the way the team moves forward at full tilt, Carlos Tevez all-a-frenzy.
Cons: Gonzalo Higuain leaves me cold. I yearn for him to be replaced by the admirably doleful Diego Milito, even though Higuain will undoubtedly disregard my disdain (word has it he is a big fan of the OTB Pod), win the Golden Shoe, and then move on to a big-money, mediocre spell at Chelsea.
And what of Argentina? I have read Chris Farley's biography enough times to know the good times do not last. With a defense liable to crap out at any second, I fear my Argentinean love-in is not going to end well.
Pros: English journalists have dubbed Spain's inimitable possession-hungry style "PlayStation football." And while watching its smurfish midfielders paper-cut opponents to death is a joy to behold, it is forward David Villa, a player impossible not to love, who has used this World Cup to prove he is one of the world's finest.
Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images
The Spanish assassin: David Villa's goal-scoring exploits have carried Spain.
Cons: Fernando Torres cuts a lonely figure. The Spaniards really clicked against Portugal only after he was substituted. After his face appeared on practically every promotional item released before the tournament, he arrived injured, ditched his signature frosted hairstyle and is now struggling, Samson-esque, shorn of locks and shorn of match fitness.
However, Spain's greatest opponent is probably the extent to which it is haunted by a sense of its own history, both ancient (its staggeringly poor World Cup record) and modern (the recent memory of Barcelona's Champions League second-leg undoing against Inter Milan's valiant Paraguay-esque rearguard action).
Pros: For a team that shamelessly plays such dour football, the Paraguayans sure conjure a lot of love from the ladies. First, swimsuit model Dallys Ferreira offered to "make love to each member of the Paraguay World Cup team" if it lifts the trophy, adding somewhat superfluously, "Women from my country are ardent, and to be honest, I'm more ardent than most. I take no notice of societal norms." Now her rival, swimsuit model Larissa Riquelme, has demonstrated her sophisticated grasp of what passes for an important news story as she unveiled her plan to acquire a celebratory world-title tattoo on her breast, and then channel Diego Maradona by running through the capital city of Asunción -- painted only in the team colors.
Cons: Buoyed by their most excellent penalty experience against Japan in the round of 16 (a fixture dubbed by no less an expert than the Guardian's resident technical genius, Jonathan Wilson, as "probably the worst game of the World Cup") the Paraguayans will undoubtedly attempt to cling on for a shootout one more time. Their coaches are obsessively breaking down footage of Switzerland's defense-first victory in the opening game, even as I type. As much as I love and admire the enthusiasm of Ms. Ferreira and Ms. Riquelme, I cannot bring myself to support such behavior. I am sure the Paraguayan players, fine-looking to a man, do OK in that department without the fleshy victory bonus.
Pros: Old-time fans will no doubt blather on about "Total Football," but this Dutch side has found a way to flip its traditional script. Usually beautiful yet fragile, Holland typically seduces all neutrals before imploding. This team, though soaked in skill, has efficiently shuffled to victory, welding a defensive efficiency to its high-octane offensive game. Arjen Robben looks supremely tasty. A little like a younger me who went to the gym a bunch and was really, really good at footy. (Note to Brazilians: Here's how to defend Robben based on 50 minutes I have just spent watching him on YouTube: The dude has one move. He cuts inside from the right and bangs it past you with his left. Everyone knows it. Yet no one can stop him.)
Cons: Few teams love to self-combust more than the Dutch. Just when the team has won us over with the effortless menace displayed throughout qualifying and tournament proper, cue Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder to start locking horns in the media like a pair of petulant young gazelles sparring on the savannah. There can be no greater indicator that the Dutch are not long for this world. This team has a death wish it does not want to shake.
Pros: The one team which has evidenced little weakness thus far, Brazil is a thorough, rigorous side. Whereas England was undone by ego, Coach Dunga's team appears willing to leave its individual agendas in the locker room, preferring to collectively unfurl its deeply disciplined, systemic football. Robinho is a case in point. English Premier League reject he may well be, but his performance at this World Cup indicates his rejection may be more about the artlessness of England, as opposed to the competence of the little bearded wonder. And tune out the faux debate about the death of the beautiful game. As captain Lucio asserted before the tournament, "There is nothing more beautiful than winning."
Cons: I simply can't bring myself to cheer for the Brazilians. It is just too obvious. Akin to picking "Citizen Kane" as the best movie of all time, or "Everyone Loves Raymond" as your favorite TV show.
Pros: You had me at three-man front. I adore the movement of the Uruguayan forward line as Edinson Cavani pushes forward alongside the coveted Luis Suarez and the dreamy Diego Forlan. But my favorite Uruguayan is undoubtedly captain Diego Lugano, who gallantly throws himself around with little regard for his own personal safely. This as per his own website: "Blond, restless, smart, he knew since he took his first steps what his passion was: football." Ian Darke, your wordsmithing skills may yet be needed.
Cons: Uruguay is a tiny country. It is the Slovenia of the elimination round -- 3.4 million people live in the country, which makes it roughly the same size as Montreal. Mark my words, the Canadiens will never win the World Cup.
Pros: So many reasons exist to cheer the Black Stars:
1. They are hometown heroes in this, the African World Cup.
2. Classic underdogs hoping to become the first African nation to shoot for the vaunted third-place game.
3. The most fetching jerseys left in the tournament.
4. South African television urged all Africans to wear yellow, green and red in support of the Black Stars on Friday. This kind of regional pride simply does not exist anywhere else in football. When France was eliminated, did you hear Sarkozy urge his nation to throw its support behind the Spanish?
5. They have a stretcher blessed with magical powers. Ghanaian players are felled, left to roll on the turf in agony, raising the specter they will not walk again. The stretcher is summoned. Aforementioned player lies motionless upon it for one minute. Player is healed. 100 percent. Every time. If Billy Mays were still alive, he would have fired up an infomercial for the "Ghanaian stretcher, a miracle cure," before the group stage was done.
Con: They beat us. Again. Too soon? Yes, too soon.
Time to make my pick. For the record, Davies is wedded to the magic of Ghana. James Frey is all over Spain. Seth Meyers loves the Dutch, as does Friday's pod guest, the remarkable Joe Scarborough. Judah Friedlander loves Argentina but thinks Brazil will win. I will be bellowing for Argentina. Maradona reminds me of a young Michael Davies.
Tuesday, 1:15 p.m., Embassy Row Studios, crap part of SoHo.
We lost two friends over the weekend. England, we always knew was on its way out. Don Fabio's men had regrettably been death rattling for some time now. The other, the U.S., went way too soon. Team USA, did you have to make us fall so hard, so fast, for your sincerity, passion and perseverance?
Now that they are both dead, it is time for the wake. I am sitting here with one eye on the Paraguay-Japan game. Both teams are pottering around the pitch with little conviction as the game teeters toward penalties. There can be no finer time to raise a glass and toast the memory of the U.S. and English tournament campaigns and provide some candid thoughts as the smoke clears from their wreckage.
Two different emotions of defeat
When did I last feel this bad about a loss? England's 1990 semifinal defeat to Germany, perhaps?
But I am not talking about England's 4-1 battering. It was the U.S.'s ouster that left me devastated this weekend. England's failure was, regrettably, all too predictable. We are a nation that has long mistaken fame for skill. But the U.S. team created a sense of endeavor, nobility and optimism -- all too rare a commodity in sports and rarer still in American soccer. We will always have Landon's goal, a totemic symbol that will be played and replayed, even as we debate how or whether America's fascination for the big-event nature of the World Cup will translate into a more lasting passion for the sport of football itself.
Where is the hate?
Worse than the way England played, worse than the bitter taste of defeat and worse than the 4-1 walloping was the recognition that, for the Germans, playing England is simply no big deal. We are no longer good enough to be on the German national radar.
Exhibit A: After their players swatted us aside, they celebrated with the minimum of fuss. Professional handshakes all around. Not descending to their knees, tearing up or even pointing to the Lord (who is, inarguably, a German supporter, whilst perhaps retaining a soft spot for Diego Maradona.)
Exhibit B: The German media treated our performance with sympathy for our plight rather than contempt. Das Bild even apologized for the Frank Lampard phantom goal debacle. We don't need your sympathy, Germany. At least give us the respect of feigning some contempt.
You want a real rivalry? Look no further than Ghana-U.S. Doesn't that have all the attributes to be the first rivalry of soccer's new world order?
Does it have history? Check.
Close games played for high stakes? Check.
The stinging pain of defeat? Check.
The hardest part of the weekend was the unshakable realization that although we English obsess about Germany, the Germans don't care about us. It's a situation akin to a high school AV student crushing on a cheerleader who doesn't even know he exists.
Capello must go
to the U.S.
OK. The United States has World Cup fever. But perhaps the biggest sign that it is not yet a true soccer nation is the easy ride coach Bob Bradley has received after his team was dumped.
Compare and contrast: His English counterpart, Don Fabio Capello, is undergoing trial by tabloid as the nation's media revel in the blame game after the abject campaign. Yet Bradley was able to make some curious tactical decisions in the Ghana loss -- starting Ricardo Clark and Robbie Findley? -- and escape scot-free. (After Clark was given the hook after a mere 31 minutes, the BBC compared the halfhearted handshakes he received from the U.S. bench to those offered when a best man delivers an inappropriate speech at a wedding.)
Don Fabio has refused to resign, but that has not stopped leading English tabloid The Sun from identifying his replacement, astonishingly lobbying for David Beckham to fill Capello's Bruno Maglis.
The paper's logic appears to be as follows:
1. He looked good in his suit on the sideline.
2. Maybe he can do for the English what Maradona has for the Argentines.
Admittedly, both Beckham and El Diego look sexy in a suit, but there is one sizable difference. One is a proven World Cup winner. The other is a proven World Cup quarterfinalist. Becks is very much part of England's problem. Not the solution.
As for Don Fabio? As down as England is on him, America may well be the elixir for what ails ye. His tactical discipline would work well with an eager, egoless squad hungry to win as opposed to England's bloated, self-satisfied bunch of losers. Hire the man.
File these in the Department of Unanswered Questions
Thieves were reported to have stolen jerseys, underpants and a FIFA gold medal from the English squad's hotel rooms before the team left for home. Understandable. It's what eBay was built for. But medals? What FIFA medal could an English player have possibly earned at this World Cup? Can anyone enlighten us?
Jozy Altidore played this tournament like Emile Heskey -- minus the special fringe benefits that only Michael Davies sees in Heskey. Altidore truly has the worst second touch in soccer. He does the hard thing well, instinctively numbing any pass delivered toward him. It is only once his brain is forced to engage and dictate what should happen next that the ball bobbles tamely out of his possession. The U.S. team was one confident forward from doing some serious damage at this tournament, considering its draw.
But take heart. If we consider Germany's youth policy and recognize that a little more than 12 months ago, 20-year-old star Thomas Mueller was plying his trade for Bayern Munich reserves in the regional leagues, the U.S. has a full four years to find our man. It will be fascinating to see what U.S. Soccer and President Sunil Gulat do now that their "Project 2010" blueprint is past its sell-by date, particularly the promotion of the game among urban minorities.
We don't need revolution. Just one clinical striker.
Whom should we support now?
One of the most interesting facts about the last World Cup is that the television ratings continued to spike as the tournament progressed despite the fact the U.S. disintegrated in the opening round. If that is the case again, we need a new rooting interest and quick. Would love to hear your suggestions -- Whom should we back and why? -- in the comments or via Twitter @rogbennett.
Teamless as I am, the one thing I do know is that if you have a chance to watch a game in 3-D do it, do it, do it. I watched Brazil rip out Chile's still-beating heart. With the 3-D goggles on, it looked as if magical little wood nymphs were running across a verdant fairy-tale landscape you could cup in the palm of your hand. Robinho looked like Tinkerbell, Kaka appeared as Peter Pan and bearded Bastos like Papa Smurf. I loved it so much, I swear by the glasses and now wear them everywhere I go.
Sunday, 2:05 p.m. Hollywood Center Studios, Edit B.
It is not easy to both edit a television show and watch 120 minutes plus of a World Cup game but somehow I managed it. And when all is said and done, I'm not sure what I actually achieved by doing so. Everything negative I feel is cancelled out by everything positive I feel. And everything positive by everything negative I'm left feeling.
Saturday's U.S. game leaves me staring at, metaphorically speaking (because I never drink enough), a giant half glass of water. It is labeled:
How to View the Performance of the U.S. at this Year's World Cup of WiffleSoccerParity
Is it half full or half empty? Because I am English, let's start with the negative.
The U.S. blew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make it to the semifinals.
Ghana is ranked 32nd in the world according to the FIFA rankings. Uruguay, who the U.S. would have met in the quarterfinals, is ranked 16th. Yes, the Soccer Power Index ranks both teams higher, but there is no doubt that the "funny corner" of the draw in which the U.S. (ranked 14 in the FIFA rankings) found itself -- no Brazil, Argentina, Holland, Spain, Portugal or Germany to face until the semifinals -- presented an almost unprecedented, and unlikely to be repeated, opportunity. Furthermore, Ghana was without its most celebrated player, Michael Essien, who was so influential in Ghana's controversial victory over the U.S. in Nuremberg in 2006.
If the U.S. also lost to Ghana 2-1 in 2006, how can this 2-1 loss possibly indicate progress? Yes, it's a round later. Yes, the U.S. had to play Ghana on its home continent. Yes, it went to extra time. But it was still Ghana -- a country the size of Oregon. And without Portland.
The U.S. conceded yet another early goal.
At a certain point this stops being about conceding early goals, and starts becoming about conceding too many goals. The U.S. has had one clean sheet in its past 14 matches (against Algeria -- thank you, crossbar). And according to the popular narrative, the U.S. has one of the best goalkeepers in the world. What does that say about the defending? How many goals would the U.S. concede with one of England's keepers in goal?
Not one of the Americans' five goals was scored by a striker.
Landon Donovan, right midfield, three goals. Clint Dempsey, left midfield, one goal. Michael Bradley, defensive midfield, one goal. Maurice Edu, defensive midfield, one disallowed goal. Jozy Altidore, Robbie Findley, Herculez Gomez, Edson Buddle, forwards, zero goals, nul points, nada, zilch, zippo. Don't get me wrong, I love me some Emile Heskey. And Altidore has some Heskeyish qualities -- size, strength and perhaps more speed than Heskey ever had as a young man. But at his first World Cup (2002) Heskey scored against Denmark and was England's best player against Brazil. He scored 21 goals for Liverpool in a single season in 2001-02. Altidore scored twice for Hull City this past season. Until he proves he can score at the top level, he does not score at the top level. And until the U.S. has a top-level striker like Luis Suarez, David Villa or Gonzalo Higuain, the Americans can not expect to go very far in a World Cup.
Dempsey and Donovan scored four out of the five U.S. goals at the World Cup.
Clint and Landon will be 31 and 32 at the next World Cup. Perhaps not past it. But no longer in their primes.
The U.S. played two good halves of soccer in two weeks, six bad halves and two poor extra-time halves.
Second half against Slovenia. Second half against Ghana. Other than that, and this is harsh I know, they were either neutralized or outplayed. OK, Algeria just sat back. And Landon's injury time goal was the moment of the tournament. But this team has not looked as good as Ghana looked Saturday at any time in the tournament. And this is Ghana we're talking about. The 32nd-ranked team in the world, playing without its best player.
What do all these new U.S. fans focus on now?
Because they are in neither South America nor Europe, there is no significant tournament for the Americans to compete in until 2014. And don't talk to me about the CONCACAF Gold Cup or the Confederations Cup because nobody cares. Even qualifying games in CONCACAF, save for the games against Mexico, are tough to get too excited about. This is something that really hurts the U.S. Too few genuinely competitive matches. Too easy a route to qualifying. The reality is that some of these fans will get into Major League Soccer. A few more, perhaps, will start watching EPL games on ESPN and Fox. Most will drift away from the game until 2014.
OK, now I've got everyone all upset with that, let's focus on the positive.
Landon Donovan has totally proven himself to be a world-class, big-stage footballer.
Very few teams have a Landon. The U.S. does.
Tim Howard will still be in goal at the next World Cup
Let's just agree that he is a very good goalkeeper. It is a positive that in goalkeeping terms he is still young enough.
Joze Altidore has potential.
He is an athlete. He needs to become a better footballer. But my gut tells me he progresses.
International games are often won in central midfield, and in Michael Bradley the U.S. has an anchor for the future.
Sir Landon will have plenty of money thrown at him from European clubs, but perhaps no U.S. player has increased his stock more in percentage terms than Michael Bradley.
Maurice Edu and Benny Feilhaber.
Not a great name for a double act, but two more midfielders who played enough, and well enough, to catch the eye.
U.S. defense is stronger than it has ever been.
Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit and Steve Cherundolo, had, on the whole, a very good tournament.
At times, the U.S. just looked, well, really good.
This observation is more of a Malcolm Gladwell "Blink: thing. I have watched a lot of U.S. games over the past 20 years, in stadiums all over the U.S. and the world. And this is hard to quantify, or even to explain, but there were passages of play during this World Cup when, for the first time, I just thought that the U.S. looked a level above where it has ever been before. There were moments, all strung together, and not only involving Landon, when I simply thought "class."
The U.S. has established a come-from-behind, never-give-up ethos.
Though the USA's ability to dig deep and come from behind, score at the last minute, never say die is perhaps a little overplayed by the media, what is certain is that no team with a lead against the U.S. is ever going to think it's going to cruise home. That could make them play smarter. But more likely, it's going to create a little tension and a little doubt. Heart and hustle can be overrated. But with the U.S. team, it seems to be an ever-present 12th man. Like the Irish crowd. Or Brazilian flair.
After this loss, I can feel a whole country in pain.
That is new. That is good. Because somewhere there is some kid watching this and kicking the furniture. He's thinking: One day I'm going to play for the U.S. and I'm going to score a goal and make a difference.
ESPN has totally committed to this World Cup and made it way bigger than it has ever been before.
That will massively spur the game on in this country. USMNT games will be a hotter ticket (and if you want to attract inner-city kids to the sport, U.S. Soccer, please play qualifiers in big cities again). More people will watch MLS, many more I think will watch the Premier League, Champions League and the other leagues of Europe.
That's 10 glasses half full, versus only eight half empties. This has been a good World Cup for U.S. Soccer. Not great.
Give it a solid B, with a + for effort.
Bennett: Davies, when did you get a feeling it was all about to go very wrong? For me, it was when I realized I am starting to warm up to the tactical flexibility of Jogi Low's boy-band pantsuit. How constrained Fabio Capello looked in his Marks & Spencer garb in comparison. My sense of unease was reinforced when England captain Steven Gerrard forced out a burp during the coin toss. The lad clearly was not up for it.
Davies: Weirdly, I was watching at Soho House West Hollywood (I'm dead fancy), and I was sitting with a bunch of guys from Marks & Spencer visiting the U.S. on a fact-finding mission. So perhaps I was just sucking up when I told them how good Fabio looked in his suit. But I do think he looked better than Jogi and his friend from "Zoolander." I knew it was all going wrong when we couldn't get the TV channel changed to ESPN before kickoff and had to watch Miley Cyrus in concert. The Gerrard indigestion theory? I love it. Explains a lot. I thought that perhaps that was Stevie G's identical twin brother who plays for his pub team.
Bennett: What went wrong? This was meant to be our year: It was winter in Africa. We love the cold. Capello was a ruthless tactical genius. Fused to our blood-and-thunder game, there could be no stopping us. Some writers we know even mounted a painstaking investigation into the biology (or was it physics, Davies?) of the turf to explain why the springy stuff they play on in South Africa would play right into England's hands. In doing so, we ignored what really matters: Our players, their absence of heart and their brittle confidence. And we were found lacking in all departments. German hero Thomas Muller was asked in his postmatch news conference whether his team always knew it would win, and he grinned as he responded without missing a beat, "We are Germany. We are a tournament team." Implicit in his grin was the corollary. "You are England. Middling soccer fodder."
Davies: Middling?! That is way too positive. There is nothing positive to write about that England game. Nothing positive to feel. I feel only marginally more numb than I did after each one of England's games. It was a terrible performance, but it was also another terrible performance in a long line of terrible performances. This was not 1990. It was not even as good as 2006, which was no better than blah; or 2002, which looks vintage compared with 2010; or 1998, which had the explosion onto the scene of Michael Owen and the promise of a "Golden Generation." It was not as good as '86, or even '82 when we failed to get out of the second group stage (but never lost). It was worse than '70; it might even have been worse than '58 and '50. Oh my Good Gourcuff. This could have been England's worst World Cup performance ever.
Bennett: What now for Don Fabio? I thought Bob Bradley was a bad coach because whatever he says to his team before a match apparently makes the players lope onto the field intent on leaking a goal. But Capello at England has been worse. His discipline has been lost in translation and his tactical savvy drowned by his commitment to the 4-4-2, which left England narrow, slow and bereft. The sad thing is this: Just when you completed your "My Fair Lady" education and I mastered the art of saying his first name correctly, he will be gone. Who will replace him? I do not know. I just pray it is one of these three, and have submitted this short list on behalf of OTB to the powers that be at the English FA:
Anyone but Harry Redknapp
Last thoughts before I go lie down in a dark room with an ice pack on my aching head, and attempt to dream of England's Jack Rodwell powering the Three Lions to victory at the Maracana in 2014:
1. Don't mess with the Boateng brothers.
2. If Mick Jagger drags his corpsey self to cheer for your team, have him escorted from the premises immediately. The dude is toxic. Like football's Jonah.
3. I always said that a young, inexperienced squad could go deep into this tournament if it remained disciplined and egoless. In my dreams, I hoped it would be the U.S. I had no idea it would be Germany.
Davies: I need therapy.
I need positives.
I'm scrambling here. I need to get this out.
Really scrambling for positives. Here's what we can take out of England's 2010 performance at the World Cup of WiffleSoccerParity:
Capello looked good in his Marks & Spencer suit.
But to be clear, I have not taken any gift coupons from my new mates.
We have seen the last of this "Golden Generation" England team.
Our Euro 2012 campaign will see an infusion of new blood. Michael Dawson, Micah Richards, Michael Mancienne, Adam Johnson, Theo Walcott to name a few possibilities. We need more speed in every position.
The national obsession with blaming the manager is exhausted.
I think it is now clear for everyone to see -- it's the players (and their inability to re-create their club form at national level, whatever the reason) who are to blame. Some English journalists can bang on as much as they want about Darren Bent and Walcott being left at home. Or that Don Fabio should have played Gerrard behind Wayne Rooney. But none of that would have made any difference. Let Capello fulfill his contract by building a new team from the ground up.
We did beat Australia on Sunday at cricket.
And less than two years ago, our cricket team was a disaster.
Goal-line technology will be introduced for the 2014 World Cup.
It is inevitable. Sunday's terrible non-goal call did not necessarily change who won the game. But it did change the result. And it would have been a much better game of football had it been correctly given. And now I just saw the ridiculous offside non-call in the Argentina-Mexico game. Lionel Messi was actually the last player, in advance of the goalie and the last defender. Ridiculous.
The English FA will look hard at the German system.
The winter break. The youth system. The domestic league. The team's preparation for the finals. All worth looking at. England played three international friendlies all year in preparation for this tournament.
Several England players will be very well rested for the Premier League season.
