Friday, June 11, 2010

Kicking off one of the few events that brings the world together (if only for a little while)

My initial foray into what we Americans call soccer came at a young age.  I played four seasons for a Memphis area youth squad, the Vikings, that was always competitive but never quite reached the top.  Being one of the few youngsters who could play any position (except goalie) saw a much younger version of me languish in the rear of a relatively obscure 3-3-1-3 formation, far from the brunt of the action in most cases (not as Johan Cruyff had intended) due to a yearly abundance of kids who could kick, but not defend.

Being a starting defender was preferable nevertheless to riding the bench with a bunch of scrubs who would rather be at home watching cartoons on Saturday morning anyway.  Yet Coach Taylor -- a retired Navy man whose intensity remains unmatched in my experience to this day -- believed my proclivity for "tackling" exceeded his need for my presence in the midfield, which I enjoyed playing the most, and where I had also proven useful.

I wore the black and gold proudly, just as I scorned that baby blue Cordova squad that always one-upped us.  And although my attention shifted to other sports as I grew older, per soccer's lack of national exposure until somewhat recently, I never lost complete interest in the one sport at which I excelled above all others.

Fast forward to an evening back in the early '90s when, flipping through the channels, I landed on a sports station that no longer exists.  From that I caught my first glimpse of Manchester United playing at Old Trafford, and my interest in what the rest of the world calls football (or, futbol) was instantly reborn.

Fast forward another decade or so.  The '02 FIFA World Cup, held throughout South Korea and Japan, further jogged my interest in "the beautiful game."  The U.S. team's quarterfinal loss to eventual runners-up Germany exceeded all American expectations via their tragic and inexcusable last place showing four years prior -- including an absurd 2-1 loss to Iran -- when the World Cup was played in France. 

Brian McBride definitely could have used some help.

Here in the States, we don't say "kit."  We say uniform.  We don't call it a "pitch."  We refer to it as a field.  Most of us don't know that an in-game appearance is called a "cap" by the rest of the world.  And no matter what, you will never hear Americans collectively refer to any team as a "side."  Yet interest in that other sport called football has grown, slowly but steadily, for over 15 years, and now could be the time for the world's lone remaining superpower to catch up with the rest of the world.  Yet our national team, led by Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, has a tremendously challenging river to cross.  The contenders standing in the way are as follows:

The generally favored Spaniards are led by David Villa, Fernando Torres and Iker Casillas.  Five-time champion Brazil features Robinho, Kaká, and Luís Fabiano.  And the improved Portugal team is led by Cristiano Ronaldo and Simão Sabrosa. 

Italy, the four-time defending champions, have Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Pirlo and Alberto Gilardino.  The French, who some say are slumping, will hope Sidney Govou and Nicolas Anelka offer Thierry Henry the helps he needs if "Les Bleus" stand a chance to advance past the round of 16.

A possibly underrated Netherlands squad is loaded with a prolific bunch led by Mark van Bommel, Wesley Sneijder, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Rafael van der Vaart, Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.  (Believe me, the Flying Dutchmen are for real.)  Another team not to be overlooked is the three-time champion Germans, led by Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose and Mario Gómez.

Even without the injured David Beckham and Rio Ferdinand, the English remain stacked (WAGs notwithstanding) with John Terry, Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney.  Rounding out the list is the two-time champion Argentina.  Perhaps most noted for their head coach, the legendary Diego Maradona (cheater), the Argentinians will rely upon Javier Mascherano, Jonás Gutiérrez, Carlos Tévez and Lionel Messi to contend for a third crown.

The top two teams from each of the eight groups advance to the round of 16.  From that point, this is how I see things shaping up:

France def. Greece
England def. Australia
Netherlands def. Paraguay
Brazil def. Switzerland
Argentina def. Mexico
Germany def. America
Italy def. Cameroon
Spain def. Portugal

England def. France
Netherlands def. Brazil (upset alert)
Germany def. Argentina
Spain def. Italy

Netherlands def. England
Spain def. Germany

Netherlands def. Spain (upset alert) 

The Dutch will have possibly the toughest road of any side, but "Clockwork Orange" has the horses to get it done for their first World Cup title.

Kickoff for Game 1, the host nation South Africa vs. Mexico, gets started less than three hours from when this is being posted.  The time has come.

No comments: