Friday, June 27, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Group Stage Review

Player of the Group Stage: Neymar

Sure, Messi's goals have mostly been more brilliant, and sure, Neymar got a goal off of a dubious penalty (it should be said, not off the noted flopper Neymar himself), but no player entered this World Cup with more tangible pressure. This World Cup means more to Messi's legacy, but it means more for Neymar's present. He can't fail in a World Cup in his home country. Instead, Neymar has 4 goals in 3 games. Brazil 'underwhelmed' their way to a 2-0-1 mark with 7 goals for and 2 against (and like four sure goals saved by Ochoa against Mexico). Neymar's been really good. Somehow, because of all the other amazing moments in the World Cup, he's done it quietly.

Runner-Up: Lionel Messi - Argentina without Messi has a lot of talent, but can't play as a team. That team has no defense at all. They should have lost to Iran. The only reason this team is 3-0-0 is because of Messi. For the first time in his life, Messi can't lean on anyone else... and he's kicking ass and taking names by himself.

Team of the Group Stage: Colombia

There have been a few standout performers so far. Three teams went 3-0-0 (Netherlands, Colombia and Belgium) but no team has been so joyous in doing it than Colombia. They entered the World Cup as the 'Team that should have been the trendy pick if not for the fact that their best player is hurt.' They leave as the latest team that got a lift by losing Radamel Falcao. Colombia has played beautifully, played up tempo, and have unearthed some new stars, like James Rodriguez and Guttierez. Of course, then there's the dances. Those amazing goal dances. They never get old. Long live the Colombia National Team.

Runner-Up: Netherlands - They were a trendy pick to not make it out of the Group Stage, but instead they went 3-0-0 against a tough slate. They blew the doors of Spain in the best way possible: utilize the extreme individual skill so present in the Dutch team. Their win over Chile was a controlled performance against one of the best teams through the first two games. I thought their prime was 2010, and outside of Wesley Sneijder, somehow their top players aged backwards the last four years.

Goat of the Group Stage: Igor Akinfeev

I'm sure Igor Akinfeev made a few nice saves, but the reason Russia isn't going through in a really manageable group is because of their veteran goalie. The goal he gave up to South Korea was awful, obviously. It was a goal reminiscent of the one England gave up to the US. A 6th grader could ahve stopped it. That cost them two points. He was out of place against Belgium, but I can't hold that one really against him. Then, all they had to do was beat Algeria, but Akinfeev was totally lost on the free-kick that tied the game and ended Russia. They'll host the next World Cup, but I doubt Akinfeev will get near the 2018 Russia team.

Runner-Up: Sully Muntari and Kevin Prince Boateng - Look I'm sure the infighting regarding the late payment of World Cup bonuses was a real situation, but for two of the most three veteran players on the team (along with Michael Essien) to go rogue and pull a Patrice Evra was terrible. That team was so good against Germany, but losing Muntari and Boateng hurt them on the field but also psychologically.

Goat Team of the Group Stage: England

This was supposed to be a different England, a new England. They had youth in Sterling and Sturridge. They had left the old 'Golden Generation' behind with Terry off the team, and the Brothers Cole and Lampard mostly on the bench, but none of it mattered. Unlike 2010, they were given a tougher group, and they did nothing with it. Sure, they played pretty well against both Italy and Uruguay, but their defense collapsed at the worst moments, and Steven Gerrard looked sad as an old, aging player, so much unlike Andrea Pirlo. England really isn't talented enough yet. They should be a lot better in 2018. Good thing for them, though, is there were two more established European teams that went home early.

Runner-Up: Uruguay - Sure, they're going through, but I'm pretty sure 9 out of 10 non-Uruguayans would rather have England or Italy going through than a Suarez-less Uruguay. Without Suarez, Uruguay is a 3-0 loss waiting to happen. Also, that effin' biter. How the hell does Suarez do that again? How? How is that even possible. This is the strangest affliction I've ever seen.

Surprise of the Group Stage: Regional Parity

Other than maybe 2002, we've never seen all such parity with the different regions. Only the Asia contingent fell on their face, but we have two African teams in teh Round of 16 for the first time. We have three CONCACAF (North America) teams in teh Round of 16 for the first time. We have five South American teams in teh South American World Cup. That leaves just 6 from Europe, the lowest since Round of 16's became a thing. That's what happens, I guess, when you play in South America. One of the biggest storylines heading into the World Cup was how playing in South America would invigorate the American teams... and alas sometime the storylines are spot on. This World Cup has been amazing for so many reasons, but nothing makes me happier than so many regions doing well.

Runner-Up: All those Golazos - This probably should be the winner, but the goals being scored have been awesome. 2006 and 2010 had basically the same amount of goals. Now, few goals doesn't make for boring games (just take 2006 as a prime example, where we had some great 0-0 and 1-1 games), but often it does. 2010 was the nadir, with Spain sapping up 75% of possession and winning 1-0 in all their knockout games. This year has been different. Counter-attacking is in. Set-pieces are in. The best part is the goals have been all over, as there are no 8-0 games skewing the overall numbers. 

Disappointment of the Group Stage: Spain Dying a Sad Death

I already wrote about the sadness of Spain getting killed so quickly, but days later it only gets worse. Watching their last game against Australia, in those strange black shirts, truly was like watching a funeral. Seeing David Villa subbed out after one last goal, knowing his next stop would be the MLS. Seeing Torres score a goal and remember back to a time when he was the biggest star striker they had, muscling by two Germans to score the winning goal in Euro 2008. Seeing the new era start with many new guys playing the last game and no Casillas in goal. All of it looked odd. All of it looked sad, really. Spain was so utterly dominant in 2008, 2010 and 2012. They played 10 knockout games in those three tournaments and never gave up a single goal. They then gave up 4 in one half.

Runner-Up: Nothing - Nothing else has been disappointing. The Group Stage was utterly amazing. Great games all around. Late drama all over the place. Every team scored. No team got embarrassed. What a wonderful display of futbol.

Team Performance of the Group Stage: Costa Rica winning the Real 'Group of Death'

We all named Group G the 'Group of Death', but we called 'Group D' the Group of Champions. It was the first time three former Champions were in teh same group. We would have a Group Stage game with two nations that combined for 6 World Cups. So who won the group.... the team with barely any World Cup history. Costa Rica shocked a Suarez-less Uruguay with a 3-1 win. They then beat Italy deservingly to lock up a spot, and shackled England to win the group. In the end, that was the real Group of Death. Two former Champions were killed off, just because Suarez played one full game before inevitably biting someone, and because Costa Rica grew up damn quickly.

Team Letdown of the Group Stage: Italy Falling Off

Few teams really looked more solid through the first round of Group Stage games than Italy. They systematically beat England. They had the right mix of good attacking play, sturdy Italian defense, and Andrea Pirlo brilliance. They looked like a good lock to get out of that group. Then came the loss to Costa Rica, followed by the deserved red card against Marchisio, adn the Suarez-gate. Italy has now followed up winning the 2006 World Cup by going out in teh Group Stage two Cups running. Sure, they've done well in the Euro's in the interim, but Italy is dropping on the World Stage.

