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teams start by playing each of three teams, with the two best teams from each group advancing into a simple bracket tourney, not unlike the ncaa’s march madness.
all you need is a team to follow, and here is a quick primer:
who to follow
if you are new to the non-american brand of football, you want to pick one that you can watch deep into the world cup. as much fun as it would be to root for some of these tiny up-start countries (new zealand springs to mind), you’ll be pretty bored once they get eliminated in the second week. so, you probably want to pick from the main contenders.
Spain — currently the best team in europe, spain balances a beautiful brand of football with some physicality that is missing from other “pretty” teams. this team has a fanatical fan base, and some of the best attacking players in the game. they are also the bookie’s best bet to win the whole enchilada, so (hopefully) you’ll have a team to follow in weeks three and four.
Argentina — has the best player on the planet (lionel messi), plan on starting three attacking forwards (most teams use two, some only one) and a coach who is desperately trying to translate his own brilliance as a player (see his goal of the century) into brilliance as a coach (and failing pretty miserably). but who knows … they could just as easily flame out in the group stages (they barely qualified) as they could win the whole thing, but either way the fireworks should be pretty spectacular.
Brazil — normally, you’d never catch me pushing brazil (it’s the equivalent a new immigrant to the U.S. announcing they’re going to root for either the yankees or the patriots) but this team isn’t the same purvayors of “the beautiful game” that’s won the world cup five times. this brazil is much more blue collar, physical, jump-in-the-trenches then their predecessors, while still keeping the incredible individual skill for which they’re known. should be fun to watch.
honorable mentions — everybody wants an african team to do well this world cup, but all six of them are facing a pretty steep up-hill battle. while hosts south africa will have ridiculously fun, pro-bafana bafana (their team’s nickname) crowds, they are the lowest ranked team ever to host the world cup and aren’t figured to make it out of the first round. côte d’ivoire had a great shot, but lost their star goal-scorer to injury. i have no idea which, if any, of the african nations will advance, but many people (myself included) will be rooting for the whole lot of them.
teams you may think you want to follow, but really probably don’t
United States — sure, there are dozens of reason to root for them. civic pride. names that you (might) have heard of. dozens of blogs saying “this is their year.” it’s not. i’m not sure it ever will be. expect one good game out of them, one mediocre game (where the result is closer than it should have been), and one shameful game (where they vomit on themselves). they’ll likely get to the sweet sixteen, but it almost certainly won’t be pretty, and they’ll break your heart eventually … they always do.
England — see above, “united states”.
Italy — while a fun, attacking team when they have to be, italy regularly lapses into putting all 11 men behind the ball when they are ahead (“parking a bus in front of goal” as it’s called) which makes them prone to stunningly dull results. that, coupled with the fact that the current coach seems to be infatuated with coupling “old” with “slow” and calling it a day, means italy isn’t a great team for newbies.
Germany — about as fun to watch as a team of german accountants competing in the actuarial olympics. see also, “holland”.
France — where to begin. they (a) cheated their way into the world cup with a dirty, dirty goal from a blatant hand ball, without which they would be back home underachieving, (b) the team they cheated out of the tournament was Ireland — who are much more fun to drink with — and (c) because of the way the group stage works out, rooting for france means rooting against south africa. oh, and if that’s not enough, remember that they’re french.
kickoff on friday
it all starts tomorrow morning at 9:30 am EST on ESPN. if you want to do some light reading before then, steven goff’s soccer insider blog is surprisingly readable for the lay people, and ESPN is desperately trying to hook the generic american sport fan on the Cup with their coverage at ESPN.com.
as for me? i’ve followed the england national team for the last couple of decades, and am not going to stop just because that the united states is finally fielding teams that might actually win a game or two. it also doesn’t hurt that my club team (tottenham hotspur) has five players in the england squad, and it’s more fun to root for people you know.
appalling, i know, but i’m okay with it … i have a feeling my ancestors were on the wrong side of the revolutionary way, anyway.