Joe Hart, Stephen Warnock, Dawson, Michael Carrick -- didn't play. Ledley King, Peter Crouch and Aaron Lennon (all Tottenham) -- barely played.
Jose Mourinho will save a lot of Real Madrid's money.
By not buying any overvalued English players. Or at least buying them at discount rates. Only Frank Lampard might still catch his fancy. He was England's best player Sunday. And Mourinho knows what he can do over a season.
Ian Darke, Martin Tyler and Steve McManaman have been excellent.
England's greatest contribution to the World Cup. Tyler has been as good as we expected. Darke and McManaman have been revelations.
I can't think of any more.
Almost the entire England squad.
I will give Dawson and Hart a break. They never got a chance and look good for the future. Carrick and Warnock also never played, but perhaps thankfully in that case. So there are just 19 negatives. Plus the English FA. I have no faith in its ability to learn anything from this very, very poor World Cup in every respect.
The entire English system.
Too many games. Too few young players getting opportunities in domestic games or good enough to get opportunities in domestic games.
The entire English media.
Fire the manager, don't blame the players, get a new manager, change the tactics, don't change the system, don't blame the players, fire the manager, don't blame the players, get a new manager ... rinse and repeat.
Americans will never completely understand how crap it is, most of the time, to be English. We might have cute accents and be good at cocktail parties. But we are mostly losers.
Rog, I can't do this anymore -- I'm going to play golf. Badly.
Michael Regan/Getty Images
Germany 4. England 1. Seventieth minute. Martin Tyler: "Off comes [Jermain] Defoe. On comes [Emile] Heskey." Football's equivalent of throwing in the towel. England was utterly undone today, by a first German goal that was classic English 1970s kick-and-rush (how do you say that in German again, Mr. Beckenbauer?) and then by the comedic negation of a potential equalizer that was 1966 redux.
The World Cup organizers have to get only two things right before every game: providing a ball and supplying an even-headed match official. Conjuring the Jabulani and Jorge Larrionda, a Uruguayan with a checkered past who, in his spare time, "enjoys breeding animals, mainly birds dogs and parrots," was a failure on both counts.
Truth be told, we English should not let the searing injustice of the blown call prevent us from seeing the truth: We were utterly outclassed by Germany today. Wayne Rooney looked lost. Our midfield was cramped throughout. Our defenders were so shoddy, one can only guess David James was selected because of his season-long experience playing behind duff players at hapless Portsmouth. The last 20 minutes of the game were akin to watching Portugal batter North Korea. Even worse, perhaps, as Don Fabio did not benefit from strategic counsel via an invisible phone connection to Kim Jong-il.
And so it ends. This bad weekend, which was witness to two overwhelming defeats. The U.S., for whom the loss left behind a numbing sense that there could have been so much more. And England. Crushed and humiliated. About to face a media bloodletting. And then, perhaps most painfully, forced to confront a reality in which, despite our overinflated expectations and tabloid overdrive, we are ordinary, lackluster and lacking when it counts.
For the record, round of 16 predictions:
Uruguay versus South Korea
RB: Uruguay in a tight match.
MD: Uruguay beats South Korea, which, at time of this writing is 1-1 with 15 minutes to go. So I might just turn around and edit this by the time I finish writing. You'll never know if I did.
USA versus Ghana
RB: USA! USA! USA! But this baby will go to extra time.
MD: The United States beats Ghana. Even though Rustenburg sounds a little bit like Nuremberg, and once again there's a running track around the pitch, and Ghana will likely start six of the same players who beat the U.S. that fateful day in 2006, this time I see an emotional victory for the U.S. and the dulcet, two-part harmony of Donovan and Dempsey.
England versus Germany
RB: Germany will win, though it pains me to type it.
MD: England beats Germany. I've rewritten this prediction 12 times. But I've now convinced myself that England has convinced themselves that they're better than Germany. And that will make an ounce of difference. And the imperial measurement system being far superior to the metric system, Germany doesn't stand a chance.
Argentina versus Mexico
RB: Argentina will win, though it pains me to type it.
MD: Argentina beats Mexico. On paper, this shouldn't be close. On grass, it will be.
Netherlands versus Slovakia
RB: Netherlands will win this grim game.
MD: Netherlands beats Slovakia. It won't be pretty. It will be somewhat orange. Let's hope it doesn't rain on Marek Hamsik's haircut.
Brazil versus Chile
RB: Brazil wins but not by much.
MD: Brazil beats Chile. I'm looking forward to this one. So is Brazil.
Japan versus Paraguay
RB: Japan takes this on penalties after a scoreless match.
MD: Japan beats Paraguay. This Japanese team has grown on me. Honda and Matsui have caught the eye. I like the Japanese national anthem -- it kind of ends abruptly right in the middle of what seems like the middle.
Portugal versus Spain
RB: Portugal wins in the shock of the round.
MD: Portugal beats Spain. "Quite controversial." I put this in quotes because I have a Dutch colleague who says this all the time. And I can't think of these words without hearing him say it. And I find Dutch people speaking English only marginally less funny than Americans and English people speaking French. Anyway, I just think Portugal is more explosive than the Spanish paper cutters.
Bob Thomas/Getty Images
Do believe the hype. England goalie du jour David James is as erudite as a footballer can possibly be, but his news-conference attempts to pass off the England-Germany clash as "just another game" are risible. As any English fan who has lived, and mostly died, with the England team over the past 44 years will tell you: It may just be the round of 16, but this is the Big One.
In case you missed England's opening-round travails, here's our World Cup story so far: We are lackluster. Our team was booed off after a turgid second-game tie against the mighty Desert Foxes of Algeria. Don Fabio, our Italian coaching mastermind, appeared to buckle briefly only to recover when the opportunity to brutally repress a one-man coup fomented by a deluded former captain materialized. One scrappy, crappy win against the powerhouse Green Dragons of Slovenia changed everything. Jermain Defoe's shinned-in goal catalyzed a tabloid mood swing, from doomsday to delirious. A nation believes once more. The Cup is as good as ours.
And now, enter, stage right, England's No. 1 foe: the Germans. Cue English jingoistic saber-rattling. A posturing born of keen awareness that in this matchup, Deutschland has most definitely been über, über alles. For the English in this fixture, resistance has largely proved futile.
Round 1: 1966 final
And to think, the story started so well from an English perspective. A controversial goal in our first and only World Cup final handed England a famous victory. (Apocryphal side note: When Soviet linesman Tofik Bakhramov was asked on his deathbed how he was sure the ball had actually crossed the line, he gave a one-word reply: "Stalingrad," referring to the brutal World War II battle in which more than a million Soviets lost their lives.)
Round 2: 1970 quarterfinals
The Germans only had to wait four years to wreak their revenge. Led by Franz "Der Kaiser" Beckenbauer, they prised the cup from English hands by storming back from a two-goal deficit aided, it may come as no surprise to discover, by a couple of goalkeeping howlers that left the English feeling as if we had been mugged.
Round 3: 1990 semifinals
The English started slowly, scraping through the opening round (sound familiar?) but emerged with brittle confidence bolstered by a tabloid media frenzy escalating to fever pitch as the team fought through to a semifinal against the Germans. Led by the flamboyant genius of Paul "Gazza" Gascoigne (when I watch this video today, it still gives me shivers -- the visceral memories, not the music) the English should have done better than tie in regulation. But once the game went to penalties there would be only one winner. The shootout became England's equivalent of a poisoned chalice in World Cups and Euros to come.
Round 4: 2002
If it is possible for a national psyche to have its back broken, the narrative of this tournament would have had this effect. One year earlier in qualifying, a tepid German team let us duff them up 5-1 in their own backyard. (This victory became the muse to what OTB podlisteners know is one of Michael Davies' favorite chants: "5-1! Even Heskey scored! 5-1! Even Heskey scored!") England left Munich with our collective chest puffed out, as if we had not just won a footy match, but sacked the city. Germany limped off like a wounded dog to lick its wounds. Surely now we English had only to wait patiently to collect our cup. But come tournament time, the Germans shook off the ignominy of the crushing defeat and rambled into the finals, business as usual, while the Three Lions meekly succumbed in the quarterfinals, losing 2-1 to Brazil. We never knew what hit us.
And so an all-too-familiar pattern has been established: hyperbolic English pregame confidence, even hubris. The Germans finding a way -- any way -- to win. We English left to salve the wounds of humiliation and self-loathing by crafting a new salvo of simmering insults, guaranteed to have come to full boil by the time we inevitably clash again. And we always do. For the English, the wreckage from this clash has littered itself across World Cup history.
When English author George Orwell said that sport was war minus the shooting, he may have had this tie in mind. Few sporting occasions have inspired more frenzied rehashing of war imagery, something we English do best. Without it, we may become just another middling soccer team and -- worse -- one that always loses to the Germans. Before the 1990 clash, The Sun thoughtfully provided readers with a front page consisting of several crudely photoshopped World War II images arranged beneath a headline screaming, "HELP OUR BOYS CLOUT THE KRAUTS." Expect the echoes of the Battle of Britain, Dambusters, the Great Escape and the English taunt/chant "Two World Wars and One World Cup" (brilliantly parodied in this South African commercial) to continue deep into the 21st century. This World Cup in which "France are out, Italy have capitulated, and England are left alone to face the Germans" makes crude war parallels almost too easy.
The fixture is treated slightly differently in Germany, a team with so many toxic rivalries that they almost have to line up and take a number. (Just ask the French or Dutch.) While the English fret (star striker-turned-broadcaster Gary Lineker once famously complained, "Soccer is a game for 22 people that run around, play the ball and in the end, Germany always wins") the Germans bait us by generally disregarding our threat and then trumping us on the field as if it was all no big deal.
This week the Berliner Zeitung feigned excitement, mustering the puny headline, "Yes! Now we are going to sort out the little English girlies." The iconic Franz Beckenbauer attempted to demoralize us by accusing the English team of being "kick and rush" (doesn't he know how we long for an English performance in which there was some actual rushing/urgency involved?), but the other big story tumbling out of the German press was that of a zoo-bound "Octopus Oracle" named Paul who predicted a German win over England by choosing a mussel out of a water glass marked with the German flag over a mussel in a glass with the English St. George's Cross. Fighting talk.
This game is made more complex by the fact that the German team has flipped the script on us. Through the '80s and the '90s, the Germans were an experienced, consistent, relentless machine. A Teutonic Walmart. The Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper memorably quipped, "A World Cup without Germany would be like 'Star Wars' without Darth Vader." But while hosting the 2006 tournament Hugo Boss-clad coach Jurgen Klinsmann fielded a vastly inexperienced, underrated team, and managed the impossible: to rebrand German football as plucky and positive. A team you could only admire.
This year has been more of the same. It should be said this World Cup has been confusing for anyone of English descent. We are drab, dank and joyless. The Germans are full of movement and ambition, and the Argentineans, our other great rivals, are a passionate marvel it is hard not to enjoy. The English press have made bold attempts to adjust to this confusing new reality. The Daily Mail pumped up the national pulse by lobbing around some casual xenophobia examining the multicultural backgrounds of the German squad and asking, "ARE YOU POLAND -- OR TURKEY, GHANA, BOSNIA AND BRAZIL -- IN DISGUISE?" -- artfully pushing two nerves at once: the country's hatred of all things German and its fear of illegal immigrants.
And so, to Sunday. The Germans have overcome a raft of injuries by relying on youth. Perky playmaker Mesut Ozil (the first German to quote the Koran in the locker room before games, according to the Guardian) leads a very human squad that has even demonstrated vulnerability by missing the first German penalty since 1974. In this tie, England is the team that has emphasized experience over style to grind out results. It is hard to imagine a squad as far from the fearless "Dambusters" spirit as this one. More pouty bottom lip than stiff upper lip.
For the Germans, it is critical that midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger pass a fitness test to shore up a back line that will be tested. Wayne Rooney will be key. The Englishman has cut a frustrated figure thus far, perhaps aware he has been the second-best Rooney at this World Cup, his performance still bettered by the bold national-anthem blubbering of North Korea's "People's Rooney." Will Wayne come alive, and if he does, can the patchwork German defense contain him?
It pains me as an Englishman, however, to type this: It is sometimes hard to keep believing. We have been doomed so many times. There comes a point where to do so is akin to knowingly attempt a field goal with Lucy from "Peanuts" performing holding duties. The specter of penalties looms large and has dominated the news conferences. Fabio Capello attempted to assuage the fears of the nation by announcing as far back as December that he has his list of five penalty takers firmly in mind, but when David James was quizzed about penalty practice this week, he admitted: "It's a difficult one if we keep saving them. It doesn't give any confidence to the outfield players."
The Germans have no such qualms. And we know it. Formula 1 driver Michael Schumacher played the arch-German clinical stereotype to perfection in an interview this week: "I'm sorry for the English-speaking nation on Sunday, what you have to face and go through. It's tough on you. We have better statistics. I'm sorry about that, but that's what it is."
Friday, 12:17 a.m., a West Village couch.
As producer of Off the Ball, I've spent the past several weeks fully immersed in all things World Cup and have gone from casual fan to addict seemingly overnight. I'm a traditional American sports fan who understood the basics of the game and now, working with Michael Davies, Roger Bennett and our guests, I'm basking in the nuances that make footy so beloved. I am now certain that some of my favorite sports have something to learn from the beautiful game. First up, basketball.
While the World Cup has transfixed most of the world in the same sort of Bretton Woodsy internationalism that provokes Glenn Beck tantrums, the NBA, long a cornerstone of sport-as-barometer-for-globalism arguments, served up its weakest international draft class since early in Bill Clinton's first term. The only name that gave commissioner David Stern even a moment of pause was the 17th pick, a French Guyanan developmental forward named Kevin Seraphin. C'mon, not a single African big man, eastern European sharpshooter or South American slasher until deputy commissioner Adam Silver started announcing picks?
As a lifelong basketball lover, I'm worried that this international basketball talent drought is indicative of dark days ahead for basketball. Three weeks ago, NBA global dominance seemed like a foregone conclusion. Now the NBA's slow and steady trip toward making basketball the 21st century's global game suddenly seems more like a quixotic quest.
I've spent the past two weeks almost exclusively watching, reading about and discussing the World Cup and have been blown away by the athleticism on display. As an American, I'm predisposed to agree with the Bill Simmons' hypothesis that if we put a soccer ball instead of a basketball in the cribs of every American, we would dominate the sport. But, as Michael Davies often counters, "What if you put a basketball in all the cribs throughout Europe, South America and Africa?" Well, having seen this World Cup, I can clearly state that a generation into the "Basketballs Across the World" campaign, the NBA would be a truly global league and the most talent-rich, competitive league in human history.
But, how do we get the basketballs in the cribs? How do we ensure that Roger Bennett's newborn son never has to sit through a NBA draft so devoid of foreign flavor?
Well, hoops fans, I believe that this World Cup carries within it a secret; one which when revealed will catapult basketball to previously unfathomable heights. And this secret has nothing to do with shoddy ball technology, a la the much-maligned Jabulani, Balki Bartokomous to its American cousin Larry, the NBA synthetic ball (RIP, 2006-2006).
The secret is simply this: Diego Maradona.
Yes, Diego Maradona is the future of basketball.
NBA fans who have had the pleasure of taking in any of Argentina's three World Cup group matches may have a hunch of what I'm getting at here. The Argentinean side, shrouded in controversy in the months leading up to the World Cup, has displayed a confident and artistic brand of football reminiscent of the Showtime-era Lakers. Theirs is a delightful incarnation of the beautiful game, one that any true sports fan can appreciate. It is a style shaped in the mold of their coach, Maradona. And I believe he can replicate this style and panache on the NBA hardcourt.
No matter how well the Argentines play, nothing shines more brilliantly than Maradona himself. This bearded mad man prowls the sidelines like a manic Zach Galifianakis, all 5-foot-5, 200 pounds of past-his-prime glory packed tightly into what ESPN broadcasters insist upon calling a "$4,000 suit," his ears glittering with diamonds that would look right at home in a NBA postgame news conference, hands tirelessly working his rosary like a disgraced nun in a Pedro Almodovar film. As Maradona exhorts his team ever-forward, I see a future in which this diminutive soccer legend leads NBAers twice his size to multiple Larry O'Brien trophies. The ripple effect will make the NBA a lot more fun and inspire the world's youth to pick up their footballs and shoot them into makeshift hoops.
Imagine an NBA with Diego Maradona calling the shots from the pine, dressing down incompetent officials and inciting epic multiyear feuds with other coaches, bear-hugging his players after meaningless 20-point wins in December and Jeff Van Gundying surly opponents in tense March battles. As it stands, Mike D'Antoni is the NBA coach with the most globalized identity but, his run at Olimpia Milano and old-world surname notwithstanding, he is still just a dude from West Virginia at heart. Diego, not D'Antoni, is the man who will inspire a new generation of foreign talent and help the NBA and the game of basketball compete with soccer as the dominant global sport.
There is no denying that a dose of Maradona on NBA sidelines would be entertainment of the highest order. Maradona will handily shatter Rasheed Wallace's DiMaggio-like season record for technical fouls (41) and he might even occasionally turn over some jewelry to foreign authorities to pay down back taxes. I recognize this idea is not without its flaws (we know he loves basketball but does he know the game?), but I'm working on a plan to make this dream a reality, but I need your help to do it.
Tweet me @doconnorDOC or post your suggestions in the comments below. Together, we can bring Diego Maradona to an NBA arena near you.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Thursday, 5 p.m., Subway, crap part of Soho
America has fallen truly, madly, deeply in love with World Cup football. A frenzied love affair that will last until 4:30 p.m. this Saturday, at the very least. Unlike other international teams (OK, maybe not New Zealand) who must perform under the pressure of constant scrutiny from the tabloid press, the United States faces a very different kind of trial. Their players take the field knowing every game they play is akin to a referendum on the future of the sport in this country.
The Algerian game was a classic case in point. As the clock ticked down with the score 0-0, the U.S. was minutes away, not just from elimination, but from the purgatory of four more years of national inconsequence. But, as the great minds at ESPN's marketing team has repeatedly told us, "One rebounded toe-bunger changes everything." Cue the U.S. team as morning-show national sweethearts, their clean-cut collectivism and never-say-die spirit too much for even the most determined soccer skeptics to resist.
Is all of this a flirtation, or is something fundamental and profound evolving in the American sporting DNA? Soccer has, after all, forever been America's "sport of the future." Its recent past, a collection of false dawns and hyperbolic predictions, leaves it perennially perched between "the next big thing" and "yesterday's news." Yet, slow and steady wins the race. Buried beneath the debris of the empty promises of the NASL and the calm build of MLS lies a textured soccer tradition in which the profile of the sport, though no overnight success, has risen inexorably. This World Cup can now permanently transform the sport's place in the American sporting affection.
I came of age in Liverpool, England. The World Cup has been a dominant force in my life, creating a spine against which I have come to mark time. Some of my earliest television-watching memories revolve around the delirious spectacle of the 1978 World Cup, stadiums exploding with confetti whenever Argentina took to the field. The most captivating image from 1982 was the intense Brazilian midfielder Falcao, maniacally celebrating a goal against Italy, the veins in his arms bulging from the screen as if in 3-D, a move I spent the next 12 months perfecting whenever I shinned in a goal on the schoolyard. Maradona's 1986 destruction of my English heroes by means foul and fair was a brutal crash course in ethics. My brother and I ran into the street to vent our grief by blasting a soccer ball straight through the window of our home. My parents, thankfully, understood our pain.
In 1990, I spent the summer as a counselor at a sleepaway camp in Maine and first encountered America's cruel indifference to the sport I loved. The day of England's hard-earned semifinal matchup against West Germany was one of the most frustrating of my life. I spent an afternoon driving frantically from one sleepy rural bar to another. All were broadcasting the local Portland minor league baseball game. Not one was able to direct their massive satellite dishes toward a signal that could pull in the World Cup semifinal. In the pre-Internet age, I had to wait for the next day's Boston Globe to discover the bitter result. Perhaps it was for the best.
I moved to the States in 1992 and have watched with wonder as the profile of the sport has ineluctably risen World Cup to World Cup. Three weeks before this country performed hosting duties in 1994, a Harris Poll declared that national interest in the tournament was so low it would be played in empty stadia. The ludicrous prediction grabbed the headlines and rattled World Cup organizers, but the tournament smashed the World Cup attendance record as teams played before full houses. But this was very much a World Cup of "Being There." Outside of the stadia, the country was too engrossed in the O.J. Simpson car chase and the NBA playoffs to follow the action on TV. I viewed the majority of the games alone, courtesy of a Spanish network on an old television set in the corner of a deserted Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap in Hyde Park, Chicago, with only the Mexican barbacks for company.
Between 1998 and 2002, I lived in Washington, D.C., and by then the tournament had achieved cult status in that city. The cognoscenti had become clued-up and flocked to local Brazilian bars or Italian restaurants in Adams Morgan to digest the spectacle. It was around then I began to enjoy weekly English Premier League games with a small yet motley crew at Planet Fred's Bar. We would gather at 10 every Saturday morning to feast on scraps, treating a lackluster matchup -- say Southampton laboring against Leicester City -- as if it was Boca-River Plate.
By chance, I was back in D.C. for the United States' 2006 group stage crunch match against Ghana, and was shocked to see that bar, and many more like it, jam-packed with a line snaking around the block two hours before kickoff. Sadly, the Americans' performance -- they had, somewhat ludicrously, ranked as high as No. 4 in FIFA's rankings ahead of the tournament -- was not as advertised. The game ended in a bruising 2-1 loss and the U.S. limped out in the opening round. One glimmer of hope though: Despite the early exit, television ratings continued to rise as the competition progressed. A sign that, at last, the game was finding an audience in the States.
It is fitting that Ghana will again be America's opponents on Saturday, though to be clear, both teams are remarkably different. The Black Stars are a young, defensive force battling to overcome the loss of injured star Michael Essien, whose intelligently physical game allowed the Ghanaians to dominate the midfield in 2006. The U.S. team is also a different proposition. The 2006 squad was punished for relying on trusty warhorses Eddie Pope and Brian McBride for the third consecutive World Cup. This incarnation is a hard-running, egoless, cohesive unit capable, at times, of playing fluent football.
There are two scenarios as to what can occur at Royal Bafokeng Stadium come 2:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.
THE DAMP SQUIB SCENARIO
The media scrum continues until kickoff. Landon and Jozy are repeatedly pulled from training to address the nation via satellite link to Larry King and the ladies on the couch at "The View." The hangover from the locker room beer or seven imbibed with sudden fan Bill "I have fallen in love with soccer" Clinton leaves the team emotionally spent. The game build-up may be akin to that of the second-coming, but the U.S. will leak one early goal, and then another. Momentum lost, the U.S. offers little in a despondent defeat, and the American viewing public shift their allegiances to Slovakia, attracted by the punk stylings of Marek Hamsik. Landon decamps to California. His efforts to mend fences with Bianca are met by ne'er a single paparazzi flashbulb.
NIKE'S ECSTASY SCENARIO
"Write The Future" may turn out to have been the most ill-fated sports ad campaign since American Express' Andy Roddick's Mojo (or, dare I say Reebok's Dan and Dave campaign?), but Nike may still experience World Cup redemption. The Americans change things up by scoring the opener against a well-drilled Ghana. The goal holds up and the U.S. begins its run deep into this tournament, an exhilarating experience creating one of the largest bandwagons in world history.
