As we all prepare for the start of a month of football viewing, with all of its capacity for heartbreak and astonishment, sadness and joy, there are so many things to think about and discuss, so many stories to explore. In lieu of abandoning my family to World Cup mania, a few brief thoughts to get you in the mood for the start of The 2010 FIFA World Cup...
The U.S. Media
With ESPN/ ABC covering the 2010 World Cup, the TV coverage promises to be a frustrating and bizarre culture clash as experienced football announcers from the U.K. join their American counterparts in the booth to call games; one tradition is a soft spoken, meticulously prepared narrative that allows the game and each brilliant moment to speak for itself, the other is an obnoxious, shouting, blathering tradition of “color commentary” with a fucking bizarre coded language (“into the upper 90!”, “pee-kay!”, “one vee one with the keeper!”) that is sure to drive me up the wall. Add to that the aforementioned “story lines,” the promise of ESPN/ABC in-studio host Mike Tirico to “represent all the soccer moms and dads out there” and all of the blowhard sports reporters who know nothing of the game who will be giving us their insights on the radio and in print, and this promises to be four weeks of absolute torture.
Jim Rome, A Man Who Never Refused An Opportunity To Talk Absolute Shit
If you turn off the sound, even the images don't deliver the game; I am thankful that the world feed of the games will be utilized, otherwise we might never see a replay of an offside call or foul; ESPN cameras and direction usually follow an NFL-style set up (one master camera and two on the pitch level to capture alternate angles), leaving American TV directors struggling to capture the nuances of the game and the appropriate replays on fouls, cards and offsides. The world feed will be a saving grace, I hope.
Great football analysis on TV is not easy; what could top Alan Partridge’s incredible analysis of World Cup 1994?
“Eat That... And Another!”: Steve Coogan’s One Shining Moment
American TV needs American voices who love and understand the game, who know the players and who can do more than babble in training ground clichés and coach speak. The problem with sports commentary in America is that it is NFL model writ large; if you want John Madden types in the booth, using the "telestrator" to circle sweat stains on the ass cracks of fallen goalies and handing out turducken to the Man of the Match, then maybe you'll enjoy John Harkes and Shep Messing doing color for the World Cup. But count me among those who can't stand it; every match has a story to tell, but the US announcers struggle mightily to tell it, while their British counterparts in the booth are elegant but only add to the sense that this is not America’s game. It seems that ESPN’s strategy is to pair American color commentators with British play-by-play, but the clash of styles has, so far, been absolutely grating. I know there are American voices out there who can deliver the goods, but until the networks get away from the former players and hand the reigns to American commentators who can bring British quality with an American sensibility, the broadcasts will suffer. I therefore announce that I am available for all games should my country ask me to serve (*cough*).
What Might Have Been
On the eve of the Tournament, it is tragic to see so many great players ruled out of the World Cup through injury; David Beckham (England), Rio Ferdinand (England), Michael Essien (Ghana), John Obi Mikel (Nigeria), Jose Bosingwa (Portugal), Nani (Portugal) and Lassana Diarra (France). Add to that list the players who are uncertain to return-- Arjen Robben (The Netherlands), Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Andrea Pirlo (Italy), Julio Cesar (Brazil)-- and you have a squad of players who rank among the best in the world. In any Tournament, you want to see the best players performing at the highest level, but especially in a World Cup, an event that only comes around once every four years and represents the summit of the game. You especially feel for nations like Ghana and Ivory Coast, two African countries who are missing their very best players in the first ever African World Cup. While injuries are a part of any sport, it is a real shame to be missing out on seeing these terrific players during the sport’s greatest showcase.
No Michael Essien This Time Around
What Should Be.... But Might Not
The top club players in the world for the past two years, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, have been chronic under-performers for their national teams. How can it be that the best players in the world constantly go missing when playing in internationals? Well, frankly, it’s all about the managers and their tactics; while Maradona has essentially decided to play Fantasy football instead of giving Messi creative support in the midfield so that he can attack up top, Carlos Quieroz has found a way to turn the prolific goalscorer Ronaldo into nothing more than an excellent wide player by not using him in a free-floating role behind the main striker. One of the curses of the national teams as opposed to the clubs is the abundance of stars who demand the ball, who are looking for goals; this forces managers to appease egos while also taking a more conservative approach to the game. Often times, this commitment to playing it safe while stroking egos stifles the creativity of players like Messi and Ronaldo. I am very interested to see how the players handle the challenge of their managers systems, but also how the managers, Maradona in particular, handle the expectations of having the best player in the world on under their guidance. The pressure to get it right for the players and the managers is immense; here’s hoping they all shine. the game deserves nothing less.
