Wednesday, June 21, 2006

World Cup stuff

I'll have a recap of my predictions maybe Friday after the first round. Still feeling OK about the picks though. My Semifinalists are still all a possibility. I'm still high on Ukraine - their path to the semis might end up easier than anyone's - but look out for Italy out of that segment too, if they get past tomorrow.

Tomorrow's matches are pretty damn interesting, even without the local draw. Italy knows they'd advance with a draw, but doing that risks putting them up against Brazil and in one of the toughest routes to the semis. Meanwhile, a win by Italy puts them up against either Croatia or Australia and with one of the easiest routes to the semis. The Czechs know they need a win. Ghana know they advance with a win, but are playing without two good scorers. The USA still haven't scored on their own, but I'm not counting them out. I'd love the US to advance just to fire up people, but really advancing only means an asswhipping by Brazil. In a way, I almost think that a solid win tomorrow by the USA but not advancing might be the best thing for soccer over here. Might leave us on a high note, instead of a low one. And I don't just say it because it'd make my predictions look awesome. I'd much rather be wrong than right when it comes to teams I root for, because I usually predict pessimistically.

But Group E might not be the nuttiest group. I think Group G takes that crown. There are multiple, reasonable scenarios where lots may have to be drawn to decide who advances. Also, I've spend an asston of time looking at it, and I think I can figure out the tiebreakers in a way that picks the two teams to advance, but I'm not sure the tiebreaker rules clearly dictate exactly who would finish first or second. I'm not making much sense here... I went into more detail in comments at Braves & Birds. What I mean is that when there are three teams tied for two slots, I think I can figure out how to select the two teams to advance, but I'm not sure which one tops the group of those two (is it the first won out of the three selected to advance or once you've figured out the top two do you re-do the tiebreaker analysis? Rules aren't clear...). Anyway, this group is all screwed up if the Koreans and Swiss draw. So I'm definitely pulling for that to happen.

The ball is definitely screwing with keepers. Definitely. If you don't believe me, watch Rebrov or Joe Cole's reactions after their 25+ yard strikes the other day in the Ukraine and England matches respectively. Both looked absolutely stunned that the ball actually went in.

Owen... that just sucks. Play Gerrard in a 4-4-1-1. Others have said it, but damn I'd be pissed were I Defoe or Jenas or whoever else.

And speaking of players left home, Fifa has a choice to make. Do they want to continue to instruct the officials to book someone every damn minute, or do they want to keep the size of the rosters the same? Seems to me that with cards being dealt the way they've been some team might end up having to start a match in the knockout stage with only 8 or 9 men. 9 cards were handed out in the Cote d'Ivoire-Serbia match today. 9 cards! In a match that meant nothing in terms of progression! And the referee didn't card the Serbian who handled the ball on the last Cote d'Ivoire goal.

One other thing that's been bugging me: the second equalizer in the Sweden-England game. I watched every replay at least 10 times, and I cannot spot where Larsson touches the ball (he claims it). In fact, I can't see where anyone touches the ball after the throw in. If nobody else touches the ball, that's not a goal. Even if it was incredibly embarrassing defense by Robinson (and everyone else). Did I miss a good angle? Haven't seen anyone in the English press bitching about this either. Guess it didn't matter all that much, but it's bothering me.

One of the big misses I had for predictions was Iran, but I stand by everything I wrote about Mexico. They suck. If CONCACAF is going to get a #1 seed in South Africa (and I'm not sure it should), that seed should be USA's.

A little more on the USA... I think the players who have played the best for the USA have been Onyewu, Reyna, Mastroeni (grumbling about the card and suspension), and to my surprise, Dempsey. I think he'd find a home in a lot of European leagues. Least impressed with McBride, Pope (grumbling significantly less about the card and suspension), and Convey. Don't know what USA will do about Essien, but I'm damn glad Gyan isn't playing. Dude was everywhere against the Czechs. He should not be playing in Serie B.

All right. That's enough. There's college football below, but I don't know if anyone who'd want to read that will get even this far.

Come on USA! Forza Italia!


Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

So there's some news out today that the BCS will be releasing its rankings on Sunday now instead of Monday. Another terrible idea from the morons who run the BCS.

I've written before that I'm no fan of polls in general, but they aren't going anywhere (at least for the next decade or so until there's another TV contract). So the goal for everyone should be to make the polls better - more reliable, more reasonable, more informed. Not among those things that make polls better is speed of release.

Yes, we're an instant culture. We like our news fast, even if it's incorrect. We like our food served before the drive thru window clock hits 60, even if that means the Whopper is microwaved and the bun tastes like a wet sponge. Football is no different. We like our recruits VHT and starting early, even if that means supplanting an all-conference starter. We like our coaches performing, even if they aren't even starting their own recruits. And yes, when we all wake up Sunday mornings, we all kind of like finding out how many spots up in the polls our favorite teams have moved, even before we've scanned the ticker for the results of the late games.

But faster isn't better on polls. In fact, it's much much much much much worse.

Polls are flawed in a bunch of ways. The two BCS polls are, in a least offensive way possible, a total freaking joke. The Coaches' Poll is composed of individual voters which (1) have financial incentives to vote particular ways; (2) have personal and professional relationships (good and bad) with coaches on other teams; (3) have personal biases in favor of particular schools and conferences; (4) are not equally distributed throughout the nation in terms of geography, conference, size of program; and (5) HAVE A FREAKING JOB TO DO ON SATURDAY THAT PREVENTS THEM FROM WATCHING THE GAMES! Seriously. Coaches go from preparations for their games, to coaching the games, to a series of press conferences and interviews, to the filming of the coach's show, to reviewing film of the game, to the hospital or training room to check up on injured players, to preparations for the next week's game, etc. Coaches have little time to check the ticker for the other games, let alone actually watch enough of them to have an informed opinion on 25+ teams in the nation. We all know some guy in the SID office is filling out the poll instead, but THOSE GUYS ARE WORKING ON SATURDAYS TOO! They're on the field, in the press box, or running logistics for the team. They're not watching many games either. And the Coaches' Poll doesn't seem to want them to actually watch games. The Harris Poll is not really very different. Voters in that poll are often active fundraisers for programs, former legends from programs, and sometimes recently or currently employed by programs they're supposed to be voting on. They have the same biases (or worse) as the coaches. Maybe Harris Poll voters might have more time to watch games than the coaches, but does anyone think that these guys are actually watching 40-50 games every weekend? These guys are legends for programs and often still closely aligned. They're going to the games for their schools. There's no doubt in my mind that the coaches and the Harris voters are doing very very little personal review of games. Maybe they scanned the newspaper or caught GameDay Final and saw highlights of the last week's Top 25. They were not watching the games.

And thanks to today's news, voters can watch even less.

See, if the BCS cared about getting polls right - and having their voters actually informed, they'd delay the rankings' release, not bring it out earlier. Well, first, they'd remove any voters who can't watch the games. But if they even wanted to maintain the illusion that voters might actually spend some time watching games, they'd hold off for a few days. Maybe let the voters watch tapes of the games, or read an article about them. Or even see extended highlights. Or let them even go to sleep and wake up and watch SportsCenter on Sunday. As is now, the polls are due early Sunday morning, released by mid-afternoon. No time whatsoever to watch even a couple of games if you have something else to do on Saturday.

And anyway, what's the rush? As long as the BCS comes out before the next week's games, maybe before Thursday, what difference does it make? Why do we want to see the polls come out before the NFL games? I for one would prefer to have these polls, which affect bowl selections and the conferring of titles (unfortunately), actually based on some research. Maybe if the voters had the ability and time to watch some other games, the flaws in some teams might be spotted. Or the teams that weren't pegged pre-season but have come out playing great might be spotted and ranked early enough to make a difference come the end of the season.

I just don't get the rush. I prefer quality to speed when it comes to this. Of course, I prefer scrapping the whole system of crowning a champion via a biased, underinformed oligarchy. So maybe I'm crazy.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Copa Mundial

A few thoughts, shotgun style...

1) Yesterday's Argentina-Serbia match... well, put it this way, if they played like that during my formative years (and didn't resemble a 4 year old tumbling class), I'd probably be a huge fan of theirs. The best performance of the tournament, and one that I don't think can be topped by anyone. I mean, with Messi and Tevez making plays like that, why not go with a 4-2-4? The second goal might've topped the fourth Spain goal against Ukraine (my favorite series of the cup so far). And as for a 1-on-1, nobody has done better than Tevez did with his goal.

2) Seems like the bitching about the ball by keepers before the cup might've had some merit. Maybe it's just me, but I feel like there are a lot more goals this time around that are 20-25 yard strikes bending one way or another. Off the top of my head... Kaka's against Croatia, Cahill's second against Japan, Frings and Lahm's against Costa Rica, Rosicky's against the US, Gerrard against T&T, one of the Dutch goals yesterday, and I know there were a couple others. It also might have something to do with bigger/stronger/faster defenders, or a tactical decision by several teams to pull the back line in a little more, leaving some room to move just outside the box.

3) Don't feel good about the USA's chances today. I think the Czech match went about as bad as it could've, and I don't think the Americans are going to give up completely. But I'm getting a feeling about this Italian team, like they are circling the wagons and playing "us against the world" style. In fact, I have a feeling like Italy might make a run to the finals, and even win it all.

4) The Ukraine result might be the worst possible result for Spain. Overconfidence is not their friend.

5) England need to get Crouch off the field. Not because he's played poorly, and he really hasn't played all that badly, but because the rest of the team doesn't know what to do with him. Beckham, Lampard, Owen and J. Cole... they don't play on their respective clubs with a player like Crouch, and having a weapon like him out there in a way forces them to play a different way from how they normally would. There's no focus on through balls or even runs off the offside trap. So there's just long balls and crosses, which gives you a few good chances, but it's not what England are capable of. Rooney and Owen need to find the field at the same time. At the same time, though, I don't think England have played their best game, but mostly because of the opposition. Paraguay and T&T were both unable to do anything to get the ball forward, and it seemed like much of both games were spent with 11 of England's opponents in the box, against 7 or 8 English players trying to do something - and the numbers seem to make for plenty of chances, but not too many good chances. I expect England to play a much better match against Sweden, mainly because Sweden is a better opponent and capable of actually getting the ball forward, which should allow for a little more room for England to set up and organize plays.