The second outcome is so very possible. Placed in a quirky yet even corner of the draw to duke it out with the tough Ghanians, tactical South Koreans, and flowing yet physical Uruguayans, Bob Bradley's team knows it has the raw talent and discipline to proceed. Their greatest motivation may be their greatest challenge: the awareness that a run deep into this tournament will be game-changing for the profile of the sport in this country, in a way that even the bold run in 2002 did not. Surprise victories like those against Portugal and Mexico will feel like an ecstatic fad in comparison.
The tectonic plates have shifted. Not only is U.S. soccer culture alive and flourishing, but the global game is fast taking on an American tinge. U.S. players are competing in elite European leagues in increasing numbers. A veritable feast of soccer is broadcast on American cable on an average weekend (even more than in Britain), eagerly devoured by a generation nourished on the sport by the FIFA PlayStation franchise (which even presciently laid the groundwork for Americans to experience the dulcet commentating tones of Martin Tyler). Three of the most famous English teams are American-owned, including the two with the most titles, Liverpool and Manchester United. Even P. Diddy spread rumors he planned to snap up a team. Perhaps, most significantly of all, Kim Kardashian rebounded on Reggie Bush by reportedly canoodling with Portuguese ketchup connoisseur Cristiano Ronaldo (star of the snuggest undies ever seen on billboards across America), overpaid, over-sexed and very much over here.More proof? Just follow any of these Twitter accounts: @joenbc, @judahworldchamp and @sethmeyers21 for a constant stream of soccer analysis ... not from Tommy Smyth or Alexi Lalas, but "Morning Joe's" Joe Scarborough, "30 Rock's" Judah Friedlander and "Saturday Night Live's" Seth Meyers.
We dreamers riding the bandwagon can envision a quarterfinal battle against Uruguay, Confederations Cup revenge against Brazil in the semis, and a winner-takes-all rematch against a rejuvenated England (just kidding, Argentina fans) in a final that lies just three wins ahead. But the players must not. It is critical that Bradley maintains the prevailing sense of common mission, keeping his team's feet on the ground, Bill Clinton out of the locker room, and the focus on one game at a time. And if all of this comes to pass, we have just more than two weeks to wait before we can say with a straight face: Arise the United States. True Home of Soccer.
One additional note: Readers should rest assured that OTB pod listeners have worked hard to shore up one of the U.S. team's overt weaknesses -- its nickname. Here are four of the best "Yank" replacements tweeted in at @rogbennett:
@rogersworthe: The Balding Eagles (a tribute to Landon's receding hairline)
@zgeballe: The Birds of War
@worldtweetcup: The Wild, Wild Best
@Nickfantana The Immigrants
Keep sending those beauties in. We promise to forward the five best as retweetz to Herculez Gomez.
Wednesday, 5 p.m., Hard Rock Cafe, Times Square
I could not sleep Tuesday night. The knowledge the two sides of my identity -- England, my birthplace, and America, my home -- would have their fates decided on the football pitch, the only place that really matters to me, was too much for my fragile composition to bear. A stressful condition was exacerbated to extreme levels come kickoff due to the bipolar, deeply unsatisfying experience of watching both games unfold on split-screen. While the workmanlike English jumped out to a 1-0 lead, the honest Americans were robbed of a perfectly good goal for the second consecutive game (Great zinger from Ian Darke: "No goals in this game ... ones that count anyway"), dispatching one shot after another straight toward the metallic purple shirt of the Algerian goalkeeper, as if magnetically attracted.
The lacerated tongues, bloodied jerseys and scuffed shots began to pile up. As the clock ticked down, I became overwhelmed by an out-of-body terror, aware that come injury time, I would have to face my "Sophie's Choice" moment and decide which of my teams to favor. Which of my children I would wish to live, and which I would allow to be eliminated from the World Cup finals.
One detail: I had the pleasure of watching the games with a gentleman whose son attends the University of Alabama and was heartened by the knowledge that even there, in the depths of Crimson Tide country, the epitome of tobacco-chewing American sports culture, every bar had opened early, packed with nascent soccer fans. An entire generation of students, weaned on the FIFA PlayStation franchise, now sampling the real thing. Seeing the games through their eyes, my choice became clear. If the Americans' fate was to whimper out of the tournament 0-0, victim of two World Wrestling Federation-worthy officiating calls, American soccer would be doomed to four long years of mockery and disregard. Recognizing this, I instantly doubled up on the U.S. and began to bellow for a Slovenian equalizer along with the Edson Buddle dribbler I had already been praying for.
Landon Donovan changed everything. His 91st-minute trailing run and shot ensured the game ended ecstatically. As Weezer's "Represent" blared in the American locker room, the U.S. national team topped its group, and now, in the clear-blue ocean of the elimination round, had become the most likable team in American sports. The noble tears gliding down Donovan's now-deified cheeks were a symbol of the cosmic nature of his goal, an immensity he appeared to grasp. "It makes me believe in good in the world, and when you try to do things the right way it's good to see them get rewarded," he said.
How far will our beloved United States progress? It is just four more wins away from the unthinkable. Answers to the following questions will go a long way to determining the team's fate.
WHY DOES THE UNITED STATES PLAY WELL ONLY WHEN ITS BACK IS AGAINST THE WALL?
For the life of me, I do not know. Leaking a fourth-minute goal against England, spotting a 2-0 lead to the Slovenians and now waiting until the 91st minute against the Algerians may play out well on "SportsCenter," but it will come back to bite the U.S. Let's try to mix it up a little and grab an early goal against Ghana.
WHY DO OPPONENTS PLAY UP AGAINST THE UNITED STATES?
One of the underreported storylines ahead of the U.S.-Algerian clash was the extent to which the Arab world was galvanized by the prospect of an American defeat. True or not, the negativity of the Algerian game plan suggested the Algerians had little desire to claim the win that could have carried them into the elimination round, perversely preferring to derive self-destructive pleasure from the knowledge that they could drag the U.S. out with them.
The Slovenian team that tied the U.S. was tactically robust and disciplined. Against England, it ambled aimlessly around the field as if a cornerstone had just been laid on a state-of-the-art headquarters for the Green Dragons Football Federation, built and paid for by the English FA. The magic of this tournament lies in the fact that what happens off the pitch is reinforced by economics, history and geopolitics off it. The U.S. is the world's sole superpower. It will have to be ready for every game to be akin to a final for its opponents from here on in.
WHY DO TELEVISION CAMERAS INSIST ON PICKING OUT THE WEIRDEST-LOOKING AMERICAN FANS?
Pick a team -- Slovakia, Serbia or North Korea, it matters not -- when the ball bounces out of bounds, the directors are guaranteed to turn to what pioneering ABC television sports director Andy Sidaris called the "honey shot": a cutaway to a stunning lady, most often a buxom blond, sure to thicken the blood of global viewers, irrespective of their mother tongue. The one exception is when the U.S. plays. Am I alone in believing the South African producers seem to derive a perverse delight from closing in on the saddest-looking American fans they can find, casting this great country of ours as a bedraggled bunch of saddies, ginger of hair, retainered of teeth, droopy of oversized hat, crying out for a footy-fan extreme makeover?
WHAT IS WITH THE OFFICIATING?
It was easy to swallow Koman Coulibaly's waving off the potential American comeback winner against Slovenia by persuading oneself the Malian is to refereeing what Robert Green is to the art of goalkeeping. But Wednesday's negation of Clint Dempsey's perfectly legitimate tap-in by match official Belgian Frank De Bleeckere made blown calls a pattern. Call me paranoid but this is beginning to register somewhere between World Wrestling Federation Sinister and 1972 USA-USSR Olympic Basketball Sinister.
WHO WILL PLAY SAINT LANDON IN THE UPCOMING BLOCKBUSTER BIOPIC?
Invisible for much of the game, he flipped the narrative on those who suggest he disappears when it matters. A Donovan Wheaties box appearance is a cert and a "From Landycakes to St. Landon" made-for-TV special has no doubt been commissioned already, be it in the offices of ABC or Lifetime. The only remaining question is, who has the thespian chops to star? Requirements: shortish, uncharismatic, awkward hairline. We thought Gyllenhaal, Maguire or Judah Friedlander. But thanks to @slimhandles for the Twitter suggestion that James Caviezel be cast and that the movie be scripted as a sequel to "The Passion of the Christ."
HOW FAR CAN THIS TEAM GO?
The United States did not just emerge from the group. It won it. And that may prove to be crucial. Runner-up England must now face its great rival Germany, and in the unlikely outcome that it is not eliminated in a penalty shootout, will meet the winner of Argentina-Mexico. The Americans will tackle Ghana, and, with a victory, the winner of Uruguay's clash with South Korea. Bob Bradley knows all three are organized teams that can threaten, but yet all are eminently beatable.
How should the Americans behave? Rule of thumb: The opposite of how England will. Watch in wonder as the English media go into overdrive and their narratives do a 180 from a doomsday scenario to the "Cup Is Surely Ours Now!" storyline. The U.S. must remain grounded. In this tournament, the teams that go deep are those that can overcome adversity (read: dodgy refereeing decisions), maintain their discipline (note the radio silence surrounding news leaks from the U.S. camp; compare and contrast, John Terry), and benefit from good old-fashioned luck (still, one hopes, to come). As I am sure you are aware, the 1930 U.S. team, a physical bunch affectionately known as "the Shotputters," stormed into the semis at the inaugural tournament. This is not new to us. We have had critical prior experience here, people. It may be time for us to start believing.
Tuesday, 9 a.m. ET: ESPN Zone, Times Square, New York
My wife had a kid on Sunday. Day 10 of the World Cup. She thoughtfully waited until Brazil had swatted aside the Ivory Coast before looking over to me, bedraggled on the couch, and declaring "Ke nako" (it's time, the official World Cup slogan). The birth of our child brought joy into a world that had been distinctly mirthless since Friday's England-Algeria debacle, a 90-minute spectacle so unfathomably dire that I found myself accidentally cheering for the Desert Foxes at times and was overwhelmed with nostalgia for a return to the good old days of English footy, when Sven-Goran Eriksson was commanding at the helm, the WAGs added depth and seriousness to the news reporting from Germany, and a plethora of insightful autobiographies were released by the team's leaders the moment they came home.
England's failure has had a personal dimension. I began the year with dreams of an England performance so glorious that I could talk my wife into naming our child after the entire squad. The Three Lions' passionate blood-and-thunder game fused with the cold, tactical discipline of the soon-to-be Sir Fabio Capello -- the cup had to be as good as ours. Yes, I had my moments of doubt, but like many new parents, I became swept up in the magic of the opening ceremonies and quickly added Bafana and FIFA to the possible list of names.
Plumbing through the wreckage, I feel as if a postmortem is already necessary. Here are the questions I have in mind ahead of Wednesday's Judgment Day: SoccerWiffleBall Day of Reckoning: The Squeakel.
1. Should the United States stress the blown call?
New fans of the sport, take hope. Yes, Friday's blown call deprived us of the thrill of a swashbuckling Hollywood ending against the Green Dragons (By the way, can we hold a competition for a new U.S. team nickname? "The Yanks" is bona fide rubbish), but the experience will bode well for U.S. soccer in the medium term. Football fandom is best forged in heartache. Ask any Spurs fan. The thrill of a goal is temporary, but the throbbing pain of controversy and injustice stings for decades. When they're experienced on the collective level, little can motivate more people to talk and care about the game and the team. So thank you, Koman Coulibaly. As a referee you are incompetent, but few have done more to aid the development of the game in the U.S.
2. John Terry, the ultimate World Cup patsy?
For the past 12 months, former England captain John Terry has been on a one-man crusade to prove there are indeed new levels of idiot to which a man can descend. One can only imagine his frame of mind as he discussed his plans to undermine Capello's leadership with senior players before running to the news conference and running his mouth off to the world's media. The players-only meeting no doubt sounded something like this.
John Terry: Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!
Peter Crouch: Germans?
Frank Lampard: Forget it, he's rolling.
JT: And it ain't over now. 'Cause when the going gets tough the tough get going. Who's with me? Let's go! Come on! AAAAEEEEEGGGHHHH!! (Terry runs out of the room alone.)
One thing I do not understand about the whole incident: Why was Cockney Bluto allowed to put his lips anywhere near a microphone at an official team news conference in the first place? His appearance must have been OK'd at the highest levels of the English team's bureaucracy. Is Don Fabio already jostling to position blame for the dismal English performance with an eye on how it will be judged for posterity, and if so, was JT framed?
3. Where is captain Stevie Gerrard?
Being named England captain has historically been a poisoned chalice. Terry's attraction to his teammates' lady friends led to his downfall. The injured Rio Ferdinand replaced him but has been reduced to watching the World Cup from home while tweeting (@rioferdy5), "I need sum new music on my ipod, I'm into most music so hit me with some new music I should be getting please." Where has England's third-string captain Steven Gerrard been in all of this? Former captain Terry was left to self-destruct in front of the media. Vice-captain Lampard was given the job of sweeping up the wreckage after the fact. Stevie G. has been about as vociferous as Beaker the Muppet. Does his silence speak volumes about his frame of mind, confidence and leadership?
4. Will the vuvuzelas drown out the boos of England's fans?
I have to believe England will find a way to slum through to the round of 16. Yes, the team appears burned out and joyless. A national Hubris XI. (Which is worse? To be an English or French fan at this World Cup? The Guardian's excellent Fiver column suggested the latter -- because England is actually trying to win.) It won't be pretty against the powerhouse Green Dragons of Slovenia. Indeed, England has been preparing by playing rugby. Expect the English to gut it out. A wobbler off Ivanhoe Heskey's shin or a misdirected header by Crouch, the gormless foal, will give them a win they don't deserve. But lovers of justice should rest easy. England's defense is irreparably slow. It will be bounced out by the quarterfinals.
5. Can the lackluster European performance be written off to tiredness?
The Netherlands aside, the major European teams have sleepwalked through this tournament. Is it the toll of an elite domestic season reinforced by the grueling nature of a Champions League campaign that looks to have worn down Messrs. Rooney, Ribery, Torres, etc.? The argument does not hold up. The Brazilian and Argentine squads are loaded to the gills with players whose bodies have taken a similar pounding (Jonas Gutierrez toughed it out in the English championships, for god sakes), but they appear to have something the European sides lack: a common mission and the clichéd "pride in their shirts." Intangibles clearly more inspirational than bigger contracts, book deals or enhanced image rights.
6. Who will follow Don Fabio and wear the dull gray Savile Row tailoring of the next England coach?
What does a coach do, apart from choose a distinctive signature outfit to sweat through on the sideline? Few jobs ask so much of one individual under conditions of hysterical stress. A great coach must be a tactical genius, psychologist, sports scientist, negotiator, data analyst, master motivator and charismatic PR figurehead who's able to carry the hopes of a nation on his shoulders while the nation's media mine the recesses of his private life for dirt. Something about Don Fabio has been lost in translation for the English team, and he will stumble off confused and humiliated in the wake of this tournament. But fear not. I have been tracking a young, inexperienced coach who might not have been highly regarded ahead of this tournament, but the more I watch him, the more I am convinced he has all the energy and passion this English team lacks. Allow me to introduce you to the next coach of England Diego Maradona.
Finally, I want to thank all of the OTB readers who have taken the time to tweet me name suggestions for my bambino. Here is the final name list I submitted to my wife, CC'ing FIFA President Sepp Blatter:
1. Shane (after New Zealand's and the Oceania region's top scorer)
2. Diego (after Milito, not Maradona)
3. Michael Davies (legendary football philosopher/poet)
4. CHERUNDOLO (which, according to "My Big Book of Baby Names," is Latin or Greek for faithful, decent, epitome of hardworking)
5. @herculezg (a long shot, but my wife loves the Twitter)
The matter is now out of my hands. My wife and Blatter have six more days to make an official decision. All I care about is that when my son comes of age ahead of the 2030 World Cup, and future England coach Theo Walcott asks him to commit to the English squad, may he follow Jose Torres' example and play for the United States. I am a big believer in Albert Camus' quote that "All I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football," and to me, the U.S. footy team represents everything that is good about the game.
Tuesday, 7 a.m. Somewhere in the Hollywood Hills
The final games of the preliminary round of the World Cup of WiffleSoccerParity are about to start. I have waited long enough. You, my three regular readers, have demanded it. It is time, for ...
DAVIES' OFF THE BALL WORLD CUP OF WIFFLESOCCERPARITY POWERPANTS (tm) RANKINGS
Methodology: The more points a team has won, the better it has played, the less it has behaved like the French, the less pants it's wearing. Got it? Don't get too carried away, these are PowerPants rankings -- and no one at FIFA is going to be taking them too seriously.
1. We're having so much fun we're not wearing any pants
Is any team having more fun in South Africa? Has any team ever had more fun at a World Cup? Does Maradona hang around his hotel bar at night with his suit jacket and tie on, but no shirt or pants? He deserves to and, yes, probably. Is Lionel Messi skinny-dipping in the Jacuzzi? My wife hopes so.
2. Dental floss thongs
They don't all look so pretty, and some of their junk is definitely hanging out. But they're cool, they move well, they're starting to feel the rhythm and they're Brazilian goshdarnit. Yes, Dunga is all uptight on the sideline wearing bright yellow ballet tights and a codpiece. And sometimes in training he sports a merkin. But they're still Brazil and definitely nowhere near pants.
3 (tie). This season's men's designer dress shorts
You're definitely not wearing pants. It's a bit colder than you want it to be, but you're ready to make a statement. You want to look professional and not like everyone else -- style is important to you. So how about trying on a pair of this season's men's designer dress shorts. You might even want to pair them with a jacket and tie. Now strut around and look like you think you're pretty cool. Everyone in the media will be impressed. And perhaps some other teams are looking at you, thinking: I wish I could carry off that kind of a style. But you know what I think? Those shorts are just a bit too short and you look a bit ... well ... too Zoolander. And Alexis Sanchez? Your sideline goal celebration against Switzerland before you realized it was disallowed? Total fail. And yet so priceless. No pants at all. Just complete underpants.
5 (tie). J. Crew Madras shorts
Kinda cool, fit well, look good on a perfect day, but still you're not being taken entirely seriously. And before you start whining, Ronaldo, or falling over or simulating outrage -- you beat North Korea. Yes, 7-0. But it was North Korea. And Slovenia? You've had a lot of luck so far -- Algerian goalkeeper error in the first game, completely bizarre refereeing decision that salvaged you a draw in the second. Fortunately for you, you're now playing an England team that plays with all the confidence and fire of the Washington Generals. Uruguay? You only drew with France and they weren't even trying. Mexico? I'm sorry, your win was against France and you only tied South Africa. Ghana? You only managed a tie against Australia, which is only the second-best team in Australasia. Paraguay? I can't remember a single second of any of your matches. Don't get me wrong, you all look good. But it's tough to take you all too seriously in those shorts.
11 (tie). Medium weight, gray flannel, flat front Thom Browne dress pants
Nice pants. Well, I think they're nice pants. In fact, one moment I think they're just about the coolest pants ever and the next I think they look like the most ridiculous pants ever. Are they meant to be that tight? That short? Did Joachim Low make you wear these? Some of you are young enough to pull it off, but some of you, and you know who you are, are just a little bit too old. These are young men's trousers. I can't tell if you're good or bad. No one can. One moment you're this season's must-have. The next you look, well, a bit crap.
17. Men's kimono
Not pants. And I respect the tradition and everything it stands for. But you still look a bit silly.
18. Man skirt
Also not pants, but in some ways, and especially against South Korea, you resemble the Scottish of southern Europe. I don't think you're going to win the World Cup of WiffleSoccerParity wearing these.
19. Saggy boyfriend pants
Yes, you can't quite understand what you're doing here wearing your girlfriend's saggy chinos she bought at The Gap last summer. It was such a strange decision. You remember, the ones she kept telling you everyone was wearing but you just didn't understand what exactly she was thinking. They look good from the front -- almost normal. But then at the back they just look -- well, weak. You've conceded three soft goals. You've had some good luck, you've had some bad luck. You need to win a game to deserve less pants.
20. Baggy white flannel cricket trousers
I can't say anything bad about my beloved New Zealand All Whites or these pants. They are classic, sporting and sharp. The rest of the world might find cricket and its trousers ridiculous, but Winston, Shane, Ryan and the lads are making me proud to have relatives in Auckland.
21. Pleated, crotch-bulging, Dockers chinos
How humiliating. Ties to lowly Paraguay and even lowlier, Para Zealand. (You can't stop Shane Smeltz -- you can only hope to contain him.) And now, unless you turn it around quickly, you'll be flying home in the signature, shapeless, most unstylish pants in history. So not Italian. No Italian would ever wear these. But look down -- you're wearing them.
Not the knickers that English women wear -- as in, don't get your knickers in a twist. But the ridiculous golf knickers descended from breeches that only Bobby Jones and Payne Stewart could ever pull off. And in fact, England, you have got your knickers in a twist. You look so ridiculous, I'm not sure I can even cheer for you anymore. Unless Joe Cole plays on Wednesday wearing no pants at all.
23 (tie). Parachute pants in national colors
France (slightly soiled)
The weird thing is that most of you are actually pulling this look off. Didier Drogba! Siphiwe Tshabalala! Faouzi Chaouchi! You all look wonderful in those pants. Raymond Domenech? Not so much.
29 (tie). Nigerian brand acid wash jeans
A search online for "Nigerian brand acid wash jeans" proved fruitless. But I'm sure they're horrible.
31. Stilt walking pants
They're 14 feet long and made of satin. And the biggest problem is, you're not actually wearing stilts. You are the third-best team in CONCACAF. Prosecution rests.
Does this look like a man who can play football? Does any team which has conceded nine goals through two games really deserve to be in the tournament? Then again, according to State television, these heroes will return to Pyongyang as boxer-short-wearing heroes holding the Jules Rimet, having stuffed Brazil, Portugal, the Ivory Coast, England, the U.S., Germany and Argentina in the final. Well played, boys.
Comments please. But if you have a complaint about how and where your team is ranked, you might be reading the wrong blog.
Note: Roger wrote this piece in the early hours of Sunday morning as his wife began showing signs of labor. Early reports say that Mr. Bennett found a television in the hospital and luckily witnessed his man, Shane "Smeltzy" Smeltz, score New Zealand's shot heard 'round the world.
OTB's "Deep Inside the Mind of Don Fabio" England XI
Home, 3:25 a.m. ET
My wife has just woken me up to let me know it's time to grab the bag we have had packed for months and head down to the delivery room. We still do not have a name for this baby. I have been meaning to turn my mind to that task all weekend. But, no matter how hard I try, my thoughts inevitably wander to the task of picking the England side for Wednesday's underdog action against that mighty powerhouse, the Green Dragons of Slovenia.
On Friday afternoon, Michael Davies and I recorded a podcast amid the wreckage of England's Algerian performance. My partner in pod and blog picked the team below. A 4-4-2 tweaked version of what we have already seen, the thinking being that the World Cup is not time for major change. We have long debated the mental state of Don Fabio here at OTB. I have been struck/shocked this weekend by the candor of his postmatch comments. In the face of the world's most salaciously career-ending tabloid media, the legendary Don Fabio has let us know that he is powerlessness in the face of history. The Italian was hired on a rumored $8.9 million annual salary to inject a sense of "Keep Calm and Carry On." Instead, we get:
"I think the fear of the World Cup is in the minds of the players. It's incredible. The performance on one side is good [in training], but on the other they are not the same players."
