The ten things you should know about this year's World Cup.
So the World Cup is here again, and you still haven’t brushed up on your soccer knowledge from the last tournament? If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that the games will come up in conversation—and on a TV screen in your general vicinity—in the next month. So we asked Jon Forget, general manager of soccer bar The Three Lions, 35-year unofficial student of the game, and all-around World Cup fanatic (he hasn't missed a single game since his first time watching one in 1986) for the scoop. Here, the ten things you should know about this year's 20th World Cup in Brazil.
1. Soccer is like a religion in Brazil.
Forget says: “Their national pride rests on what their team does in the cup. They’ve won more World Cups than any other country, and they’ll be devastated if they don’t win at home in this one.”
Considering Brazil hasn’t lost an important game at home since 1975, before any of the players on its current World Cup roster were born as Nate Silver points out, there’s a world of expectation resting on the hosts. Tip: Watch for 22 year-old sensation Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior to spark the country's success in his first World Cup appearance.
(It’s also important to note that Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup is causing political unrest, strikes, and riots—as the event often does whenever its massive financial commitments highlight the host country’s economic disparities.)
2. The only thing keeping 25 year-old Argentina attacker Lionel Messi from being considered the undisputed greatest player of all time is a World Cup trophy.
Forget says: “I don’t even like Argentina, but I want to see Messi do well. There’s no better person to represent the game—he’s a class act on and off the field. With this World Cup so close to home, expect to see great things from him. He’s only 25, so this won’t be his only shot, but it may be his best.”
Among his many strengths, Messi is known for his phenomenal speed and ball control. Watch him closely whenever he gets the ball—he’s capable of anything at anytime.
3. Friday’s second game, Spain versus Netherlands, is a rematch of the 2010 World Cup finals.
Forget says: “As anybody who watched that game in 2010 knows, these two teams don’t really have an affinity for each other. It should be a really good match, and the winner is likely to top the group.”
The 2010 match between Spain and Netherlands netted a World Cup final-record 12 yellow cards, warnings issued to players who risk ejection from a game. That’s more than double the previous record of six yellows issued when Argentina triumphed over West Germany in the 1986 final.
4. Advantage to the Americas: No team from outside of the Americas has ever won a World Cup in North or South America.
Forget says: “European teams in particular never seem to fair well in the humidity and heat of South America, or the pressure of its fans. The U.S. has some experience playing down there, but South Americans are at the real advantage, especially with the amount of supporters they’ll have.”
As we touched on earlier, home-field advantage can provide a definite edge in this sport, especially in South and Central America. When the U.S. visited Honduras for our first qualifying match, the country declared the game a national holiday so the stadium would be flush with screaming supporters. But that's nothing compared to our recent run-in with Costa Rica. After losing a game in our own snowy backyard and a subsequent appeal for a rematch, Costa Rica made life difficult for the U.S. during a qualifier in their country. First, the Costa Ricans made the team travel through the public custom line instead of routing them through a private one as had been, well, customary. Then, they refused to provide the U.S. with game balls to practice with, and restricted them from using practice facilities usually provided to visiting teams. All because of a Colorado snowstorm.
5. Jurgen Klinnsman, the current coach of the U.S. team, reached third place as coach of Germany in the 2006 World Cup, and won the Cup as a player for West Germany in 1990.
Forget says: “Klinsmann’s way of managing is unlike anything the U.S. has ever seen. He’s brought people onto the team I never thought would have had a chance, and left off others who would’ve been picked. Our match against Klinnsman’s native Germany on June 26th is our most highly anticipated.”
Klinsmann’s most notable additions to the U.S.’s final 23-man roster have been young, dual-citizen Americans living abroad like Aron Johannson (Icelandic-American), Mikkel Diskerud (Norwegian-American), and 18 year-old Bayern Munich member Julian Green (German-American). By far, his biggest snub was Landon Donovan. Despite Donovan taking an unheard of year off of soccer during the U.S.’s qualifying matches, he'd clawed his way back into World Cup roster contention in the last year, to the point where he was a shoe-in for selection. Instead, the U.S. team’s highest scoring player in World Cup match history—including one of its most dramatic goals—was left off by Klinsmann. But we'll still see some of him over the next month: ESPN tapped him as an analyst for the Cup earlier this week.
6. The U.S. will face FIFA’s world footballer of the year in Cristiano Ronaldo when they battle Portugal on June 22nd.
Forget says: “Ronaldo has had a wonderful club season this year, capped by winning and setting the scoring record in the Champions League, [a special best-of-the-best league featuring only the most successful teams of the year before]. Portugal isn’t known for their defense, but with a player like Ronaldo, they can pull a rabbit out of their hat at any time.”
It was announced last week that Ronaldo has been struggling with tendinitis around his left knee, a nagging condition caused by long-term wear and tear. But as his performance in Portugal’s drubbing of Ireland in a recent international friendly proved, he’s no worse for the wear—yet, anyway.
7. If the U.S. stands any chance of getting out of the initial "group" stage, winning the first game against Ghana is a must.
Forget says: “If we get a win in against Ghana, we may only need a draw to advance. But that won’t be easy—the Ghanaians have eliminated the U.S. from the last two World Cups. I do believe we are a better team than we were the last two times we faced them, but there’s a lot of pressure in playing Portugal and Germany after that match, so it’s all in against Ghana.”
Not only does Ghana have all-star talent in attacker Kevin-Prince Boateng and midfielder Michael Essien, but a Ghanaian witchdoctor claimed he was responsible for Portugal’s key player Cristiano Ronaldo's injury.
8. There’s no greater rivalry in the soccer world than Brazil versus Argentina.
“They won’t meet in the group stage, but most fans hope—and because they’re both so good, expect—that they’ll meet in the later rounds. The fact that the countries are neighbors amplifies the whole thing.”
The soonest the two countries could meet in the Cup would be the semifinals, a hope of many.
9. Each team has a different play style unique to their culture.
"Some sides rely on their physicality, others rely on their tactical ability, or a combination. Some have x-factor players. For the U.S., that would be Clint Dempsey, but we rely on a team mentality—all for one and one for all."
The Brazil team is famous for its fluid style of play, often referred to as "samba," because it has the purpose and beauty of the dance. Each player is skilled with the ball, and every player is capable of scoring goals (even goalkeepers). By contrast, Italy is staunchly defensive, and prefers to grind teams down over the course of the game before launching a vicious counter attack when the opposition is tired. They'll often win by one goal, or happily stalemate their opponents into a penalty-kick shootout.
10. In soccer, everyone is a quarterback, receiver, attacker, and defender. It's a player's game.
"Play is continuous—you don't stop every five minutes—so you see far less puppeteer-ing than you do in American sports. Every player has free license to be creative. That's why they call it the beautiful game."
Casual observers may groan that the low scores of games make the sport inherently flawed. But near misses can be just exciting as goals. And even if the game is at 0-0 after fifty minutes, never underestimate how much a goal can open up a match.