6) Best players I've seen so far: Robben, Van Persie, Riquelme, Puyol, David Villa, Kaka, Abbondanzieri, Hislop, Messi/Tevez (incomplete, but awesome), Rosicky.

7) Worst team likely to advance: South Korea. The Swiss control their own destiny (same as France), but those 3 points at the top might be hard to overcome, especially since I expect Togo to play a bit better than in the opener, considering all the controversy.

8) Best team not likely to advance: Cote d'Ivoire played really well against the Dutch and the Argentines. Tough group.

9) Teams that have no points but I wouldn't be surprised if they still advanced: Ukraine are my dogs, and I haven't given up on them yet. They ran into a buzzsaw against Spain. I think they'll get full points in both their next two matches. Also, Croatia played pretty damn well against Brazil. I wouldn't be surprised if they topped Japan and Australia.

Go USA! Go Ghana! Let's make Group E screwed up as hell.


Monday, June 12, 2006

A little remainder or reminder

I think a lot of the readers started visiting this site because I wrote about college football. Wow. Those were the days. I still post a comment or two other places, but I haven't been writing too much myself, being all involved in the World Cup and stuff. But I still do think about college football a lot and I'm actually starting to get excited about the coming season.

Anyway, the other day, or maybe a week ago or something, I was trying to kill a ton of brain cells in the most efficient manner. I thought about drinking heavily, or huffing gas, or reading Jenn Sterger's advice column. Then I spotted the perfect form of moronic, drooling, javelin-through-the-stem-brain-killing writing.

Beano Cook's column on Florida and Notre Dame. ($$$)

If you want the type of analysis that your 12 year old nephew thought was lame 4 months ago when it was at least timely, this has it (paraphrased to avoid the ESPN lawyers...):

- Larry Coker might be in trouble! He sure had to fire some people!
- FSU fans are mad that Florida has recruited well!
- Virginia assistants sure are getting head coaching jobs!

Really astute. And way ahead of the game! The kind of stuff people should be paying for.

If you want statements without any factual support or even elaborated opinion, this is it:

- Notre Dame hasn't been unsuccessful recently, but it's not because of high academic requirements, it's... uhhh... uhhh... Let's talk about how Urban Meyer made a bad choice to go to Florida instead!

And yes, that's pretty much how the piece goes. He says that Florida has a much tougher schedule than Notre Dame, and because of that, Notre Dame is better. In a way, it's kind of refreshing. Instead of the typical "my skool rulz, UR skool sked'z pusssseeeeeeee!!!11!!1!", here's a pundit that's not afraid to admit it: a weak schedule is totally awesome and should be the goal of every team that wants to win the national championship.

Then Beano knocks Purdue and Navy by grouping those teams that have actually won bowl games this millennium (unlike the Irish) with Stanford, Army and Air Force. And he suggests that the Irish wouldn't think about recruiting anyone on any of those teams.

If you thought Florida was getting off easy and avoiding the BeanoCrazy, you were wrong. Again, paraphrasing: "Florida is playing a tougher schedule than many NFL teams." Yes. He said it. I've written before that anyone who tries so suggest a college team and a pro team are in any manner similar should never be allowed to write again, and indeed, should never be trusted. Beano, congratulations. You can finally retire. And if you didn't get the point his first time through, Beano repeats it at the end, saying, "If Florida goes undefeated through that slate, they're as good as the best NFL teams." Evidently, the brains Beano once had have gotten lost in his enormous enormous jowls.

But picking on the elderly, however fun, isn't exactly intellectually stimulating (feel free to quote me on that one). Let me take the bait and actually address Beano's arguments, or at least what I can decipher of them...

Basically Notre Dame is planning on playing an easier schedule than in the past, and since Notre Dame rulzrulzrulzrulz, they'll definitely recruit the best players ever (and even if they don't Tom Lemming will say they did). Meanwhile Florida is playing tough opponents, which they just can't beat no matter what. And because of this, Notre Dame is a better job than Florida and Urban Meyer was a fool for passing on the most awesome place ever.

Or something like that. Is Notre Dame playing a tougher schedule than Florida? Well, maybe, maybe not. I guess we won't know until we see how good other teams are. Last year Notre Dame's schedule sure looked tough, but then Tennessee sucked monkey balls, Purdue fell apart, Pitt was stachetacularly bad. Looking back, Notre Dame's best win might've been over Navy. Great. But who knows, this coming year might be really tough.

Beano kind of picks at the Irish for playing 7 home games, 4 road games and one "neutral site" game where the Irish would have tons more fans. This is the one part of the piece I kind of agree with. Kind of because I don't care all that much. But it is something many CFB bloggers care a lot about, that whole playing home games = pussing out. I think CFR has mentioned this with some consternation, but I'm too lazy to hunt in his archives right now. I think I'm on record saying major college football programs under a 12 game season should play 7 home games one year, 6 the next. I think it's a reasonable proposition. That means one year your team would have 3 home OOC games, the next only 2. Teams that go for 7 home games every year should have some kind of an obligation to play at least one good opponent every year, ideally in a home-home situation. Teams that have 8 home games should be pointed out and semi-shamed. They are showing greed, which might be good for their program, but bad for all of college football. I think Alabama is doing this this coming season, and I know South Carolina did it the last time there was a 12 game season. But here we have Notre Dame basically announcing that they plan on doing just that for the foreseeable future. This is not a good sign for college football, and for the teams that want to play on a level economic playing field with the Irish. So, I kind of agree with Beano, if that's what he's saying. He doesn't really come out and say that.

One last thing I wanted to take issue with... Beano says that USC is a tougher opponent through the years than anyone on Florida's schedule. Is that true? I'm a little reluctant to think so. Maybe through the last three years, but surely Beano knows that football didn't begin in 2002. Beano writes that USC is tougher than ANYONE on Florida's schedule in ANY given year. Well, let's look back...

2005: USC was better than anyone on Florida's schedule.
2004: USC was better than anyone on Florida's schedule.
2003: Arguably, Florida played a team better than USC - LSU, the BCS champ, whom Florida beat.
2002: Florida played two teams ranked higher than USC in the final poll: Miami (who beat Florida) and Georgia (whom Florida beat).
2001: Uhhh... USC wasn't ranked in the final poll. Florida played 5 Top 25 teams.
2000: Again, USC wasn't ranked in the final poll. Florida played 9 games against teams ranked in the final Top 25 (9 GAMES!!!!)
1999: USC wasn't ranked in the final poll. Florida played 6 games against teams ranked in the final Top 25 (including the national champ - FSU).
1998: USC wasn't ranked in the final poll. Florida played 4 games against teams ranked in the final Top 25 (including the national champ - Tennessee).
1997: USC wasn't ranked in the final poll. Florida played 7 games against teams ranked in the final Top 25.
1996: USC wasn't ranked in the final poll. Florida, the national champs that year, played 6 games against teams ranked in the final poll.

That's the last 10 years, which go 7-2-1 in favor of Florida's toughest opponents. I can go back further, but I'd rather sleep. Taking Beano at his word, that USC is a tougher opponent for ND in any given year than anyone on Florida's schedule, he is, simply, full of shit. Over the last ten years, USC has been better than anyone on Florida's schedule exactly twice (with a push one other time). Meanwhile, in 5 of those years, USC wouldn't even have been in the tougher HALF of Florida's games. Yes, USC has been great the last few years. USC has a great tradition and history, and there's no doubt that they are a tough opponent for Notre Dame. But good Lord that's some unfortunate hyperbole, and denigrates Florida's schedule while he's at it.

And while I'm at it, why not mention Beano's aside about Notre Dame scheduling Michigan State. Beano's trying to smooth out his criticism of Notre Dame's recent scheduling by talking about how Notre Dame once scheduled games against the toughest of them all, specifically Michigan State, doing what Michigan and others wouldn't do. But that was in the 1940s! I'm sure there's got to be a better example in the oh... last 65 years or so. In fact, off the top of my head I'll give him one: In 1993, the Irish played the champions of the Pac-10, Southwest Conference, ACC, and Western Athletic conference, beating them all. That's playing a tough schedule.

So I guess to boil everything down to bare bones, and put words that make more sense into Beano's writing, I guess what he's trying to say is that Notre Dame is starting to schedule weaker, which we shouldn't hold against them, and because of that it'll be easier to win a national title there than at Florida. Seems like not much to say here. But instead I'll say (a) I have no problem holding the weaker schedule against Notre Dame; (b) because a team plays a weaker schedule, that should make it more difficult to win a national title, as voters should discount wins over inferior opponents; (c) Beano is 100% complicit, along with much of the media in making Notre Dame an easier place to win a national title, due to the overwhelming saturation coverage Notre Dame receives, unlike any other program. If Beano's buried thesis is that Notre Dame is an easy place to win a national title, I'll agree, because of columns like this that push the storyline months and months in advance.


Quote of the night

Tina on Real World/Road Rules Challenge tonight, with the sense of "respect me", and without the slightest hint of irony or, I don't know, shame:

"We've. Been. Doing. This. Shit. For. Years."



Luckily I was prepared for a pride obliterating bitchslap

Yeah... the US got pretty much worked. Not much more to say. Well, I guess I could add that thanks to the Italy win and the goal differentials, the USA pretty much needs two wins. I predicted that, but I also thought that the defense would be decent, and that the wingers would have some ability at all. I really was most down on Convey and Beasley. And if EJ doesn't start against Italy, Arena should just go ahead and follow the coach of Togo's lead. And I can't leave out a tip of the hat to Rosicky. Kanu, the Goooooners got them a good one.