Under Maradona, Messi Is A Bugatti Stuck In Neutral: Can They Work It Out?
THE Team To Watch
The one team that the world and the media will be watching is France, a team that is in full meltdown mode before they've played a single match. Back in my Group A Preview, I picked the talented French team to win Group A, but consider that pick fully revised; a prostitution scandal featuring an underage girl, a player who thinks he should have been named captain deciding not to speak to the media, a player revolt against an unpopular manager over his proposed team selection, France has become the soap opera of 2010. Look, France didn't deserve a place in the World Cup anyway, having hosed Ireland with a handball goal in extra time (okay, France may have gone on to win that match on penalties, but we'll never know), but they've seized the opportunity given to them and turned it into an ego-driven shit show. Is there a player more loathed by other professionals than William Gallas? Is there a player more disliked by his own teammates than Yohann Gourcuff? Is there a player whose talents are being more wasted by his manager than Nicolas Anelka? Is there a manager worse than Raymond Domenech, a man who seems to stare down almost every decision and only to make the wrong choice? Grab your popcorn, France are in real trouble. Again.
Domenech's Dilemma: How Can I Possibly Do Worse Than I Am Doing?
This is more than just another chance to paste an Eddie Izzard clip, but fuck it, let’s start there:
The vuvuzela is a long plastic trumpet which emulates the sound of a swarm of bees. When played by 60,000 people for 90 straight minutes over the course of 64 matches, it is literally the sound of going insane. There was a movement among some nations to ban the vuvuzela trumpet, but FIFA stood behind the horn as an example of the footballing heritage of South Africa. It is, without question, incredibly annoying to listen to, a sound that is not unlike having your teeth drilled for 90 minutes. That said, this is South Africa's Cup, so let the trumpets play! Every World Cup has a story, and this time, the story will be how many people are driven into fits of rage and despair by the sound of World Cup 2010. You can find the story of the horn here...
Turn It Up, Man!
...and you can even download the iVuvuzela to your iPhone or iPad for free, allowing you the opportunity to annoy the living shit out of your friends and fellow supporters as you watch the World Cup in the comfort of wherever it is you watch televised sporting events.
Let's Make Some Noise!
As you might imagine, there is an entire community of football fans who love discussing, buying and wearing the various shirts (uniforms) of the teams they admire. While every World Cup brings a new batch of players and renews the hopes and dreams of nations around the world, it also features a new batch of football shirts that are the source of endless discussion. I myself am not a huge shirt buyer; I have a few Liverpool kits and one old Team USA Away kit (which I don't like very much), but I am a person who likes my kits very, very simple. So, for me, the New Zealand away kit (all black, of course), the Ghana home shirt (the only Puma kit I like this year), the France away shirt and the unwaveringly great Argentina home shirt are my personal favorites, while France's home shirt (fake abdominal lines) the Ivory Coast away kit (hoops and a solid shoulder), the Slovenia home and away kit (simple and kind of interesting, but a little too Charlie Brown for me) rank near the bottom. Big loser? Puma's Africa Unity Shirt, a nice sentiment, but a shirt which was designed to look like an African plain at midday and ends up looking like an airbrushed knockoff of an animation cell from The Lion King. This is the official third kit for all African nations, which only makes me thankful I don't play football for Nigeria. Which kits are your favorites?
The High: Is There A Better Shirt Than Argentina's Masterpiece?
The Low: The Africa Unity Shirt Is Not My Cup Of Tea
The Golden Boot
Each Tournament, whether it be The World Cup or The Gold Cup, awards The Golden Boot to the player who scores the most goals. The all-time scorer? Just Fonatine, a Frenchman who put in 13 goals in in six matches during the Sweden World Cup of 1958; it is one of the all-time records that may never be broken (despite the fact that modern players have an extra round, seven in all, if they make it to the third place game or final). 2006's winner, Miroslav Klose of
Poland Germany, scored five. This year, with the Group stages featuring some real mismatches, offers an opportunity for a few players to push for the Boot, but with modern international football matches played so close to the vest, with relative parity among the top teams and with teams featuring so many players capable of scoring goals, it seems unlikely that Fontaine's record will come under threat.
