Last year, after a number of failed attempts over the years, I finally managed to turn myself into a soccer fan. I chose a Premier League team to root for (Chelsea), and proceeded to immerse myself in the world of European football, all from the comfort of my couch in suburban Pennsylvania. With a solid 10 months of fandom now under my belt, I’m ready to spout ill-informed and very amateurish opinions about the upcoming World Cup.
32 teams arrive in Brazil this week, all hoping to hoist the trophy as World Champs next week. Only 12 have any chance. Or at least that’s the very arbitrary number I’ve chosen to say have any chance. Among those 12 is most definitely not your US Men’s National team. Just ask their coach. So, before we move on to the teams that will decide this thing, a quick word on the Americans:
The good news is that Tim Howard is probably one of the top ten goalkeepers in the world. The bad news is that the U.S. defense might be so bad that that means very little. A team’s two central defenders have to be able to work together and react to each other like the drummer and bass player in a jazz band. This team’s four central defender options have very little experience together and very little experience, period, playing the level of competition they’ll see in Brazil. Besides the goalkeeper, the team’s best players are Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, who both play in MLS. That basically makes this team the equivalent of a country that shows up to the Olympic basketball tournament and their best players play in the Greek league. Of course, all they have to do is advance out of this “Group of Death”, and they can call the tournament a success.
These seven teams have slim chance, if things break right, of a championship.
12. Portugal- You could argue they shouldn’t be on this list, but my counter is two words: Cristiano Ronaldo. Soccer is absolutely a team sport, but when you have a transcendent talent like Ronaldo, crazy things can happen. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann will have nightmares of Ronaldo reeking havoc on the back line of his defense. Nani didn’t have a great year for Man U, but he was strong in the Euro 2012 tourney and gives them a dangerous wing threat. They also feature two other starters (besides Ronaldo) from the newly crowned champs of Europe, Real Madrid.
11. Colombia- These guys would certainly be higher on the list, but their best player, Radamel Falcao, is out of the tourney with an injury. I’m leaving them in the “teams with a shot” though for a couple reasons. One, with the tournament in Brazil, all South American teams get a boost. I think that’s a legitimate edge for them. Two, they’ve been placed in a very easy group, which should put them in a good position as likely group winners heading into the knockout stage. Finally, I’ve heard a lot of good things about them. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve seen any of these guys play, so let’s just move on.
10. Netherlands- As the runner-ups of World Cup 2010, it may be surprising to see this team so far down the list. But four years is a long time and this team has a rapidly aging core. Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie are world-class goal scorers, but both are on the wrong side of 30, and Van Persie has had a lot of trouble staying healthy. Wesley Sneijder has also gone downhill since being named Europe’s best midfielder in 2010. The feeling here is that they had their chance in ’10 and the window has now closed.
9. England- As opposed to a team like Colombia, I’m pretty familiar with all 23 on this roster. They’re rock solid footballers, but do they have that something special to put them over the top? If they do, it’s the name you often hear: Wayne Rooney. Stephen Gerrard is as good a leader/captain as there is in sports. Watch Danny Welbeck move around the pitch and picture him as an NFL cornerback.
8. Italy- Only Brazil has won more World Cups than the Azzurri, but this isn’t the finest hour in their history. Yes, they did win the ’06 Cup, but the fact that they have a bunch of guys still hanging around from that team, eight years later, isn’t necessarily a huge plus. Andrea Pirlo and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon are legends, but have a combined age of over 70. Daniele De Rossi and Thiago Motta are both very good players and both past 30. One star right in his prime is the controversial striker Mario Balotelli. They need him to lead the tournament in goals if they’re going to win it.
7. France- This team was looking like my real darkhorse until news broke a couple days ago that their best player, Franck Ribery, is out with an injury. Still, they have the guys to replace his goal-scoring ability to some extent, with Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, along with Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann. Paul Pogba is a rising star in the midfield and they have a fleet of backline players from top teams in England.