On some other cup notes, those last 10 minutes of the Japan-Australia match were awesome. The best goals of the cup have been Rosicky's first for the Czechs, Cahill's second for the Aussies, and best of all, Frings for Germany. The most exciting matches were Germany-Costa Rica, Japan-Australia and Sweden-T&T (probably the most exciting match of them all. The most boring match was England-Paraguay.

I still feel OK about my predictions, but England have to become a completely different team over the next three weeks in order to keep advancing. Lucky for them, they have a few pretty easy games to work out the problems.

No big surprises just yet (T&T was kind of an upset, but they still aren't in a position to advance). This may end up the cup that goes to form, unlike the last several major competitions.


Saturday, June 10, 2006

World Cup U[pd]ate

Well, I picked Germany to win by two, but I was way off on Poland. I still don't think Ecuador have enough to advance. And two goals against Germany are as good as could be expected for the Ticos. I think today's results actually are very favorable for Germany and for Costa Rica.

But that's just me patting myself on the back...

The truth is that Germany was kicking the ever living shit out of Costa Rica, but they still gave up two to Wanchope. Watching the match, I couldn't believe Germany didn't win by 4. They owned the midfield and dominated the attacking side of the field. The second goal was obviously offside, so the Ticos have to be happy with the result. It really could've been worse.

Poland has to be disappointed. And I don't have much more to say than that.


Friday, June 09, 2006

World Cup Predictions Thread

Here are my picks for today:

Germany 2, Costa Rica 0

Poland 1, Ecuador 0

Who ya got?


Regular Blogging Resumes This Weekend

In hindsight, the Cup preview might've been too ambitious for a lazy, blog-when-I-can guy like me.

Anyway, I'll be back to normal this weekend, with stuff about movies, baseball, mustaches, and college football.

But I won't forget about the World Cup, I just won't be writing 45,000 words about it.


Thursday, June 08, 2006

#1: Three Lions


Where? Southern two-thirds of the island of Britannia, off the Northwestern coast of Europe.

How big? Not that big. About the size of Nicaragua, smaller than Georgia. Population is quite dense, more than twice the size of Texas.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook? Actually, England doesn't have an entry in the factbook, since it is only part of the United Kingdom. Something interesting about the UK is that its North Sea oil rigs are responsible for more than half of the proven oil reserves in all of the European Union.

Geopolitical significance? While the days of the British Empire are surely over, and the sun does indeed set on the Queen's realm, England is still one of the world's most important nations. England has a strong economy, a powerful military, and a culture that has been exported to other nations almost as much as America.

Fun? Yes. England is one of 4 countries in the Cup I have visited. I indeed had fun there. Something fun is the student newspaper/gossip rag/humor magazine at my English Alma Mater, Jesus College, Oxford. The name of the magazine is The Sheepshagger, in reference to the college's Welsh history. I therefore am a sheepshagger, and proud of it. And for those in the know, the B'stard's back, indeed.


Arguably, England is the birthplace of modern soccer. The rules were set in the 19th century by the Football Association. England played in the first international match in history, a draw against Scotland. In the days before the World Cup, England was one of the best teams in the world. Disputes between FIFA and England led the FA to not participate in the World Cups before WWII. This snub may have bitten them back, when England suffered possibly the most embarassing loss in its history at the first World Cup it entered, a 1-0 loss to an amateur USA side, and one that contributed to England not advancing past the first round. Three times England hasn't qualified for the Cup, but since 1958, whenever England has qualified, they've advanced. They've made the quarterfinals seven times, the semis twice, and were champions of the world in 1966 at home.

Qualifying this time and the draw have been good to England. Almost too good. Poland was the only respectable opponent in qualifying, and both teams ended up qualifying without even going into the playoffs. England were seeded, and the draw placed them in probably the lightest of all groups.

The team itself is strong, though not as strong as you'd think for a team I picked to win the Cup. There are definite weaknesses. primarily at keeper and up front. Les Robinson is by no means a top class keeper, and the backups frighten fans. Up front Owen will likely end up the all time leading scorer in England history, but he's been gimpy over the last year or so. Wayne Rooney is England's best pure scorer, but his injured foot has everyone worried. The defense and the midfield, however, are among the world's best, in my opinion. Lampard is as impressive a midfielder as I've seen recently. John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, and possibly the best left back on the planet, Ashley Cole make up a back line that everyone should have trouble getting past, and should help Robinson greatly. David Beckham gets a lot of the press, and he's probably so overhyped that he's now underrated from the backlash of his overrated-ness. (That make sense?)

But the one player to watch is Steven Gerrard. He can score from all over. He can set up plays and bring people involved. And most importantly, he elevates his game when they need him to. He is England's best player, in my opinion. As I wrote above, England's draw is favorable, and the timing of the matches may help them even more, since their toughest match is third, after they may have already clinched advancement.

The opener is Paraguay, a sneaky team but one that too many people are thinking can scare England. Paraguay has been suffering from injuries as problematic as England, but Paraguay doesn't have the talent England has in its back 8 or 9. I don't know if Rooney really will be ready Saturday, but I have a good feeling Paraguay won't score. A 1-0 win for England is a solid result.

Trinidad and Tobago are next. This isn't a fair fight. England definitely have figured out how they want to play, and three goals later, the match is over and they've booked their place in the next round.

The last match against Sweden is simply for first or second. England rests some of the injured players and focuses on defense, and so does Sweden. Each team scores and it's a draw 1-1. Here's where my preview gets screwed up: I picked England and Sweden to finish with the same record, same goal differential, same total goals. Not sure how I worked it out for England to win the group, but they do. The next round brings more luck to England, with Costa Rica advancing out of their easy group. England completely overpowers them and unleashes some offense nobody thought England would have. 4-0 England.

Finally, a tough match lines up opposite England, with Holland. The Dutch open the scoring and match up well with England. With time running out and another quarterfinal defeat looming over Britain, it's the perfect time for some magic. And there's one guy to do it. Gerrard scores with just minutes to go to send the match into extra time. Just minutes into that, Gerrard scores again. 2-1 England. Semifinalists.

Described this well yesterday, so I'll just copy it... Both teams have the appearance of a "team of destiny". Spain has one of the true stars of the tournament in Fernando Torres. England has had incredible play from the midfield and defense, and hasn't had the most difficult path either. This match starts with slow, physical play. Despite the play of both teams up to this point, neither team puts together successful scoring opportunities. The game gets bogged down in the midfield for most of the time. A few England chances are saved by Casillas, and Spain flubs the few chances they have. Extra time ends with no goals for either team. Penalties will decide the match, and one would think that Spain would have the edge with Casillas in goal. Unfortunately, the Spanish shooters fall apart. Torres bags the first one, but Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia both fail to score. England scores the first three. Raul is up next, needing to score to keep Spain in it. Post. Noise. England are in the final.

The final. The match this has all been building toward. When picking the matches, I kept thinking to myself, what would make for the most interesting cup, within reason. I thought about the Netherlands and Brazil, and how fun that match could be to win. I thought about Germany and France, or Germany and Holland, or Germany and England (which would've been awesome too). But only one match kept coming to mind. Argentina and England. The Hand of God. Beckham's red card. Clash of styles. Argentina's speed on offense against the strength of the English defense. England's stoicism against Argentina's flair and flopping. In my own mind, this is the match to see. I'm writing the narrative here, so this is it.

Both teams start the game a little tentatively. It's been a long long time since either team made it this far, and both teams have the weight of massive expectations back home. The first half speeds by, but neither team breaks the goal. The second half is a different story. Both teams realize the moment and try to seize it. England scores first. Owen nets his fourth goal of the cup after a great cross from Lampard. But with 10 minutes to go, Crespo scores on a corner, equalizing and setting the stadium on fire. The final whistle blows and extra time is coming up. The first ten minutes pass with both teams pushing forward but neither going for the net. Some rough play shows up in the box, as both teams believe the ref won't settle this on a PK. Then, with a minute to go in the first extra time period, Gerrard gets the ball after Heinze can't clear. He sees an opening mere inches wide and shoots. Upper left corner. Netting catches the ball. Pandemonium. 2-1. Call him Sir Steven Gerrard. England are champions of the world. And they'll be bloody insufferable for the rest of my lifetime.

If the World Cup were March Madness, England would be... Obnoxious fans who don't seem to realize that the rest of the world doesn't think their team is all that great. Living on old time memories. One ridiculous scandal after another. Some craziness about having a coach with loyalty to the program. Hell, a lot of the players even look similar. England is Indiana. But this year they make a run.

They won't be lifting Gerrard on their shoulders, they'll all be walking on air that high.


#2: Albicelestes


Where? Southeast South America. The most southern team in the Cup.

How big? Very big. The 8th largest nation on earth. About a third the size of the USA. Population is about the size of Spain, a little bigger than California.

Something I learned from the CIA factbook? Crazy economic fluctuations in the early 2000s screwed things up a lot, but now the economy is growing at superhot pace. GDP growth is the highest of any country in the Cup. Industrial production growth is second highest of any in the Cup. But it's not all good news. Unemployment remains high, and inflation is among the highest in the world. It's also another country with a lot of airports. What's with all the airports in the western hemisphere?

Geopolitical significance? Argentina's domestic economic crises have drawn a lot of attention, but as for international significance, there's not much since the Falkland War in the 1980s. There are a surpising number of disputes with its neighbors. For whatever that's worth.

Fun? This is so weird. Argentina is apparently known as "the techno and eletronica capital of South America". The world record for the all time largest rave was the festival called Creamfields, held in Buenos Aires in 2005. Didn't know that. Also, the best movie I've seen all year was Argentinian - Nine Queens. It's great.