Storyline that will be Beat into the Ground: Is Brazil vs. Argentina Inevitable?  

Brazil and Argentina have combined for 7 World Cups. They're loaded with good players. They have the two biggest fanbases in South America. They've essentially played three home games. They should meet in the Final. Their on opposite ends of the draw. Argentina has looked beatable, but look at that draw. First, they get a Switzerland team that lost 5-2 a week ago. Then either disappointing Belgium or the USA. Then one of the Holland/Mexico/Costa Rica/Greece quadro, which is not too hard of a path. Argentina probably should make the Final, and we'll hear a lot about it. Brazil, on the other side, has a much tougher path, but they haven't lost a competitive home game since like 1960 (and that's not even an exaggeration). Now they could get knocked out and have that streak continue since losing in PKs is technically a draw, but I can't really see it.

Storyline that Should be Beat into the Ground: Can Germany and Netherlands Reunite?

Germany and Holland have a major rivalry in World Football (as does most European Countries and Germany). It's a rivalry that was at its peak in the 70's topped in the 1974 World Cup Finals which (West) Germany won against the 'Total Football' brilliance of the Dutch and Johan Cruyff. Netherlands have looked surprisingly good through three games, and Germany has been, well...., German. They've been the machine. They were vulnerable against Ghana, but they were so locked in against Portugal and the US. They have defense, they have the transition players, and a great group of fungible attackers. They should win. Holland, on the other side, has more talent than anyone on that half of the draw. In a way it is like in 2010, when Holland had to contend with Uruguay/Ghana/Brazil (and Brazil wasn't great in 2010), while Spain was on the loaded half with Germany/England/Argentina/Portugal. Holland should make the Final.

Coming up next: Rd. of 16 Picks

Monday, June 23, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Reviewing and Previewing the Group Stage

My God, where to begin. Heading into the Final Group Games of the 2014 World Cup, we are squarely in football paradise. There's really nothing that would shock me at this point. Nothing, and that is what has made the 2014 World Cup so special.

Group A

1.) Brazil (1-0-1  =  +2)

Brazil's really in a no-win situation right now, as nothing will satisfy the Brazilian fans outside of holding the Jules Rimet trophy on July 12th. Nothing. They actually played better against Mexico than they did against Croatia, but a ridiculous spate of saves kept them off the scoresheet. They should roll Cameroon and enter the Knockout Rounds with some momentum against a good opponent no matter who it is.

2.) Mexico (1-0-1  =  +1)
3.) Croatia  (1-1-0  =  +2)

I'm grouping these two teams together because of their upcoming meeting. What a game this should be. Both teams played Brazil tough, Croatia ruined with a bad penalty call against them, and Mexico saved by Ochoa's brilliant goalkeeping. Croatia looked totally reborn with Mandzukic, but it should be said they, outside of their 1-0 lead, was being played very evenly, if not outplayed, by Cameroon before Alex Song's red card. Mexico needs to play well in this game, because on paper Croatia is better.

4.) Cameroon (0-0-2  =  -5)

Obviously, this has been a disastrous World Cup for a team that really didn't have many expectations. It's sad seeing Samuel Eto'o sitting forlornly on the bench, but he's past his prime. I can't see them giving Brazil much shot. Alex Song's red card ruined them, a shocking mistake from one of their veteran players.


Brazil def. Cameroon  3-0
Crotia def. Mexico  2-1

Brazil (7 pts.) and  Croatia (6 pts.) advance

Group B

1.) Netherlands (2-0-0  =  +5)
2.) Chile (2-0-0  =  +4)

The real group of death killed off the defending Champs quickly and with great ease, as both teams combined to outscore the Spanish 7-1. Both struggled more with Australia, which begs the question: are the Soceroos actually better than Spain? Getting back to reality, I'm really surprised that Netherlands has been able to hold their form with the Van Persie, Sneijder and Robben trio for a good six years. They took hold in Euro '08 and have lasted longer than Spain. Chile has been good at playiing defense, good at playing offense, and generally been a better version of the team that did well in 2010 as well. Without Van Persie, this is a really even game coming up.

3.) Australia (0-0-2  =  -3)

The Australian team continues to play well for a country with no real soccer history. Let's remember this team came within a really dubious penalty from taking eventual Champion Italy to extra time in 2006 in the Round of 16. They were run off the field in 2010, but Tim Cahill is ageless. They can leave the World Cup with their one great moment with Cahill's Goal of the Tournament against the Dutch.

4.) Spain (0-0-2  =  -6)

That '-6' Goal difference is still stunning. They have to pound Australia by three to avoid being the worst defending Champion on goal difference. It was a poetic moment for the team that had won 3-straight major tournaments to be the first knocked out in 2014.


Netherlands draw Chile  1-1
Spain def Australia  3-1

Netherlands (7 pts) and Chile (7 pts) advance

Group C

1.) Colombia  (2-0-0  =  +4)

Colombia's 3-0 win over Greece in Round 1 was one of my favorite performances. Honestly, they've been my favorite team, one with a bunch of no-names making a name for themselves playing truly attractive football. James Rodriguez has been a revelation. Colombia has been a revelation. I love the way they play and I really believe they can make noise in the Knockout Rounds if they get the best draws.

2.) Ivory Coast (1-1-0  =  0)

The Ivory Coast came into this World Cup with relatively low expectations after getting trumped up in 2006 and 2010, and lo and behold they have an easy path to making it to the knockout rounds for the first time. Just beat Greece, terrible, aimless Greece, and they are in. Didier Drogba's a shell of himself, but that whole team perks up when he's in there. Honestly, this is the strongest Ivory Coast team I've seen, and they deserve their spot.

3.) Japan (1-0-1  =  -1)
4.) Greence (1-0-1  =  -1)

I didn't watch the Japan vs. Greece game, and I probably saved myself a dreadful 90 minutes. Both these teams seem allergic to attacking, and hopefully they provide easy fodder for Colombia and Ivory Coast and let the right two teams to go through.


Colombia def. Japan  2-0
Ivory Coast def. Greece 2-0

Colombia (9 pts.) and Ivory Coast (6 pts) advance

Group D

1.) Costa Rica (2-0-0  =  +3)

Easily the most stunning team so far as I don't think anyone saw this coming. Costa Rica was billed, quite rightly, as the 'other' team in the 'Group of Champions', and they've beaten the three time and two time Champions to get here. Their win over Uruguay remains one of the most stunning comebacks I have seen. I honestly don't think they'll go very far in the knockout rounds, but all the credit in teh world to them.