Panic has set in. He does not know what he is doing. Expect wholesale change, and scenes like this on the English bench come Wednesday.
Don Fabio is a great friend, and reader, of the pod. Here are the lads Davies and Bennett would like to see take the field in England shirts Wednesday. Let us know your choices.
I hope they have a television in the delivery room for me to sneak a look at. With Shane Smeltz's Black and White Army taking the field against Italy on Sunday afternoon, our naming decision could be made for us. Failing that, here are the games to watch Monday, which conjure the possibility of Xavi, Blaise or Georgie Welcome being tacked onto Bennett.
Portugal versus North Korea, 7:30 a.m. ET, Cape Town
The well-drilled North Koreans keep oddsmakers handicapping the over/under for defections on their toes. Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo, who will continue his one-man crusade to alienate the entire American television audience with his diving, fake injuries and ketchup talk, represents the capitalist face of the game. Will his presence distract The People's Rooney, Jong Tae-Se (hobbies: shopping; dream: to date the Wonder Girls, South Korea's equivalent to the Spice Girls). Can the industry of the North Koreans shut down the meager goal-scoring capability of the Portuguese, or will they come alive?
Chile versus Switzerland, 10 a.m. ET, Port Elizabeth
The two surprise group leaders clash. Switzerland avoided Spain's Jabulani-control challenges by adopting a bold, high-risk, yet shockingly successful decision to barely touch the ball. Chile turned heads with an offensively confident performance against Honduras. This has been the World Cup of Parity, in which teams have looked unstoppable in one game and a wreck the next. Can Chile break down Switzerland's suffocating back line, or will it be undone by a ball nudged goalward by a hurtling, cartwheeling groin?
Spain versus Honduras, 2:30 p.m ET, Johannesburg
Spain reacted to the sting of its surprise opening defeat to Switzerland, attempting to return to its happy place by reclaiming the mantle of mediocre losers (Gerard Pique: "From now on, we can leave behind the nonsense that we are favorites to win the World Cup. We have tried to exclude this from our thoughts because it is not real") and by breaking up the relationship between goalkeeper Iker Casillas and Sara Carbonero, a national newscaster who reported from behind his goal during the game. Here's her somewhat cold postmatch interview with Casillas.
Cesc Fabregas might be injected into the midfield to give it more thrust. The Spanish will need it. Honduras will seek to emulate the Swiss performance, and with the Honduras squad now containing three Palacios brothers -- Wilson, Johnny and Jerry (a fourth brother, Edwin, was tragically slain in a kidnapping in 2007) -- they will have some steel. David Suazo, known as The Panther, might return up front.
Friday, 4:47 p.m. Mr. Dennehy's, Carmine Street, New York
In the words of iconic American football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, "A tie is like kissing your sister." Today, your sister looks pretty damn good, America.
The battle for geometric supremacy between the Slovenian Zig-Zags and the American Sashes may have ended all square, but the U.S. will leave Johannesburg emboldened by the swashbuckling nature of their second-half performance, and the heartache of their contentiously disallowed "third goal," which can only make them stronger.
England was grim. It played without joy, as if tired, drugged or worse. Powerless to prevent the purportedly lightweight Algerians from squeezing every ounce of arrogance out of it. For the English, it has come to this: Far from being in a group that is EASY, they will now fear the mighty Green Dragons of Slovenia on Wednesday. Don Fabio has the choice of keeping the team relatively intact and hoping the chance to redeem themselves will be all the motivation they require, or to ring in wholesale changes (Wayne Rooney as lone forward/Steven Gerrard playing behind him/find room for Joe Cole), a strategy that rarely ends well in this short-form tournament. Three teams can still win Group C, and all four can qualify, perfectly encapsulating the magic of this tournament.
There was more magic to be found in the day's first game in which Serbia, Serbia were Uber Alles. In his post-match news conference, Germany coach Jogi Low achieved a remarkable feat. By referring to his victorious opponents first as Bosnia and then as Croatia, he managed to make himself look even more foolish than when he left his hotel room wearing that pantsuit earlier in the morning.
Who said this was a dull World Cup so far? Aside from Germany's defeat, everyone looks beatable: France -- lost; Spain -- lost; England -- two draws that felt like losses; and even Brazil were made to sweat by the well-drilled North Koreans. THIS IS THE WORLD CUP OF PARITY, PEOPLE! In which anything can happen. (Rule of thumb: If a team is fielding a player from Nike's "Write the Future" ad campaign, bet against them. Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Franck Ribery have yet to impress. Fabio Cannavaro was mediocre. Ronaldinho is the only player whose reputation has not taken a dive at this tournament, and that is only because he failed to make the Brazilian squad. (Note to Nike: Next time build your multi-million dollar campaign around real stars: Shane Smeltz, Vladimir Weiss Jr., El Chicharito, Bar and Post.)
So don't miss a minute. Far be it for me to suggest how you should live your life, but here is the road map of the weekend of wonder. TiVo just won't cut it. Watch this live. And remember to work on your relationships and eat a quiet lunch between the second and third games every day.
Netherlands versus Japan, Saturday, 7.30 a.m. ET, Durban
The two opening-game victors clash for control of Group E. The Dutch will seek to convince by unfurling the high-octane sophistication promised but not delivered against the Danes. The Japanese would settle for the less lofty goal of being able to maintain possession in their opponent's half. They scored more goals (one) in their last game than they won corners (zero). The intelligently creative Arjen Robben is back from injury for the Dutch, but the menacingly cocksure Eljero Elia's 23-minute substitution cameo suggests they may not need to call on him.
Ghana versus Australia, Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Rustenberg
The Black Stars hope to revive Africa's optimism. The continent's only team to win their opening game have lost their first-choice center backs, Isaac Vorsah and John Mensah, both of whom are doubtful. Yet, their forceful play shocked the Serbs in the opening game and they are confident of repeating the feat. Midfielder Ibrahim Ayew has revealed they will seek to run at, and overwhelm, the tactically naïve Australians, who were torn apart by Germany 4-0.
The Australians lack Tim Cahill, who was red-carded in the opener and their preparations have been undermined by a growing disagreement between the traditionally free-wheeling team and their defense-first coach, Pim Verbeek, known widely as "The Pimbecile." His negative tactics have angered the media to such an extent that the Sydney Morning Herald encouraged Socceroos fans to abandon the team and redirect their support to neighbors New Zealand after their "Australasian" draw with Slovakia.
Cameroon versus Denmark, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, Pretoria
However bad things are in the Australian camp, they are worse for Cameroon. French coach Paul Le Guen was threatened by a player mutiny as his senior players publicly urged him to make better use of star striker Samuel Eto'o. Stranded on the right side of the field, the Cameroonian captain was held without a shot against Japan. Cameroon are winless in their past eight World Cup matches and have won just once since their legendary dance into the 1990 quarterfinals. The Danish, who will need more thrust upfront if they are to rock, received a boost when it was announced Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner may play after Danish doctors performed an unidentified "miracle" on his groin.
Slovakia versus Paraguay, Sunday, 7:30 a.m. ET, Bloemfontein
Fittingly on Father's Day, Slovakian Vladimir Weiss Jr. will trot onto the pitch under the adoring gaze of his father and coach, Vladimir Weiss. Their spontaneous hug upon Junior's substitution was one of the emotional high points of the tournament so far. The Slovakians were unlucky to leak a goal to New Zealand late in injury time and will be eager to compensate by earning the three points before challenging Italy in the final game.
The Paraguayans will hope for more offensive output from Roque Santa Cruz and Oscar Cardozo. Especially because swimsuit model Dallys Ferreira has offered to "make love to each member of the Paraguay World Cup team" if they lift the trophy, adding, "The players know my pledge still stands. Women from my country are ardent, and to be honest, I'm more ardent than most. I take no notice of societal norms."
Italy versus New Zealand, Sunday, 10 a.m. ET, Nelspruit
I, too, am "honest and ardent" and would offer myself up to my New Zealand maestros if they were to trump the World Champion Italians. Fan favorite Shane Smeltz was among the most ineffective players on the pitch in their opening 1-1 tie against Slovakia, yet he still managed to conjure the magic to set up their last-ditch equalizer. Watch out, Italy, if Smeltzy actually decides to get his head into the game.
A sloppy Italy labored in their opener, as they so often do. The team has lost goalkeeping anchor Gigi Buffon to a herniated disk. Backup Federico Marchetti will have to fend off the Jabulani in his first full World Cup start. The New Zealanders lack quality and style but may compensate with pluck. Asked about the challenges presented by the altitude, Ryan Nelsen enthused, "It's fantastic. It's kind of like you're on a high, isn't it? It takes me back to my university days."
Brazil versus Ivory Coast, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, Johannesburg
The rest of the weekend can be viewed as an intriguing undercard for this, the main event: The biggest matchup of the World Cup so far. While coach Dunga made it explicit his team would be pragmatic, not majestic, nobody expected them to have to labor to a 2-1 victory over the rank outsider North Koreans. Much of the postgame scrutiny has centered on Kaka's fitness and performance. Brazil's linchpin struggled in the opening game, raising doubts about the health of his groin. Robinho and Maicon stepped up in his absence, and more will be expected from the clinical striker Luis Fabiano. The Ivory Coast are optimistic about cast-sporting striker Didier Drogba's ability to start and will require him to hold up possession. Ivory Coast's defense is not built to withstand the Brazilian counter. This match will be goal-laden. Drogba's energy level, or lack of one, will determine which end of the field the goals fly into.
10:15 a.m. Somewhere in the Hollywood Hills.
The headlines will scream about the referee, others will call this draw another win, and the U.S. team and media will commit to a narrative on this game that is bound to be about the heart and spirit of the U.S. team. What a comeback! Punched in the nose! An unfair decision cost us a win.
(And that's pretty much the narrative that Landon Donovan stuck to in his postmatch interview.)
And this is all incontrovertibly true. But for the U.S. to mature as a soccer nation, one feels that there also has to be a forthright acknowledgement of another reality. The U.S. conceded two very soft first-half goals to the tiny, but dragon-filled, nation of Slovenia. The first-half performance was abysmal. At this level, you rarely get away with that. And if the U.S. is going to improve, the media now has to treat it like a European nation would treat its own team after this performance -- no excuses, you conceded two goals to Slovenia, you simply cannot put yourself in those positions and expect to win many games at the World Cup of WiffleSoccerParity.
(And bravo to Alexi Lalas, as that was pretty much his final verdict on the match on ESPN.)
However, and it's a BIG HOWEVER, here are nine reasons for the U.S. to be very cheerful about after this match.
1. The goal from Michael Bradley was huge. With one point from two games, the U.S. would have been dead. With two, it's very much alive -- and now in control of its own destiny after Algeria tied England. I believe that it's the goal that will keep the U.S. in this World Cup. More than that, there is finally another player on the U.S. team who has scored a goal at a World Cup other than Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. And if the Americans are going to proceed far in this tournament, they need other players to step up.
2. Donovan played an outstanding 90 minutes. He is class. He really is. Impeccable service from every set piece, every cross, every pass. He reads the game, he can run, he can shoot, he can score. And what a goal. There is nothing like walloping it into the roof of the net. Or so I hear.
3. Jozy Altidore finally played like Emile Heskey. This is not an insult. I repeat, this is not an insult. Altidore is a big, physical striker who has to hold up the ball and terrorize defenders with his strength. Finally, in the second half, he resembled his English soul mate.
4. We have now surely seen the last Jeremy Schaap report on Tim Howard's ribs. Howard looked fine, no outstanding saves, a little static perhaps on Birsa's goal in the first half. But he was an agile mountain in the box from crosses and set pieces.
5. Understatement: The U.S. was treated very harshly by the referee. Though Dempsey was perhaps somewhat fortunate not to be carded in the first minute of the match for an elbow to the head of Bostjan Cesar (I have often seen people straight red-carded for similar challenges), decision after decision went against them in this match. Robbie Findley's card for a handball and, of course, the disallowed Maurice Edu goal, which is being hailed around the world as a legendarily bad decision, certainly stand out.
This was true before England's dire draw against Algeria, but it is even more true now.
6. The U.S. could even finish atop the group. There are many scenarios, but simply put, a win against Algeria would give the U.S. five points. And finishing second might be even better with Germany's loss to Serbia.
7. You are not England. England's performance against Algeria was so poor, it actually made me nostalgic for England's appalling performance against the U.S.
8. You do not have the English press, which will absolutely massacre England and Don Fabio. You have Jeremy Schaap. And he seems very nice indeed.
9. Your players actually look like they like each other and are having fun. England, on the other hand? I have never seen a more joyless group of players in my life. They are having no fun. It's no fun watching them.
It's amazing, this game. The U.S. and England have both played two games and both have two points. And yet, the U.S. will go to bed full of optimism and self-belief and England, one feels, will be drifting off just wanting to go home. One also feels that it may well get its wish.
And today's Daily Pants? They're bright yellow, FIFA logo-emblazoned Alladin Pants. And they'll look fantastic on Malian referee Koman Coulibaly. Ironically, he was born on the Fourth of July.
Paul Gilham/FIFA/Getty Images
4:55 p.m., Au Bon Pain, E. 40th Street, New York
Day 7. In which we quite possibly bid adieu to the feckless French and most definitely to my beloved Super Eagles, who disintegrated against the previously impotent Greeks. Above all, we benefited from Diego Maradona's clarification of his sexual orientation. After hugging and kissing his players to celebrate their impressive 4-1 victory over South Korea, El Diego felt compelled to inform the world media: "I still prefer women. I am dating Veronica, who is blonde and 31 years old." Classy.
We move quickly to Day 8 of this World Cup of Parity, aka Judgment Day: SoccerWhiffleBall Day of Reckoning, in which this entire nation of ours from sea to shining sea (barring Cleveland, the Bermuda Triangle of American sporting fandom, home to the largest Slovenian community outside of Slovenia) will bellow for our U.S. heroes as they fight the good fight -- to prove themselves psychologically capable of winning a clichéd must-win game they are expected to win.
TiVo simply will not cut it. Take a three-day weekend, live a little, and watch these beauties unfold live.
The first game, and probably the most exciting of the day ... in pure footballing terms.
Germany versus Serbia, 7:30 a.m. ET, Port Elizabeth
After the Germans lumped four goals past an abject Australia in their opening game, many fickle fans appeared ready to hand them the World Cup then and there, chuck the player of the tournament trophy to fresh-faced Mesut Ozil, and flip the coveted Golden Shoe to either one of their pillaging Poles, be it Miroslav Klose or Lukas Podolski -- who incidentally, still communicate on the field in Polish. (Germany: The face of a bold new Europe.)
Podolski is an enigma. Innocuously ineffective for his club team yet international tournaments trigger some kind of "Twilight"/full moon effect, transforming him into a world-class marksman. The Germans hope he can continue his ruthless form. They would dearly love their young squad to lock up Group D before grappling with Ghana in their final game -- the Bludgeoning Boateng Brother Bloodbath, a possible payback time for the injury Ghana's Kevin Prince-Boateng inflicted that knocked out Michael Ballack. Ironically, that freed up room for Ozil to twinkle in midfield. Coach Jogi Low will hope that the only bad decision he makes is in his choice of a personal dresser. The German team suit, set off by an electric blue T-shirt, resembles the outfit worn by the maitre d' at the hippest restaurant in Tirana, Albania.
For Serbia, this is a clichéd must-win game. Tipped by many to be a dark-horse outsider, the Serbs started flat in a loss to Ghana and will have to find a way to test Germany's suspect defense, something the inept Socceroos never came close to doing. Look for the White Eagles to exploit set pieces and corners, which were lucrative in qualifying. One can only hope their opposition research was more thorough than that of their national television network, which riled their opponents by claiming Robert Enke, formerly the German starting goalkeeper before tragically taking his own life in November, would not be featuring in South Africa because he was "injured."
The middle game, in which the future of American footy hangs in the balance, once more.
Slovenia versus USA, 10 a.m. ET, Johannesburg
On Tuesday, Slovenian midfielder Andrej Komac breathlessly informed reporters after practice that "we are going to win this match." Despite the best efforts of Slovenian soccer authorities to prove the western media's shoddy mastery of South Slavic caused a mistranslation (he apparently said "We will play to win" ) it was all too late. Komac's quote was all over the Internet, and has undoubtedly been chewing-gummed to the motivational pinboard in the U.S. locker room. It is on.
Neophyte American fans, no doubt still breathless from the thrill of Saturday's 1-1 win against England, are most probably asking themselves a very simple question: Who in the world are these Slovenians? Judging by their garb, they appear to be a team of nobodies from a tiny nation in which Peanuts is still very popular. That is half-true, and both good and bad news. The team is starless. West Bromwich Albion reject Robert Koren, the team's playmaker, is perhaps the best-known. But the Slovenians are also egoless. A tactically well-organized mirror image of the U.S. in formation and strategy, seeking to soak up the opponents and strike on the counter.
And so the United States finds itself in an unusual World Cup position as Friday dawns. They have to win to control their destiny. They expect to have far more control of the ball. The question is: Will they know what to do with it? Can they discover the precision in possession that they will need to pick their opponents apart? A bold lineup change -- the insertion of the raw but aggressive Jose Torres in midfield -- would be a good sign. As is Herculez Gomez's twitter feed @herculezg. The man is 8-1 (via Bodog.com) to score the first goal. Yet still appears supremely loose:
"I think vuvezelas sound nice; like having bees arguing with kazoos in my mind."
And the final game, in which England will test the nerves of a nation before scraping by.
England versus Algeria, 2:30 p.m. ET, Cape Town
A duel in which two of the most pilloried World Cup goalkeepers of all time fight for whatever scraps of dignity remain. Amazingly enough after their pee-wee caliber muck-ups, both Robert Green and Faouzi Chaouchi may start. Fabio Capello is rumored to fear trusting the English gloves to the inexperienced reflexes of alternate Young Joe Hart. Don Fabio will announce his decision two hours before the game -- just as he did ahead of the U.S. game -- believing this mental torture brings out the best in his players. If we saw the best of Robert Green on Saturday, one shudders to think what his worst must look like. We may well find out.
Algeria's Chaouchi has more than wounded pride. Although his coach gave him a full vote of confidence in the wake of his childish yet costly error, he proceeded to sprain his knee in training and will be a game-time decision.
Frosted of hair, Algeria will take to the field knowing that, for one game only, it is the most popular team in Scotland. Their skin-tight shirts, replete with nipple-enhancing technology, will be clinging to beer bellies from Glasgow to the Isle of Skye. As lovely a mental picture as this may be, it will take more to bring victory. Flaccid in front of goal, the team is prepared to unleash 20-year-old Sochaux attacking midfielder Ryad Boudebouz upon the English. Not much is known about this wonderboy. I hope Don Fabio's backroom team has scoured the Internet to gain these pearls of wisdom from Boudebouz's 13-year-old sister, Anissia, in her revealing tell-all blog:
What I Heart: My family, My friends, My street, my city, The FCSM team (Football Club Sochaux Montbeliard, my brother's team)
What I Hate: Jealous people, Liars.
Boudebouz's pace could antagonize the lumbering English back four but Algeria's best plan may be to keep the game tight for the first half-hour and then step out of the way as the crushing weight of history fells their opponents.
England should be bolstered by the return of midfield safety blanket Gareth Barry, and there are rumors -- just rumors, Michael Davies -- that Jermain Defoe may replace your beloved Emile Heskey up front (was he only selected for his tonsorial skills after all?). Eager to prove German legend Franz Beckenbauer wrong when he tarred their play as "kick and rush": the English would dearly love to score a load. Their nation would settle for a single unanswered goal.
Wednesday, 4:37 p.m., Taco Bell, East Village
Oh, how they will be going crazy in the bars of Lucerne and Lausanne tonight. The World Cup of Parity™ continues. Despite fielding 22 of the most perfectly manicured eyebrows the sporting world has ever seen, Spain's possession game came unstuck against the wafting of the Jabulani ball. The Swiss had no such problems as they barely touched it in their 1-0 victory.
Congratulations to South Africa for ridding the World Cup of one of its most annoying statistics. Bafana Bafana are shaping up to become the first host unable to reach the elimination round -- an achievement which will considerably ease the pressure on England if it is awarded World Cup hosting honors for 2018.
If Thursday witnesses half of today's thrills and emotion, you simply have no choice. Wake up early, unleash a firestorm of creativity to ensure your workaday tasks are complete by 7:30 a.m., and then kick back and feast on this bombastic bouillabaisse of ball-winning beauties.
Argentina versus South Korea, 7:30 a.m. ET, Johannesburg
The flamboyant firepower of Argentina confronts the diligent organization of South Korea on a day in which Argentinean coach Diego Maradona celebrates four consecutive weeks in which he has not run over a journalist's foot in a Mini Cooper. Mazel tov, Diego.
During his team's opening game, the cameras appeared more interested in Maradona than the match itself as El Diego manically prowled his technical area, trussed up in a three-piece suit (great product placement, Polyester Trade Association) with the groaning buttons on his waistcoat the only things at this World Cup under more pressure than England manager Don Fabio Capello.
Argentina secured a 1-0 victory, but Maradona will be aware that his team is still very much a work in progress. The defensive system will need to be tightened before it can withstand a serious examination, and while Lionel Messi shone offensively, he must summon a clinical finish to cap his signature slaloming runs. Striking partner Gonzalo Higuain appeared profligate in front of goal. How long can it be until lanky Diego Milito, the Champions League hero from Inter Milan, is given the chance to start?
South Korea's traditionally hard-running game will offer a stern test for the Argentines, especially as the Taeguk Warriors' typical fitness and organization allow them to score a lot of goals late. Their style is typified by opening-game man of the match Ji-Sung Park, known to legions of adoring Manchester United fans as "Three Lungs Park." His play has reportedly been enhanced by a disciplined oxygen-huffing regimen. This game may have a late twist in the tale.
South Korean coach Huh Jung-Moo has faced Maradona in the opening round of the World Cup once before -- as a player in 1986. Huh was given the mission of marking the Argentinean maestro and gave Maradona such a kicking he complained later that the Koreans came "to play taekwondo, not football." Diego still conjured three assists and Argentina won 3-1. If the Argentines repeat that score line, their challenge will appear very real.
Greece versus Nigeria, 10 a.m. ET, Bloemfontein
Unless you are a Hellenist, Nigeria-phile or have really, really caught the World Cup fever, this game may not sound so thrilling at first blush. But, come join me. Give it a go. Let's watch together and discover how my Super Eagles respond to their lackluster performance in an opening game in which they were, goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama aside, decidedly Mediocre Eagles. An upgrade at striker will be needed. Luckily, they have eight on their squad. Nigeria coach Lars Lagerback (who, Maradona take note, permits his gut to spill brazenly out of his warm-ups) wisely adopted a quantity-not-quality approach. They may all be needed if the Eagles will be able to stab in a goal and gain the victory they need to turn their tournament around.
Redemption could be at hand if Greece continues its stubborn refusal to score in a World Cup game. Their proud record:
Games played: 4
Goals leaked: 12
Goals scored: 0
The traditional highlight of a Greek appearance is the singing of their national anthem, which contains the line: "I shall always recognize you by the sword you hold." Everything proceeds to go downhill from there.Don't expect much to be different in this game. Greece's German coach, Otto Rehhagel, looked decidedly bored as South Korea spanked the Greeks 2-0 in their opening game. Aged 71, he became the oldest coach to ever manage in the World Cup. As his side was torn apart, he appeared to be elsewhere. Perhaps his mind was on retirement plans. Whatever the Teutonic equivalent of Boca Raton may be, with its life of early-morning rounds of golf and early-bird diner dinners, Rehhagel will soon be there.