Argentina is one of the best teams in the world. Their tradition is among the best, with two World Cup titles (1978 and 1986) and two more finals appearances. Argentina has qualified for each of the last 9 World Cups, and only failing to advance once (last time around in 2002). Argentina is even better in the Copa America, where they are 14 time champions.

Argentina was a finalist in the very first World Cup, but arguably their emergence into the elite of world soccer didn't come until the late 1970s. And since then, many believe the talent has only improved. Argentinian players are among the best professionals in the world, and top European clubs fall over themselves trying to sign them. The Argentinian league is pretty good too, with two of the World's great clubs in Buenos Aires - Boca Juniors and River Plate.

Qualifying for 2006 Germany wasn't as easy as it has been in the past, but it was never really in doubt, either. Argentina ended up with the same number of points as Brazil, though they won one more game, but lost one more too. Argentina actually lost 3 of their last 5 matches in qualifying, when passage to Germany was pretty much assured already.

The roster, as usual, is loaded with plenty of talent. The largest number are based in Spain, but several also play in Italy, England, Brazil and home in Argentina. Many of the best players are hitting their prime, or on the way up. It's not an older team, and several of the players will have the opportunity to make names for themselves. The central defense is strong, and experienced with Gabriel Heinze and Roberto Ayala. The midfield is younger, but still talented. Aimar and Mascherano are pretty great. Riquelme is sublime. The real problem for Argentina will be finding room on the field for all the strikers, which I think may be even better than Brazil. Crespo is experienced and stellar, and Saviola is expected to get the initial start. But the two best players on the entire roster may be initially left on the bench, though not for long. The young studs: Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez. Both could become superstars in Germany.

The group draw wasn't especially good for Argentina. I think theirs is the most difficult, since Holland is probably as good as most seeded teams, and Yugoslavia and Cote d'Ivoire both could stun people. The last thing Argentina would want to do is bow out early, considering their exit in 2002.

The opener is Cote d'Ivoire. I think Argentina starts out tepid, and only ventures forward after Drogba nets one. In the second half things get started with a PK. Then late Crespo (not Veron) scores the go-ahead, which is probably an undeserved win. 2-1 Argentina.

Argentina wants to win the second match most of all, probably, so they do not need a good result against the Netherlands. Crespo and Riquelme take advantage of a tired and beaten up Serb team. 2-0 Argentina.

The match against the Netherlands is academic for Argentina, since they've already clinched advancing (and all that's needed is a draw to seal the top spot. Argentina plays Messi and Tevez, and it works out for them, as Messi gets behind the defense and scores in the first half to go up 1-0. Argentina slows it down after that and holds on for the win.

Winning the group brings Argentina Iran in the second round. Iran is simply outclassed by a significant margin. Crespo scores, then Tevez. Then Riquelme, then Tevez again. 4-0.

The quarterfinal against Germany is one of the best games in the entire Cup. Argentina opens the scoring early, but Germany responds with two of their own. Late in the game, substitute Messi takes matters into his own hands and nets the equalizer. Extra time goes scoreless, and penalty kicks are the decider. Argentina's class scorers take care of business, while Germany's first three shooters crumble with the weight of the country on their shoulders. Argentina is in the Semis.

The luck of the draw brings Cup darlings Ukraine. I think a surprise team will make the Semis, but they won't get past here. Voronin scores the opener after Argentina directs their energy on Shevchenko. Tevez scores right back though, and then Argentina goes ahead late in the first half. The second half is a tough, defensive battle. Ukraine can't find the net again. 2-1 Argentina and they're in the Final against England, naturally.

I'll describe the final above.

The result of this Cup is a return to dominance for Argentina, though the final might sting. The young players do arrive on the scene and take over games at times. Argentina will be the prohibitive favorite in South Africa in 2010.

I've tried to write fairly about Argentina so far, but here's where I can go no further. They are my least favorite team in the world. They have all the talent in the world, but all the arrogance to go with it. And they really haven't done much of anything since Maradona was on the roster. They're always listed among the favorites, but their style of play always annoys me. No team, not a single one, relies on feinting fouls as much as Argentina. A ball played into the box will result in a forward on the ground three times as likely as a shot. Just poor. Nobody works the refs like Argentina.

And on that note... if the World Cup were March Madness, Argentina would be... a team that really emerged in the 80's, is one of the best teams year in, year out. But also hasn't won a title in some time. And a team that almost everyone really really really dislikes. They whine, they flop, they bitch and moan. Do I need to spell it out for you? D-U-K-E.

Karma. It is, indeed, a bitch.


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

#3: Zbirna


Where? Eastern Europe, north of the Black Sea, South of Russia.

How Big? Big. The largest country in Europe after Russia. About the size of Texas. Population is large too, about twice the size of Texas.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook entry... Turns out I don't know my Ukrainian history very well. I didn't know that Ukraine has declared its independence from Soviet Russia not once, but twice, and they celebrate both days. The one most people know about was in 1991 after perestroika and the Communist regime fell apart. But the other one was way back in 1918, merely months after the October Revolution. Ukraine didn't have a very pleasant history prior to the Soviet revolution (and not really one after either). Portions of the area now known as Ukraine were controlled by Russia, Poland, Prussia, Austria and even Lithuania over time. During World War I, the western half of Ukraine was pretty much controlled by Austria-Hungary, while the eastern half was controlled by Russia. In the midst of the war and the Soviet Revolution, the Western Ukrainian states broke free from Austria-Hungary, and the Eastern Ukrainian states broke free from what was at the time Russia controlled by the Bolsheviks. The Western and Central Ukrainian states unified in 1920 for a short while, until Poland waged a war to take back Western Ukraine (and then the Soviets came in and took it back, and then all of Ukraine became a Soviet Socialist Republic and became part of the USSR). But they still celebrate that short "independence" period when Western and Central Ukraine were unified for like, a month. Something else is that 53% of the land is arable, the third highest percentage in the whole world (after Bangladesh and Moldova).

Geopolitical Significance? Ukraine is one of the most fertile nations on earth, and in the heyday of the USSR, Ukraine provided more than a fourth of the food for the rest of the nation. Ukraine also has a pretty advanced industry, at least in comparison to some other former Soviet republics. Ukraine is also the site of the world's worst nuclear power disaster, Chernobyl. In some ways, Ukraine could become a future power in Eastern Europe, but it's still a hard life there now.

Fun? It is pretty damn hard to find something fun about Ukraine. I mean, just about every search I do on Ukraine turns up loads of semi-disturbing websites on Ukrainian women taking their clothes off. I fear I'm going to get in trouble at home for this. There was this one website that had "fun facts" about Ukraine, but they were talking about wooden churches. It's like fun = boring. Anyway, I know a guy who used to be an accountant there in the early days of the country and he moved back to the USA with a cellar full of Ukrainian Cognac. That kind of brandy seems to be pretty stiff. OK. Poor job of this category.


Ukraine is a first time qualifier for the World Cup, but that understates Ukrainian footballing tradition. For many years, Ukrainian players were the basis of the Soviet Union national team, which occasionally played pretty well in the World Cup. In fact, some of the time the Dinamo Kyiv team made up nearly the starting XI of the USSR team. The 1982 and 1986 World Cup teams that advanced out of the first round were loaded with Ukrainian stars. And the most capped player in USSR history is Blohkin, the current manager of Ukraine. But technically, they're cup rookies, failing to qualify at the last possible moment (playoffs) in 1998 and 2002.

Further, Ukraine professional soccer has a hallowed history. The Ukrainian teams were frequently the best USSR teams, and one truly amazing story has its setting in Ukraine. During World War II, German troops formed a team and scheduled a series of games against Start, a team made up of former Dinamo Kyiv players. Start won the first game, the second, the third and every other one. Finally, the Germans had enough, took the Dinamo players to Babiy Yar and shot them all. Dinamo's stadium still has a memorial for the players, and some say the movie Victory was based in part on this.

This time around Ukraine was the first team from Europe (other than Germany as hosts) to qualify. And they did it in one of the most difficult qualifying groups, with Euro 2004 champs Greece, 2002 World Cup semifinalists Turkey, and frequent qualifier Denmark. A 6 match winning streak in the middle of the series put Ukraine in the pole position, and they sealed it with a draw in Georgia.

The roster is filled with players mostly based in Ukraine, but privatization money has actually made that league pretty solid, and not just Dinamo Kyiv (Dnipro and Shaktar both are solid). The most important name in Ukrainian football is Valeri Lobanovsky, the longtime manager for Dinamo Kyiv, USSR and Ukraine. It is Lobanovsky's style that has defined Ukrainian soccer for decades - harsh, disciplined, structured. Players were forced to play under a particular science. Each play was graded and players were punished or rewarded accordingly. The result was a methodical system that stifled improvisation and creativity, when over time Ukraine was known as "the Brazillians of the East". Since Lobanovsky's death in 2002, and even before then, Ukraine was getting back to the freedom and creativity that should bring them success. First and foremost to benefit from that is the star of the entire tournament, Andriy Shevchenko. Sheva, a young boy displaced by Chernobyl, joined the Dinamo development program at an early age and hasn't looked back since. His speed is excellent, but his nose for goal is even better. Yes, he's been injured the last month, but I think that's actually an advantage. So many of Europe's top players have been playing nonstop the last several years with clogged fixture calendars and qualifying. A little time out might be a good thing. Olympic swimmers do it; it's called tapering.

Every cup features one thing, it seems. An Eastern European team with a superstar that puts the team on his back and carries them to the semifinals. Think back... 2002 - Turkey. 1998 - Croatia and Davor Suker. 1994 - Romania and Hagi and Bulgaria and Stoichkov. 1990 - Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. 1982 - Poland. It's going to happen again. And the draw is perfect for that team to be Ukraine, and the player to carry them is Schevchenko.

The group isn't one of the tougher ones. Spain is good, but not unbeatable. The other two opponents could've been much worse.