Who can make the push to win the Boot this year? For me, three players stand out; The Netherlands' Robin van Persie, who has been absolutely on fire in the run up to the Cup, Spain's David Villa who, despite playing on a team of players who score goals, leads the front line as a poacher who can bag a goal from anywhere on the pitch, and Brazil's Luis Fabiano, a player whose team is likely to go deep into the tournament and whose first round match against North Korea offers a confidence-building opportunity to get on the sheet early and often. The main issue with each of these players is the fact that their teams are absolutely loaded with goal scorers, so I am sure Just Fonatine's record remains safe, but I wouldn't be surprised to see van Persie coming out of the Group stages with the lead, only to fade late, allowing Villa and Fabiano to slug it out. Despite a challenge from his own teammate Robinho, who never saw a ball he didn't want to score himself, I'm tipping Fabiano to win the Boot in the Final.
Luis Fabiano Leads the Line For Brazil
Why are Messi, Rooney and Ronaldo not listed here? Quite simply, I have seen nothing from them at the international level that indicates to me that they will threaten to the in-form strikers who seem to always shine when putting on their nation's shirt. These three players are always in the conversation at club level, but none of them have done anything in Qualifying or in their respective tune-ups to show me that they deserve to be in the conversation. That said, I am more than ready to be surprised. You can find a list of past World Cup Golden Boot Winners here.
The Golden Ball
While The Golden Boot rewards goalscorers, The Golden Ball rewards the best player. Football is a difficult sport to gauge in this regard; you can be the best Defensive Midfielder in the world or the best Center Back, but your work is often unappreciated because interest in the game is built around creative attackers and scoring goals. In 2002, when goalie Oliver Khan won the award, it was bizarre; while his team lost 2-0 to Ronaldo's Brazil team in the Final, who got the feeling he was in the form of his life and had got Germany into the final (mostly by single-handedly stoning the USA's Landon Donovan on several breakaway chances in the quarterfinals). So, who will be the player of the Tournament? It is hard to bet against Kaka and even though he struggled for Real Madrid this past year, he never struggles playing for Brazil; he is the engine of the top-ranked team in the world, and it is difficult to imagine he won't be in the conversation. Same goes for Xavi of Spain; the heartbeat of the European champions, Xavi is healthy (unlike Andres Iniesta, who is coming off of an injury and was taken off "as a precaution" in Spain's 6-0 dismantling of Poland this week) and has to be one of the top candidates to win it. Wesley Sneijder of The Netherlands is another player who I think has a chance; if the Dutch go deep, it will be because Sneijder pulled the strings and got them there. But of all the players who could rise up and get it done, I have to tip Lionel Messi of Argentina as a player who could rise to the occasion. He is an unbelievable player and he is being handed the keys to an Argentina team that features a galaxy of goal scoring titans. If Messi can lead Argentina deep into the tournament, his name could be etched onto the Golden Ball. That said, it's Kaka for me.
Well, it’s come down to this, hasn’t it? I have to put my blowhard talk on the line and make a guess as to who will lift the Cup. I am divided on this one; assuming things go according to the script, this is a very tough decision. My heart tells me Spain is the best team in the Tournament, but I think their draw is too tough in the knockout stages to go all the way. My head tells me Brazil, as they are in the (potentially) easier half of the knockout phase and are a top team who have found a new identity under manager Dunga. My wild card? Argentina. If they can somehow get it together, they can be a wrecking ball that wins it all. But can Maradona do it? I know I wouldn't hand the team to him. I look at the names up top : Aguero, Tevez, Milito, Messi, Higuain and I think to myself that they win every match. But I just can't make the call on Argentina to win it; the risk with Maradona is too high for me. My dark horse is The Netherlands who, if they can get Robben back in time for the knockout stages, are as dangerous as any team in the tournament and could see themselves in the Final where anything can happen.
Final Call: It’s tough, but I have to go with a Brazil vs Spain Final, with Brazil lifting a record sixth World Cup in a 3-2 victory.
Can Brazil Win It Again?
The comments section is open; You've got 24 hours to go on the record and make your picks. Get in while the in is gettable.
I hope to be offering updates during the Cup itself, and while it won't be with the depth and perhaps frequency of these previews (I'll be too wrapped up in the games!), please check back for analysis of the Tournament as it progresses. Enjoy the show and may the best team win!