2.) Italy (1-1-0  =  0)
3.) Uruguay (1-1-0  =  -1)

It's amazing how good Luis Suarez is. He looked understandably slow in his return, but he had two chances and scored two goals. He makes that Uruguay team run, as does Nicolas Lodeiro, who played so much better than Diego Forlan (which is sad, given how awesome Forlan was in 2010). This is a great game, probably my favorite going into the 3rd round of group games. Two come in, only one can advance. As for Italy, they looked tired against the Costa Ricans, but this is still Italy we are talking about. It would seem incomprehensible for them to go two straight World Cups without making the knockout round. Italy seems to always get the result. Can it happen again?

4.) England (0-0-2  =  -2)

As our former rulers, I would like to give a hearty message to England: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA


England def Costa Rica  2-1
Italy draw Uruguay  1-1

Costa Rica (6 pts.) and Italy (4 pts.) advance

Group E

1.) France (2-0-0  =  +6)

France has been the best team in the World Cup so far. Somehow, despite that and scoring a World Cup high 8 goals, with a World Cup best goal difference, they are under-the-radar. I honestly think France needed their one failed major tournament cycle after Zidane left to recover from losing their best player ever. Starting in 2012 they removed the pressure from Ribery of making him into the new-Zidane and just started to play. Now, without even Ribery, they've made this their tournament. Teams that start this strongly rarely hold up, but this is great form ahead of Euro 2016 which will be in France.

2.) Ecuador (1-1-0  =  0)
3.) Switzerland (1-1-0  =  -2)

I wish they were playing each other for the right to go to the 2nd round, but they already played their match, with Switzerland's dramatic 89th minute winner. What a game that was too. What a huge impact it could have too. Switzerland looked awful against France, but as long as they beat Honduras and France holds up its end of the bargain, they go through. I really hope that doesn't happen since I'm not really a fan of watching that Swiss team.

4.) Honduras (0-2-0  =  -4)

Congrats to them for scoring their first goal in a World Cup in a while, but they really aren't up to par with the other three teams. Hopefully they can play spoiler against Switzerland, because I would much rather have an above average South American team continuing in this World Cup than an above average European one.


Ecuador def. France  2-1
Switzerland def. Honduras  3-1

France (6 pts.) and Ecuador (6 pts.) advance

Group F

1.) Argentina (2-0-0  =  +2)

I guess you can say this has been a dream tournament for Leo Messi, scoring the game winning goal in both games, both being awesome individual goals themselves. He helped Argentina escape some serious infamy with that stoppage-time goal against Iran of all teams. The bad news of course is had that been a better team that Iran, Argentina is probably down 3-0 in the 91st minute when Messi does his magic. The rest of the team, most notably Higuan and Aguero, need to step up for Argentina to have any chance.

2.) Nigeria (1-0-1  =  +1)
3.) Iran (0-1-1  =  -1)

They played an awful game against each other, and each would likely be Round of 16 kindling against France, but someone has to go through. Each would be a nice story. Nigeria would be an African team in a World Cup that quite conceivably could get 3 African teams into the last 16. Iran would be the first Western Asian team to make it past the Group Stages. Iran, let's be real, deserved at least a draw against Argentina. They still have a chance if Nigeria falters against Argentina. They would be the ultimate underdog.

4.) Bosnia and Herzegovina (0-2-0  =  -2)

Honestly, how the hell did they make it out of UEFA Qualifying. It's a shame they are playing when Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Turkey is sitting this out.


Argentina def. Nigeria  3-0
Iran def Bosnia 2-1

Argentina (9 pts.) and Iran (4 pts.) advance

Group G

1.) Germany (1-0-1  =  +4)

A very uncharacteristic German performance kept them from already clinching, but they're in decent shape. It is hard for Ghana to catch them on Goal Difference, so even if they suffer a shock loss to the US they should go through on Goal Difference. Germany probably should have put one of those last couple chances away, and they look so incredibly dangerous going forward. I think they showed that those two center backs are beatable through. Still a top team that should get through off the strength of that '+4' goal difference alone.

2.) United States (1-0-1  =  +1)

Obviously, that was an incredibly tough loss. As someone who's seen a lot of tough losses as a fan, that one was hard to take. Of course, it really doesn't change much for the US. Given they're drawn with Group H and Belgium has been wholly underwhelming finishing 1st and 2nd means nothing. The cynic and tactician in me would really like Germany and US to collude and play to a draw, but the US is probably safe. They only way out is if Ghana wins by at least two goals or if the US loses by at least two. Of course, Germany has no incentive to win by more than 2. It would be awful if they don't make it. The success of the US team really will help keep the US connected into what has been an awesome World Cup. I fear National interest waning if the US is knocked out, so I really hope Cristiano Ronaldo's lone contribution to this tournament is that pass.

3.) Ghana (0-1-1  =  -1)
4.) Portugal (0-1-1  =  -4)

Ghana looks like a bigger skin for the US after the way they hung with Germany, but I was really impressed with their defending in getting back and keeping the German team at bay after the Germans reached a new level in the last 15. This Ghana team likely won't make it out, but they've sure shown again that they are the best tactical African team three World Cups running. For Portugal, they need a massive win and help, but they can give back to the country they just burned. The US would go through if Cristiano and Co. can get a result against Ghana (save a major Portugal win).


Germany def. USA  1-0
Ghana draw Portugal  2-2

Germany (7 pts.) and USA (4 pts.) advance

Group H

1.) Belgium (2-0-0  =  +2)

Belgium was a trendy sleeper pick for obvious reasons. They have major talent that plays on major clubs. They have the start of a potential Golden Generation.They've also been really underwhelming. They needed 70 minutes to score against Algeria, and they needed 89 to score against Russia, a team who outplayed them pretty substantially in the 2nd half. Belgium might have been a sleeper, but they've mostly just been asleep.

2.) Algeria (1-1-0  =  +1)
3.) Russia (0-1-1  =  -1)

In the final winner-take-all game (assuming South Korea doesn't beat Belgium), Russia has been very unlucky in this tournament, but could still get out of the group all the same if they just beat Algeria. Algeria was really impressive in both of their games, playing Belgium well and then running right through South Korea time and time again. It looks like them targeting French-born, ethnic Algerians is doing wonders for them. Of course, had they done that 25 years ago, they could have had Zinedine Zidane. This Russian teams starts slowly, but they always seem to reach a higher gear late in hte game. Hopefully for them they don't fall behind early again.

4.) South Korea (0-1-1  =  -2)

Technically they are still alive, but this is a team that was strafed by Algeria and should have lost to Russia if not for an all-time goalie blunder by Igor Akinfeev. South Korea made it out of the Group Stage last time around, but it was a similarly bad group and they were better. I can't see them going through, and they really don't deserve to after two lackadaisical performances.


