World Cup 2010:

Bowing to incessant popular demand, here’s the latest in my quadrennial guide to everything you need to know about the upcoming World Cup tournament. (OK, not really everything, but at least a bunch of interesting stuff). Even those of you who are, shall we say, less than captivated by the game itself should take the opportunity to get in the flow of things over the next month or so; there really is something pretty special about any World Cup, to taking part in something to which pretty much everyone in the world is paying attention, a chance to experience, if only vicariously, the passions that people bring to the sport and to their national teams. We Americans rarely (if ever) really experience the sort of national frenzy that will be the norm over the next month or so, when every day, starting on Friday, ordinary life in at least four countries (whoever’s teams are playings) comes to a complete standstill for 90 minutes or so; our national teams just don’t capture our collective imagination, even in sports we’re pretty crazy about (baseball, basketball), let alone in a sport we’re just coming (though we are coming) to care about. [Think US-Canada Olympic hockey final, happening twice a day – and even that doesn’t really begin to capture it] What to look for from amidst this abundance of riches?

The Contenders I would be very surprised if any country other than Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands, or Argentina were to win the tournament. Soccer has a great deal of randomness built into it – goals are few and far between, and can be scored on a “fluke” even by teams that are decidedly inferior to their opponents, and crazy things can and do happen. But the World Cup does have a tendency to winnow out the flukes along the way, and I don’t see any other teams that truly have the class to take home the trophy. The other traditional powerhouses do not impress this observer – Italy looks old and tired, France anemic in attack, Germany unimpressive (and has lost, through injury, midfielder Michael Ballack, considered by many to be the heart and soul of the team), and England . . . . well, England looks like England.

Argentina’s going to be particularly interesting to watch. I recently spent a week down in Chile, and in between my various work-related events, I spent a lot of time talking soccer (Chile has a pretty exciting team this year, and people are psyched); we got up a pretty decent argument about whether Argentina has enough talent to field two, or three, teams each of which would be capable of winning the Cup. It’s an extraordinary collection of players; for instance, on most observers’ lists of the top ten strikers during the past season, probably four or five would be Argentine (Lionel Messi, the consensus “Greatest Player on the Planet,” Diego Milito, Carlos Tevez, and Gonzalo Higuain). But for some inexplicable reason, they named Diego Maradona their coach about a year ago; Maradona was surely one of the great players of all time, but aside from the fact that he sometimes acts like the cocaine-addled sociopath he used to be in darker days, and was suspended by FIFA for 3 matches for a nasty, homophobic, profanity-laden tirade on the team bus that happened to be caught on video, he also seems to be an insanely lousy coach; Argentina just made it through the tournament qualifiers by the skin of its teeth, and then only with the help of lots of dumb luck. They could conceivably dazzle the field and destroy all the opposition – or they could crash and burn and go out in the first round. It should be interesting to watch

Brazil’s on the list of contenders because they’re always on the list of contenders; they, too, have a stock of amazingly gifted players that is unfathomably deep. Brazil is also, as the saying goes, everyone’s (at least every non-Brazilian’s) second-favorite team. They pretty much invented, and then perfected, a beautiful, flowing style of play that is ridiculously enjoyable to watch, at its best. But this year, we may be seeing a different Brazil on the field. Their coach, Dunga, made a name for himself as a hardheaded defensive midfielder – a sort of middle linebacker type – and he has built this team very much in his image. More toughness, less flair. My head tells me that might be a wise decision, but my heart is sad about it.

Spain is the betting favorite this year, and with good reason. They’re coming off a victory in the European championships in 2008, they were awesome in their qualifying campaign (ten victories, no draws, no losses, 28 goals for and only 5(!) against), and, in addition to superstarts up and down the pitch, happen to have the two greatest and most creative midfielders in today’s game, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.

Teams to Watch. By “teams to watch,” I don’t mean necessarily those with a shot to win, but those whose games should be especially pleasurable to take in. Fortunately, the four teams mentioned above as potential winners all should be fun to watch – even a defensive-minded Brazil is a treat – as all of them have great attacking flair and spectacular offensive weapons. I’d add a few more teams — Portugal, Chile, Ivory Coast, Cameroon – to the list of teams whose games you want to catch if you can.

The Africans. Many folks in the soccersphere were hoping that 2010 would be the year that one of the African teams finally stepped out of the shadows and made a real bid for the Cup, given the pro-African sentiment that’s likely to prevail in the South African stadiums. It’s too bad, but early signs are otherwise. The home team is not a particularly good one – for the South Africans to even make it out of the group phase and into the knockout phase will take something resembling a miracle – and none of the other African squads (Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Algeria, and Nigeria) looks ready to challenge. (And it didn’t help at all when, this past week, the best of them, Ivory Coast, which already was in the difficult position of being placed in the “group of death” along with Brazil and Portugal in the first round, saw its leader and star striker, Didier Drogba, go down with a broken elbow sustained in its final pre-tournament “friendly”).

Team USA. It’s even harder than usual to predict how our team’s going to fare – whether it will repeat the wonderful 2002 performance, in which it reached the quarterfinals, or 2006’s disastrous early exit. It thumped a pretty decent Australia team 3-1 last week in its final tuneup, and there’s some real world-class talent on the squad. But the back line is highly suspect, and if they’re as porous as they’ve been in recent matches it could be a depressing exercise. The first match (against England on June 12) could be a doozy – the English cold end up cutting through that back line line the proverbial knife through butter; on the other hand, if the US can hold them off and get into some sort of an offensive rhythm, we could easily pull off an upset, or at least put in a performance that would give us enough confidence to carry us through the tournament a fair way.

The Injuries. This is becoming a big story already, and is likely only to get bigger. There’s been an alarming number of superstar players who’ve either been knocked out of the Cup, or whose participation is now doubtful (and likely to be considerably less than 100%), due to injuries over the past month or so. Ballack (Germany’s captain), Rio Ferdinand (England captain) and Wayne rooney (far and awy England’s top striker), Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Michael Essien (Ghana), Arjen Robben (Netherlands), Fernando Torres (Spain), . . . It’s very unfortunate, and almost certainly the result of the ungodly schedule top players are now subjected to, with 50 oir 60 games over a season that now lasts 10 months or more. The money is driving this development (not surprisingly), and whether the soccer establishment can rein in the punishment their top stars are taking or not in the future remains to be seen. But for now, it looks like we’re stuck with a Cup that is a lot less interesting and exciting than it could be.