The opener is against Spain. Sheva is a little rusty, but scores before getting subbed for in the second half. Spain equalizes, and the two best teams in the group draw, 1-1.

Saudi Arabia is the second opponent, and Ukraine plays a much more comfortable match. Shevchenko scores once and Voronin gets another. This could be an even worse match, as the Sauds do not normally play well against big European teams. 2-0.

A win or draw clinches advancement, and Tunisia is the opponent. Shevchenko really gets his act together, scoring two spectacular goals. He's got 4 in the group, among the best. 2-0, and Ukraine takes second in the group on differential.

The second place finish draws France in the first round. France is overconfident, Shevchenko is dominant. 2 goals in the first half stuns France, though Barthez could probably have been blamed for one of them. Henry gets one back, but too little, too late. Ukraine advance.

Italy is the opponent in the quarterfinals. And yes, I've predicted Sheva to have scored two goals in the last two games each. And this one too. Gilardino gets a nice one to placate Milan fans, but Ukraine shock people with another 2-1 victory.

The semifinals are much farther than anyone would have thought Ukraine would have gotten, and finally the luck runs out. Argentina finally figure out how to stop Shevchenko. Voronin scores the opener though. Tevez scores twice in the second half though to end the dream.

The third place match is fun for the Ukraine, because there is no shame in their loss to Argentina and the moment is still worth it, while Spain was hoping for more. Shevchenko scores one more, and Voronin gets another. Sheva wins the Golden Boot with 9 amazing goals.

Go against Ukraine at your own peril. But, yes, this is the best case scenario for them. Shevchenko is spectacular and he'll show it. Really, I'm making this pick because the same storylines seem to appear again and again in the World Cup. This seems like one that just fits.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Ukraine would be... George Mason, with one incredible scorer.

A poster for the match between Dinamo players and German soldiers, after which the players were executed. Now, Ukrainian soccer will get a true shot at glory, and it's in Germany. Feels like a great story there, doesn't it?


#4: La Furia Roja


Where? Southwestern Europe, the vast majority of the Iberian peninsula.

How Big? Pretty big for Europe. Bigger than California, smaller than Texas (about twice the size of Wyoming. Population is pretty big, about twice the size of Texas.

Something I learned from the CIA factbook... Spain has territories in Africa. I had no idea, but apparently Spain controls the semi-autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, both located along the northern coast of Morocco. They're both called autonomous territories, but there is some level of control from Madrid, and definitely not Morocco (who actually disputes their existence). I had no idea. Also, did you know that the Spanish Navy is still called the Armada Espanola? The Spanish Armada. Silly school textbooks, telling me that it was wiped out in 1588. Not so. It still exists.

Geopolitical significance? Though a little less so than Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy, Spain is still one of Europe's most important economies and population centers. The economy has been improving in recent years, though changes brought on by the new Zapatero government may alter the recent upswing (or improve it, who knows?). Similarly, the defeat of President Aznar by Zapatero in the election just after the terrible Madrid bombing led to withdraw of many Spanish troops from Iraq. And that Madrid bombing reminded everyone that Spain has faced international terrorism quite a bit in its history, with recent Islamic terrorism a problem (about 2.5% of the population is Muslim, most of any other religion after Catholics). But the Basque separatist movement in northern Spain was one of the deadliest separatist groups in Europe, with 800+ deaths in its history (though a recent ceasefire agreement may prove reason for optimism).

Fun? Most people know about the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and the throbbing club scene in Ibiza. And many of you might also know about Bunol, Spain, just outside of Valencia. On a Wednesday at the end of August, a ham is placed atop a greased flagpole. At 11:00 AM a crowd gathers and attempts to climb the pole and remove the ham. Bodies climb upon bodies to get it. Once the ham is removed from the pole, it begins. What is it? The world's largest tomato fight, the Tomatina. 240,000 pounds of tomatoes are trucked in for the fight. Stores board up windows. The rules are simple: throw tomatoes at other people. It is preferred that one smashes the tomato first, and please don't bring bottles or weapons. After a few hours of tomato fighting, a giant fire hose signals the end of the fight, and the beginning of the cleanup. Then there's a festival of the town's patron Saint. What's crazy is that this isn't an ancient medieval tradition that symbolized something about an evil lord refusing to allow his serfs to eat tomatoes or something. Nope, in fact it only started in 1944, or thereabouts. Some think it had something to do with protesting Franco, but others think it was just a prank that people bought into. Either way, it looks utterly ridiculous.


Spain is the world's worst choke artists in soccer. Unfulfilled promise describes them, in so many ways. They almost always qualify for major tournaments, but rarely advance far, despite being pegged by experts as favorites frequently. Though Spain may be home to the best professional league in the world, the national team has only once advanced past the quarterfinals of the World Cup - a fourth place finish in 1950(!!!). Some attribute the disappointments to cultural and political infighting. That might be reading too much into it, but there must be some reason for Spain's poor performances. The list is kind of disappointing. 11 Cups, 1 semifinal, 4 quarterfinals, 4 initial group eliminations. Sometimes luck has been against them, sometimes odd refereeing has played a role. But there really is no excuse for a country with that much footballing talent not to have a better record.

The good news is that Spain has recently been having some success at the Youth levels of football, winning the FIFA Youth World Championship (under 20) in 1999 and finishing second in 2003. The good news is that several of those players now are a part of the national team, and hitting their prime years (Casillas, Xavi, Marchena, Iniesta from 2003). The talent is there again. The question is whether they'll play with their hands around their necks.

Qualifying for this cup was made far more difficult than it probably should've been. It appears that Spain has difficulties with Balkan opponents. Spain drew the four matches with Serbia and Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Add a draw at Lithuania, and they ended up with 20 points on 10 games, placing them second behind Serbia and Montenegro. The good news was that Spain was the only team in all of qualifying to even score on Serbia. The second place group finish sent them to the playoffs against Slovakia. They won the opener at home in convincing fashion 5-1 with a hat trick from Luis Garcia, basically clinching a slot. The return in Slovakia was a draw, sealing it.

The club's talent on paper is beyond solid, but as always the doubts will come as to whether they can meet expectations. The right half of the back line is among the best in the world, with Salgado and Puyol. The left may be the pair of young defenders from Atletico Madrid - Ibanez and Lopez. Young and somewhat inexperienced, playing together on the club could make up for it though. Behind them is Iker Casillas, one of the better keepers in the world. The midfield is where the youth movement is really seen. Luis Garcia, 28 is the veteran of the group. Xavi, Xabi Alonzo and 19 year old Cesc Fabregas are all born in the 1980s and none have truly hit their prime yet. Each has the opportunity to make a great leap forward. Up front is Spain's most capped outfield player of all time, Raul. Raul hasn't led Real or Spain as well as many had hoped, but on a younger team like this one, some experience is necessary (and he still averages a goal every two games). Paired with him, and the one to watch for goals this time is Fernando Torres. I've got a good feeling about him and that he'll be one of the names people remember.

The opener could be Spain's toughest match of the entire cup - Ukraine. Obviously, since I haven't done the profile for Ukraine yet, I'm very high on them. I think Shevchenko's time off proves him to be a little rusty, and he's forced out as a sub early in the second half, but not before he nets a goal putting Ukraine up one. The defensive adjustment doesn't work, as Spain gets off shot after shot late, finally equalizing in the 85th minute with a goal by Torres. 1-1, neither team gets a leg up in winning the group.

For many Spanish fans, probably a draw in the first match is the best thing that could happen to them. A win could give too much confidence. A loss could crush their spirit. The draw makes them hungry. And they feast on Tunisia. Lemerre just doesn't have enough to work with, and the skill of the front 6 overwhelm them. Fabregas nets one and Torres gets two more, putting him in the running for the Golden Boot. 3-0 Spain.

Spain is rolling now, and Saudi Arabia is in the way. They know that goal differential will likely decide the group, so Spain pushes forward. Raul scores in the first half, and Torres scores his fourth of the first round. 2-0 Spain, and that last goal actually clinches the top of the group.

The round of 16 features a rematch of Spain's elimination in 2002, South Korea. In 2002, Spain was, in a word, bent over and violated by the officials when a Ruben Baraja goal was disallowed in the early second half for offsides, and then in extra time it got even worse when the linesman saw a phantom ball cross the touch line just before it was crossed in and scored by Morientes. It was an unconscionably bad call. The match remained scoreless and Korea won on penalties. This time around Spain is due some karma. Raul slips behind the defense (and he might have been offside), and nets an opener in the first half. Things get scary for Spain when Korea equalizes. But late in the game, with about five minutes to go, Torres scores a fantastic goal to push Spain on through. And people in Spain can breathe again.

The win over Korea unfortunately only leads to Brazil. But unlike most teams, Spain has a unique advantage against Brazil - knowledge. Many of the best Spaniards have played with or against some of the best Brazillians. Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Robinho all play with several of the Spaniards, and all of the Italian-based Brazillians have played top Spanish teams in the Champions' League on multiple occasions. The win over Korea in the last round didn't completely right the wrong from 2002, so luck is on Spain's side. Raul scores from the spot in the first half and Torres breaks past Roberto Carlos for a second goal. Ronaldo scores to bring the Brazillians back, but a late goal from Raul seals the win. Spain stuns Brazil and the Champions are out. 3-1. The biggest shock of the tournament so far.

Spain, for the first time in 56 years has advanced to the semifinals, where they face England, who has advanced to the semis for the first time since 1990. Both teams have the appearance of a "team of destiny". Spain has one of the true stars of the tournament in Fernando Torres. England has had incredible play from the midfield and defense, and hasn't had the most difficult path either. This match starts with slow, physical play. Despite the play of both teams up to this point, neither team puts together successful scoring opportunities. The game gets bogged down in the midfield for most of the time. A few England chances are saved by Casillas, and Spain flubs the few chances they have. Extra time ends with no goals for either team. Penalties will decide the match, and one would think that Spain would have the edge with Casillas in goal. Unfortunately, the Spanish shooters fall apart. Torres bags the first one, but Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia both fail to score. England scores the first three. Raul is up next, needing to score to keep Spain in it. Post. Noise. England are in the final. Spain are heartbroken.

