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World Cup Madness

The biggest sporting event in the world kicks off in June in Brazil with the United States joining 31 other nations in the monthlong tournament for global supremacy

There are two ways to view the United States’ placement in the Group of Death in the upcoming 2014 World Cup in Brazil. One is to suspect a nefarious international plot. The other is to take it as a compliment. 

Many American fans are upset that the Yanks, seeded 14th in the world, must play Ghana, rated 24th, followed by Portugal, rated fifth, and by Germany rated second—the highest combined ranking of any other four-team group in the tournament. Only two teams can escape that group. 

Every World Cup has a Group of Death—acknowledged as the toughest group of four, thrown together by bad luck, or maybe design. The Yanks often seem to get a rough draw because of the arcane seeding procedures by FIFA, the world soccer body. Not following the world rankings closely, FIFA usually manages to have the U.S. playing one top European team, and another pretty good European team, and a third-world team. 

“The worst of the worst,” the U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann characterized the draw last December. Then, as the resourceful World Cup champion striker and coach he once was for Germany, Klinsmann began goading his players to deal with their draw.

American fans are also learning the intrigues of the World Cup as part of a huge upswing in soccer interest in the States in the past generation. Long derided as a foreign sport with presumably socialistic emphasis on feet rather than hands, soccer now has a passionate, youthful and knowledgeable fan base.

When the U.S. meets its destiny in the greatest sports event in the world, from June 12 through July 13, the team will be followed by a huge swarm of traveling American fans, plus, an opinionated multitude back home, dispatching electronic second guesses with every bounce of the ball. At least as some proof of how far the United States has come, the U.S. national team is far ahead of where it was back in the 1980s, when it could not qualify at all. Now, the young and plugged-in American fans are vocal about their team being screwed in the draw. This is progress.

And, look at America’s  draw this way: the other three teams in the Group of Death must also deal with the United States, which managed to advance from group play in three of the past six World Cups.  At the time of the draw last December, the average ranking for the four teams in the Americans’ group was 11.75. Who got lucky? Belgium found itself in a group with the highest average, 28.25. 

Having covered the past eight World Cups—from Spain in 1982 through South Africa in 2010—I can attest to the rising level of American expertise, real and fancied. In 2006, when the Yanks coughed up a goal in the fifth minute of their opening match in Germany, the worldwide bulletin board began to sizzle with opinions from back home that the defenders and Coach Bruce Arena had to go. 

This passion was also evident in 2010 in South Africa, when the U.S. played Ghana in the round of 16. As soon as Coach Bob Bradley’s lineup was flashed, a tsunami of electronic reaction surged from back home: RICARDO CLARK??!! Then, after Clark bungled a play that led to a goal for Ghana in the fifth minute, the barrage increased: Bob Bradley had to go, preferably immediately. 

Not only had soccer fury arrived from the States but American fans were swarming all over the stadium in Rustenberg, South Africa, mingling with Ghanaian fans. 

“In 1986 in Mexico, the number of Americans at the World Cup was probably in the dozens,” says Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation. “By 1990 in Italy the number of Americans might have been in the hundreds.” 

By 2010, in far-off South Africa, Gulati adds, Americans were the largest contingent of ticket buyers, except for fans from the host country. The same will be true for this coming World Cup in Brazil, he says. Americans have become consumers of the world’s game, but when will Americans become world-level players? As somebody once wrote, money can’t buy me strikers. 

Since the first World Cup in 1930, the tournament was pretty much ignored in the U.S. When the Americans stunned England, 1-0, in Brazil in 1950, nobody in the U.S. or Europe believed the score when it clattered across the wires. Even when American parents settled on soccer as a cute little physical activity for their boys and girls—the elbows and tripping and the culture of diving were a bit of a surprise —the World Cup and major leagues of soccer were pretty much ignored in the U.S. 

But as the World Cup tournament has been enlarged to 32 teams, the U.S. is appearing for the seventh consecutive time, no small achievement. Only six nations have longer streaks going—Brazil 20, Germany 16, Italy 14, Argentina 11, Spain 10 and South Korea 10.

Gulati, 54, an economist who teaches at Columbia University, and a soccer lifer in the States, recalls how American television networks shied away from bidding on the 1994 World Cup in the United States. The TV executives could not tolerate not being able to bombard commercials for 45 minutes. 

“Fast forward to now,” Gulati says, noting that the 2014 World Cup will be shown by two grand partners, ESPN and Univision. The 2018 and 2022 World Cups have been sold to Fox and Telemundo for a combined $1.1 billion, which means Americans can hear Andrés Cantor and his famous trilled call of Goooollll!!! on Telemundo in 2018 and 2022. 

Another sign of American soccer madness is that pubs in New York or San Francisco or St. Louis will post signboards proclaiming: CROATIA-CAMEROON TODAY as fans from several hundred nationalities follow the month long jamboree. Rather than a mélange of sports like the Winter and Summer Olympics, the World Cup consists of the sport that just about every culture plays and knows. 

The best-case American scenario for this year’s Group of Death is that the U.S. beats Ghana in the first game, shrugging off the losses to Ghana in 2006 and 2010. Then somehow the U.S. must catch the great Cristiano Ronaldo on a bad hair day, when his tufted highlights are not aligned properly, and steal a draw from Portugal. Or perhaps the U.S. can poach a draw from Germany in the third match, particularly if the Germans have won their first two, and are resting some of their top dogs. (Germany’s reserves are not exactly a pickup squad.) The U.S. has a history with all three opponents, having shocked Portugal in the 2002 World Cup and outplayed Germany in a 1-0 loss in the 2002 quarterfinals, but all those results are irrelevant by now.

Klinsmann has not seemed comfortable with the U.S. player pool, calling up every eligible Bundesliga player with access to an American passport. However, his best players seem to be the same ones who produced the glorious full-field 91st-minute goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup—Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey; all four years older but except for Howard not producing in the top leagues of Europe. 

Where are the younger American stars? Despite all those youth soccer programs, the U.S. still has trouble recruiting great athletes in a land with major sports like basketball, football, baseball, hockey, lacrosse, etc. For a while, it seemed the U.S. was exporting its best young players to Europe for experience and money, but recently Dempsey and Michael Bradley came back from Europe for huge salaries in Major League Soccer Donovan had long made his stand about playing in his native Southern California. Klinsmann can barely contain his scorn for athletes who do not challenge themselves in the top European leagues. 

Of course, Klinsmann also lives in Southern California, having married an American woman. He was chosen as the American coach not only because he was a great player but because he speaks multiple languages and is familiar with modern training and psychology. It is fair to say that Klinsmann has pushed his players to improve, but can he surpass the reasonable success of his predecessors, Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley? The tipoff is that Gulati has already extended Klinsmann’s contract through the 2018 World Cup, meaning he will not be judged by this expedition into the Group of Death. 

The final U.S. roster for 2014 was far from set when this article was written.

Dempsey and Jermaine Jones, a rugged German midfielder with an American passport, were off looking for winter games with lesser clubs in Europe. Altidore seemed to have stopped producing goals overseas. Michael Bradley—son of the former coach, and a smart, aggressive midfielder—is the guts of this team, but he could be less-than sharp since coming back from AS Roma.

The back line of defense is shaky. Klinsmann made a brilliant move in 2013, recalling DaMarcus Beasley, a staple since 2002, and turning him into a left back. Beasley helped the U.S. qualify with his all-around game but his defense could be burned in a World Cup. The middle of the defense—Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, both from MLS—looks vulnerable. American back lines were exposed stunningly fast in opening games of 1990, 1998 and 2006. 

The U.S. always has good goalkeepers because that position is relatively easy to teach to young athletes. Howard of Everton should get the call again but Brad Guzan of Aston Villa and Nick Rimando of Real Salt Lake would not be a drop-off. 

The reality is that the U.S. is building a respectable domestic league and has become the dominant team in its region, passing its old tormentor, Mexico. But the U.S. may need heroics from Donovan and the other elders to escape the Group of Death. 

Ghana lost a heartbreaker of a quarterfinal in 2010 after not taking advantage of a handball penalty to Luis Suarez of Uruguay. Asamoah Gyan, who missed that penalty kick and left the field in tears, will be back. Playing Ghana does not sound so formidable—except that the Americans have suffered two tepid losses to Ghana in the most recent World Cups.

Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo, large and fast and opportunistic and self-centered, as great scorers must be. He won the world’s best footballer award, the Ballon d’Or, in 2013. The entire squad will try to widen the field and allow Ronaldo to show up from nowhere and score on a header or volley or just chase down a loose ball. 

Germany, coached by Joachim (Jogi) Löw, Klinsmann’s top assistant in 2006 and coach of the third-place finisher in 2010, has continuity and talent—Philipp Lahm, a tiny and smart defender, Bastian Schweinsteiger, a huge and mobile midfielder, Thomas Müller, a smooth midfielder, and Mesut Özil, the first prominent German player from its large Turkish population, plus a battery of strikers and Manuel Neuer, the keeper. 

This is one talented group. But don’t forget: the Americans’ presence helps make it the Group of Death. 