France versus Mexico, 2:30 p.m. ET, Polokwane
Will France's all-around dismal opening game (0-0 draw with Uruguay) be a wake-up call for the talent-rich/performance-poor French? Not according to the legendary Zinedine Zidane, who lambasted the team on Canal Plus television. The good news is Zidane could find only two weaknesses. The bad news was that the first was the coach ("Raymond Domenech is not a coach") and the second was the team ("there is no teamwork").
Zidane appears to be right on both points and there may be no quick fix. Domenech is rumored to have had an argument with Chelsea's Florent Malouda, one of the most in-form players on the squad and just one of many rifts that has fragmented the French camp. Reports suggest that teen heartthrob midfielder Yoann Gourcuff has been marginalized to such an extent that teammates Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribery refused to pass to him throughout the opening game. Former France left back Bixente Lizarazu chose to place the blame on Gourcuff, claiming the doe-eyed star was "too self-effacing, too nice and probably too well-brought up." Expect the French to unravel further.
The Mexicans are also under pressure to gain a result after their 1-1 draw with South Africa and will demand more end product from their talented young strike force of Carlos Vela and Giovani dos Santos, and front man Guillermo Franco, a big lump who is one of the only players in the tournament whose gloriously ineffective game is actually improved by the official ball.
The Mexican goalies are ready to do their part. At Monday's practice, they ran drills with an NFL football to prepare for the unpredictability of the Jabulani, which is either a coaching stroke of genius or an inspired piece of guerilla marketing by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his pigskin suits.
Finally, Davies: Please stop banging on about your choice of the "Post" as the player of the tournament thus far. Anyone who saw the glorious Swiss victory knows they have my main man "Bar" to thank. In the second half, when Spain's Xabi Alonso powered a banking drive goal-bound, "Bar" leapt out of nowhere to make the save. Admit it. He is able to get up mighty high for a big man.
Wednesday, 8:10 a.m., somewhere in the Hollywood Hills.
Oh my Dark Lord, Switzerland has just scored a phenomenally strange goal off what can only be described as a cartwheeling assist from the groin of Eren Derdiyok. The Swiss chaser, Gelson Fernandes, slots it home after Gerard Pique, the Spanish Beater, fails to clear the Quaffelani. The Spanish players are in shock, the crowd is stunned, and suddenly I can even hear the roars of the crowd over the "Parp" of the horn-that-must-not-be-named.
One of the great joys of living part-time in Los Angeles is getting to watch so much soccer without having to get out of bed. From August to early May, English Premier League and FA Cup games start at 4, 7 and 9 in the morning. And here I am again with my Daily Express World Cup Wall Chart folded out next to me like the Constitution, my laptop and plenty of coffee.
I have been lying here, under the covers, for more than four hours watching soccer and eating Frosted Mini-Wheats. I watched Chile play Honduras (salivated over Alexis Sanchez and started imagining what he'd look like in a Chelsea shirt), have checked my Twitter, the U.K. papers and read everything there is to know about Tim Howard's ribs on ESPN.com. And you know what? A lot of people are very down on this World Cup. But me? I'm in heaven. And what a game this has turned into.
Seventieth minute. A young player to watch -- the crossbar -- makes a fantastic save from Xabi Alonso's missile from outside the area.
Seventh-fourth minute. Not to be outdone, the player of the tournament so far -- the post -- makes a stunning goal line save/clearance from the man with the most accurate, cartwheeling groin in the world, Eren Derdiyok.
Despite all the negativity about the Jabulani, the horn-that-must-not-be-named, the weather, the defensive mindset of many of the teams, empty seats, not enough goals, Sepp Blatter on Twitter and Gervinho's haircut ... that cartwheeling, groinally assisted goal becomes, by my count, one of the:
Ten (well, maybe nine) genuinely memorable moments of the opening round of the World Cup so far. (Brought to you by the Vuvustraw (tm pending) -- when you want to slurp and parp, reach for the straw worth clutching!)
1. Siphiwe Tshabalala's goal for South Africa in the opening game.
A beautifully taken shot at speeeeeeed on the run, and as my partner in blog and pod, Roger Bennett, has said -- the Jabulani for once behaved and sat up for destiny. For this moment to have happened in the opening game of the first African World Cup, in a nation just 20 years removed from apartheid, completed on the run by a young man from the former township of Soweto, the epicenter of the struggle against apartheid, is both symbolic and meaningful in a way that we can never fully comprehend.
2. Robert Green's Hand of Clod
Not necessarily the worst goalkeeping error in the history of the World Cup but certainly the highest profile. The only thing more remarkable than the gaffe itself is the phenomenal way the West Ham United (for now) keeper has handled himself, the press and the criticism.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo's completely unjustified yellow card against Ivory Coast
Totally unwarranted card from referee Jorge Larrionda, but richly deserved. Guy Demel brought down Ronaldo with a sliding foul in the 21st minute and the ref gave them both yellow cards -- for exchanging words with each other. "I did nothing and he gave me a yellow card," Ronaldo said. "I do not understand." Here's a clue, Ronaldo -- you dive, you pout, you cheat, you whine. You are one of the most talented footballers in the world, but no one likes you.
4. North Korea's goal against Brazil
An instant classic from Ji Yun Nam that is likely to be the game winner on North Korean television. As ESPN's Kenny Mayne tweeted after the game, "Now who looks smart for putting Ji Yun Nam on his fantasy team?" Fantastic run, fantastic finish, fantastic for the tournament that so many of the favorites were made to look -- or actually were -- beatable in the opening round.
5. Serbian midfielder Zdravko Kuzmanovic's ludicrous protestations after obvious handball witnessed by millions.
Enough said, Z-Kuz. Watch the highlights. Read this.
6. Keisuke Honda's 39th-minute goal against Hyundai.
FIFA is furiously protective of its official World Cup of WiffleSoccerParity sponsors. Thirty-six female Holland fans were thrown out of their country's game against Denmark at Soccer City after FIFA officials accused them of wearing orange minidresses to promote an unlicensed beer brand. Two people have now been arrested in connection with the whole affair. So no one at FIFA could have been happy when official and exclusive automobile category sponsor Hyundai was upstaged by a distant relative of its massive rival, Honda.
7. Winston Reid's header in injury time against Slovakia
Yes, he might actually be Danish, yes the goal was actually scored by the player of the tournament and Golden Shoe recipient-in-waiting -- the post -- but the half-Maori's injury-time header for New Zealand was the most dramatic moment of the tournament so far. And if he had actually led his entire team, pied-piper style, into the moat surrounding the pitch it could have been the "fail" moment of all goal celebrations.
8. Martin Tyler: "There is a lot of Emile Heskey"
There is much to like about Martin Tyler -- his meticulous research, attention to detail, grasp of the game -- but it's his understated turn of phrase at key moments that simply makes him the best. After Emile William Ivanhoe Heskey had clattered into Tim Howard's ribcage at full force (mass x acceleration), Tyler's summation had us nodding in agreement and laughing at the same time.
9. The Cartwheeling Groin of God
Honorable mention? Maradona's suit. Please send me your comments below or on Twitter if you can think of any moments I've missed. There's the final whistle. No one caught the Golden Snitch. What an upset. Somewhere in Los Angeles Pau Gasol is crying. And the World Cup of WiffleSoccerParity continues ...
4:07 p.m., Cozy Soup 'n' Burger, Astor Place, New York
Portugal and Ivory Coast conspired to prove that the only risk of fatality in the much-hyped Group of Death was of boredom to those watching. The Portuguese managed to alienate more casual American viewers than a choral symphony of vuvuzelas with their game plan, which centered on an otherwise sloppy Ronaldo tumbling at the slightest touch in order to draw free kicks he could then spank goalward. The one time he caught the ball flushly, Michael Davies' player of the tournament -- the post -- leapt in to save the day. Didier Drogba donned a cast to enter the fray in the second half, but the rivalry between the Ivorian and Ronaldo remains more heated in the offices of Vanity Fair than it was on the field of play.
The mighty Brazilians were pragmatic yet never scintillating. They donned gloves and a straight flush of shirts numbered 1 to 11, but displayed little football intelligence during a first half in which they allowed the clinically organized North Koreans to resemble Inter Milan. Two goals in the second half gave them a 2-1 victory everywhere in the world apart from North Korean television, where they were stunned 0-1.
Meanwhile, the name Shane "Smeltzy" Smeltz remains on the short list for our soon-to-be-born child. New Zealand Super Striker Smeltz appeared unnerved for much of the All Whites' storming 1-1 comeback tie against the occasionally fluid Slovakians. He managed to deposit a late, point-blank header as far away from goal as is humanly possible. But deep into injury time, Smeltzy displayed the heart of a giant and the footwork of a tiny dancer as he floated over a pinpoint cross for Winston Reid to barrel home, earning a first point in four World Cup games for the Kiwis, courtesy of their first goal against a team other than the Scottish.
Wednesday promises three cracking games worth salivating over as we complete the opening round of the draw. I prophesize goals-a-plenty.
Honduras versus Chile, 7:30 a.m. ET, Nelspruit
Those who adore Bono's World Cup promo in which he rhapsodizes that the tournament is "not about politics, or religion, or the economy," will want to steer clear of this matchup. It is about all that and more. Chile is still recovering from the devastating earthquake that battered the country in February. Honduras' qualification last fall brought joy to strife-strewn streets, which had witnessed a coup just weeks earlier. How much would a victory mean to either team? When Chile scored in a 4-2 victory over Colombia, helping it qualify for South Africa, the commentator let out this joyous stream of consciousness: "Goal, goal, goal, goal, goal. The fire is lit, the illusions are lit, gather coal, unite all, throw the match, dream with the illusions, enjoy the moment, prepare for a toast, enlist the suitcases, open the liquor, buy the tickets, break the piggy bank, because we are going to South Africa."
Honduras is a team equipped with sufficient talent to surprise, but protracted arguments surrounding bonuses and payments have been a distraction. Two English Premier League stars form a central core of the team: Wilson Palacios, a thunderous midfielder known as "Harry Potter" because of the magic he can perform with his feet, and Maynor Figueroa, a skillful defender. Palacios has been battling a thigh injury but should play. The absence of Carlos Costly, a consistent goal scorer, has deprived the World Cup of one of its greatest names, though an appearance off the bench by Georgie Welcome may compensate.
The Chileans were a surprise second to Brazil in South American qualifying, slotting home 32 goals along the way (only Brazil, with 33, had more). Stern disciplinarian coach Marcelo Bielsa, known as "The Madman," has molded a young, inexperienced squad, keen to surge forward like a poker player going all-in. The Chileans' prime goal is to end a streak of 13 winless World Cup matches stretching back to the third-place match in 1962. If they make the elimination rounds, how far can the naïve confidence of youth take them?
Plump striker Humberto Suazo, a game-time decision due to a hamstring injury, is critical to their attacking flow, as is Alexis Sanchez, a young prodigy known as "El Niño Maravilla." The Asociación de Fanáticos del Fútbol Chileno has encouraged fans to light a digital candle to campaign for Coach Bielsa's canonization. Right now, 71,000 candles have been lit. A victory should enable the fanatics to surpass their goal of 100,000. Arise, Saint Marcelo.
Spain versus Switzerland, 10 a.m. ET, Durban
Traditionally talent-rich yet mentally fragile, Spain went 10-0 in qualifying but must now confront its history of dazzling early in international competition, only to implode once the elimination round begins. This all changed at Euro 2008, when Spain's constant motion and precise passing paper-cut all comers to death. Barcelona's smurfish midfield tandem of Andres Iniesta and Xavi displayed the kind of clockwork precision previously the purview of teenage video game addicts. Up front, Fernando Torres is the poster boy, but his sometime partner David Villa is more precise, a striker whose modest demeanor masks a ruthless talent. At their best, the Spaniards appear telepathic, but can the players cope with the immense pressure of being favorites from the outset?
Last week, the headlines of sports daily Marca commanded: "Spain are the best in the world. Now, we have to prove it." Spain's ability to do so may lie on the Spanish treatment table, which has seen more action than most of the games we have witnessed, as it has been busied by the assorted healing body parts of Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Torres. Spain is blessed with a deep bench. It may need it.
Switzerland has medical issues of its own to deal with and will be missing midfielder Valon Behrami and captain Alex Frei, possibly the unluckiest player in international footy. He blew out his knee during the first game of Euro 2008 and is currently recovering from an ankle injury. The Swiss' stingy defense will offer an interesting test for the Spanish possession-based game. At the last World Cup the Swiss departed after a penalty shootout in the round of 16, becoming the first team to be eliminated without leaking a single goal.
Scoring has been a Swiss weakness. None of the forwards has found the net in the past five games. Tranquillo Barnetta will seek to drive the midfield forward and Congo-born attacker Blaise Nkufo, who has been called "The Poor Man's Emile Heskey" (a description which will be hard for some to visualize), will be headed to the Seattle Sounders of MLS as soon as Switzerland is eliminated, which will be soon if Frei does not recuperate. Spain has never lost to Switzerland, winning 15 of their 18 previous fixtures. It is hard to imagine this will change on Wednesday.
South Africa versus Uruguay, 2:30 p.m. ET, Pretoria
And so the second round of group stage matches begins and we return to the beginning. Names unfamiliar to us just a week ago -- like Siphiwe Tshabalala and Reneilwe Letsholonyane -- now cascade effortlessly off the tongue.
Group A is perfectly poised with each team sitting on a single point. The Bafana Bafana will seek to replicate the tenacious last 70 minutes of their opening game against Mexico in which the team appeared to mature from boys to men in fast-motion. The 1-1 tie will give them belief, but they know they must show more poise on the ball if they are to win, something they may need to do as they will face the desperate French in their final game.
Tshabalala became a national icon the second he dispatched a blistering drive into the corner of the net to register the tournament's opening goal. Lucrative brand ambassadorships descended upon him as soon as the final whistle blew. This match takes place on a somber date in South African history: June 16, 1976, was the Soweto Uprising, a protest by black students against the compulsory use of Afrikaans in schools. Between 200 and 600 people lost their lives in the uprising and Tshabalala has promised to unveil a special goal tribute should he repeat his scoring feat. Should he succeed, there will be more than enough cause for celebration. South Africa has not fared well against South American opposition, winning just twice in 13 games, and being blanked six times.
Uruguay held France scoreless in a dire opening game, but the team, many cognoscenti's sleeper pick, will have to create more if it is to threaten. This game will be the team's moment of truth. While forward Diego Forlan was all whirring industry on the left side of the attack, his vaunted strike partner, Luis Suarez, lacked confidence. The Uruguayan camp was unsettled when $12,000 was swiped from its hotel rooms. Furor ensued until hotel surveillance footage suggested a member of the Uruguayan delegation was responsible and the squad was rocked by the notion of an inside job.
The team should prepare to be further rattled on Wednesday. South African goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, one of the heroes of the Mexican game, has spent the week demanding more from home fans in the local press, defying any sense of aural reality as he vented, "I did not hear the sound of the vuvuzelas. It was like people did not bring them at all to the stadium."
Uruguay will need to play with heart, skill, organization and earplugs.
Monday, June 14, 9:15 p.m., 30,000 feet, American Airlines Flight 185, Seat 2A
As my three regular readers will know, Rog, I believe I am prone to occasional bouts of profound psychic ability. These tend to occur, I have learned from experience, on the alarmingly frequent occasions when I forget to put on deodorant. Fortunately for the lovely young woman seated next to me on the plane this evening, this is not one of those occasions. In fact, I smell lovely.
However, I have made some bold predictions, Rog; in fact, we both have, and I think it is now time to revisit some of them in a new weekly feature titled:
Let's Attempt To Justify Some Of Our Better Predictions And Ignore The Fact That I Picked Denmark And Cameroon In Group E
Cue scary music
Beware the number 10
I saw the number 10, Rog, and of course I thought of all the great players who are wearing No. 10 in this tournament -- Kaka, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, Lukas Podolski ... Yong Jo-Hong! But it seems, Rog, that I misinterpreted the subtle whiff of my psychic brilliance. What I was actually seeing were the numbers one and nil. As in 1 and 0. As in 1, 0. As in ... I think you get it. Of 12 games played so far at the FIFA World Cup 2010 of WiffleSoccerParity (through the New Zealand-Slovakia game), no fewer than nine have ended 1-0, 0-0 or 1-1. That's a lot of ones and zeroes. And in the three that did not end with a bunch of 1s and/or 0s -- Germany's first scorer against Australia was Podolski (wearing NUMBER 10), the Netherlands' man of the match against Denmark was Wesley Sneijder (wearing NUMBER 10), and if you subtract the number of yellow cards received by Greece against South Korea from the number of corner kicks the Greeks had in the match, you'll never guess the number you end up with. Yes -- 10.
And you know what else is weird? That Jabulani looks just like a little alien.
AP Photo/Denis Farrell
Which might explain why this continues to be the WiffleSoccerParity World Cup of strange, strange goals.
Item. Robert Green's Hand of Clod.
Item. Denmark's double own goal, with Simon Poulsen heading it off Daniel Agger's back and it going in off the post.
Item. Paraguayan goalkeeper Justo Villar flying through the air like a trapeze artist and missing Simone Pepe's corner by a mile and Daniele De Rossi mistaking Jabulani for Brian McBride's head and volleying it into the back of the net. For reasons I can't explain, every time I watch this goal in slow motion, it makes me laugh so hard I almost ...
And talking of pants, back by popular demand:
Davies' patented "Pants Ranking System" (PRS) in a new implementation -- The Daily Pants
Today's pair of Massive Balloon Pants With Pleats And Inside Leg Zippers goes to:
Sepp Blatter on Twitter. First of all, he isn't actually on Twitter; one of his blue-and-white-stripey-tie-wearing-bureaucrat-pretty-boys is on Twitter. Secondly, he shouldn't be allowed on Twitter. FIFA should be made to invest its massive cut of the vuvuzela fortune in building him his own social network -- Blatter! -- on which he can blather on endlessly about how wonderful and munificent and culturally sensitive he is.
And now, all that I can think to say about Monday's games ...
Netherlands 2, Denmark 0
For the Netherlands, Wesley Sneijder and substitute Eljero Elia really caught the eye. But you know who played superbly and is having a solid World Cup? The post. The post, once again, was magnificent. Glancing the ball in for the first, and a fabulous pass straight to Dirk Kuyt for the second. The post is organized, solid, never gets out of position and, right now, despite a great save in the Cameroon-Japan match, is thoroughly outplaying the crossbar. If I could vote for the post in the Budweiser Man of the Match poll, I would. The post might be going to Real Madrid to play for Jose Mourinho.
Japan 1, Cameroon 0
I love football more than anyone else I know. I mean really love it, all of it. I kiss football. And yet this was a difficult game to enjoy. Cameroon just could not control the Jabulani, and became more and more frustrated. Japan worked hard, especially Daisuke Matsui, but had little flair. How thrilled must Hyundai have been after spending countless tens of millions to get exclusive auto category sponsor rights to the Cup only to have Honda (Keisuke Honda) score for Japan?
Italy 1, Paraguay 1
I saw too little of this match to have much to say. Other than from what I saw, it was another difficult game to get into. Which made me start worrying. Is this World Cup any good? So few goals, so few "SportsCenter" moments of genuine skill and beauty, barely an outstanding individual performance. No wonder Robert Green is still dominating the news cycle. It is still early, though, and teams are going to have to start taking more risks and playing to win in the second and third games of the group phase. Or maybe the Jabulani/vuvuzela parallax is going to make everything impossible.
Tomorrow, I will fail to put on deodorant again and try to figure it all out.
Monday, June 14, 2:45 p.m. IHOP, Adam Clayton Powell Junior Boulevard, New York City
A single Beatles appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" transformed youth culture forever. One speech by Ronald Reagan led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. When New Zealand super-striker Shane "Smeltzy" Smeltz trots onto the too-springy turf Tuesday in the early-bird kickoff classic against Slovakia, will world soccer be forever changed? Probably not. But somehow, I have managed to persuade myself that anything is possible ahead of Day 5 of this World Cup. A day of giants, part-timers and complete unknowns. Some of the world's finest teams will take the field alongside some of the most amateurish outfits the tournament has seen since 1930, when the Argentinean captain missed a game to take his law finals, three members of the Brazilian side played while wearing berets and the Bolivian manager had to perform double duty and step in to act as referee.
So fake a sore throat, call in sick and prepare to savor these three beauties.
New Zealand versus Slovakia, 7:30 a.m. ET, Rustenburg
Welcome to the Minnow Bowl. A game considered such a scintillating prospect that much of the pregame media has focused on the referee, Jerome Damon of Cape Town, a South African cult figure known as the "Smiling Referee." New Zealand is a motley crew from a rugby-obsessed nation that is just happy to be invited to the party. Akin to a pub team, they expect to be whipping boys. Scoring a single goal will be a monumental achievement and they Kiwis will keep feeding the ball into forwards Rory Fallon and Smeltz to see if they can add to the two they grabbed in their only previous World Cup appearance in 1982 (both of which are slightly tarnished as they were scored against Scotland).
Fallon is the son of Kevin Fallon, who was one of the All Whites' assistant coaches in 1982. All that is background to this football chant you can bellow along to if the New Zealand fans can make it faintly audible above the drone of the you-know-whats:
"He's better than this dad,
"Rory Fallon, Rory Fallon"
New Zealand's tournament game plan is to hope its opponents woefully underestimate it. Oddly, the Kiwis may wish they could open their campaign against a tougher foe, one more likely to look past them, as Slovakia is similarly inexperienced. The Fighting Jondas are a team for those who love bromance movies. After dispatching Poland and the Czech Republic to reach South Africa, disciplinarian coach Vladimir Weiss (whose son Vladimir Weiss Jr. is a tiny wonder who may figure off the bench) was overcome with emotion, channeling the ubiquitous Budweiser ad of yore as he sobbed in the locker room and told his young team he loved them. His squad has limited resources. Its collective spirit may be their greatest asset.
Youthful captain, 22-year-old Marek "The Phantom" Hamsik, may look like Green Day's drummer, but he is a highly rated midfield playmaker, so beloved at his club team, Napoli, that after having his Rolex stolen during a carjacking, the robbers realized their error and the watch was speedily returned.
Côte d'Ivoire versus Portugal, 10 a.m. ET, Port Elizabeth
Do not miss this game. The opening skirmish of the Group of Death. Two talent-soaked sides battle to see who can gain the edge in the race to proceed. The Portuguese will be led by Cristiano Ronaldo, the magnificent yet petulant thoroughbred, last seen oiled-up in a pair of the snuggest undies ever packed on the cover of Vanity Fair. Despite the presence of star names throughout the team, the Portuguese struggled in qualifying and were surprisingly constipated in attack as Ronaldo failed to register a single goal. Their reward was a place in the toughest opening game. Since arriving in South Africa they have lost Nani, their erratic winger. In his absence, Danny and Liedson, a recently naturalized Brazilian striker must step-up. Captain Ronaldo, now a global brand, has a lot to prove but appears unfazed, comparing his international goal drought to America's favorite condiment: "I'm not in the least worried about my lack of goals. They are like a bottle of ketchup. When it appears, it all comes at once."