A totally spent Spain team doesn't show up for the third place match, losing to the next team I discuss 2-1. More details above.

As every World Cup seems for Spain, this one will be a roller coaster. But this time Spain achieves what so many have expected of them, and a bona fide star emerges in Torres. The team should only get better and will be one of the key favorites in South Africa 2010. The end will be another heartbreak, but over time Spain will look back fondly on this cup.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Spain would be... a team loaded with talent, frequently receiving top seeds, but constantly flopping and falling apart early. A team that when you look at their all-time record, you're stunned that they've never won anything, not even made the final four. Before a few years ago, Maryland and Syracuse would've both been good choices. Now, I think you have to look a little further down the ladder. Texas is a possibility, but they've made the Final Four. The team that actually springs to mind the most, and who has no reason whatsoever for not succeeding, is Missouri. Loaded with talent over the years, the only team in the area, but never puts it all together.

If Spain were to get screwed like 2002 again, the streets would surely run red with the blood of the infidel officials.


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

#5: Selecao


Where? The bulk of the South American continent.

How big? Very big. The second largest nation in the World Cup after the USA. Bigger than the contiguous 48 states, believe it or not. Population is very large as well, making Brazil the 5th most populous nation on earth.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook? Brazil has the second most number of Airports of any country in the world (after the USA) and the second most number of heliports in the world (after South Korea???). Only China, the US and India have more roadways (more than Canada, three times more than Russia). Mexico, which I thought was dry and had less arable land than I expected, has 12% of the land arable, while Brazil only has 6%. That stuns me.

Geopolitical significance? The future could be Brazil's. A large population, modernized economies, natural resources galore (more than twice the oil reserves as the entire European Union). Brazil has a chance to become a major worldwide player. But it's also an environmental timebomb, and not just with deforested rainforests. The major cities suffer from rampant pollution of air and water. Brazil's future is directly tied to its ability to clean things up and regulate better.

Fun? Four words: Snoop Dogg's Beautiful Video. "The Girl from Ipanema" might've been pretty damn sexy a few decades ago, and this is the modern equivalent.


Picking Brazil here makes me certifiably insane. They're the only team to qualify for every World Cup! They've played in the last three finals! They're five time champions of the world! They're ranked number 1 in the world! They have so much talent! True, true, true, true. But I still think that this isn't their year, for a few reasons.

First, the history: As I wrote above, Brazil is the world's best team, historically. The only team to have qualified for every World Cup. Five time Champs, Runners up twice, and three more semifinals appearances. They're the best. Period.

Qualifying this time around wasn't a cakewalk, and in fact it was a little odd that they had to qualify at all - before this time around holders of the Cup automatically qualified for the next tournament. Brazil only lost twice in 18 matches (at Argentina and at Ecuador), and drew another 7 times. Only nine wins doesn't seem all that great, but it wasn't too bad either - South American qualifying is more rugged than many think because of the odd locations and strong opponents.

Over the last 20 or so years, things have changed dramatically for the Brazillian roster. Back then, only a few of the team members played professionally in Europe. Now, only two players are on domestic teams. The remainder populate the best teams in Spain, England, Germany and Italy. In some ways this is better for Brazil, considering that the players know international opponents better, and European competition may be better than an isolated nation's competition. But in other ways this can be a drawback. The national team doesn't play together as much as many others as they used to. The rest of the world has seen the amazing skills of Brazillians, but also their weaknesses. The global game is dominated by Brazillians, no doubt, but there are two sides to every coin.

I could spend the rest of this page writing about the talent on the team. Ronaldo, Adriano and Robinho are three of the most dangerous forwards in the cup - and Brazil has a threat better than all of them in Ronaldinho (more in a second). The midfield is also one of the strongest in the tournament. Emerson, Kaka, Juninho, Gilberto Silva, Ze Roberto... the trouble is not in praising them but in finding room on the pitch for them all. If there is a weakness on this team, it's the defense. In 2002 the defense was far better than anyone expected - and probably the real reason Brazil were champions. Cafu and Roberto Carlos are undoubtedly among the all time greats for Brazil, but they are also both on the down slope of their careers. Dida is among the world's best in goal, but if the guys in front of him have lost a step, he could have trouble.

The one to watch is Ronaldinho. If you follow soccer enough to have kept reading through this interminable series, I do not need to write any more.

The group Brazil has drawn isn't among the most difficult, but it also isn't among the easiest either. All three opponents are decent, if none exceptional. A problem is that Brazil will face one of the better second place teams if the win the group, since Group E is so deep.

Why don't I think they'll get farther than the quarterfinals? Well, a number of reasons. First, there's the European factor. Brazil just doesn't fare as well in Europe as they do when the Cup is anywhere else. Brazil won it in Sweden in 1958 with a guy named Pele on the field. But since then, Brazil has always gone home empty handed. Second, there's the European club factor. Brazil's team is loaded with players for some of Europe's best teams, and Brazil has had to play a whole lot of qualifying matches over the last two years. AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan. These are the teams where Brazil's best play. These are also teams that have played some of the most crowded fixture schedules - Champions' League, domestic matches, domestic cups and then add to that Asian and American tours for the clubs and 18 qualifiers. The last two years for most of these players have gone by with barely a break in the action. It wouldn't surprise me if Brazil is hurt by that. Third, the age factor. Soccer sometimes isn't a fair game. Sometimes the best forwards keep hitting the posts or shooting just wide. That's why every great champion has a good defense. This year's Brazil team has questions there. What if Cafu and Roberto Carlos have lost a step? It could show at the worst time. And the final reason why I think Brazil doesn't win it all is that it's just a gut feeling. I think it's another country's time to shock them. And I think I know the one to do it.

The opener is Croatia. I don't see any way Brazil loses this one. Early goals by Ronaldo and Adriano put a stop to Croatia's hopes. Ronaldinho adds a glorious goal in the second half. And everyone thinks the Cup is Brazil's to lose.

Australia is second, and while a lot of people think the Socceroos might have a chance in this, I actually think this will be one of the biggest blowouts in the entire cup. Ronaldinho scores twice in the first half, and Ronaldo ties the all time record for World Cup goals with a third. Late in the game Ronaldinho bags a third. Stunning. 4-0 Brazil.

The third match is academic, with Brazil already qualified to advance and it being pretty much impossible to unseat them at the top. Japan comes in needing to win to advance. It's nice to need things. Brazil doesn't comply, even though many of the best players sit. Robinho makes the most of his time on the field with two goals. Japan doesn't score. 2-0 Brazil and it's a dominant group performance.

The round of 16 brings the Czech Republic and Brazillian confidence is sky high. Unfortunately for the Brazillian defense, Jan Koller is sky high tall. An early corner finds its way into the net and the Czechs take a 1-0 lead. Ronaldinho, earning every cent of sponsorship money, scores two for Brazil to go up 2-1. With about 10 minutes to go, Koller scores again off a corner, this time making Roberto Carlos look foolish and short. Just seconds into stoppage time, though, the Czech defense tires and substitute Robinho shows that the future is bright in Brazil, streaking right down the middle and scoring. 3-2 Brazil, the match of the Cup.

When looking at the draw, Brazil would probably be happy to see the perennial chokers Spain as a possible quarterfinal opponent. I take a different approach: Spain is loaded with players that know the Brazillians well - they train with them, mark them all year long, watch film all the time. The several great Brazillians playing in Spain could end up a disadvantage. If any team knows inside ball on Brazil, it might just be Spain. And come on now, of course Spain is due for a little luck and karma, aren't they? I think karma comes early for Spain, as the somewhat tired, somewhat overconfident Brazillians give up not one but two goals in the early going, one from Raul, one from Fernando Torres. Brazil gets one back as Ronaldo sets the all time record. Brazil's strength grows, and Spain's fatalism looms, but then the amazing happens - Xabi Alonso and Raul hook up together for a third goal with just ten minutes to go. Brazil gets a last second stoppage time goal, but it's not enough. Tears throughout Iberia. 3-2 Spain and a new champion will be crowned.

Now, the realist in me thinks I'd be a fool to wager on this happening. True. And considering the odd things that have happened in international competitions the last few years (Greece at Euro 2004, South Korea and Turkey in 2002), we're probably due for a Cup to go to form. But that's not as fun, is it? Brazil will be one of the most enjoyable teams to follow, and they'll put on an incredible display of scoring and skill. But I don't see them winning it all this time.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Brazil would be... Dominant through the years, loaded with one superstar following another. Brazil is North Carolina.

Sorry, Brazil. You'll have to skulk back to your incredibly gorgeous beaches, beautiful weather and stunning, Giselle-like women. Damn you, Brazil!

Edited for some clarity and a typo.


#6: Die Nationalelf


Where? The bulk of Northern Europe.

How big? Very big for Europe. About the size of Montana. Population is the largest in Europe proper (I don't count Russia), about three times the size of Texas.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook... A high immigration rate, but a net population loss is counterintuitive. The oldest population of any of the large European nations and one that isn't giving birth to many children. Germany's unemployment rate is way high - twice as high as the US rate.

Geopolitical significance? Germany has the fifth largest economy in the world and the largest in Europe. But it's also one of the slowest growing in the world. But that's all current stuff. Germany has shaped the world's history over the last century like no other country.

Fun? Beer is good. Did YOU KNOW! That Becks is the #1 German beer in America, but only the #10 beer in Germany? Did YOU KNOW! That Budweiser is the official beer of the World Cup and has an exclusive contract to sell beer inside World Cup stadia and therearound for some 500 yards... BUT Budweiser isn't even a beer according to Germany's beer laws. The reason? Beer can only be made from malt, hops and water to comply with German law. Budweiser uses rice. One Bavarian politician isn't happy, calling Budweiser "the worst beer in the world." Thems some beer crazed people.