Belgium def. South Korea  3-1
Russia def. Algeria  2-1

Belgium (9 pts.) and Russia (4 pts.) advance

Projected Round of 16 Games

(A1) Brazil  vs.  (B2) Chile
(C1) Colombia  vs.  (D2) Italy
(E1) France  vs.  (F2) Iran
(G1) Germany  vs.  (H2) Russia

(B1) Netherlands  vs.  (A2) Croatia
(D1) Costa Rica  vs.  (C2) Ivory Coast
(F1) Argentina  vs.  (E2) Ecuador
(H1) Belgium  vs.  (G2) USA

Thursday, June 19, 2014

It's Hard to Say Goodbye

I don't think I ever loved Spain. Not being a Barca fan, not being someone who bought into all their 'More than a Club' stuff that they tried to shove down everyone's throats, will do that to you about Spain. That said, I respected Spain, I feared Spain, at once upon a time I enjoyed Spain.

Let's take you back to 2008. It was a strange year for me and soccer. I wasn't that much of a soccer fan, following mainly just the EPL and getting very interested in the World Cup in 2006 because of Zidane. I didn't really know much about soccer outside England. I had a few friends who were as die-hard as they came, but again mainly about England. Then, Euro 2008 happened. It changed my life, in soccer terms. The sport was never really the same to me. It stopped being about goals, and drama, and became about art.

My Mom and Sister were in India that summer from May onwards. My Dad was working on-site in Connecticut from Monday through Thursday, and he would drive up Sunday night. I was still in high school. Add that all together, and yes, I was alone four days and four nights a week. I had already finished my SAT's, and by mid-May had finished taking the 6 AP Tests I took as a Junior, and most of my classes were reduced to nothing. I was living the dream. I always say my Senioritis started the very first week I was left alone. So, what did I do during those weeks alone? I rented a shit ton of movies from Blockbuster. I watched a ton of NBA and NHL playoffs. I just got my license in April, so I was driving around a lot. It was wasteful, since gas was like 3.75 a gallon, but I drove all over the place.

I also watched soccer. I mean really watched it. For the first time. I didn't know too many players, but I watched all of it. Euro 2008, which took place in Poland, was a great tournament. Spain was dominant, but Germany was starting their youth movement in earnest, Holland was rounding into the team it has been since, Italy was still good with the last remaining '06 winners. Teams like Russia and Turkey came out of nowhere to make the semifinals (and make Andriy Arshavin millions). It was a glorious tournament, and Spain won it playing a brand of football I have never seen. Remember, now, this was the summer before Pep Guardiola unleashed tiki-taka on the world, before Lionel Messi became LEO EFFING MESSI, and before the Barca revolution. This predated all that. In fact, the term tiki-taka was mostly created in that Euro '08 run.

I would have never been nearly as much of a soccer fan had I not sat down, alone in my parent's large house, sneaking (although no one was there to stop me) a few beers, and imbibed that tournament. Spain in 2008 was still the most dominant tournament team I have ever seen. Spain in the 2010 World Cup won all their knockout games 1-0, and easily could have lost the Semifinal and Final had Germany or Holland made one play. Spain in 2012 probably should have lost to Portugal in the Semifinals. Spain in 2008 probably shouldn't have done anything but win. My love of soccer started in earnest that day. More importantly, Spain's legend did as well.

That legend is over. Gone. Spain's Greatest Generation ended in a way no one would expect, and truthfully no one would want, with losing two games in the World Cup, by Four Goals and then by Two Goals. Worse, they never seemed threatening. The only goal they've scored was a (dubious) penalty, and I can count the amount of real chances they have had on one hand. It didn't used to be that way. In the past, when they would go to penalties at 0-0 (Italy, Euro '08 Quarterfinal), it was because they somehow hadn't scored on their million chances. Now, it was amazing they scored at all.

It was sad. My Dad, who is a Barca fan, was really sad. My Mom, who doesn't know much about soccer was sad, as even she knew the names Xavi and Iniesta and Casillas based on how prevalent they've been at the top of World Football recently. They didn't just lose. They got hammered. They got embarrassed. They got killed. Long Live the King.

The bigger question is how did this happen? How did it all end so quickly? They won Euro 2012 with one of the more dominant wins, a 4-0 win over Italy. Less than two years later they've been outscored 1-7, the worst of anyone in the tournament. The answer is complicated, but it is partly the same reason Barcelona's reign has pretty much ended as well. That is not surprising given the obvious ties between the two teams. The other is even less surprising, age. Xavi is 34. Puyol, their heart and soul in the past, is 34 and seemingly hasn't played in years. Xabi Alonso is 32. Fernando Torres is 10% of what he was in 2008. David Villa is 10% of what he was in 2010. The core is aging and pas their prime. This is what happens.

Spain was never going to last forever, but did it have to end that way? ESPN commentator Roberto Martinez spoke after the game how Spain fans shouldn't feel bad, they should feel happy, they should thank those players for giving them the best 6 years any country has ever had. I agree, and although their artistically beautiful, but boring style got grating come 2012 (somewhat by design, as as the years passed teams were more and more willing to give Spain the ball and slow the pace, as Spain in '08 ripped teams with speed as much as possession). But still, they gave me 2008.

I missed seeing a legendary team in France from 1998-2000. Brazil's legendary peak happened either before I was born, or coincided with France (1994-2002). Germany doesn't really have a legendary team because their essentially always about as good as any other time in history. Argentina once was a legendary group from 1978-19876. Holland had 1974-1978. Other than maybe Germany I can't see any team right now that can take that mantle next, and that's partly why I'm sad. There was a regal aspect to what Spain was doing, something that made me sense that this was more than soccer, it was royal, it was historical. That is all gone now.

In a larger way, maybe it is about a period of soccer, the first one I followed greatly, ending. Spain defined the post-Zidane era of soccer. They defined it at the National Level (this will be the first major tournament won by someone else since Zidane's last game). They almost equally defined it at the club level. They're style defined it most certainly at the tactical level. All the debates of whether Spain were beautiful or boring (answer: both, but increasingly the latter), whether teams that played against them were smart or cowardly in parking the bus (answer: the former, times 100). Whether this was the Greatest Collection of Players Ever (answer: at the National level, almost definitely). Whether this would ever end? And the answer to that last question is yes.

What is sad for me isn't that they lost. They were bound to not win a major tournament at some point. It was the way they lost, the way they bowed out early. It was a lot like watching Roger Federer in 2013 actually, losing earlier in slams than ever. Legendary teams should go out fighting, like Brazil in 2006, or France in 2006. They shouldn't go out in the 1st round without winning a game or even really being competitive. When we see Spain next in full in two years, Casillas will be gone, Xavi will be gone, Villa and Torres will be gone. Most likely Xabi Alonso will be gone. The whole gang will be gone. An era ended last night, it ended in the most stunning fashion ever. As a sports fan who is slowly realizing a full generation of sports has passed, as a sports fan who is realizing that the rookies in each sport are getting younger than himself, Spain's era ending so soon was hard to take.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Celebration of the Spurs, Pt. 3

59-22. What does that number represent? Oddly, it is one game off (59-23) to the average record of the Spurs five title teams (when adjusting their 37-13 record in the lockout-shortened 1999 season). No, but it also represents the run the Spurs went on.