Côte d'Ivoire was tipped by many as the African contenders most likely to threaten. Its chances diminished severely when one-man forward line Didier Drogba broke his arm in a friendly against Japan. Will he play? German legend Franz Beckenbauer played the 1970 semifinal with his injured shoulder in a sling. Drogba's participation would be similarly epic.
Even without Drogba, the Ivorian squad is loaded with talent, including Chelsea's Salomon Kalou and Yaya Toure of Barcelona, but they have demonstrated a remarkable tendency to self-destruct amidst scenes of chaos and defensive disorganization. The March appointment of Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson as coach was weird. Mild-mannered by day, a caddish lothario by night, at the last World Cup he managed England, and was less a leader of men, more a world-class seducer of women. Twice dumped from major tournaments by Portugal in the past, it remains to be seen if he is the man to harness the undoubted talent of this team and rein them in. With England, the closest he came to silverware was a second-place finish in a condom manufacturer's man of the year award.
Brazil versus North Korea, 2:30 p.m. ET, Johannesburg
Mismatch? FIFA's No. 1-ranked team (Brazil) opens its World Cup campaign against the lowest-ranked team in South Africa, North Korea (105). Brazil has won five previous World Cup tournaments. The Koreans have won a single match, but it happens to be one of the most stunning victories in World Cup history: their 1966 "Red Mosquitoes" team ran rings round the mighty Italians, shocking the world. This year's North Koreans remain unbowed. Listening to their news conferences one would think the mighty Chollima have Brazil where they want them. On the ropes.
Their star player, Jong Tae-Se, a Japanese-born striker, known as "The People's Wayne Rooney," has vowed to score a goal every game, and predicted that Brazil will be trumped. It is impossible to tell whether his team has the firepower to reinforce this creative thinking. Little is known about the squad as all but three players ply their trade in the isolated North Korean league, and even in South Africa, the team has trained in fortress-like seclusion.
Brazil may be ranked No. 1 in the world, but look elsewhere for the balletic, Cirque du Soleil-style of soccer classically associated with the team. Coach Dunga, a midfield enforcer on the triumphant 1994 side, has emphasized physical defense and a whippet-quick counter-attack. This reliance on physicality has seen the axing of flamboyant playboy Ronaldinho (last seen hawking "Rons Samba-Ronics" fitness video in Nike's lavish, ubiquitous but ill-informed ad campaign) and triggered a number of punch-ups on the training ground. Key to the system is Kaka, a global superstar determined to place a mediocre season and an ankle injury behind him, plundering defender Maicon and ruthless striker Luis Fabiano.
Two narratives are possible here: The North Koreans will either get absolutely tonked as Brazil seeks to bolster its goal difference ahead of forthcoming showdowns against the Ivorians and the Portuguese ... OR the six months of intensive training the North Koreans experienced will enable them to channel the spirit of 1966 and shock the world. My money is on the latter. Coach Kim Jong-Hun has revealed that Kim Jong-il, the supreme leader of North Korea, transmits in-game advice via mobile phones which are invisible to the naked eye -- a technology that the Dear Leader, something of an amateur Steve Jobs, apparently developed himself. Place your bets now.
6:07 p.m., Red Lobster, 5 Times Square, New York City
I began writing this while watching the Group C brunch kickoff classic: Algeria against Slovenia. A couture clash of two tasty shirts. Slovenia's Nike-Charles Schulz collaboration pitched against the Desert Foxes' nipple-enhancing design. When the criminally devious Jabulani bobbled over Algerian Faouzi Chaouchi's insipid dive, I was struck by how quickly the commentator used the words "Robert" and "Green" as adjectives. Within 24 hours, the unfortunate player's name has become the state-of-the-art term for a goalkeeping catastrophe. Well done, mate! That's how the English team "Write the Future."
Goals have been at a premium thus far as the teams struggle to come to terms with the ball as much as with their opponents. (By the way: How long can it be before a goalkeeper scores in this World Cup? The freaky distances they can kick this Frisbee masquerading as a football are obscene.) To compensate, I have derived untold pleasure from the spate of creatively kamikaze handballs. To borrow a phrase: One nutso handball changes everything.
Here's what is on deck for Monday. Crash your work's server by watching these magnificent matchups.
Netherlands versus Denmark 7:30 a.m. ET, Soccer City
The Dutch provide a convenient rooting interest for anyone of Boer origin or those nostalgic for the high-octane offense of the ABA, blessed, as they are, with a potent and arrogantly free-flowing offensive trio of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie (rarely all fit at the same time, and Robben is set to miss this game with a hamstring injury.) After harnessing their superlative creativity within a technical system, they proceeded to amass a perfect record in qualifying. Defense has been a glass jaw, but the Netherlands' greatest traditional threat has been getting along. The Oranje have a rich history of self-destruction, preferring to in-fight over win bonuses, personality clashes or race issues rather than deploy their dazzling talent.
Van Persie has already made waves by dictating his preferred starting lineup to the media, a headstrong move that infuriated the players who did not make "his team." Nerves were further frayed when the Twitter-happy squad was banned from using the micro-blogging platform after striker Eljero Elia used it to trigger a race row courtesy of some derogatory comments aimed at Moroccans. If their players stay healthy and in their happy place, the Dutch could win it all.
Denmark is a modest European outfit that lacks both quality and depth but nevertheless was sufficiently well-organized in qualifying to pip both favored Portugal and archrival Sweden. Since the Danes' arrival in South Africa, the squad has been ravaged by injuries and "The Virus," which tore through the camp without mercy, even knocking gnomic coach Morten Olsen on his back for a couple of days. The Mexico 1970 World Cup was affected by Montezuma's revenge. What this mystery virus, which has infected a number of squads, will be called remains a mystery. Dr. Michael Davies has suggested it might turn out to be a nasty case of the Bafana Bafanas.
Olsen announced his intention to settle for a point in this game, which might turn out to be an ambitious goal. Erratic striker Nicklas Bendtner almost certainly will be missing because of a niggling groin strain, an injury that could have been exacerbated by his celebrity dating life. Bendtner, 22, has been frenetically courting a Danish royal, Baroness Caroline, whom he wooed while filming a reality show in which the baroness renovated her family home, Valdemars Castle. The baroness, 12 years his senior, is estimated to be worth $575 million. I'm just saying
Despite their lack of firepower, the Danes are always entertaining to watch thanks to their joyous band of followers, known as "the Rolligans." However, even their boisterous ebullience is under threat thanks to a months-long strike at the Carlsberg factory that has severely limited the beer supply. The manufacturer had the temerity to try to cut back the number of free beers workers could imbibe and limit it to their lunch hour. Understandably, they went on strike, and a serious beer shortage has resulted that might cut into the nation's ability to find its infamous, eponymous "Way to Rock."
Japan versus Cameroon, 10 a.m. ET, Free State
In the 1980s, Japanese television carried a sadomasochistic game show named "Endurance," in which contestants competed to survive a series of ever more extreme feats of torture -- such as being shackled in the ocean with your nostrils forcibly opened while having industrial amounts of pepper dumped in your face. Watching the Japanese, who feature one of the shortest starting elevens at this World Cup, try to shackle the pitiless, throbbing Jabulani will surely be as cruel a sport as anything the "Endurance" producers could ever have dreamed up.
Despite the fact the Blue Samurai have never won a World Cup game outside their own country, their widely reviled coach, Takeshi Okada, unfathomably opted to pile the pressure on his own team by declaring them a sure bet to reach the semifinals. The statement, designed to instill a sense of confidence, was met with resounding laughter from all points. Hard-running and tactically nimble, the team lacks both physical strength and a legitimate striking threat. Flaccid in front of goal, it might cast CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda as a lone striker. I hope we glimpse Takayuki Morimoto, at least off the bench. With the face of a cherub and the sniping instincts of a ruthless hitman, the Catania forward might be the best chance for the Japanese to avoid (in the words of legendary Scottish coach, Tommy Docherty) "being home before their postcards."
Cameroon will become the next African team out of the gates to prove that the continent intends to mount a serious threat. The Indomitable Lions are a team indelibly etched into World Cup mythology thanks to their 1990 Roger Milla-inspired run into the quarterfinals. However, in more recent appearances, they have actually been incredibly domitable, managing to win just one of their past 10 World Cup matches.
Milla's contribution to the 2010 tournament has been slightly less constructive. His public criticism of Cameroon's captain, the Celine Dion-esque Samuel Eto'o, led the temperamental striker to threaten a boycott of the tournament. The tenor of his performances and of his mood will determine the fate of the team. However the Lions play, they are guaranteed to look amazing. As I have said before to all you "Project Runway" devotees watching, I predict their snug V-neck with a lion subtly detailing one shoulder will do for green what Brazil has done for canary yellow.
Italy versus Paraguay, 2:30 p.m. ET, Cape Town
A game heaven-made for purists who love their footy to be on the low-scoring side. Both teams have had striker problems. Made up of masters of the art of risk mitigation, Italy's defense will be solid, but it is unclear who will provide the punch up front. Paraguay's scoring woes stem from more unfortunate circumstances: Star striker Salvador Cabanas was shot in the head in a Mexico City nightspot.
Long overshadowed by neighbors Argentina and Brazil, the Paraguayans would dearly love to be considered a regional footballing power, although the odds of their achieving this in South Africa lengthened significantly once Cabanas was gunned down. Will they score goals without him? Gallantly ineffective Roque Santa Cruz and clinical Oscar Cardozo must bring their scoring boots if they are not to repeat past World Cup performances at which they have failed to win more than a single game.
The Italians kick off their title defense shorn of their midfield metronome, Andrea Pirlo, who will miss the game because of a calf injury. Their squad has been lambasted for its age. The criticism has rankled master coach Marcello Lippi, as it is merely a reflection of his undying loyalty to many of the players who dug deep to lift the cup in 2006, such as Dubai-bound Fabio Cannavaro, irrespective of their recently diabolical club form.
Italian fans should fear not. Perhaps their Azzurri now have the world exactly where they want it. They have never been more dangerous than when written off. Always slow starters, they have lain below the radar as they attempt to become the first team to retain the trophy since the Brazilians in 1962.
If you want something to savor in this game in lieu of goals, enjoy keeper Gianluigi Buffon's attempt to extend his remarkable feat of keeping a clean sheet for his past 453 minutes of World Cup qualifying action, which is roughly the same amount of time this game might feel like to watch. If you get bored, tweet me.
I am right there, bearing down on goal, a Jabulani at my feet. I look down, I look up: Hello, Rustenberg! I am Emile Heskey and Martin Tyler is correct -- there is a lot of me.
Tim "Timminy" Howard -- all orange and lean and big and gangly, with eight arms and nine heads like the love child of a Hindu god and a Lernaean Hydra -- is bearing down on me as I bear down on him. I know that everyone in England thinks I'm going to hit it right at him, or send it sailing over the bar, or even hit the corner flag. And then that's all they'll remember. Not the dozens of won headers, the way I received the ball using my superhuman strength again and again with my back to the goal, not even the perfect pass I made to Gerrard for the opener. They've all forgotten Munich, they've all forgotten Niigata, they've all forgotten why I'm in the side. Not this time. Tonight it's going to be different, tonight I'm going to slot it. SLOT IT! I throw a little shimmy, drop the left shoulder, shake 'n' bake, rope-a-dope, bubble and squeak and I chip it with the outside of my
My Sharper Image Limited Edition Vuvuzela Alarm Clock awakens me from my dream of dreams. Who am I? Not Emile Heskey. Where am I? New York. I stagger to the kitchen and flip on the coffee machine. My butler hands me the Post (relax, he's only a dramatic device). USA wins 1-1. Best tie since Bunker Hill. I go online, I read the writers who will shape this story in the U.S. -- courage, pluck, grit, resolve, organization, heart, apple pie, cheesecake
What? Is this some kind of parallel universe? I have woken up in a country that gives a damn about the World Cup and, more than that, is celebrating a draw? Am I going to go outside and see the road signs in meters? Is Jim Rome coming on the podcast?
Saturday was a banner day for U.S. soccer. The U.S. got a fantastic result against England -- a historical foe, a country that believes it is a great soccer power, containing several famous and highly paid players who performed way below the sky-high expectations (some would say lofty entitlement) of their fans and media.
But today, I quickly realize, is even more significant. Today, America, you have become a true soccer nation. Because today, like the rest of the world, you have overreacted to a single game of soccer. You have, magically, without even a penalty shootout, turned a tie into a win. One game does, in perception if not fact, change everything.
Welcome to the sense-defying land of the World Cup of WiffleSoccerParity. Sweet dreams. Hit the snooze button on the Sharper Image vuvuzela alarm clock and ignore, for now, the inevitability of the dreaded
Which brings me to
Things I think we can all agree on:
1. Vuvuzelas -- not even a little bit funny anymore. I wonder how many people are going to want to relive the sights and sounds of this tournament by going to see the Official World Cup Movie of Parity in Dolby surround sound.
2. The USA's game against Slovenia on Friday is massive. As is England's against Algeria. But the U.S. plays first. And Slovenia's win Sunday makes it a bigger must win. But I've got to think that the U.S. team watched the Slovenia game and thought: We can have them.
3. The brilliant World Cup predictions of my partner in blog and pods (that's you, Rog). I quote from just one from this past Monday: "Can we field a goalie who can regularly catch a Jabulani?" No we can't.
4. How much does Serbian forward Milos Krasic look like Peasant No. 4 from any Monty Python movie?
5. ABC/ESPN's transitions in and out of break are intentionally designed to convince young children that "The Lion King" is about to come on. Thanks, ESPN, this is really working with my young daughters and making child care much easier while the wife is at her mother's.
And finally, Sunday's game reports.
Teutonic Walmart versus the Socceroos
Ruthless. Efficient. Low prices. Nice selection. Excellent parking. The Germans brought the World Cup of WiffleSoccerParity to an abrupt and thunderous end by showing the rest of the world what a real win, by a real contender, one no one has been talking about, actually looks like. Their passes, crosses and shots flew fast but perfectly. They had width, they ran and ran, they tackled hard, they rarely wasted possession. Bastian Schweinsteiger has a funny name but controlled the game and might even win a best supporting actor Academy Award (two in a row for Germany!) for his second-half dramatic shin clutches and agony rolls, one of which resulted in the very dubious sending off of Tim Cahill.
Serbian Fire versus the Ghana Git You Suckers
I think someone has to sit down with the Serbian team and explain how television works. You see, lads, there are these things called cameras that see and record everything that happens on the field from every angle. So if you jump up to head the ball and hit it with your hand, and the ref catches you, the whole world is going to see, in slow motion, from multiple angles, what actually happened. So continuing to feign disbelief and protesting your innocence at the ref and linesman WHEN YOU KNOW WHAT BLOODY HAPPENED BECAUSE IT NEVER ACTUALLY HIT YOU ON THE HEAD AND THAT THING YOU FELT HIT YOUR HAND WAS, BIZARRELY, NOT A PIGEON BUT A FLAMING JABULANI will make you look like a monumental wombat. And a cheat. And that clip will be seen all over the world, for the rest of your life, by everyone you know, by your children and your children's children.
Slovenian Green Dragons versus the Algerian Desert Foxes
Though I need to check this, I'm pretty sure there were some Slovenian Green Dragons in Harry Potter. Didn't Hagrid have a baby one? Anyway, game was kind of boring except for the fact they were playing on an artificial surface that played somewhere between a polished hardwood floor and a trampoline. This caused a goal-conceding keeping error that, though way less blatant than Robert Green's, was somehow far more comical. To be honest, were this not the World Cup of WiffleSoccerParity, neither of these teams, on the basis of Sunday's performances, should scare England or the U.S.
But let's not overreact.
9:27 p.m., Pier 40, West Side Highway, New York City
(Luke blows up his first TIE fighter)
Luke Skywalker: Got 'im! I got 'im!
Han Solo: Great, kid. Don't get cocky.
It's official. America's love affair with footy is set to continue. When Clint Dempsey's softly-hit skimmer strolled over the hapless Robert Green, the United States, a nation traditionally more comfortable with hailing winners, pumped their fists, high-fived and ordered an extra Bud Light to toast an opening-game draw.
Dempsey's equalizer was the kind more typically witnessed at the Under-8 recreational level than at the FIFA World Cup. Jabulani-assisted as it may have been, a goal is a goal, and that is all the U.S. needed. Tim Howard's Paul Bunyan-esque heroics made the score stand up (Emile Heskey, you big lump, you are to the one-on-one breakaway what Shaq is to the free throw line) and by the end, it was the U.S. rushing to take throw-ins and keep the ball in play to search for a winning goal.
The U.S. performance was tone-perfect as it rebounded from the worst possible start by defending with sufficient vigor, passion and determination to leave Wayne Rooney charging around like a rabid pug. Bob Bradley will be a happy man -- or as close to happy as Bob Bradley can ever be. He knows this was exactly the kind of "Band of Brothers" style the U.S. will need if it is to mount a "2002 South Korea/Turkey Footballing New World Order" run deep into the tournament.
The task now will be to refocus the team for its next match against Slovenia on Friday. The England tie was one game and one game only, and in the World Cup one must resist the urge to draw too many conclusions from a single performance. South Korea may have looked like world-beaters against the shoddy Greeks, but with the wild-card intangibles of altitude, travel, the Jabulani and yes, the springy turf, they may be tonked "tomorrow." After all, this is the World Cup of Parity.
Unless you are England, that is. Poor Robert Green. He will awake to be crucified by the English tabloids. And it is not your fault, Robert. It may just be that you are an England keeper, and as such, you join a proud tradition of crap goalkeepers including Paul Robinson, Scott Carson, David Seaman and Peter Bonetti.
The frightening truth is, goalkeeper may not be England's biggest challenge. Steven Gerrard played as if he was hell-bent on catching Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho's eye. For the first four minutes. After that, the English midfield lacked a ball-winner, and Stevie G. and Frank Lampard ambled round as if their only aim was to prove the French performance Friday was not so lackluster after all. Gareth Barry's return may fix that problem, but England's central defenders, Jamie Carragher and John Terry, were so vulnerable to pace in the second half I had to rub my eyes to make sure two of the original members of the 1950 squad had not slipped onto the field for some kind of an old-timers game.
Now onto Sunday's titanic tussles:
Algeria versus Slovenia, 7:30 a.m. ET, Polokwane
The drinks will be flowing in Sidi Bel Abbes and Ljubljana tonight. Both teams will have TiVo-ed the England-USA game, spotted acres of space behind the two defenses for their wide men to exploit, and realized they have little to be afraid of. Group C may yet have a twist in the tail, and this game will determine which of the two unfancied teams steps forward to assume the role of giant-killer.
Slovenia is solid but starless with a coveted goalkeeper in Samir Handanovic and an organized defense, but when a journalist asked striker Zlatko Dedic to name Slovenian's danger man a "look of bafflement" was reported to have crossed the player's face. Algeria is young and inconsistent and may not be helped by a controversy surrounding the axing of captain Yazid Mansouri from the side. However, 17 of 23 members of the squad were actually born in France and after Friday's dismal Les Bleus performance, an Algerian win could allow them to claim they are the best side representing France.
* The three readers who have bought into Davies' madcap springy turf conspiracy theories take note: This game will debut a surface where 20 million threads of synthetic grass fibers have been woven in and beneath the natural grass, a concept possibly understood only by members of the Hair Club.
Serbia versus Ghana, 10 a.m. ET, Pretoria
The White Eagles confront the Black Stars with a Serb prowling both technical areas. Milovan Rajevac manages Ghana. His friend Radomir Antic coaches Serbia. Home continent expectations may be unreasonably high for the Ghanaians after they won the U-20 World Cup last year. Four representatives of that squad may appear, but the free-wheeling side will be battered by the loss of Michael Essien's physicality and the fact that their other key midfielders, Sulley Muntari and captain Stephen Appiah, have both been dogged by injuries.
Serbia was the surprise package of European qualifying. Its rugged defenders Nemanja Vidic (who has had "the virus") and Neven Subotic (get ready for repeated references to his representing the U.S. at U-17 and U-20 levels) provide the team with confidence to foray forward in search of goals. Many of the players know they are a handful of respectable results away from a big-money transaction. This extra motivation will always give them a puncher's chance in the tournament. Watch out for 6-foot-8 striker Nikola Zigic, the tallest man at the World Cup. Born to adore the high bounce of the Jabulani.
Germany versus Australia, 2:30 p.m. ET, Durban
Germany is the Walmart of the World Cup. Less a team than a numbingly effective Teutonic World Cup machine. With captain Michael Ballack and starters Simon Rolfes, Rene Adler and Heiko Westermann lost to injury, the squad may appear thin, especially defensively, but as a record of seven finals appearances and three victories suggests, the methodical Germans consistently find a way to grind out results. Bastian Schweinsteiger will seek to pick up the slack with a hard-running midfield performance, but watch out for the creativity of Mesut Ozil, who may use this World Cup to become the new face of German footy. The son of Turkish immigrants, he is, in the words of the Guardian, "the first full-blown German international to recite Koran verses before kick-off."
Australia's Dutch coach Pim Verbeek has made defensive efficiency a hallmark. His side has churned out victories while alienating a fan base that prefers their team to play the role of plucky gunslingers. They face stiff opposition but harbor extra motivation: redemption for the manner of their exit at the last World Cup when opponents Italy were awarded a highly controversial penalty in the dying seconds of the game.
Both teams have utilized unorthodox measures to prepare for the game. The Germans have oddly used news conferences to articulate their collective obsession with the "Terminator" franchise. The team has apparently bonded by watching the videos, which depict a war between humans and computer-controlled machines. The Australian team randomly imported John Travolta to give the Socceroos a pep talk. The very man who, in this eerie video, proves he could easily be mistaken for a computer-controlled machine.
Only a hardened cynic whose eyes have seen too much would fail to have been touched by the effervescent spectacle and welling emotion of the World Cup opening ceremony inside Soccer City. I witnessed history with my partner-in-blog Michael Davies at a Mexican bar in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Despite this fact, Davies largely ignored the television, preferring to partake of the action as it unfolded one tweet at a time on his mobile phone. And yet a tear still formed in the corner of his eye. But no sooner had the game kicked off than he returned to his steely self, overwhelmed by his horticultural obsession and firm belief this World Cup will be determined by the springy state of the turf. Indeed, it took all of 10 seconds for him to bellow:
"The pitch is playing fast, man!"
His comment silenced the bar, which hitherto had felt like a slice of Toluca. Packed to the gills, it was a testament to the first lesson of the day: The Nielsens will not come close to capturing the actual number of people watching this World Cup as they fail to factor in the immense numbers drinking in the action at bars. We had originally journeyed to Fort Greene with the hope of experiencing the emotion of the opening game at the city's pre-eminent South African boite, Madiba, but there was simply no getting in. There may have been 84,000 lacing Soccer City, but it felt as if there were twice that attempting to stuff themselves through the front door at Madiba. The bar was gridlocked, rammed full of human flesh desperate to be part of the World Cup action.