It has been a long time since a major footballing nation that was hosting didn't advance to the semifinals, so I'm taking a bit of a risk with this pick.

The German National Eleven's history is a little odd due to the nation's history. For the first three cups, there was one German team, and they participated twice, making the semifinals once. After WWII, Germany was divided and fielded two teams until 1994. East Germany was a poor team, only qualifying once (though making the second round). West Germany, on the other hand, was one of the world's great teams. Three times champion of the World, finalists three more times, and semifinalists twice more. Of the 10 Cups West Germany competed in, they made the semifinals 8 times. Amazing. After Germany reunified, the talent and skill remained. In the last three cups, Germany has made the quarterfinals twice and were runners up to Brazil in 2002.

Germany qualified automatically as hosts for this World Cup, so they've been playing friendlies for the last two years. Not playing a meaningful game in two years hasn't hurt other hosts, and I doubt it'll hurt Germany here.

The roster is filled with professionals based in Germany, which is one of the world's best leagues. Only two players play elsewhere - both in England. It is a younger team than the last few cup sides, and one that is a little hard to figure out. The attack should be pretty experienced though. Miroslav Klose will hope to match his goal tally from 2002. A good question will be whether they go with veteran Neuville or the young gunner, Podolski. The midfield normally would've been a huge strength, since Frings, Schweinsteiger, Schneider and Ballack are as tough as any group in the Cup. But Ballack is where it all happens - and his injury has to be a huge scare.

But not as much a scare as the player to watch - Jens Lehmann. I'm not sold that Germany will keep Oliver Kahn on the bench the whole time. Lehmann hasn't played badly for Arsenal - actually he's played pretty great, generally - but I still worry that he'll make an error at precisely the wrong time, like the Champions' League final. Remember, just 18 months ago, Lehmann was getting benched in favor of Almunia. I'm just not sure it's the right call when they have Kahn right there. Kahn was probably the most important player on any team at Korea/Japan. If Kahn never sees the field (which I doubt will happen), I think it'll be a mistake.

As hosts, Germany scored one of the easiest groups. None of the other teams has the talent to really challenge Germany for top slot. In fact, none of the other teams really deserves to advance. But one will, while USA/Czech Rep/Italy won't.

Germany opens the tournament Friday against Costa Rica. It'll be a huge spectacle, but expect the Germans to stay focused. Klose scores in the first half, and Podolski doubles the lead in the second half. Ballack is substituted for early, after the first goal. Safe than sorry. 2-0 Germany.

In what should be the best game of the group, Germany and Poland meet. Germany can match Poland in just about every area on the field. Ballack looks much healthier and organizes one goal and scores another himself. Lehmann, however, gives up a goal in a most embarassing way. 2-1 Germany and advancement is clinched.

The final match against Ecuador is meaningless and Germany uses it to get experience for many of their young players, but Lehmann is also removed in exchange for Kahn. It's a boring match, a scoreless draw. 0-0. But Kahn's performance is strong, and suddenly there's a controversy.

Germany tops the group, and for that they draw second place Sweden. The big news is that Kahn starts instead of Lehmann, and it pays of immediately, as Ibrahimovic nearly scores twice but Kahn is a wall. Both teams have great chances, but both keepers play fantastically. The match goes scoreless through extra time and the match heads to penalties. It goes 7 rounds until Kahn stops one after a Huth conversion. Germany advances to the quarterfinals.

In the Quarters, Germany faces one of the few teams that hasn't lost so far, and Argentina team on a roll. In a move that will upset millions, Klinsmann replaces Kahn with Lehmann. And almost immediately he wishes he hadn't. Tevez drills one five minutes in. On the half hour, Germany equals though, with a great goal by Klose. In the second half, Germany takes the lead on a set shot from Ballack. But late in the match replacement Messi breaks loose and beats Lehmann who had crept out way too far on the breakaway. Neither team scores in extra time, and it's another penalty situation for Germany. Argentina nets the first three, while Germany misses one and has another one saved. Needing to score to stay in the match, Ballack misses high. Just like that, Germany is out of the tournament.

A good run, but keeping becomes their undoing, unlike in 2002, when it took them so far. Two PK matches in the knockout stage could cause heart attacks across Northern Europe. Of course, a safer bet would be for this team to advance at least to the semis. Host nations normally do.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Germany would be... an efficient, organized, strong team. Incredibly successful, year in year out, regardless of who comes and goes. But also hasn't won a title in a while, despite a long run. Kansas is the team that comes to mind.

German women: very strong forearms.


#7: Azzurri


Where? South Central Europe. The thing that looks like a dominatrix's (dominatrice's?) boot.

How big? Pretty big for Europe. About the size of Arizona. Population is extremely dense, about twice the size of California win less space.

Something I learned from the CIA factbook... It's one of the oldest nations in the world, in that the population trends older - not as many babies born. Also, I didn't know that there were two age minimums for voting - 18 for normal elections, 25 for Senatorial elections. That's kind of odd. Also, there are more cell phones in the country than people. Really, how can that be?

Geopolitical significance? Italy is one of the largest economies in Europe and takes a spot as one of the most important Europoean nations on the world stage. Their involvement in the Iraq War was a pretty significant international matter, and the effects of that involvement led to the international interest in Italy's recent election, where AC Milan owner and former Prime MInister Silvio Berlusconi was defeated by Romano Prodi. While the Vatican is technically a different country, Italy in a way is the spiritual home of the Roman Catholic Church and its estimated one billion believers.

Fun? Italy has a claim as one of the inventors of soccer as we know it. It traces back to Calcio Fiorentina, a middle ages game where young citizens of Florence (soldiers at times) would meet in the town square and beat the hell out of one another. 27 players per team. You could use your hands or feet. You had to get the ball over one particular area of a wall. The pitch is a giant sand pit. You can punch, kick, tackle, asswhip other players. The game lasted 50 minutes, and they still play it every June in Florence.


Italy is one of the world's best footballing nations. Only Brazil has won more World Cups. Italy's greatest triumphs came in the Cup's early days, when Italy triumphed in the first two Cups it entered (the second and third installations in 1934 and 1938). Italy added a third star to their shield in 1982 with a win over West Germany. Italy has made two other finals (1970 and 1994) and two more semifinals (1978 and 1990). Italy has qualified for every World Cup since 1958, and advanced out of the group stage in every cup since 1974. Only Brazil can claim a more impressive record in the World Cup.

Italy's professional league has declined some in recent years, but for a long time Serie A was the best league in the world. Recent scandals of racism, fascism, hooliganism, and rampant corruption have allowed other leagues to catch and possibly surpass the Italian league. The most recent scandal affecting Italy and most specifically Juventus (one of Italy and the world's most storied clubs) only puts another black mark on the league. It'll be seen as to how this scandal affects the Azzurri, since several players on the roster have ties to Juventus.

Qualifying this time around was a little easier than it probably should've been. The Azzurri were drawn with three other pretty good teams - Slovenia, Norway and Scotland. They lost at Slovenia and drew at Norway and Scotland, but won the rest of them, topping the group by 5 points.

The roster is one of only two nations with every single player playing professionally in their own country (Saudi Arabia is the other). But unlike the Saudis, Italy is one of the three best leagues in the world, so the roster is loaded with top flight talent. There are 5 from Juventus and AC Milan players, 4 from Palermo, 3 from Roma, 2 from Lazio, and 1 from Udinese, Livorno and Inter. The defense is typically the strength of Italy, and this time around is no different, thanks to recoveries from Nesta and Zambrotta and the veteran Cannavarro. The midfield should be good with Pirlo, Gattuso and especially Totti (who probably deseves his own paragraph). The attack will be something to watch out for, as Italy has been grooming young players. Will they go with Luca Toni and irascible Alberto Gilardino, or will they rely on aging but still potent Del Piero and Inzaghi? We'll see.

The one to watch is between the pipes. Gianluigi Buffon, along with group rival Petr Cech, is one of the world's best keepers. With a solid defense ahead of him, goals will be tough to get. And do not bet against Italy in the event of penalty kicks.

The draw, however, is difficult. The Czech Republic, the USA and Ghana all could beat Italy under the right circumstances. But look at history: Italy doesn't bow out in the first round, especially not when the Cup's in Europe.

The opener is fortuitous scheduling for Italy, facing a Ghana team that could be dangerous were they not playing under the brightest spotlight for the first ever time. Some writers think this is a scary matchup, and compare it to Senegal-France in 2002. Perhaps. I think Ghana plays with such high energy at the start that they somehow score first. But the excitement overworks them and adrenaline can only take you so far. Italy withstands the rush for the first half, draws a PK in the second, and scores in extra time when the Ghanaians are exhausted. 2-1 Italy.

The second match is the dangerous one. The USA play in Kaiserslautern, and this American team is much different from the one Italy dispatched in 1990 (and did you know that the biggest margin of victory an Italian team has ever had was over the USA? 9-0 in 1948). Arena's scheme is perfect for this match, and the USA uses speed to move forward, and plays much more physical in the midfield than Italy had expected. The Americans won't be pushed around. A Donovan strike and a McBride header put the Yanks up 2-0. A late PK brings Italy back (and pisses me off something fierce). 2-1 USA, but that goal could prove important.

The final match is likely the most crucial for Italy. The size and keeping of the Czech Republic could make this match a bore to watch, but I think it'll actually be interesting. Italy knows it needs a win to advance, and they push things to the limit. A tired Czech team gives up two goals in 5 minutes just before the half, but the Czech's get one back in stoppage time. In the second half, Italy pulls another penalty out of their hat (their third of the cup) and seals the win 3-1. They win the group on goal differential, with a nod to the penalty granting refs.