They were down 22-6 just six minutes into Game 5 last night. The Heat were hitting everything and the Spurs hit nothing, including Parker missing shots, Green missing threes, and them looking very much like the team that couldn’t close out the Mavs in the 1st round. Then came the run, punctuated by back-to-back-to-back threes, all but one in transition, built around a block of Dwyane Wade by Tiago Splitter, and built with neither Tim Duncan nor Tony Parker on the floor. When it ended it was 65-44. The Heat got no closer than 14, and capitulated sitting LeBron with seven minutes to go in the Game down 18. 59-22 might very well be the lasting image of the Spurs dynasty. Their Mangum Opus. This whole series felt that way. This was the crowning achievement, responding from their worst defeat (blowing Game-6 in a most un-Spurs like fashion) to dominate the 2-time defending Champs. It was their crowning achievement, one 17 years in the making.

The Spurs have been on those runs before, you know. They closed out both the Mavericks in and Nets in the 2003 playoffs with giant 2nd half runs (42-15 over the Mavs in Game 6, 22-4 in Game 6 of the Finals). They all featured the same thing, a few blocks, and a lot of threes. It was Steve Kerr and Stephen Jackson in 2003. Nothing really encapsulates the Spurs quite like that, does it? The man who played the Patty Mills role for the 2003 Spurs is a man who retired, became an analyst, then became a GM, then became an analyst again, and has now been hired as a coach. He’s had a full post-player life… and the Spurs are still winning titles.

The Spurs never got the credit they deserved mainly because when they were on the game’s biggest stage, the Finals, they and the East champ always disappointed. They beat up on the woefully overmatched ’99 Knicks, and then beat the almost as woefully overmatched ’03 Nets, with only Duncan’s ridiculous stat-lines (21-20-10-8 in the clincher) fitting as a lasting memory. The played a dramatic 7-game series against the Pistons, but when you get the two best defensive teams of the past 15 years at their peak against each other, it won’t be too pleasing on the eyes. Then they beat up on the most over-matched of all the opponents in 2007. Of course, hiding behind their boring Finals’ dominance was a team that had to play in the better Conference year in and year out and was part of some memorable series.

Let’s remember the Spurs for being involved in probably the two most famous non-Finals series of the past 10 years, the 2006 and 2007 Western Semifinals against the Mavs and Suns. They played wildly entertaining games against those run-and-gun Suns and Mavs back in the day, often outscoring them instead of slowing the game down. The best example was the 2005 Western Conference Finals, when they beat the 62-20 Suns in 5 games, scoring 100+ each time. They won the first two games of that series, in the mad-house that was Phoenix at the time, 121-114 and 111-108. That was the brilliance of the Spurs, as that same season in the Finals, they won games 84-69 and 81-74. They could play all styles.

They still can. Lost in the talk of their incredible passing and pick-and-roll times ten offense that they run to symphonic perfection, was their defense becoming a Top-5 unit in the league again. In that epic 59-22 run the Spurs went on to close out the last vestiges of hope the Big Three had, the more impressive part was the ‘22’. They held the Heat, whose offense itself had been on a ridiculous roll in these playoffs, to 22 points over 24 minutes. They held them with great team defense. Duncan was everyone, looking like he did back in 2005. Kawhi Leonard was Bruce Bowen, but bigger and stronger. Ginobili was at his pestiest. Boris Diaw played the Robert Horry roll. On one end of the floor, they were the 2005 Spurs. On the other, they were the 2014 unit, a beautiful offensive machine.

While that win takes the bad taste of 2013 out of the mouth of many Spurs fans (and Heat haters), in a way it makes it worse. They were one play away from finally winning back-to-back titles last night, for Duncan and Popovich to tie the six titles that Phil and Michael won together. For the Spurs to tie the Bulls for 3rd place for most titles. Five titles is nice, but five titles just matches Kobe. Six is a different planet. There’s only two player-coach pairings to ever get six. One was Russell and Auerbach, in a very different NBA with far fewer teams. The other was, as mentioned, Michael and Phil. Now, admittedly they did it in 8 years while the Spurs would have taken 16, but winning is winning.

The Spurs also did an amazing thing last night, they made the Heat seem pitiable. We are used to the Spurs doing that to the Western Conference minnows. When they blew the doors of Dallas in Game 7, or Portland in Games 1, 2 and 5, it was old hat. It was the Spurs playing perfectly against a team that couldn’t keep up anyway. These last three games? This was something we have never seen. It has been a long time since a Finals was this uncompetitive. The Heat weren’t an ordinary team. Sure, signs were there all season long that this was the worst version of the Heat since ‘The Decision’. They had the worst record and worst scoring differential, and Wade and Bosh had their worst seasons, and somehow the bench got increasingly worse as the years wore on. Still, this Heat team rolled through the East playoffs. They scored on Indiana, the league’s best defense, at an inhuman rate. They were still the Heat, the two time Champs. It was almost unsettling to see them outscored 59-22.

I actually felt bad for the Heat. Champions should not go down this way. I may hate the Heat. I may still hate LeBron for choosing what I took as the easy way out back in 2010, for leaving Cleveland behind because he wanted a Championship given to him. But the Heat didn’t have it given to them. They faced many different points where they could have lost out on any titles. They were down 3-2 with a Game 6 to be played in Boston in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and LeBron delivered one of the great performances in recent years. They were then down 1-0, losing late in Game 2, to the Thunder in the Finals before pulling it out and rolling a Thunder team that was the best in the Durant/Westbrook era (mainly because of the presence of that 3rd guy, Mr. Harden). They had to play a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and didn’t quit when in an almost impossible situation last year against the Spurs. And of course, they lost the Finals in 2011.

Even in those 2011 Finals, and I rewatched the super-entertaining Game 5 of that series, the Heat seemed to at least have answers. The Mavericks won that Game and the series because LeBron was passive, and because the Mavericks outplayed them in critical moments (Game 6 was the only game in which the Heat did not have a 4th-quarter lead). The 2014 Finals were different. The Heat were just worse. There were no late-game situations that the Heat blew. In fact, discounting Game 1 because of the Cramps/AC-Gate, the Heat were the team that made plays down the stretch of the one game that was close in the 4th quarter. They stole Game 2 because the Spurs missed 4-straight freethrows. The Spurs made sure they were never in that position again.

It is hard to really say what the best Spurs performance was of the last three games. Was it Game 3, with their 71 first half points? Was it Game 4, with their excellent play throughout on both sides of the ball against a team that had to win it? Or was it Game 5, with a slow start but a dominant middle the likes we rarely see? Who knows, really. The Spurs give so many moments.