We quickly decamped, ditching South Africa for Mexico, courtesy of a chirpy Mexican eatery called Smoosh (eponymous to its Australian owner) that was just half a block away. Once the game kicked off, Mexico made light of vuvuzelas so tenacious they even dared smother the dulcet tones of Martin Tyler with their nasal blasts. But the Mexicans, whose quick-passing fluidity was forged amidst the delirium chaos of the Azteca, shrugged off the spectacle. Simply put, the beginning of the game was Men against Bafana.
The South Africans had the opposite reaction. Borderline shell shock. Not since Uruguay took the field in 1950 against the Brazilians in the legendary Maracana had a side appeared so overawed by the moment. So terrified were the Uruguayans then that one was moved to urinate in his shorts during the pregame anthems. A number of the South Africans began the game as if history had just repeated itself. Mexico could have put the game away if it were not fielding Jimmy from "The Wire" up front. Guillermo Franco missed chances that Bunk would surely have slammed away.
Once South Africa came to its senses and the game settled in, the odd interaction between ball and turf became a distraction. While Davies is right -- the grass does, on the first day's evidence, play fast -- the Jabulani may just be the Roger Clemens of soccer balls, all juiced up with a mind of its own. Cross after cross floated inches over the head of their intended targets as wingers were left to shrug like golfers who had used one club too many and overhit the green. (Note to Fabio Capello: Crouchy. Yes. The foal-legged big man will have a field day leaping to pluck the ball down from the sky. Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips: No. This ball is unplayable for smurfs.)
But then the Jabulani did something unexpected. For one special moment it behaved like a normal football, sitting up perfectly for Siphiwe Tshabalala (that would be Sih-pee-way Tah-sha-bah-la-la) to thunder a scorching blast into the top corner, permitting the South Africans to amble to the sideline and give the baying crowd what it had come to see: a Village People-esque dance routine that must have taken weeks to finesse on the training ground. The World Cup may have been only 55 minutes old, but it had already offered up a definitive image.
If the opening game was a lively affair with some surprisingly artful moments, Uruguay against France was more of a psychological tussle. The French continue to rival the Housewives of New Jersey for functionality. They entered the game with rumors of a teamwide mutiny against doe-eyed midfielder Yoann Gourcuff, the housewives' favorite. Havoc-wreaking wide man Florent Malouda was on the bench after a bust-up with the bushy-eyebrowed coach, Crazy Ray Domenech. The game suffered for his absence. France played as if its only intention was to prove it takes a special talent to have an exorbitantly skillful squad play so languidly.
The Uruguayans played solidly in both attack and defense but lacked coordination in-between. Diego Forlan ran tirelessly, arrowing his runs into slithers of space to stretch the French defense. His partner, Luis Suarez, was less effective. At times it seemed his big idea was to try to exhaust the linesman's flag-waving arm by being caught offside so often.
The game ended sloppily. The French played as if they were eager to a man to hit the beach. Uruguayan Nicolas Lodeiro mounted a spirited effort to crack fellow countryman Sergio Batista's record for the fastest World Cup red card of all time. Batista can breathe easy. His 1986 record (56 seconds) still stands. We were also able to delight in a lovely 88th-minute moment of karma: The sight of Thierry Henry appealing for a handball penalty being laughed off by the referee. If it were not for the vuvuzelas, we might have heard wafting laughter from all parts of Ireland.
And so on to tomorrow. And the big game. In which my Super Eagles of Nigeria will boldly explore the inner workings of Diego Maradona's mind. And then the nightcap, in case you are interested, in which we will discover what carries more motivational power: the United States' desperate fight for self-respect (coupled with the additional carrot of a $20 million victory bonus) or England's crippling fear of failure.
ENGLAND SHOULD DRAW STRENGTH FROM:
Fabio Capello. This is your moment to do the job you were hired for. To bring your brand of ruthless organization to the England team. The last time you were at the World Cup it was as a player in 1974. You had one shot. And scored one goal -- 100 percent efficiency.
U.S. SHOULD DRAW STRENGTH FROM:
Jay DeMerit. One-time bouncer turned international defender harboring big musical dreams once recorded a single aptly titled "Soccer Rocks." Its lyrics could act as a motivational anthem for a team looking to turn up big. Nail these beauties to the locker room wall. Their time is now:
Misty Morning and the football's calling to me from across the sea (Soccer Rocks!)
We've got to ride and I'm not alone (Soccer Rocks!)
It's only me when I'm in the zone (Soccer Rocks!)
I hear my teammates calling me and opponents fearing a slide tackle when I have the ball (Soccer Rocks!)
Let me bring your dream to you
Show you all what you could do (Soccer Rocks!)
Friday, 7 a.m. The Embassy Row Studios in the crap part of Soho. About to interview Liam Neeson (Liverpool/Ireland) for the Off The Ball podcast.
I am sleep-deprived.
I am anxious about Saturday.
I have no idea what to write today.
I have a headache.
I need a haircut.
I haven't been to the gym in weeks.
My house is a building site.
My wife (edited for the sake of my marriage).
I have no celebrities for the "Pyramid" pilot I am taping in Los Angeles in 10 days.
But I don't care, because the World Cup is starting and as my regular readers know -- all three of you -- I kiss football.
Here are my overexcited, overcaffeinated, completely random thoughts about USA versus England.
Team USA's probable starting lineup reads like a variety show playbill from the 1940s.
The juggling acrobats, Buddle and Findley up front, the two-part harmony of Dempsey and Donovan at what they used to call inside left and right, the comedy stylings of Bradley and Clark in the middle of the park (catchy), the Latin Soul rhythms of Bocanegra and Cherundolo at the fullbacks, and the headliner, a ventriloquist who appeared on the "Ed Sullivan Show," DeMerit and the Gooch. And of course, your master of ceremonies: Tim "Timminy" Howard in goal.
England's probable starting lineup is a group in need of psychotherapy with Gabriel Byrne.
A striker with temper issues (Wayne Rooney); a striker with scoring issues (Emile Heskey); a once precocious playmaker who never quite fulfilled his promise and now, deep down, knows he's starting only because his rival on the left wing has had a bad case of the Bafanas Bafanas (Joe Cole); a twinkle-toed winger with a Napoleonic complex (Aaron Lennon); gifted rivals who have never found a way to get along (Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard); a left back who couldn't be faithful to the nicest and best-looking woman in Britain, ever (Ashley Cole); a center back who lost the captaincy of his country for betraying his best friend by sleeping with his recent ex (John Terry); a center back with knees so weak that he can never train and almost quit the game (Ledley King); and a right back who is more comfortable scoring goals than defending them (Glen Johnson). In goal, a 22-year-old who just found out that he was about to play his first 90 minutes for his country in a World Frigging Cup (Joe Hart). And a manager who will have you all whipped for your impudence (Don Fabio).
If it wants to win, the U.S. must play like it's got nothing to lose, even if it might lose by playing that way.
Remember the U.S.'s opening game in 2002 in Suwon, South Korea? I remember watching in the press center at Ibaraki getting ready for the Ireland game against Germany. As the world's press sat there sneering down their Chablis-sniffing noses, the U.S. went at the Portuguese like a pack of attack spaniels and had three goals by halftime. The Yanks were rampant, hungry, horrible at the back but relentless going forward. It was a shootout and they held on for the win. That is how they can beat England. Press the Three Lions early, play 'em high, never let them settle, score early, then hold on. I don't see the U.S. winning 1-0. But if it's 3-2, I think it's a U.S. victory.
If England wants to win, the Brits must play like the cops aren't trailing them.
The English comic Frank Skinner came up with this analogy. He said in an interview with The London Times that "when a player puts on an England shirt, it's like when you are driving and you see a police car in the rear-view mirror. All the natural things are things you have to start thinking about and it all goes staccato and difficult." Many, including Skinner, believe that Don Fabio Capello has worked hard to cure the England team of this uncertainty. But we have rarely seen England lose the cops from its rearview mirror in a major tournament. It will be down to the new captain, Gerrard, to set the tone. At Euro 2000 against Germany, his first major game at his first major tournament, Gerrard tackled his German opponent -- and teammate at Liverpool, Dietmar Hamann -- with such shuddering physical power that Gerrard joyfully reported "he squealed like a girl." It was an assault, no cops in sight. And all of England's thugs -- King, Terry, Lampard, Gerrard, Heskey and Rooney -- must play with that same joyful lawlessness in Rustenburg.
Herculez Gomez's tweet of the day
"Shakira... Yes please. How do I meet her? Am I even worthy? Sch-wing!"
Please, Bob Bradley, don't take away his Twitter.
Tasti D-Lite, 101 West 31st St., 11:20 p.m.
Thank God the World Cup proper is set to begin in a matter of hours.
For the last week, we have been powerless as the injuries piled up, an experience akin to watching a WWE Battle Royal in which the battered bodies of some of the world's leading stars have been hurled out of the ring. We stood by helplessly as the defenseless vuvuzela had its good name tarnished by health organizations who proclaimed it to be a leading cause of both flu and deafness, and we rolled our eyes as panicked IT staff nationwide issued dire tech warnings while readying their servers for the game-time onslaught.
Are we gussied up and ready to go?
• Have one million free condoms been readied for use in South African host cities? CHECK.
• Has FIFA president Sepp Blatter fired up his Twitter account @seppblatter? CHECK.
• Have three members of the Greek team had their hotel rooms robbed while out training with the team? CHECK.
• Has John Travolta descended from the skies in his Boeing 707 to randomly give a pep talk to the Australian players ahead of their Sunday opener against Germany? CHECK.
Then we are ready for some football. Not too much, mind you. The first day of World Cup action is served in an appetizer portion. Two games large.
A candid warning up front: The opening day of a World Cup can often be a snore. The teams are tense and tightly wound. Goals have traditionally been few and far between, although this year, we can hope for a rash of long-range shots as eager players test the physics-bending properties of the Jabulani.
Don't give up on it, America. Give humble footy a chance. Greatness will emerge. Rivalries will play out. Brave new heroes will be forged, along with rogues, scapegoats, comedic errors, unjustifiable referring decisions, and choked penalty kicks.
While we wait for the quality to emerge, soak in the atmosphere, and marvel at the lavish stadium architecture, let's see whether the South Africans can top the elaborate opening ceremony from the U.S. World Cup in 1994 when Jon Secada broke his collarbone after a trapdoor malfunctioned. He gamely sang the national anthem with just his head protruding from a hole in the stage. Oprah then proceeded to topple off a platform, before Diana Ross delivered the coup de grace, slicing a fake penalty wide of an open goal.
Let the games begin.
South Africa versus Mexico
Will South Africa, the home team, be propelled toward victory by the waspish rasp of 90,000 wailing vuvuzelas? In a word, no. The Bafana Bafana are the worst host since Chris Harrison. While the spritely Steven Pienaar will flitter around the midfield and occasionally look world-class, the only way South Africa will maintain the World Cup's perfect tradition of home nations' reaching the elimination round is courtesy of a deluge of dodgy refereeing decisions.
South African president Jacob Zuma's feigned confidence in a public address Thursday, when he cryptically remarked that he expected to see the trophy staying in South Africa after the tournament, caused heads to be scratched across a puzzled nation as people wondered whether their president had just intentionally given them the green light to try to nick it. Well, it would not be the first time.
Mexico was chaotic and lightweight early in qualifying but discovered a force of will once the sternly charismatic Javier Aguirre was appointed coach. Aguirre coaxed a menacing pace and style from his team with the impish Giovani dos Santos, a dud at club level, emerging as an international spark plug.
Mexico should be disciplined enough to edge this contest, though do little more. At the last four World Cups, the Mexicans have been bounced in the first elimination round, always qualifying but rarely making an impression. As with Brendan Fraser, an actor with a devoted fan base but little discernable talent, the passion of Mexico's supporters will overshadow the performance of their team.
Uruguay versus France
Two playoff survivors will clash in the second game. France, shamed by the controversy surrounding the way it qualified will battle their own demons in the opening round.
The French have limped into South Africa, a richly talented squad undermined by the lack of any discernible plan. Lame-duck coach Raymond Domenech is a quixotic character, a former actor who could give Diego Maradona lessons in crazy as he has become despised by his players, media and fans alike. After the stain of Thierry Henry's handball, morale was battered further when three key players were ensnared in an underage prostitution scandal so shocking it offended even French sensibilities.
Domenech's desperate efforts to rebuild team trust have backfired. A dune-buggy race designed to raise spirits triggered a pile-up, a rollover and a calf injury for William Gallas. A mountain-bike expedition that followed saw striker Nicolas Anelka fall off his bike and require treatment. With MLS savior-in-waiting Henry now on the bench, bookies Bodog are offering 100-1 odds on the French scoring a handball-assisted goal. They will need a couple if they are to proceed.
Uruguay is the Sears Roebuck of the World Cup. A once-famous brand whose best days are behind it. The team battled its way to win two of the first four World Cups yet has done little since, failing to win a single tournament game after 1990.
The nation has long been saddled with the stereotype of playing a brawny, bare-knuckle brand of football, but this team is different. Coach Oscar Tabarez has masked a defensive weakness by building around the menacing forward tandem of Diego Forlan (whose finishing is as clinical as his choice of twitter photographs are freaky @diegoforlan_) and Luis Suarez (35 league goals in 33 games, albeit in the Dutch League). Uruguay will be buoyed by the undying supporting of Republic of Ireland fans. Not because they bear a grudge but courtesy of Pizza Hut, which is offering Irish customers free pizza for every goal scored against the French.
On a final note, I am not very good at math. Hence, my wife and I are expecting a baby, slap-bang in the middle of the World Cup. The due date is June 22 (when Mexico is due to play Uruguay). There are a handful of rest days ahead of the quarterfinals. I don't think we are going to reach them. We have very different positions over names. My wife has already swatted aside my two favorites, El Diego and Puskas. If you have any suggestions, please tweet them to me.
I am secretly hoping one of the following gentlemen would be good enough to step up and deliver a World Cup performance so sterling they make the choice for us. I believe they would all work well in a first-name, middle-name combination with Bennett:
• Georgie Welcome (gangly Honduran striker)
• Edson Buddle (burly boy with an eye for goal and, as we have already noted, an entrepreneurial bent)
• Surprise Moriri (aggressive South African midfielder)
• Waldo Ponce (super-cool Chilean defender)
• Shane "Smeltzy" Smeltz (lethal New Zealand marksman, of whom I have said enough)
Here are our group predictions, winner followed by second-place finisher.
Bennett -- Mexico/Uruguay
Davies -- South Africa/France
The fans (or the officials) will propel RSA.
Bennett -- Argentina/Nigeria
Davies -- Argentina/South Korea
Lionel Messi will underperform (but it won't matter).
Bennett -- England/USA
Davies -- England/USA
USA versus Slovenia is the game no one's talking about that will matter the most.
Bennett -- Serbia/Germany
Davies -- Germany/Ghana
Prediction: Germany is the team no one's talking about that will make the most noise.
Bennett -- Netherlands/Denmark
Davies -- Denmark/Cameroon
Set aside injuries, a mystery illness might decide who makes it out of this group.
Bennett -- Italy/Slovakia
Davies -- Italy/Paraguay
The player no one's talking about, Slovakia's Marek Hamsik, will break through.
Bennett -- Brazil/Ivory Coast
Davies -- Brazil/Portugal
The team no one knows about, the North Koreans, are in for a rude awakening.
Bennett -- Spain/Chile
Davies -- Spain/Chile
Every World Cup produces one group that is hard to care about. This is that group.
Only Idiots Attempt To Predict A World Cup the final countdown
Wednesday, 10 a.m., the Meatpacking District, New York City. Reading the English newspapers at the Soho House.
Just 48 hours to go until a Mexican or South African boot sets the Jabulani in motion and finally unleashes an explosion of global anticipation so pent up and powerful that Twitter is broken today. I am very worried about how this might be affecting Herculez Gomez.
On Tuesday, before Twitter's demise, an enterprising young twit started a #hateenglandweek torrent. Some of the publishable comments included: "We use BATHROOMS not water closets!", "Robin Hood occasionally robbed the poor" and "We already kicked their a---- in WWII." Hmmm. But in truth, most of the comments betrayed a certain fondness for a strange, little country where unattractive people with bad teeth talk too much and eat inedible pies.
But the bigger point is this: You have to know your enemy. And what Americans have to understand is that England loathes itself enough for both of us. We really don't need any help in this department because we think we're crap. According to online pollster YouGov, only 4 percent of us think we'll win the World Cup versus 46 percent of Americans, who, according to Nielsen, think the U.S. will win the Cup. You Americans believe in yourselves, you love yourselves and you love love.
We English, on the other hand, have absolutely no faith in our abilities and are way more comfortable with being dismissed and loathed and looked down upon. And the only thing that makes us really uncomfortable? Warmth. We don't know how to deal with warmth. Meanness, spitefulness and dismissiveness along with the cold, the rain, the color gray and Marmite are something most of us are entirely used to by age 11.
Read the English newspapers, and you might understand. The pressure has gotten to Don Fabio, and our manager is starting to lose it. Our defense is porous. Our midfield has no chemistry. Our only decent player is Wayne Rooney. And he's a liability because of his temper.
Meanwhile, there are lots of shots of Bob Bradley's supreme resolve -- a clenched jaw, a steely gaze, a man who knows his team and what he's doing. His players are positive they can cause England problems. Bradley is bringing in Navy SEALs and war hero helicopter commanders for motivational speeches. How can England compete with that? All we have is this guy.
I know it's great for the World Cup in the USA, but I hate that the U.S. is playing England on Saturday. It just makes me uncomfortable. I want to want the best for both teams, and beyond Saturday, I know I will. I see a very close game. I cannot tell you who will win, but I can make the following predictions:
Whatever the result of U.S. versus England, there will be a massive overreaction.
In England, a loss would be considered one of the greatest sporting embarrassments in the nation's history. Which is saying something. England has lost to almost everyone at almost everything, including Lithuania at tennis, the Netherlands at cricket and Scotland at football. A draw would not be much better. A win for England wouldn't cause much of a reaction in England -- unless the display is less than vintage (being an opener at the World Cup, this is more than likely), in which case it will be greeted with disproportionate levels of doom and gloom.
In the U.S., a win or draw would provoke a "now we've arrived" narrative even though the U.S. won an arguably more impressive opening game in 2002 against a widely fancied Portugal and tied a more impressive game against the eventual winner, Italy, in 2006. A loss to England for the U.S. would cause people to start panicking, especially if Slovenia beats Algeria. But whatever happens, as you have written, Rog, it is the subsequent results for both teams against Algeria and Slovenia that will determine the outcome of the group and, I believe, how the U.S. will be perceived around the world.
Somehow the cameras will find the best-looking women in the crowd.
I don't know how they do it, but somehow the photographers (when they're not provoking Don Fabio) and the television cameramen always manage to find lots of women who look like this. And this. And, amazingly, this. It creates the impression that all women at the World Cup look like this when, in fact, many of them look like Stan Van Gundy.
Poland will not win the World Cup.
Take your cash out of the bank and sell Poland short because, holy crackers, it looked poor against Spain in that warm-up match Wednesday. It was like a PlayStation game, Brazil against Barnsley. What? Poland isn't going to the World Cup? But what's that flag on my wall chart with the red and white stripes and the shield and oh, blue, that's Serbia. And Lukas Podolski, for whom does he play? Germany? Balls. Well, good, because the Poles aren't good enough. And they started to make me doubt your Spain Will Not Win the World Cup prediction from OIATPTWC Part 1, Rog.
Wednesday, 9:57 p.m., picking through a plate of smoked mozzarella fonduta at the Olive Garden in Times Square, New York City.
I thought our motto at Off The Ball was "Sepius nefas, nunquam in nuto" -- "Often wrong, never in doubt" -- Davies. The only thing I am surer of than Spain crashing out is that a certain New Zealand player is set to bang in a goal or two. Indeed, I say this thanks to the talented handicappers at Bodog who reached out to inform me that they are offering odds of 1,000-1 on The Smeltz becoming the first New Zealand player (of any position) to win the coveted Golden Shoe. I am not ashamed to admit it. You and I spent a frenzied couple of minutes fishing down the back of the couch in your office at Embassy Row, and I am proud to report we salvaged a Fran Vazquez prospect card, a half-eaten Curly-Wurly and $3.64 in loose change that has, shall we say, been invested wisely. If our prediction comes to pass, we intend to share the wealth. The first 1,000 readers to tweet us will receive a special OTB World Cup 2006 beer helmet.
Now, on with the predictions, emboldened by the fact that when Jackie Chan was just asked who will win the World Cup, he did not miss a beat before proffering, "Barcelona and Milan." Congratulations, Little Jack, you are worse than Pelé.
Chelsea will repeat as Premier League champion next season.
You heard it here first. The "Chelsea injury curse" will be a blessing for your mob, Davies, although it pains me to type it. The loutish Blues will win next season's Premiership at a canter. Granted, duffed-up Michael Ballack has been kicked when he is down and sent packing. But the injuries to Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Jose Bosingwa and probably Didier Drogba mean you will have $125 million worth of star performers resting up and rebuilding their strength this summer while their opponents-to-be run themselves ragged in the noble yet exhausting pursuit of World Cup glory. Come August, mark my words: Carlo Ancelotti's men will be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to be up and at 'em.
Algeria's shirt will be one of the best-selling at this tournament.
You and I both know that, as magical as the World Cup can be, the game can hit the occasional lull. When that occurs, I seek solace in footy shirt design. The team jerseys are made of polyester, but they might as well be spun from gold, and the jockeying for brand exposure among Nike, adidas and Puma can amount to a tournament within the tournament. There is always one shirt that sells the best. One that looks so fresh it takes your breath away as the players belt out the national anthems for the first time in the opening round. This World Cup, I believe, it will be Algeria's.
It might not be the most scintillating jersey in the tournament: Cameroon's snug, green V-neck with a lion subtly detailing one shoulder suggests that Paul Le Guen's team will soon do for green what Brazil has for canary yellow.
It is also not the boldest. The Australians, typically a pugnacious, plucky bunch, are to football what Snooki is to "Jersey Shore," so Nike's decision to make them take the field in their PJs is a brave one. It would look better on you than me, Davies, but I love the fearless statement it allows the Socceroos to make: that they believe they can simply roll out of bed and crush all comers.
Finally, it won't be the most eagerly anticipated. That would be my beloved Chollima of North Korea who have somewhat belatedly prized $4.9 million out of middling Italian manufacturer Legea and are racing to have the design ready for kickoff. Haven't heard of Legea? Its home page claims the company clothes the referees in the Welsh Premier League as well as Brackley Town FC, which plies its trade in the British Gas Business Football League. Watch out, Nike and adidas. This one promises to be a stunner.
Algeria's jersey will sell well for an entirely unrelated reason. There are 34 million Algerians cheering the Desert Foxes on to glory, augmented by the more than 2 million who live in France. One or two of them are bound to have splashed the cash. But it is the 5 million or so frenzied citizens of Scotland who will tip the balance. As much as they love the Tartan Army, they can always be counted on to bellow for whoever is poised to tackle their despised archrival, England. A glut of Algerian clothing will surely be flying off the shelves in the run-up to the titanic Algeria-England clash on June 18. This story, a masterpiece of succinct, investigative journalism on Rangers Algerian defender Madjid Bougherra (in which the headline "Gers' Bougy: Scots mad for it" is longer than the article) captures the well of vicarious emotion invested into the Tartan-Fennec axis. And, because the Sun printed it it must be true.
There will be at least one epic set-piece blunder Saturday.