6. Uruguay- The third team on this list from Group D, along with England and Italy, which means that one of those teams will go out early, and also that the three games they meet in the group stage will be must-watch games. Luis Suarez is coming off a season where he set the Premier League record for goals per game, and he’ll team up with Paris St-Germain striker Edinson Cavani to form a deadly scoring duo. They made the semifinals in 2010, and now they’re playing very close to home, but there still probably isn’t enough talent behind Suarez and Cavani to carry them further this time around.
5. Belgium- One of the main reasons I chose Chelsea as my team last year was the magic of Belgian Eden Hazard. If for no other reason than him, I would be a Belgium supporter in this tournament. Then, I started noticing really good Belgians all over the Premier League. I was surprised. How could such a small country, who’s national team I’d never heard anything about, have so many top players. It turns out the Belgians are experiencing a “Golden Age” of football talent, and I’m far from the only one to notice. Even though they didn’t even qualify for the last two World Cups, many have pegged them as a darkhorse contender in Brazil. I will be rooting for them but, most likely, they just don’t have the experience and all-around pedigree to win a world championship. With all the young talent thought, 2018 might be their year. Their best striker, Christian Benteke, is out with an injury, but aside from Hazard they also feature arguably the best defender in the world in Vincent Kompany, who just captained Man City to the Premier League title. They also feature budding stars Romelu Lukaku, Adnan Januzaj, and Thibault Courtois, who many call the best young keeper in the world.
Four teams left and these teams constitute the top tier. On a purely neutral field, Spain and Germany clearly have the two best teams in the world. But Brazil and Argentina are arguably the third and fourth best teams in the world, and they get to play close to home, or AT home for Brazil, of course. Here’s how I see it shaking out.
4. Spain- Spain is in the midst of a dynasty, having won the last three “major” tournaments (’08 Euro Cup, ’10 World Cup, ’12 Euro). They’re still loaded with talent from top to bottom and have added Brazilian-native striker Diego Costa to their fleet of world-class midfielders. It just seems like it’s time for them to take a step back and for their “tiki-taka” style of quick, accurate passes to be put out to pasture. They do have some question marks on defense and goalkeeper Iker Casillas is starting to show his age. Spain goes down in the semifinals to the Argentinians.
3. Brazil- Tons of talent, playing on home soil, what’s not to like? Am I not picking them just to be different? No. They certainly have a good chance, but I don’t think the Brazilians will take home this cup. I might be biased though. Four of them play for Chelsea and none turned in a great season this year. David Luiz, in particular, was the worst performer Chelsea had, and he will start for Brazil. An incredible athlete with great size, speed, and athleticism on defense, he just makes too many fatal mistakes. Also, Oscar is supposed to be one other their top midfielders, but he wasn’t even starting for Chelsea a lot of the time late in the season. Finally, they’re only legit goalscorer is Neymar, who’s coming off a pedestrian season at Barcelona and, at 22 years old, is dealing with the pressure of having to deliver the lion’s share of the goals for the home country in the World Cup. When they hit adversity, they will hear it from the crowds, and I think they buckle under the pressure, especially against a foe as strong as the Germans, who I have them losing to in the semifinals.
2. Argentina- The other three “Favorites” probably have two truly elite strikers combined (Neymar and Costa). Argentina has four, and one of them just happens to be the best player of his generation. Aside from Messi, they have Sergio Aguero (of Prem League champs Man City), Gonzalo Higuain, and Ezequiel Lavezzi. They also have one of the world’s best midfielders, Angel Di Maria. Yes, they’re fairly weak defensively, but I see Messi shaking off his “down” year and delivering for his national team for the first time ever in a major tournament. In the end, they’ll come up just short, but have some dominating, high-scoring wins along the way.
1. Germany- Zie Germans! Yes, I’ll take the Germans to find a way to become the first European team to win a World Cup in South America, as they’re able to hold off Messi and Aguero in a somewhat free-wheeling 3-2 Finals victory. They just took a blow last week with the injury to Marco Reus but, the fact is, Reus is really good, but just another guy on this loaded roster. They come at you in waves from the midfield, with Schweinsteiger, Ozil, and Kroos controlling the ball and making all the right decisions, and their steady and heady captain, Philip Lahm, pulling things together if things start to go off track.