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Weekend preview: Brazil tilt tops action

Saturday, June 19, 2010
Jun 19

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.

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