JLo’s beginner’s guide to the World Cup
On Thursday, the biggest sporting event in the world kicks off when the hosts, Brazil, take on Croatia in the 2014
Corruption FIFA World Cup. For the first time since perhaps the tournament was held in the United States, it seems as if more casual sports fans in America are starting to take interest, so since I’m one of these guys, I thought I’d explain the proceedings a bit so that you can better follow along and hopefully grow to appreciate the “beautiful game.” (Yeah, that’s obnoxious, I’ll stop that now.) So, without further ado I present to you JLo’s Idiot’s American’s Beginner’s Guide to the World Cup.
First a note about how the World Cup is set up, since things differ a bit from the traditional tournament format we usually use for big sporting events here in the US. There are 32 teams that qualify from different regional qualifying tournaments (technically 31, since the host nation is guaranteed entry. This is one of many, many, many reasons that people around the world are looking at the decision to award Qatar hosting duties in 2022 with the same sense of disbelief that you look at one of those rigged midway games at the carnival.) At the beginning of the tournament the 32 teams are divided up into eight groups of four. The four teams in each group play each other once (so, three games in each group), and at the end of group matches the top two teams in each group (16 teams total) advance to the next stage, which is a single elimination knockout round like the NCAA basketball tournament. For each win in the group stage a team earns 3 points, ties earn 1 point and loses nada. The team with the most points wins the group and second finishes runner up but still advances.
The teams are then seeded so that winners in a group play the second place finisher in another group in the round of 16, and then the tournament continues single elimination until the final. For example, Group A has the host nation, Brazil, as well as Croatia, Mexico, and Cameroon. The winner of this group, most likely Brazil, will play the second place finisher in Group B (The Netherlands? Chile?) and the second place finisher in A (probably Croatia or Mexico) gets the winner of Group B. Keep in mind that in the group stages matches can end in a tie but in the knockout stages each match ends in a winner either through extra time or penalty kicks. And if you want to have fun and/or get a pint glass broken over your head, walk up behind an England fan and shout out “penalties!”
So, now you understand how the tournament works, you might be asking who has a chance to win the thing. Sadly, even though this is arguably the best United States team we’ve ever sent to a World Cup, we likely are not one of those teams. In fact, we will be hard-pressed to get out of our group, as we’ve been drawn into what is pretty much universally considered the hardest group of the tournament, aka the “Group of Death.” In our group are perennial world powers Germany, Portugal, the home of Christiano Ronaldo, one of the world’s great individual talents, and Ghana, the team that has bounced the U.S. from the last two World Cups. Despite this, I honestly do believe we can advance from the group stages. More on that in a minute.
The teams with the best chances to win are probably the following, in no particular order: Brazil (five-time winners), Germany (three-time winners), Argentina (two-time winners), and Spain (defending World Cup winners and World Champions). Lurking around are teams like Italy (four titles, two second place finishes and a few spectacular flame outs), France, Uruguay, Chile, the Netherlands, Ivory Coast, and Belgium (the seemingly unanimous “dark horse”). A few historical notes to keep in mind:
- Since the late 90’s, the French seem to alternate doing really well or flaming out spectacularly. They won in 1998, were bounced in the group stage without scoring a goal in 2002, finished runner up in 2006, and were once again bounced in the group stages in 2010 while basically rioting against their coach in the process. If the pattern holds 2014 should be an up year.
- Germany hasn’t won since 1990 (as West Germany), though they did finish runners up in 2002, but they are probably the most consistently excellent team in the history of the tournament and the safest bet to reach at least the quarterfinals. They are the Duke of the World Cup, and just about as likable.
- European teams have historically not done well in South American World Cups, so there’s reason beyond the fact that they are really, really good to believe they Brazil, Argentina, and maybe even a team like Chile or Uruguay will make the semifinals and beyond.
Ok, back to the U.S. There’s a couple of not-so-far-fetched scenarios that put the U.S. through to the knockout rounds thanks to scheduling, though neither one of them involve us beating Germany. First up is Ghana. which, despite the fact that they seem to take immense pride and pleasure in ending our WC involvement, should be the most winnable of the three games on the schedule. Next up is Portugal, who, despite having the sublime (but possibly injured and perhaps cursed Ronaldo) are the least menacing of the European powers not named Switzerland. Last up is Germany, and last is where you want to face them in the group stages. Getting off to a winning start is absolutely a must, so imagine a 2-0 US win in the first round, while Germany dispatches of Portugal 3-1. In the next round, Germany thumps Ghana 3-0 while the U.S. rescues a point with a 1-1 draw thanks to a dramatic injury time goal from Michael Bradley. Going into the last round, Germany sits on top of the group with 6 points, the U.S. is second with 4, and Portugal is third with 1 point. Portugal sends Ghana home winless with a 1-0 result, while the U.S. makes a game of it but loses 2-1 against a German side that decided to rest some starters who had picked up nagging injuries. The Germans win the group and the U.S. and Portugal both finish second with 4 points, but the U.S. would advance to the next round thanks to a superior goal differential. (For a pretty good breakdown of tie-break rules and scenarios, go here.)
This is probably the most likely scenario that would see the U.S. advance. Another would involve a U.S. victory in the second match with Portugal, which is not impossible even with a healthy Ronaldo. Regardless, a win in the first match against Ghana is crucial, as even a draw would make the road ahead extremely difficult. Such is the difficulty of our group though that the U.S. could play reasonably well and not even win a match. Needless to say that match (in near prime time in the U.S. with a 6:00 PM EST kick off on Monday, June 16) is one of the must watch matches of the tournament.
Regardless of how the U.S. ultimately does, the World Cup is a remarkably entertaining event, especially with the reasonable match starting times in the U.S. (On the flip side, you don’t really have a reasonable excuse to go to a bar at 7:00 AM this time around.) To help you prepare for some suitable binge watching, I’ll highlight some of the best matches for you to look out for each day in the first round of matches.
Thursday, June 12 – Brazil v. Croatia: The opening match, sure to be an pretty insane atmosphere for the hosts. Kicks off at 4:00 PM on the east coast, just in time for an early happy hour.
Friday, June 13 – Spain v. The Netherlands: A rematch of the 2010 WC Final in the groups stages thanks to the luck of the draw.
Saturday, June 14 – England v. Italy: Hopes in England historically run perpetually high and then ultimately disappoint. There’s some cause for optimism though with new generation of young, dynamic attacking players. Plus, Mario Balotelli, owner of one of the most entertaining Wikipedia pages in the world, suits up for Italy.
Sunday, June 15 – pick ’em: Any of the three matches on Sunday could be interesting, but you can only watch one match go for Argentina v. Bosnia for the chance to see Lionel Messi, who I have a sneaking suspicion is about to have a truly massive tournament on the international stage for the first time.
Monday, June 16: See above for the USA-Ghana, but Germany v. Portugal will be a huge match as well, though Portugal may be playing for a draw to try and steal a point against the mighty Germans.
That should get your started. I’ll highlight some more of the vital group matches next week.
Cheers and happy viewing.