This World Cup will have an unprecedented layer of stress for the host nation, which long ago gave the phrase joga bonito—beautiful game, in Portuguese—to the world. Soccer or futbol in Brazil is akin to baseball, or the NFL in the United States. This time Brazil will be trying to live up to its reputation for open soccer and vibrant fans. Coached by Luiz Felipe Scolari, known as Big Phil, a gruff, demanding presence, Brazil has great talent, including Neymar, the will-o’-the-wisp now playing in Spain for Barcelona, considered one of the world’s best soccer clubs

Recent scandals in FIFA and disaffection with the World Cup in Brazil could affect the host team, which has won five World Cups, the most of any nation. Tellingly, in 1950, the only time Brazil was the host, it lost the final to Uruguay. 

Brazilian fans already have turned on FIFA, the first time that has ever happened. In the past year, Brazilian residents staged demonstrations against tribulations like rising bus fares plus the cost of World Cup stadiums and roads for a party for strangers, FIFA and its beleaguered president Joseph (Sepp) Blatter seem unpreturbed by all the protests, although there were expressions of concern last year about Brazil’s readiness to host the big extravaganza.

All these machinations are weighing on the 2014 World Cup— particularly on the host nation and the home team. Big Phil says his team will be boosted by exuberant Brazilian fans plus the history of five championships but, just as likely, the Brazilian squad will feel the criticism from not enough flights and hotel rooms for touring fans, too many protests by Brazilians over inconveniences and costs, too much blather from FIFA. 

Then again, other teams carry their own burdens. 

Spain, the defending champion, was long considered the slacker of European soccer—the kid with the high IQ who doesn’t bother to turn in his homework. At the same time, a grand patrimony was accumulating with the two rival clubs in La Liga, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Using the tiki-taka short-passing style, traced directly from the old Dutch era of Total Football to the Barca team, Spain won the European tournament in 2008 under Luis Aragonés. And when he retired, Vicente Del Bosque took over that program and won the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2012 Euros.  

No nation has ever won three straight major tournaments like that, although Italy and Brazil did win back-to-back World Cups in earlier generations. It is quite possible that the loaded calendar of modern soccer—all those tournaments, all those cups, all those midweek Premier League matches—work against a double World Cup by Spain. It’s not only the years on the passport but the number of games in the legs and minds of soccer players, who do not receive long vacations like American team players. 

Consider Andrés Iniesta, turning 30 on May 11: the baby-faced playmaker, 5' 7" and 143 pounds, put himself in the right place to score in the 116th minute of the 2010 final against the Netherlands. As of mid-February, starting with the exhibitions before the 2010 World Cup, Iniesta had played in 236 matches, some as a sub, some coming off early, but still, 236 matches. The lucrative schedule seemed to be wearing him down to a nub. As of mid February, he had scored one goal all season.  

Del Bosque has blended in new talent, new energy, with Carlos Puyol, the great defender, seemingly done and striker Fernando Torres becoming marginal. From watching Spain beat Italy 1-0 in a friendly match in March, Iniesta is still the key to that fluid offense, and Del Bosque will see what his stars have left. 

With Spain vulnerable, this leaves room for shocks and surprises, particularly in the group stage: Algeria beat West Germany in 1982, Cameroon stunned Argentina in 1990, Trinidad & Tobago drew with Sweden in its first World Cup match in 2006. Older teams come in slowly and take time getting revved up. Or, older teams come in slowly and never get started. (France, 2002; Italy, 2010.) 

Argentina is one of the great squads, deep in talent, starting with tiny Lionel Messi, who scoots in to receive brilliant passes at Barcelona. But Argentina will not benefit from any continental advantage in Brazil, given the long rivalry involving racial slurs, broken bones, charges of drugged water bottles, etc. Brazilians would not root for Argentina, even in a final against an outsider. 

A third South American team, Uruguay is not exactly an outsider, having won two World Cups early, and finishing fourth in 2010, when Diego Forlán was voted the best player in the tournament. But Forlán is turning 35, and Uruguay must depend on Luis Suarez, 27, who can change a match with brilliance or stupidity. Playing for Liverpool, he has been suspended for racist remarks and for biting an opponent; he also has the kind of Maradona gall and genius that can take over a match. 

In the end, there are never any outsiders in the World Cup final. The real question is which two traditional powers will survive this time. In 1990, Gary Lineker of England scored four goals but his team lost a shootout with West Germany in the semifinal. Afterward, Lineker made this evaluation, still valid today: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”

In the final in Rome, Lineker’s quip came true as West Germany survived against Argentina. This year, one squad has the talent and mentality to shrug off distractions. On July 13, soccer fans will once again be quoting Gary Lineker.

 

George Vecsey is the author of Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer, to be published by Times Books in May, 2014. He is a contributing sports columnist for The New York Times.)