Both the U.S. and England have suffered lapses in defensive concentration. Neither team knows its most effective formations. The English also will lack the force field that is Gareth Barry, their first-choice holding midfielder. Goals are bound to ping in from the odd corner or artfully delivered free kick.
The defender who worries me most is Tottenham's Ledley King. Don't get me wrong, like the rest of the world, I have read Timothy Ferris' best-selling masterpiece, "The 4-Hour Workweek" and marveled at the idealistic vision described therein. Ledley is one of the only human beings I know who has tried to live by those ideals, thanks to a leg injury that has necessitated a one-day-a-week training regimen. My concern stems from his recent announcement that he has been seeking inspiration in an altogether different book, Paul McGrath's "Back From the Brink," which tells the story of how the brilliant onetime Republic of Ireland defender struggled with injury, alcoholism, tranquilizer abuse and general personal chaos. Now, I love McGrath as much as the next '90s football fan, but when I heard this, I was compelled to search Amazon for both "Who Moved My Cheese?" and a used copy of "The Secret" and dispatch them, albeit via Super Saver shipping, straight to Rustenberg. Godspeed, and may they arrive before Ledley departs.
Roger Bennett is a journalist and author who has written about soccer and popular culture for the finest publications and websites in the known world. Michael Davies is a complete amateur who somehow blagged his way into covering the 2002 and 2006 World Cups for ESPN.com. Together they will be covering the 2010 FIFA World Cup in blog, video and pod from New York, Los Angeles and points east. What is "Off The Ball"? Join us as we read, watch and listen as Roger and Michael figure that out.
Tuesday, June 8, 11 a.m. The crap part of Soho, New York -- booking celebrities for the pilot of the new "$25,000 Pyramid"
This is the longest week of the World Cup, Rog. Yesterday lasted a week and a half. Today has moved slower than a block schedule of eighth-grade algebra. The rest of the week will be slower than Brian Scalabrine's crossover. Until finally, several years away on Friday, South Africa will play the opening game of the World Series of Jabulani against France in the noisiest sporting event in the history of television.
Nothing worth writing about will happen this week, but millions, perhaps billions, of words will be wasted anyway. And that's just on Twitter.
So let me waste a few more with some notes on the USA and England as they prepare for their most-anticipated skirmish in 234 years.
A. @herculezg is by far the most entertaining tweeter on the U.S. team. He really doesn't know how to use Twitter, Facebook, a camera or any other piece of technology. He retweets the Dalai Lama. He even got to play with some lion cubs. Priceless.
Michael Regan/Getty Images
Calm down, Roo. You were playing some team called the Platinum Stars, not Brazil.
B. Of the many disturbing aspects of England's lackluster display in its warm-up game Monday against the Platinum All-Stars (why, oh why, did they not play the Buena Vista Social Club?), perhaps the most alarming was not that the red mist of yore seemed to descend upon Wayne Rooney in such an unimportant game -- he was booked for dissent -- but that Don Fabio saw fit to have assistant coach Stuart "Psycho" Pearce attempt to calm him down. This does not bode well.
C. It seems we know eight of the starters for England versus USA. Barring injury, the back four will be Glen Johnson, John Terry, Ledley King, Ashley Cole. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard will anchor the midfield. Emile Heskey will partner Rooney up front. Goalkeeper -- my hunch is Joe Hart, but it could be any of the three. On the flanks, the smart money seems to be on Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon. But I just have a sneaking suspicion it's going to be James Milner instead of Lennon. This, of course, is based on nothing other than a deep-seated desire to inhabit, for an hour, the mind of Don Fabio.
And one more thing. "Pyramid" is the greatest game show in the history of Christendom.
Only Idiots Attempt to Predict The World Cup -- Part 2
So thanks to goal.com we know that even the great Pele spectacularly failed in his footballing predictions, Rog: Colombia to win the World Cup in 1994, an African nation will win the World Cup before 2000, Nicky Barmby will be up there with Zidane, Maldini and Ronaldo -- so what hope is there for us? Who cares, right? Here are some more spurious predictions.
1. Referee Carlos Simon will do something ridiculous in the U.S.-versus-England game.
This photo of Brazilian referee-slash-Sepp Blatter doppelganger grinning as he shows Teddy Lucic of Sweden a red card at WC 2006 is beyond creepy. This guy has a somewhat checkered past and as you pointed out on your Twitter yesterday, Rog, he has been described by one of the leading figures in Brazilian football as "a crook, a scoundrel just a shameless bastard. He must be in someone's pocket. If I met him in the street, I would slap him. What he did was unbelievable. He should be driven out of football."
2. Because absolutely no one is talking about Portugal, everyone is going to be talking about Portugal.
This doesn't mean I think Portugal is going to win it all. But it's just weird that they never seem to come up in conversation. They have one of the best players in the world in Ronaldo, and a bunch of world-class stars like Deco and Nani (wait a minute, he's injured and out) plus Danny. They even have some players with two whole names. But I just feel like something's going to happen with this team. I'm having another psychic moment, Rog. And again today, I forgot to put on deodorant.
3. Strangest goals ever at World Cup
I am seeing something, Rog. Something stranger than that Sheffield United goal against Man City two years ago in the FA Cup from the cross that bounced off two balloons. Something stranger than the Watford own goal in the Championship the same year that missed the goal by at least three yards. Stranger than Maradona's "Hand of God" against England in 1986. Yes, Rog, even stranger than Peter Crouch's dreadlocks-assisted header against Trinidad and Tobago in Nuremberg in 2006. There will be (cue strange music) straaaaange goals scored at this World Cup, Rog. And not just because of the Jabulani's mystic qualities. Mark my wasted words.
1 p.m., Eating a hot dog, Gray's Papaya, Hell's Kitchen, New York City
Davies, you have strange and wonderful gifts. Please only use them for the power of good. This World Cup is going to see a lot of strange goals, for sure. Along with a ton of great goals, an obscene amount of deadly set pieces and final scores that will -- at first glance at the ESPN ticker -- look as if the World Cup is playing by American League rules. And for every goal, a thousand tweets will bloom, which leads me to my next prediction.
For the first time, the tournament will benefit an institution even more than it does FIFA: Welcome to the Twitter World Cup.
At times, this World Cup will feel as if it was solely designed as gigantic piece of product placement for Twitter. In the 1970s, the rapid growth in the number of television sets around the globe refashioned the competition into a lucrative, instantaneous, worldwide event/giant billboard. Get ready for the nonstop torrent of reporting, opinion and first-person insight spewing forth from the Twitter spigot to remix the equation even more.
The precise impact is yet to be experienced, but the World Cup will be the largest global happening in the platform's short history, and has added another dilemma to the list of critical decisions managers must consider. To tweet or not to tweet? Some have embraced it as the perfect antidote to the numbing boredom that is a World Cup camp. Holland's Bert van Marwijk has been vocally pro, but he's also reportedly an active tweeter. The puritanical Don Fabio has unsurprisingly adopted a firm no-distractions approach, banning Twitter, along with sexual relations, like John Lithgow prohibiting rock 'n' roll and dancing in "Footloose."
What will the revolution sound like? Unclear. But it is safe to say it will be sandwiched somewhere between these two tweets: the soulful and the materialistic:
@Realkaka: (9:47 a.m., June 6) Nothing to do ? Pray !! Something to do ? Pray .. Pray all the time !!
Edson Buddle jabbed home two goals against a traumatized Australian team and wasted no time in dropping the following tweet:
@edsonbuddle: (5:08 p.m., June 5) The shop on my website is opening soon! Create a design for a shirt that I like and win a prize. Send designs to Shirt@EdsonBuddle.com
Davies, while I know you are a big fan of Herculez Gomez's daily lamentations (@herculezg) on the teachings of the Dalai Lama, the only thing I'm sure you regret is that Darren Bent was not selected for England. If he was, he would be banned from tweeting, and the world would be blissfully unaware that you, @embassydavies, ripped off the mood lighting he used in his profile picture, @DB11TT.
This World Cup will bear witness to the longest penalty shootout of all time.
Unless they are clad in the chain mail of an England shirt, driving home the ball from a mere 12 yards with only the goalkeeper to beat should be child's play for the world's most skillful players. But at this World Cup, converting the opportunity will prove to be as dicey a proposition as booting home a 50-plus-yard overtime field goal in the Super Bowl. Kickers who already have the pressure of the world on their shoulders will be forced to compute complex physical equations factoring in both the altitude and the juiced-up swerve of the Jabulani. This is Stephen Hawking territory, people. Suffice it to say, Row Z is going to see a lot of action, and the Jabulani will go down in history as the ball that truly brought the crowd into the game.
Spoiler alert: These teams will dominate.
As we discussed yesterday, this is shaping up to be the World Cup of ParityTM, which means every team will have a chance of wreaking 90 minutes of havoc. The opening round will be particularly unpredictable. Teams will look like world-beaters in one game and be thrashed in the next. Picking a stealth team is a mug's game, but as this is the "Only Idiots" preview here goes. To spread my bets, I will go continent by continent.
With immense passion but little confidence, I have already pledged undying support to Nigeria as the pick of the African teams, and Shane Smeltz's White and Black Army (New Zealand) as Oceania's most ruthless, and only, contender. Out of South America, I can't wait to watch Chile, which fields my favorite plump striker, Humberto Suazo, and the young prodigy known as "El Niño Maravilla," Alexis Sanchez. A surprise second to Brazil in South American qualifying, Chile is led by stern coach Marcelo Bielsa, who likes to use an unorthodox lineup with three defenders and three attackers, coaxing his young, inexperienced squad to surge forward like a poker player going all-in.
Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images
Jong Tae-Se, more popular than Rooney!
From Europe, while I enjoyed watching Serbia's rugged play in qualifying, I am starting to doubt it can overcome the devastating loss of Montenegro, so I am going to plump for Denmark. Partially because they have a collective spirit that will serve them well in this tournament and partially due to their World Cup single "The Danish Way to Rock," recorded with Scandinavia's Depeche Mode equivalent, a band named Nephew. Intoxicating stuff.
Finally, I cannot wait for North Korea to take the field. There is so much to look forward to. A quarter of the squad hails from the nation's crack military side that has cheerfully been branded 25 April (in honor of Military Foundation Day, apparently), and the team has trained together tirelessly for the past six months, which should give them a unique edge. Striker Jong Tae-Se, known as "The People's Wayne Rooney," has vowed to score a goal a game. Their anthem consists of the kind of stanzas Herculez Gomez likes to retweet ("The glory of a wise people/Brought up in a culture brilliant/With a history five millennia long,/Let us devote our bodies and minds/To supporting this Korea forever") and while I do not know the Korean word for chutzpah, their brassy attempt to smuggle in an extra striker by pretending one was a goalkeeper hints at the kind of Machiavellian scheming that wins World Cup games. (FIFA wised up to the strategy, leaving the Koreans with just two keepers, which is still one more than England.)
Roger Bennett is a journalist and author who has written about soccer and popular culture for the finest publications and websites in the known world. Michael Davies is a complete amateur who somehow blagged his way into covering the 2002 and 2006 World Cups for ESPN.com. Together they will be covering the 2010 FIFA World Cup in blog, video and pod from New York, Los Angeles and points east. What is Off The Ball? Join us as we read, watch and listen as Roger and Michael figure that out.
Saturday, June 5 -- 12:15 p.m., Bridgehampton, N.Y.
All right, Rog, less than a week until Global SoccerBowl XIX. I've varnished the teak on my boat and finished a quick game of croquet, so let's put some Kingsford in the Weber and get this blog fired up.
This morning, I watched the USA's final warm-up "friendly" game against Australia. I was reminded of three things: (1) International friendlies are complete balloon pants (the score really could have been anything to anything); (2) It's so much fun watching Australians lose (we rarely witness that at English hands in any sport); (3) announcer Martin Tyler walks on water (seriously, I am reminded of Bobby Charlton's thoughts on Wayne Rooney -- how much more beautiful this game would be if everyone commentated like that).
But as I listened to the awful honking of those vuvuzelas, and watched David Beckham desperately trying to remain interested in an awful game of football (midfield, anyone?), on a terrible pitch (more on that later), with that Jabulani beach/Wiffle ball flying all over the altitudinous air, what really dawned on me was this: With all the conflicting tangibles and intangibles in play, only complete idiots would attempt to predict the outcome of the biggest sporting event in the world (outside of Texas).
Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images
Players such as Cristiano Ronaldo are trying to figure out the curves and spins of the World Cup ball.
Which got me thinking, Rog: Who better than us to actually predict the entire World Cup? Previews are for losers, you know that, but to actually predict the whole Copa del Mondo? That would take big, swerving Jabulanis. At any altitude.
And I'm not just talking about who will advance out of each group, or the eventual quarterfinalists or the winner of the all-important third-place playoff. We can spew out all that stuff as inaccurately as the next person. What I want to predict is the much more fascinating unpredictable -- tantrums, meltdowns, curious haircuts, strange refereeing behavior
So come on, Rog, here goes. Let's high-five Zakumi, remove our blazers, do that "not bovvered" walk into the center circle, exchange pennants, make brief "let's go in hard" eye contact and kick this MotherCopa off.
Only Idiots Attempt To Predict A World Cup -- Part 1
1. Nobody knows anything
Those are the words of great American screenwriter William Goldman in the opening of his seminal Hollywood memoir, "Adventures in the Screen Trade," with regards to how film-industry executives really have no idea how a movie is going to do until it opens. But it could just as easily apply to the worldwide soccer writing glitterati ('cept you, Rog) in regard to this or any other World Cup. And it's not really their fault. The World Cup has no long regular season when we see these teams play each other multiple times or even when these teams get used to playing together. England has played three games together this entire calendar year. And I strongly suspect that the starting lineup versus the U.S. will have never played with each other before. Most of the other teams are in similar situations; moreover, past the group stage, this is a single-elimination tournament. And a tournament in which (almost) any of the teams could beat (almost) any other of the teams on (almost) any given day. One red card to the wrong player at the wrong time, one key injury (beyond the dozens we've already seen), one inexplicable refereeing decision (there will be many) and North Korea could win the whole thing.
2. But in all likelihood Brazil or Germany will be in the final
That's just the way it tends to work out. In the 15 World Cups since 1950, one of these two nations (or in some cases just the Western part of one of these nations) has made all but two finals. And in those two years, Brazil (1978) and Germany (2006) finished third.
3. The pitch
As you know, Rog, I have been obsessed with the playing surfaces in South Africa for a couple of years now. My premise has been that just as golfers from different backgrounds prefer different kinds of greens and some tennis players play better on faster surfaces and some on slower ones, no European team will be able to play its brand of fast-passing football on the spongy, slow, Southern Hemisphere-ish second-cut rough in South Africa. But then I discovered an amazing website called Google and actually did some research. FIFA has gone to great lengths to install European-like playing surfaces (some actually a blend of artificial and natural grasses) at all the stadiums in South Africa. Here's the problem, though: Many of these non-native fields, it is feared, will be cutting up worse than Wembley. Did you see the pitch in Roodepoort for the USA-Australia game? Shocking. Stay tuned.
June 5, 1:30 p.m., Randall's Island, New York (scouting for WC 2022)
Davies, you and I have our last-ever mind-meld. Although I admire your horticultural perspicacity, this might be the one thing we agree on all month: Previews are for bloviators.
Unlike the NCAA tournament, for which teams arrive battle-hardened after a regular season, World Cup squads will not jell until the end of the opening round. Training and "friendlies" tell us little, and they are evidently good for only one thing -- avoiding injury. Take note, Messrs. Drogba, Ferdinand, Robben, et al. Even though superstars continue to disappear at an Agatha Christie-esque clip, fear not. This tournament is shaping up to be the World Cup of Parity -- the most unpredictable World Cup of all time in which every team has a chance to be a dark horse. The half-ball/half-Frisbee that is the Jabulani will only level the playing field all the more. So grab your remote control, get ready for the heads to roll and put a few bucks on New Zealand hit man Shane "Smeltzy" Smeltz (best name at this World Cup?) to take home FIFA's coveted Golden Shoe.
My opening arguments:
1. USA-England -- kind of not a big deal
Saturday's clash will gain all the hype, but the Americans' tussles with Slovenia (June 18) and Algeria (June 23) will be more critical in determining their fate. (I also had the moderate pleasure of watching today's Australia game: Kempes. Romario. Buddle?)
2. I am not sure that Don Fabio really is Don Fabio
Michael Regan/Getty Images
Don't mess with this man.
I Netflixed "Apocalypse Now" this week, as I habitually do ahead of any major England campaign. Watching Marlon Brando's renegade Col. Kurtz, bogged down in the jungle, I was moved to think of Fabio Capello, and especially Francis Ford Coppola's quote about the making of the film: "We had too much money and too much equipment, and little by little we went insane." The Italian arrived as England coach with a winning track record and a reputation as a tactical disciplinarian. He started strongly, but then the injuries started to pile up, a sex scandal or three jarred morale, and Capello watched his team toil against mediocre opposition (I know, we don't read too much into friendlies). His response was to stuff the squad to the gills with aging veterans, dump his wild-card spark plugs (I mean Adam Johnson, not Theo Walcott, the English Freddy Adu). Does Don Fabio still have a tactical master plan, or has coaching amid the tabloid-infested culture of English soccer done him in? So many questions still hang over our brave English heroes: Who will partner with Rooney up front? Will our midfield bind without Gareth Barry to do the dirty work? Is the loss of Rio Ferdinand an upgrade? Can we field a goalie who can reliably catch a ball, never mind the Jabulani?
3. The Mourinho Factor
Davies, before you accuse me of being a pessimist, nay, a traitor, there is one ray of hope I cling to in regard to the England team and the influence of a foreign manager, but it is sadly not Capello. Jose Mourinho will be sitting in the stands with a cartload of Real Madrid's ducats as he treats the tournament as a monthlong casting call for the next Galáctico. If that does not bring the best out of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney (and, it goes without saying, Shane Smeltz), nothing will.
Sunday, June 6, 10 a.m., East Hampton Tennis Club, East Hampton, N.Y.
Well, that was an exhausting and highly contentious game of doubles, Rog. And now I'm sitting here watching the French Open men's final, checking my Twitter and devouring facts on the insanely detailed internal ESPN research site we've been given access to by our friends in Bristol, Ct.
First, Don Fabio will have you whipped for your impudence. How dare you question the Dark Lord?
Second, did you realize that England's Aaron Lennon is the shortest player at this World Cup? Only 5-foot-5, which is the same height as my diminutive wife. Weirdly, she is not at all interested in that fact.
Third, 17 members of Algeria's 23-man squad were born in France. From this point on, I will be referring to Algeria only as France B (or maybe not; we're going to that lively Algerian restaurant in Queens on Sunday for the Slovenia game).
Fourth, our boss John Skipper was just on NBC in the crowd at Roland Garros watching Nadal take apart Robin Soderling. While I'm toiling away in the Hamptons!
So far, Rog, in our
Only Idiots Attempt To Predict A World Cup -- Part 1
we have managed, by my count, to come up with only eight predictions. Here they are in reverse order of their boldness, brilliance and originality. Starting with the most half-assed.
8. Turf may or may not be a issue. (A trifle vague, I know; must consult turf experts and work on this half-assed theory more.)
Michael Steele/Getty Images
You cannot stop Shane Smeltz, you can only hope to contain him.
7. Look out for New Zealand's Shane "Smeltzy" Smeltz. (This will be loads of fun, but it's not much of a prediction.)
6. England's starting lineup against the USA will never have started an international for England together before. (Inevitable, but kind of boring and not at all bold.)
5. The USA's games against Slovenia and Algeria are way more important than its game against England. (Mathematically sound, but boring enough to warrant a slap.)
4. Germany or Brazil probably will be in the final. (See above.)
3. This will be the World Cup of parity, partly thanks to the Frisbee-like Jabulani. (Now we're getting warmer.)
2. Martin Tyler will actually walk on water at some point in the next 5½ weeks. (But will ESPN/ABC cameras capture this?)
1. The Mourinho Factor. (Players playing to win a contract at Real Madrid will affect the outcome of the tournament.)
The Mourinho Factor is so good and original, Rog, that I can actually forgive you for doubting Don Fabio (though I am sure he and his Dementors will never forget). So let's challenge ourselves to come up with a few more predictions to strengthen Part 1 of our list.
Here are mine:
Beware the number 10.
You do not yet know this about me yet, Rog, but occasionally I am moderately psychic. Weirdly, this seems to happen most on days when I forget to put on deodorant. And as I have not yet showered after my strenuous exertions on some of the finest Har-Tru courts anywhere on the South Fork of Long Island, today is one of those days.
I see the number 10.
It is 2010.
A new prime minister has just gone into No. 10.
Messi, Rooney, Kaka, Forlan, Donovan and my favorite one-name player of the tournament, Danny (from Portugal), are all wearing No. 10.
The average height of the three Honduran goalkeepers (the shortest in the tournament) is 5-foot-10!
Miroslav Klose of Germany has more World Cup goals than any other player at the tournament. Guess how many, Rog 10.
And Theofanis Gekas of Greece (dark Trojan horses) scored 10 goals in World Cup qualifying, the most of any player. Definitely a player to watch.
With the help of ESPN research, I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Nadal just won the French. And here's a little more research that should concern the Spanish. No nation has ever won the French Open and the World Cup in the same year.
2:45 p.m., Clarks Store, New York City, unsuccessfully hunting down a pair of Clarks Polyveldt reissue.
A No. 10 to adore? Look no further than Gervais Yao Kouassi, aka Gervinho, the tasty Ivorian striker who is going to have to bang in a goal or two now that Didier Drogba's arm is in a sling. How glorious would it be if an African team went deep in this tournament? Just 44 years ago, the entire continent had to boycott the whole World Cup just to gain a single direct qualification slot. Now the tournament comes to Africa for the first time. If only one of its representatives would give us a mild hint that he intends to do something dangerous. Most of them are battered by injuries; some are undermined by football federations that are as chaotic as the state of Arizona; and one (Ivory Coast) is hampered by coach/Lothario Sven-Goran Eriksson as he prepares to repeat the same kind of miracles he unleashed at Notts County. So which squad am I picking as the best African team in the tournament? Here's a bold prediction:
Nigeria will advance further than any other African team in the tournament.
By process of elimination, and out of desperation more than any semblance of confidence, I have become madly obsessed with the Super Eagles. I admire the disciplined approach of Lars Lagerbeck, their coach, whose name sounds like a thirst-quencher. Their nickname was the clincher.
And here's another one:
Jose Torres is going to the Premiership.
If Bob Bradley can work out who will play in midfield alongside the seed of his loins, the speed of the U.S. could trouble lumbering England (which, Premier League fans will note, is slowing morphing into Tottenham Hotspur) when they clash in Rustenberg. My vote sadly will not come true, but I have grown so very fond of Mr. Jose Torres. I admit, my eye was first drawn by the luster of his mane, the single finest pompadour since Joe Pesci's in "Casino." But I have rarely seen a young player so confident and hungry for the ball. If he can see any playing time, a blockbuster move to Blackpool, Blackburn or Bolton is surely in the cards.
And now for a really bold claim.
Favorite Spain will not win the World Cup.
Too much pressure mentally. Too many war wounds physically. A defense that can be susceptible to teams on the break that park the bus at the other end of the field and, kiss of death, the bookies have made Spain the favorite.
Come on, you Super Eagles