In a weird way, a great comparison to the Spurs is Rafael Nadal in one sense: their ability to play a starring role in some incredible games and series. Despite being hailed by their critics as boring (and I’m talking about the 1999-2010 Spurs here), both are one-half of some of the best contests in their sport. I’ve already mentioned the 2006 and 2007 Western Conference Finals, but they also played a highly entertaining 6-game series against a good Sonics team in 2005, and a great series against the New Orleans Hornets in Chris Paul’s should-have-been-MVP season. The Spurs have played in some fantastic games, with flawless execution by highly skilled players. They may never get the credit they deserve because only a few have been in the Finals, but they’ve been the team that should be most associated with this post-Jordan era of basketball in every way, not just in their ruthless excellence.

We will never see a team like the Spurs again. We may see a team that wins five titles, or more titles. We may see a team that is this dominant, that strings together a long run of 50-win seasons, that can run a team off the court in the finals like that. We may see all those things. What we won’t see is a team do that in that particular way. We won’t see one of the Greatest Players Ever stay 17 years in one city, particularly a city that isn’t known for being the most exciting. We won’t see a team be able to nail late draft pick after late draft pick. We won’t see a team be able to keep their main stars in affordable contracts forever. And we won’t see a coach like Gregg Popovich come in and stay two steps ahead for the league for an entire decade.

The Spurs did things their way. That way included no one saying anything, staying out of the media spotlight (aside from Tony Parker’s extra-marital engagements); it included a coach who became more openly prickly yet more openly respected over time. It also included getting three players to subjugate themselves for the team for years and when the top guys buy-in, the lesser guys have no real option to not do the same. The Spurs did everything pretty close to perfect for the past 15 years. They got their ‘One for the Thumb’ to finish things as well.

I don’t know what the lasting memory of the Spurs will be. I guess it depends what you really think the takeaway message is. If you think it is how great Tim Duncan is, I guess it will be his 21-20-10-8 performance in Game 6 to close out the Nets in 2003 (or the half dozen other absurd games he had that postseason). If you think it is about their unending success on defense (which it was this year as well), maybe it will be their defensive masterpiece against the Pistons in '05. If you think it was about them being the scourge of basketball in the mid-2000's, maybe you think it was Robert Horry checking Steve Nash into the boards. If you think it was about beautiful basketball, maybe it was their tic-tac-toe possession that ended in a Diaw three in Game 6 against the Thunder.

There are endless supply of memories. The Spurs have supplied the NBA with more great games and great moments and 'Oh My God, How Good Are They' plays to account for 10 teams. But honestly, what I will remember is how the Spurs reacted to losing. Arguably their three worst playoff defeats were when they were beaten by eh 2002 Lakers (a team they were better than) losing the last two games ever at the Alamodome, when they fell victim to Derek Fisher's shot with 0.4 seconds left, when Ginobili fouled Dirk up 3 in Game 7 in '06, and the million things they did wrong in last year in Game 6. How did they follow up those disappointments: title, title, title and title.

In fact, the last four years of Spurs basketball are the best evidence. They surprised everyone by going 60-22 in 2010-11, but were knocked off by Memphis in the 1st round. They responded by going 50-16 in the lockout season, and winning 20 straight games heading into Game 3 of the Conference Finals. The Thunder then proceeded to run them off the court. How did they respond? By making the Finals. Then, they blow the Finals in teh worst way possible, and respond by winning it in such dominant fashion that Miami sat LeBron with half the 4th quarter left in Game 5.

The Spurs never repeated (they might next year), but they endured. They endured the game changing, the players changing, Super Teams getting built and then falling apart. They endured so many years of playoff losses (10 times they've lost in the playoffs in 15 years), but always came back stronger. That is what I'll always remember about the Spurs. They fought, they won, in any and every way possible.

Friday, June 13, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: A to Z

A is for Argentina

Argentina needs to go far. They haven’t gone past the quarters since 1990. They’ve lost back-to-back QFs against Germany, losing first in penalties in Germany and then getting hammered 4-0 in South Africa. Those are bad results for a country who has been this talented. They have the best player in the world, and a good core of players around him that all play in Europe. They need to do something. They’ve been given a laughable group (Iran, Bosnia, Nigeria) and one of the weaker groups to draw in the Round of 16 (France, Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras). They should reach the Quarters but the problems could start there. If Germany struggles in their Group of Death, they could even end up drawing Germany again. Other than the team to come next, there is no team under more pressure than Argentina.

B is for Brazil

Speaking of pressure, here’s a team that has been disappointing in the last two World Cups, losing to the eventual runner-up in 2006 and 2010, and is now playing a World Cup at home. Here is the good news for Brazil: they haven’t lost a game at home since 2002. They strolled to the Confederations Cup at home last year, including dissecting a full-bodied Spain 3-0 in the Final. They have one of the best players in the World in Neymar, who is a rare player who so far has played better for country than club, and a young team that can play both ways. The bad news: this team will be under more pressure than any team in a long, long, long time in a World Cup. They have to win this at home. They have to. There is no other alternative really.

C is for Coming Home

I decried the South African World Cup in 2010. It was awesome that Africa got the chance to host one, and the stadiums were beautiful, but it just felt weird. These weren’t traditional Football Stadiums, with tight, cramped corners, and seemed more sprawling like the NFL. The fans blew Vuvuzelas and the tapestry of a normal World Cup was gone. After going to Cape Town and seeing that beautiful stadium empty and wasting money, it hurt even more. Now, Brazil spent a giant amount of money, but this is a footballing country. This is a return to what we had in 2006, with great stadium atmospheres, awesome crowds and a country that knows how to host a party.

D is for Deadly Groups

There is no one real Group of Death in this World Cup. Most American’s believe it is their Group, Group G, that features Germany (always a lock to reach at least the Quarters), Portugal (who have the world’s best current player) and Ghana (who has made it out of the Group Stage of the last two World Cups). America seems like a pick to go 4th. I totally disagree. First, we are overrating Portugal, a country who outside Cr7 is past their prime or not yet there (and now Cr7 might be gimpy), and more so Ghana. American fans hate Ghana as they knocked the US out of the World Cup in 2006 and 2010, but this Ghana team is not as good as those Ghana teams. Germany is awesome, but the rest of the Group isn’t. Also, there are other groups that are as great. Group D, with England, Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica, who is no pushover in a South American World Cup, is right there with Group G. Group B has Spain, Netherlands and Chile. There are a lot of tough groups right now, which should make for an even better tournament.

E is for England?

This England team is unlike any other in recent World Cups. The ‘Golden Generation’ of Beckham, Terry, Lampard, the brothers Cole and others are basically gone, ceding the English team to a whole cast of young characters. Rooney is still there, but so is Sturridge and Welbeck and Sterling and a bunch of young blokes who can run and play attacking football. They have more youth than anyone realizes but they are in the wrong group for youth. They have to compete against the team that is the opposite of youth in Italy and one of the popular darkhorses in Uruguay. There is a realistic chance that England is by far the 3rd most talented team in their own group. Even if they get knocked out before the knockout round, it will be a very interesting road to get there.