The Round of 16 brings Croatia, second place in Group F. We finally see the brand of muddy, rough soccer that has made Italy not fun to watch for a while. Del Piero scores in the second half, in a game nobody will care to remember.

The quarterfinals sets Italy up against Cup darlings Ukraine. Shevchenko, well rested and fully healed, comes out hot, streaking away from defenders and scoring the opener. Gilardino, the heir apparent at Milan, equalizes. But this is Sheva's cup. In the 80th minute he volleys in a cross that stuns all of Italy. 2-1 Ukraine. Seriously.

Italy will look back on this cup much like the last few. They advanced somewhat sloppily, but moved along until they ran into a team playing at the top of their game. This time, it won't be the hosts, unlike in 1998 and 2002, unless they make the finals.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Italy would be... A team that has a tremendous history and tradition, with amazing and insane fans. A team that expects a title every time out, but in truth their best days may have been in the past. A team that has trouble adapting to changes in the game, but they still play at an incredibly high level. A team known for their blue. Italy is Kentucky.

Be patient for my 36 part Calcio Fiorentina World Cup Preview.


Monday, June 05, 2006

#8: Oranje


Where? Northwestern Europe, below sea level.

How big? Not big in size, about half the size of South Carolina. Pretty densely populated - about the size of Florida.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook? The Netherlands was once ruled by the Spanish monarch. The Low Countries seceded in the 1570s, but Spain didn't recognize that until 70 years later. The Netherlands was a republican confederation for a while, then became part of France, then in 1815 they established the Kingdom of the Netherlands. That's got to be one of the youngest monarchies in the world. It is a constitutional monarchy and has a parliamentary system.

Geopolitical significance? The Dutch economy is actually pretty big for this small nation, and the Netherlands includes some of the world's largest shipping ports. Rotterdam for a long time was the world's busiest port (now it's Singapore). That makes the Netherlands important for Europe. Plus, since a whole lot of the country is below sea level, if the worst case scenarios of climate change/global warming occur, the country might look like the Ninth Ward.

Fun? Getting baked, brah. Actually, one of the things I remember about the Netherlands from friends of mine who traveled there is that the crossing signals for the blind sounded like techno music. That's pretty awesome. Also, I think it's awesome that the Dutch soccer fans, when they play Germany, chant that they want their bicycles back. During World War II, the Nazis confiscated bicycles from the Dutch and melted them down for steel. I'd be pissed too.


The Dutch are probably the world's best team never to have won the World Cup. They've been runners up twice, semifinalists another time. They've been Champions of Europe once, but semifinalists 4 times. A great resume, but they've never climbed the mountain. The Dutch failed to qualify in 2002, due to a tough qualifying group. Sometimes they've choked, but sometimes they've been screwed by the draw (and this year sure seems like that's kind of the case).

Qualifying this time around was pretty easy, but it's a good thing that the Dutch don't have to play Macedonia every time out, because they couldn't find a way to beat those minnows either time (the second time was after they'd already clinched qualification, though).

The roster is loaded, especially up front. But don't discount the veteran leadership between the pipes in Van der Sar. Robben is one of my favorite players, and he might not play too much. Van Bronkhorst is solid in the back. Before last weekend's events, I had a long passage here exalting Cocu. Van Basten shouldn't ignore van Bommel, though he might. But the one who can take over the game, and could be the kind of guy to win the Golden Boot, is Ruud Van Nistelrooy. I was not a believer of him a while ago, but now I think he's the real deal.

And they'll need the offensive talent to show up well in order to get through the toughest group in the cup.

The Dutch open with Serbia and Montenegro, and I think this is actually a dangerous match. The Serbs have a solid D, and should thwart some scoring opportunities. The Serbs score first, but van Nistelrooy equalizes. 1-1, an unsatisfying result.

They get their legs below them for the Cote d'Ivoire match, though. I wouldn't be surprised if I'm dead wrong about this, but I see the Dutch scoring early and often. 3-0 win for the Orange.

4 points might not be good enough to advance, so things are a little scary for the Dutch against Argentina. They play very conservatively, and the Argentines comply for a while because they've already clinched advancement. But on a fluke long ball (maybe offside), Argentina goes ahead. The Dutch spend the rest of the game hoping Serbia doesn't win by two. They get their wish and advance with 4 points.

Second place in the group lines them up against Portugal in the round of 16. Van der Sar makes huge saves in the penalty kick stage, and they send Portugal out.

The quarterfinal matchup brings England, fresh off a rout of Costa Rica. It's a tough matchup, and many of the players are familiar with each other, and the crowd is as loud as they come. Van Nistelrooy opens the scoring and the Dutch go up 1-0. The Netherlands' midfield plays pretty solid and keeps possession much of the first half. Things look bad for England, but Steven Gerrard strikes from 20 yards out to equalize. In extra time, Gerrard scores again - flair for the dramatic, indeed. 2-1, and there's jubilation in England.

A so-so to disappointing Cup for the Dutch, especially because of the injuries in the recent friendlies. But it says something about a country when a quarterfinal run is disappointing. This just isn't the perfect set-up for the Dutch to finally climb that mountain. I hope I see them do it though.

If the World Cup were March Madness, the Netherlands would be... major conference team, dominant at times, incredible collection of talent, but never claimed the title. Recently a lot of basketball teams have earned that elusive title (Syracuse, UConn, Arizona). I'm thinking Texas or Illinois. Illinois it is for the color.

The wooden shoes prevent laces from getting tangled with gears.


World Cup Review

Just to recap where we are...

All the nations up to USA are eliminated in the group stages, according to my predictions.

From Costa Rica to France, I predict losses in the round of 16, and I've rated them according to the points and goal differential in the group stage. Starting with the next team, these are teams that lose in the quarterfinals (the next four), then, hopefully Wednesday night, I'll post the semifinal losers. Thursday night I'll post my predictions for the finalists, and the champion.

And then I'll get drunk and watch TiVoed games Friday night.


#9: Les Bleus


Where? The majority of Western Europe.

How Big? Pretty big. One of the largest European nations. Twice the size of Colorado. Population is large too, three times the size of Texas.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook... I never knew how involved the French government is in major industries. It appears that the government is still the largest stakeholder in Air France, France Telecom, and Renault. I didn't know that.

Geopolitical significance? France's size and population often confer upon it the status of the spokesperson of Europe. This means that, for good or for bad, France has international clout. Recently, France has been pushing its foreign policy through its membership in internation associations, such as the United Nations and the European Union. The ire directed at France at the onset of the Iraq War, if nothing else, suggests that France still matters on the world stage.

Fun? Sure, France is fun. Every Summer, I follow Le Tour de France, and it looks fun as hell. I mean, for almost a whole month, every day another town has a reason to get drunk as hell on the roads all over the region, scream for a minute or two, and wear ridiculous bullshit like viking horns and chaps. The fans of the tour are incredible. I want to go to France during that time.


France are one of the best teams in the world, when they're good. Unlike other top teams, the Blues seem to run in cycles. When they're good, they're great. When they aren't, they're average, or not even good. France's World Cup history was OK at the beginnings of the event, but their real breakthrough was in 1958 when Just Fontaine set the record for goals in a single competition with 13 (though most people remember Pele). France cycled back around in the early 80s, when France finished 4th in 1982, won the 1984 European Championship, and finished 3rd in Mexico 1986, led by Platini. After a few times around without qualifying for major tournaments, France cycled back around in 1996, making the semis of the European Championship, then winning the World Cup in 1998, and following it up with the European Championship title in 2000. 2002 was a huge step back, with France losing two, drawing the third and not even scoring.

Qualifying could have been much easier for France this time around. They were drawn in one of the toughest groups, with Ireland, Israel, and Switzerland. Due to the odd schedule, for the most part of qualifying France was looking up at other teams in the standings. But by the end, France ended up on top, but just barely.

The Cup roster is one of the most experienced in the tournament, but also one of the most aging. The names should be very familiar to American fans. Barthez, Zidane, Trezeguet, Wiltord, Viera, Thuram. The core of the World and Euro Cup teams is back, though they won't necessarily see the field as much. Look out for Claude Makelele actually getting a chance. He deserved it long ago, so look for him to make the most of it. William Gallas, Makelele's Chelsea teammate, should be fantastic in the defense. But the one to watch, as last time around, is Thierry Henry. He might be the only goalscorer who can rival Ronaldinho for doing incredible things with the ball. In this group, he should have the opportunity to put on a show.

The group is favorable for France, both because there isn't another powerhouse there and because the other teams play loose, attacking football. It should be very fun to watch.

They open with a team France knows well, Switzerland, a replay of two qualifying matches. I think there'll be lots of shots on goal, butnot so many goals. Henry finally breaks through in the second half. 1-0 France, and things are already better than 2002.

The second match is against South Korea, and it's the same story. Lots of scoring chances, not many goals, from either team. Henry nets another one late. 1-0 France.

The last game is academic, as France has already clinched a spot in the next round. Doesn't really matter though. France scores twice in the first half, both Cisse in a surprise start. Louis Saha gets the third. Togo gets one goal, but it's not enough. 3-1 France.

Topping the group gets second place in Group H, which one might think to be an easy game. But they draw Ukraine, which has turned out to be one of the stories of the Cup. Sheva stuns France with his fitness and with two goals in the first half. Henry scores to make it close, but too little, too late. 2-1 Ukraine. You'll hear from them again a little later.

So it's a better result than last time, but a bitter finish to France's Cup. They were dominant in the group, but slipped up in the Round of 16. I have a personal feeling like Barthez is going to screw up at an important time.

If the World Cup were March Madness, France would be... a team that every few years arrives with a tremendous lineup, but then for a few years they disappear and might not even make the tournament. But when they're in it, they are among the best. I thought Oklahoma State, Arizona, Stanford, and some others, but I'm settled on Maryland.

If the nation's most exalted and patriotic image features bare breasts, you know that it's a country you want to visit.