The end of Spain’s reign in the plain
By Eric Wilkins, Sports Editor
The World Cup is magical. Purely magical. Thirty-two teams from around the world competing for one trophy. One prize. Ultimate bragging rights on the line. That sensational time when the beautiful game’s feature tournament transforms your Facebook feed from a soccer vacuum to a thriving community of die-hard fans. Who woulda thunk that all along little Jenny was secretly a staunch Portugal supporter sporting a Ronaldo jersey under that Marianas Trench T-shirt? Magical. Along with the sudden popularity of soccer every four years in June, I always find myself dismissing FIFA’s meddling hands; my naiveté still leads me to believe that if a team is good enough, they can beat the backroom deals and take it all.
(That started off a bit more jaded than I anticipated.)
The World Cup is, honestly and truly, really something else. Perhaps the greatest irony is that the best fans of the game will be reduced to miserable physical condition for the duration of the tourney as they slump in front of the big screen putting away pounds of junk food and litres of beer trying to catch every possible moment of the world soccer superstars battling on the pitch. You may need to be fit for sports, but the World Cup is fit for lounging. Without further ado, here are my top-five squads:
Brazil: The Brazilians are always in the conversation, and this year as the hosts, there’s little reason to leave them out now. There’s no debating the fact that playing at home gives a team a boost, and that fact continues to apply on the world stages. South Korea and Japan both outperformed expectations in 2002; Germany claimed third in 2006; and South Africa failed to advance out of their group in 2010 but they made more noise than most anticipated. The Selecao won last year’s Confederation Cup and definitely have the talent to stick another major feather in their cap this year. When a team can afford to leave former bigwigs Kaka and Ronaldinho off the team along with some surprise omissions in Liverpool’s Coutinho and Lucas, AC Milan’s Robinho, Sao Paulo’s Alexandre Pato, Atletico Madrid’s Filipe Luis, and PSG’s Lucas Moura, they’ve got some skill to spare. Look for Neymar to lead the way.
France: After the shameful debacle in 2010 with the team rebelling against then-manager Raymond Domenech, the French are ready to return to international respectability. With an attack led by Franck Ribery and the powerful Karim Benzema, the team is as dangerous as ever. On the back end, Hugo Lloris is as solid a man between the sticks as one can ask for. A relatively easy group (Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras) means the first real test for the French should come in the knockout stage.
Germany: When aren’t the Germans in contention? The country consistently produces results with big, strong teams and a sprinkling of smaller skill players. A wealth of star power and fun names to pronounce, not the least of which: Bastian Schweinsteiger, in the midfield promise that this year’s edition from the land of autobahns and massive mugs of beer could be the finest yet. Miroslav Klose is hoping to become the country’s all-time leading goalscorer over the next few weeks since he’s currently tied with Gerd Muller on 68 goals.
England: That’s not a typo. Anything can happen at the World Cup so why not an English surprise? Past English squads have suffered from poor goaltending gaffes (see: David Seaman vs. Ronaldinho and a laundry list of others), lack of imagination in the midfield, and a forward line too heavily reliant on Wayne Rooney. With Joe Hart in goal, Jack Wilshere providing the spark Joe Cole was never allowed to produce, and a handful of other attacking options beside Rooney such as Daniel Welbeck, there’s every chance the English could do something this time around.
USA: Best for last, right? Amidst the last few decades of hate on American soccer, the country has quietly (except to those paying attention) built a quality team. Tim Howard has always been a respected goalie, but other positions have developed stars as well. Michael Bradley has had several successful European stints and is now an established midfield general. Chris Wondolowski is likely the most underrated forward in the tournament, and that’s to say nothing of his fellow strikeforce led by Clint Dempsey. In perhaps the most surprising omission of the World Cup, Landon Donovan was left off the squad, but the Americans still have more than enough talent to see them through. All that stands in their way are the referees; the ’06 Group of Death and several bogus calls come to mind.