F is for Franck

Just like that, France’s World Cup hopes went right out the door. Last week France announced that Franck Ribery will miss the World Cup. He is France’s best player and while they themselves are going through a youth movement, Ribery was the key. France is in a tough group but still could advance, but will it matter? Will a token Round of 16 game matter for a country that has at best played token games since Zinedine Zidane retired? Ribery was great as an up-and-comer in the 2006 World Cup, and then fell victim to being ‘the next Zidane’ in 2010. He has upped his game over the last four years and this could have been a great showcase. Instead, it is a showcase of how much they might miss him.

G is for Golden Goal… as in Please Come Back

This will be the third straight World Cup since they removed the Golden Goal, and I’m so against it. Sure, it may not be fair, but let’s be real, how many times do both teams actually score in our non-Golden Goal World Cup? The famous example is a Italy vs. Germany game back in the day that went to Extra Time tied at 1-1, and ended 4-3. Well, that was 42 years ago. What’s more likely is the ridiculous way the Champions League Final ended, with Real winning 4-1 after entering Extra Time 1-1. The positive aspects of the Golden Goal are too much to avoid. The Golden Goal in hockey is one of the best part of NHL Playoff’s overtime periods, that terribly awesome feeling that at any moment it could all be over. Soccer isn’t like that as much since the buildup to goals in generally longer, but man were some of the famous Golden Goal’s back in 2002 great. Please bring it back, FIFA.

H is for (the) Hand Ball Redemption

Luis Suarez was pretty unknown heading into the 2010 World Cup, and while his teammate Diego Forlan ended up winning the Golden Ball (player of the tournament), Suarez cemented his place in World Cup infamy with his handball at the end of the Ghana game. Personally, I never had any problem with it. It isn’t like he got away with it. He was punished, banished out of a potential World Cup Semifinal and Final, and if Ghana makes the penalty no one cares. Instead, Ghana missed, Uruguay won, and this was added as most people’s starting point when discussing Suarez’s other let’s say odd behavior… like biting Branislav Ivanovic, or being racist towards Patrice Evra, or diving a lot. Suarez just completed one of the most dominant seasons for a striker in EPL history. His team is one of the five favorites. He has a chance to redeem himself well in this World Cup near his home country.

I is for International Stakes

The World Cup isn’t the best football showcase in the World. No, that is the Champions League, where you get deeper teams that play together all the time, that know each other better. You get a higher quality there. What the World Cup is, is the best football spectacle. There is nothing better than the atmosphere of a World Cup game, with the fans’ patriotic displays, the unbelievable Nationalism, the party-like atmosphere all over the host country. Nothing brings the World together like this tournament. Civil Wars in Africa stopped in 2006 and 2010 for the World Cup. Business around the world goes to shit during the World Cup. Everyone loves the World Cup. There is truly nothing like it.

J is for Jogo Bonito?

Jogo Bonito is most associated with the flair and artistry that Brazil plays with, especially back in the Pele, ZIco, Garrincha, Carlos Alberto, Tostao days. The terms is still associated with Brazil after their glorious run form 1994-2002. The term didn’t transfer, but the idea of beautiful soccer did, to Spain from 2006-2012. Well, who has it now? After two years of Barcelona falling back to earth and at times getting beaten soundly, and Pep going to Bayern and getting embarrassed by Real Madrid, and counterattacking teams becoming more successful, what is the beautiful game right now? There is something pleasing to watching Spain’s passing triangles still, but it gets boring. The speed and power of the German counterattack is fun. Maybe it will be Brazil? Who knows, but soccer is at an interesting time stylistically.

K is for K(C)ards

Ok, I'm cheating here. Cards obviously starts with a 'C' and not a 'K', but I couldn't think of anything for K. Not much really starts with the letter 'K' really. Anyway, cards will play a role, they always do. They played a role in 2002, when a dubious yellow to Michael Ballack put him out of the final. They played a massive role in 2006 with the infamous red to Zidane. They played a big role in 2010 when loads of players had to miss the Final, and the ref of the final, the one and only Howard Webb, didn't give out nearly enough cards. Cards will happen in this tournament, they'll effect games. Bad yellows knocking players out of huge games. Bad reds putting teams at huge disadvantages. There is always refereeing controversies, and cards are usually the reason.

L is for Landon Donovan

He won’t be at the World Cup, unceremoniously cut when the roster was whittled down to 23. Still, his presence, or more accurately lacking presence, will be felt. Jurgen Klinsmann has largely been left alone to do what he sees fit with the US National Team since his appointment, but questions will be asked if he fails here. Honestly, if they do as badly as they did in 2006 when placed in a similarly tough group (eventual World Cup Winner Italy, Ghana and the Czech Republic that time) he might get canned. This is a decision that was met mostly with round criticism, to just jettison the heart and soul of the USMNT, but it does make some sense with a team that tries to get younger every four years. Still, Jurgen Klinsmann’s honeymoon is over, and Donovan could be the catalyst for a divorce.

M is for Messi

This is it really for Leo Messi. He’s squarely in his prime, and given the miles on his body, his injury history the past two seasons, and his declining goal scoring rate (going from ridiculously awesome to just awesome), this is Messi’s time to be the best player in the World. All the Greats had their World Cup. Maradona had 1986. Cruyff had 1974. Ronaldo had 2002. Zidane had two, but one squarely in his prime in 1998. Messi did nothing in the 2010 World Cup. He will be over 30 come 2018 and I can’t see him playing too well in Russia if he can’t do it near his homeland. I have to think he comes out and plays well against some bad teams in the Group Stage.

N is for Nationalism

There is nothing quite like the Nationalism and Patriotism of the World Cup. It’s even more interesting a dynamic in a cultural melting pot like the United States, where most soccer fans (or once-every-four-years World Cup fans) will root for the USMNT, but also take up their own country that they are ethnically aligned with, be it France, Germany, England, Portugal, Brazil, Italy (especially, Italy) or wherever it may be. The other interesting angle with the Nationalism in the World Cup is all the World History present. When Germany plays anyone the lasting memory of the warring of the 20th Century is still present. When England plays a former colony, when any European team plays an African team. There is more than just sport involved in these games, there is legacy, country and pride.

O is for Oscar Tabarez

Coaching generally isn’t a huge factor in World Cups. The teams aren’t really together enough for a coach to have that much of an impact. Sure, it may mean something that the last two World Cup winners were coached by people who had tons of success at the club level as well (Vicente Del Bosque with Real Madrid and Marcello Lippi with Juventus and AC Milan), but that’s generally not the case (Hello Raymond Domenech). Oscar Tabarez of Uruguay may be the exception. His work with the 2010 team was amazing, creating a structured team environment that could play defense extremely well but still push forward. They have the same thing going for them this time. Suarez is a great player. Edinson Cavani is a great player. The whole roster has good players, but Tabarez makes them go.

