Graphic by Julio Lara
There will be two key questions that will be asked ad nauseum over the next few weeks with the kickoff today of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil: who will win the World Cup and how will the Americans do?
Let’s answer the “who will win” question first. The easy answer is, who knows? There is no athletic tournament in the world more unpredictable than the World Cup because soccer can be the most maddening of sports. The best team doesn’t always win on any given day and upsets are the norm, not the exception, when it comes to the World Cup.
While that may be the easiest answer, the best response may be Brazil. After seeing the Canarinho knocked out in the quarterfinals in both 2006 and 2010, the Brazilians are the odds-on favorites to win their sixth World Cup title.
Everything is going Brazil’s way right now. It is hosting the event and past history suggests the host country always plays well. There is also the fact that no European team has won a World Cup in the Americas — neither Mexico in 1986, the United States in 1994 nor any time the Cup has been hosted by a South American country. Adding to the European chore will be the heat and humidity in Brazil, which could wear down the Europeans.
Secondly, Brazil is coming off a win in last summer’s Confederations Cup — which serves as a dry run for the World Cup. Brazil dismantled defending World Cup champion Spain 3-0 a year ago to all but cement their status as the front-runner for the 2014 Cup.
Third, Brazil boasts one of the best players in the world in Neymar and this could be his coming out party.
Not that it would be easy. In my breakdown, I have Brazil winning Group A and then facing Group B runner-up Netherlands in the round of 16. A win there and I have the Canarinho facing a surprising England side in the final eight. The semifinals could be a barnburner with a looming matchup against Germany, but I predict Brazil gets past the National-Mannschaft and will face Argentina in a dream final, with Brazil ultimately prevailing, winning their first World Cup crown since 2002 and seventh in World Cup history.
Now on to that second question: How will the United States do in the 2014 World Cup? I’m going to go way, way out on a limb and say — actually, they could make history. I’m predicting the Yanks will not only make it out of the Group of Death, I’m saying they advance to the quarterfinals, eventually losing to Argentina.
Am I crazy? Probably, but the more I think about it, the more I like the American’s chances of advancing deeper in a World Cup than they ever have.
Hear me out. In group play, the U.S. opens with Ghana, who many may remember having knocked the Americans out of the last two World Cups. My thinking here is, however, they are getting Ghana before the Black Stars can build up their confidence. In the two previous matches against the U.S., Ghana has eliminated the Yanks in the round of 16. In those two matches, Ghana had a full head of steam. This time, the Black Stars will come into the game wondering where they are as a team. Just enough doubt for the Americans to pull out a huge win.
Next up is Portugal, the No. 4 ranked team in the world — and when it comes to the World Cup, one of the most consistently underperforming team of all time. The U.S. beat the heavily favored Selacao das Quinas 3-2 to open the 2002 World Cup group play and the Americans ended up advancing out of group.
This time, Portugal is led by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, the reigning world player of the year. But Ronaldo is nursing leg injuries ahead of the Cup which could limit his effectiveness, despite a strong showing in a 5-1 win over Ireland in a prep game Tuesday. There is also the fact the aggressive Portuguese defense might leave some holes in the back in their quest to push forward. The U.S. defense has its own questions, but again, I think the U.S. shocks everyone and pulls out a win.
With two wins in group play under their belts, the U.S. closes group play against Cup favorite Germany. If there is one thing the Americans should have over the Germans, it’s fitness. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has his team in peak form to deal with the sweltering conditions expected to greet them in Brazil. Germany may think it’s conditioned, but they will find out it is not.
There is also the fact the U.S. drilled Germany in a friendly a year ago, granted the German’s “B” team, but a Germany side nonetheless. If it comes down to these two teams being undefeated in group play, look for one of the best games of pool play as they battle it out for the top spot in Group G. I’ll predict a tie for this match. Goal differential could decide which teams gets the No. 1 seed out of the group. For sake of argument, let’s say Germany takes the top spot with the U.S. as the second qualifier out of the group.
That would send the Americans to the round of 16 where they would most likely face Belgium, who I predict will win Group H. By this time, the U.S. will be flying high and even a strong side like the Red Devils won’t be enough as the U.S. advances to the quarterfinals.
Where their Cup dreams will end. In my draw, I have the U.S. facing Argentina in the final eight and it’s at this point I wake from my delirium and have La Albicelestes ending the Americans’ run to soccer glory.
What makes me think the U.S. even has a chance to advance out of the group stage, where many believe they have a stronger chance of going 0-3? For some reason, I just have a feeling Klinsmann is sand bagging his team. I think he’s just lying in the weeds, waiting to ambush the rest of the world. I think he believes his team is ready to be more than competitive and really has the drive to make a run deep into the tournament.
Now, while many are probably shocked to see me predict the U.S. to win three or four games, I wouldn’t be stunned to see the Americans go winless in group play and slink home either.
A third question likely to linger for the next week to 10 days: who are the favorites to win the World Cup?
The list of the teams who have the best shot of hoisting the Cup are not new. It’s a relatively small group and includes the likes of Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Spain and Netherlands. Any one of these five could end up winning it all and it wouldn’t be a surprise.
Then there is the old guard that includes European stalwarts England, France, Italy and Portugal, as well as the African contingent of Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria.
Any of the four European teams could easily find their way deep into the tournament, based on reputation alone. But the world soccer scene is changing and these teams have a history of underperforming in recent Cups.
The African teams are still riding on the coattails of Cameroon’s run to the 1990 quarterfinals. While all have ability to advance out of group play, none have done much past that.
If there is an old guard, there has to be a new guard and that group includes Belgium, Colombia, Switzerland and Uruguay. A force leading up to the 1994 World Cup in the United States, Colombia’s federation was knocked back a couple decades with their surprising loss to the U.S. in the first game, which ultimately led to the killing of defender Andres Escobar just weeks after Colombia was eliminated from the World Cup. Escobar scored an own-goal in the loss to the Americans.
Colombia, however, is back among the elite, ranked No. 8 in the world. Uruguay was in the semifinals four years ago and ended up finishing fourth, while Belgium has been among the best in Europe the last few years.
The dark horses are those teams that while having a high world ranking, have a lot of work to do to even advance out of the group stage. This group includes the U.S., Mexico, the Baltic states of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Russia and Chile. Of this group, Greece has the highest world ranking at No. 12, but the U.S. is right behind Greece at No. 13. The Americans, however, have the toughest road, playing in “The Group of Death.”
That’s 23 of 32 teams accounted for. I will not, however, lump any teams into a “no way they can win” group because that is simply unfair. To advance this far means a team has to be good and as I’ve said before, soccer is a funny game.
But every four years, it’s also the most exciting sport in the world.
Nathan Mollat can be reached by phone: 344-5200 ext. 117 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You follow him on Twitter@CheckkThissOutt.