P is for Patriotism

Let's talk about the USMNT for a bit. I already talked about them when bringing up the Group of Death and Landon Donovan's exclusion, but let's talk about the team right now. The team is still quite good and while it wouldn't be a shock if they didn't make it out of a really tough group, I wouldn't be surprised if they made it. They train better than most teams in the World in terms of physical and endurance training which should serve them well playing in many different places. They are definitely a team that should, over time, make it out of the Group Stage more often than not. They have a lot of players who either play in Europe or are good enough to but don't since MLS is getting (somewhat) better. The future of the USMNT is still bright. They'll never be as good as the European powers, but they can be a Uruguay.

Q is for Qatar

It probably won’t be mentioned much during the 2014 World Cup, and it is still 8 years away, but the 2022 World Cup being in Qatar will be a major story over the next four years. Already we’ve had Sepp Blatter saying he regretted the selection, albeit primarily due to the heat in Qatar necessitating the tournament to be held in winter. We’ve had a massive bribing scandal uncovered, though the people involved haven’t really said much since. We’ve also had the problem with Qatar itself, as the stadiums need to be built and people are dying literally by the hundreds and eventually thousands in trying to build them, with the migrant workers living in conditions that are almost worse than slums. I won’t be surprised if Qatar is essentially stripped of the World Cup, but before we bash them too much, let’s be honest for a minute. The chances of them being the only nation that did some bribing and side payments in the leadup to the 2018 and 2022 hosting decisions are really low.

R is for (la) Roja Furia

Spain has won the last three major International Tournaments they have played in, winning the Euro 2008 and 2012, being the bread to the meat of the sandwich that was the 2010 World Cup. They broke all types of streaks in 2010, of course becoming the first Spanish team to win a World Cup, and then becoming the first European team to win a World Cup outside of Europe. Even with all their pedigree, their still loaded roster, Spain is slightly under the radar. Most of their core from 2008-12 is aging, and they’re depending on a lot of, admittedly really talented, players to pick up the slack. Take David Silva, who was a starter and integral part of the 2008 side, then was pushed aside for the Barca contingent in 2010-12 and is now back in favor. It’s guys like him, Juan Mata, and Diego Costa who will have to step up. After winning the last three tournaments with essentially the combined Real Madrid and Barca rosters (minus Messi and Cr7), Spain is looking to other sides to win.

S is for South America

A big theme of the early stages of the 2010 World Cup was the success of South America. No South American team lost to anyone other than other South American teams through the Group Stages. Then, they all fell like flies and we were left with just one remaining in the Semifinals (after Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil lost to three European teams). Well, now we are physically in South America. They will have more fans. They will be used to the weather. They have the advantage. Historically only South American teams have won World Cups in the Western Hemisphere. I think a lot are people are counting on that, on the South American teams playing well. I mean, if the Chile/Colombia/Ecuador’s play well, that makes those groups more competitive. If South America does well, the World Cup does well, and if the World Cup does well, the fans do really well.

T is for Thomas Muller

I had to bring up Germany sometime, and stupidly used 'Golden Goal' for G, so I have to shoehorn it here. With the late injury to Marco Reus, and questions regarding the health of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the form of Mesut Ozil, the once co-favorites really need their most sturdy player to step up. Muller was a breakout star in the 2010 World Cup, and has been a clutch player for Bayern for years. See his 3 goals in the 2013 UCL Semi against Barca. See his goal in the 2012 UCL Final. He hasn't fit perfectly in Pep's system, but he's free from that now and needs to pick up the slack. Somehow, despite being Semifinalists at the 2006 and 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, and the Finalist in Euro 2008, the German National Team is stacked, but injury makes them less stacked and they'll need Mr. Reliable more than ever.

V is for Vuvuzelas Are Gone

The scourge of the earth of the 2010 World Cup, other than the average level of drama in the games, was the Vuvuzela, that loud, buzzing, awful horn that ruined the game day atmosphere. You couldn’t hear the awesome chanting and singing that is so often the highlight of World Cup games. Those awesome crowds will be back in Brazil, and the buzzing will be gone. Replaced by beautiful, beautiful singing and chanting and dancing. Personally, I can’t wait for the first time I sit down and watch Brazil play Croatia and not have to deal with the sound of that idiotic horn.

W is for Winter

One of the more interesting aspects of Southern Hemisphere World Cups is that they take place in winter in the host country. Now, since the Southern Hemishpere doesn’t stretch as far South and the Northern does North, winter’s generally aren’t as bad in the Southern Hemisphere, assuming no World Cup is played in the Andes. That said, Brazil is a giant country, with very disparate weather across it’s plains. There are host cities that will be really cold. There are host cities that will be really warm. This World Cup will really test the fitness but also the adaptability of the teams. Who can adapt best to very different weather conditions, and can European players, who aren’t used to playing in cold in June and July, adapt if they have a big game in a cold place?

X is for Xavi and Xabi

I’m pretty sure I used the same two guys for the ‘X’ in 2010. Back then, they were the heart and soul of the Spanish side. Now, they are the aging hangers-on, but Spain will need them. There are many legendary players in this world Cup, but these are the two leading ones who almost certainly won’t be around when we all meet again in Russia in 2018 (Andrea Pirlo being another big one). Xavi and Xabi are perfect players, but injuries and age slowed them down in recent times. It will be interesting to see how much they play in a stacked midfield. Vicente del Bosque has been loathe to go away from the Golden Guys from ’08-’12, but he might need to change and pass it along to someone else.

Y is for Young Stars

In 2002, it was Ronaldinho. In 2006, it was Lionel Messi. In 2010, it was Luis Suarez. For the past three World Cups, one bright young star who wasn't yet at his prime announced himself to the World. Ronaldinho, despite his wonder goal against England, wasn't really the biggest part of the Brazil team that won. Messi scored just one goal, but the at-the-time 19 year old showed flashes of what will come. Luis Suarez was relatively unknown until Uruguay's surprise run to the SFs. Who will it be in 2014? Maybe one of the non-Neymar Brazilian players, or one of the new Spaniards, or maybe even a non-Messi player from Argentina. Someone will step up and announce himself as a major presence for the next 4 years. Who will 2014 break out?

Z is for Zidane

Just like last time, we close with Zizou. This isn’t as much about Zizou, as now we’re a full 8 years from when he set the world on fire in 2006, but this is about the legacies at stake here. Zidane is a Top-10 player all time, and what helps cement that case is what he did for France. He scored the two goals that opened the 1998 World Cup Final in France (the last team to win at home), and then was the best player in the world during the 2006 World Cup despite being 34. He achieved his Legend status by playing brilliantly in World Cups as well as his awesome performances at Juve and Real Madrid. Well, that’s what is available for both Messi and Ronaldo here. Both have been underwhelming in their careers internationally, despite being on loaded teams, despite having ample opportunities. They’ve combined to not score a single goal in knockout rounds of World Cups. That needs to change. This is their time.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.