Wednesday, June 11, 2014

BRASIL!!!!! - The World Cup Before the First Whistle

As World Cups go, there can be no BIGGER tournament than one hosted in Brazil.  With such a football-crazed nation, it can't be anything short of an outstanding success.  Yet, something tells me that local authorities (seriously reinforced throughout the tournament's duration) and organizers will have their hands full.  Hopefully they learned a thing or two from last year's riots during the Confederations' Cup.  Clearly most of the locals are not happy about being burdened with all the financial repercussions that come with hosting such a massive event.  Especially since this (at a whopping overall investment of $14 Billion  - yes, with a "B") will be the most expensive one to date. [by comparison, Germany '06 cost $6 billion, South Africa $4 billion, and USA '94 - only $300 million].  Doubtful they'll be able to recuperate that cost...

In such a vast country, transportation between games will be a mess, especially for some of the more remote locations, and security issues will undoubtedly surface, despite promises from the organizers to beef up the ranks of police and security personnel.  And I'm sure Rio and São Paulo will be overcrowded beyond belief.  South Africa 4 years ago saw barely half a million foreign tourists; the projected numbers for Brazil are 8 times that!

And if you read some of the recent articles, the general mood in the country doesn't quite reflect excitement.  Some of that is due to the financial impact [or burden] I mentioned above, and some to the lack of "Brazil factor" that seems to have been stripped out on several fronts.  For example, the official song - J Lo and Pitbull - singing in English and Spanish (which doesn't sit that well with a Portuguese-speaking country) and barely featuring Cláudia Leitte (Brazilian) for a verse or two; frankly, not a big fan of the tune.  And I like this one better!

The Maracanã - once with a record attendance of almost 200,000 (in the legendary 1950 World cup final lost to Uruguay; apologies to Brazilians for bringing that up) - has been transformed into a modern venue that will hold just under 79 thousand.  I doubt the historical character of that legendary venue (a sort of Mecca for any football lover) will seep through... Oh, and the famous samba drums, that always pulse and pound throughout the games in Brazil, have been banned from the stadiums! [why didn't they do that with the vuvuzelas in South Africa?].  Instead, the percussion will be supplied by thousands of noisemakers called Caxirolas, which seem like nothing more than a baby's rattle toy.  What next??? And why the need for such trinketry?

I'm gonna say one more thing about the mascot, then we'll move on to the important stuff.  Fuelco the armadillo.  An armadillo??  Really?? And why Fuleco?? Why not a Jaguar (national animal) or a colorful macaw (would reflect the spirit of the country so much better... and the Rio animated series had so much success with the birds).  I'm sure so called "marketing experts" spent countless hours and money coming up with this thing... just like the colorful flowery theme I ranted about two years ago for the Euro 2012 tournament... but really??!

Still, I have a feeling all of this will become irrelevant once the World Cup gets under way.  The world is expecting a month-long party like only the Rio Carnival can deliver, and I'm sure they'll get it!  And judging by the latest reports, the excitement is already in full swing in Brasil.

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In keeping with tradition (preambles to the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros) here's my inflation-adjusted two cents on how I see this tournament go down...I'm two for two so far (calling Spain winners on both occasions) but something tells me my winning streak will stop here!

Group A:
Brazil and Croatia should top this group (in this order) without too many problems.  Sure, the Aztecs won the Olympic Gold against Brazil two years ago, but we all know the Cariocas won't allow that again.  Not on home soil, anyway.  And Mexico - despite some young talent - haven't been firing on all cylinders recently.  It took an act of God and playoff victory over New Zeeland to even get them here.  Cameroon finished last World Cup with 0 points.  I have a feeling they'll replicate that undesirable feat... Might snag one point from Mexico...

Brazil will be strong, no doubt.  And with the "home" support behind, we've all seen - in the Confederations Cup last year - the damage they can inflict when they hit their stride.  The challenge, however, is to get Neymar to up his game (frankly I don't think he impressed too many people in the inaugural season at Barça) and gel a team that has only played friendlies over the last few years.  Their Achilles heal - in my opinion - a midfield that lacks the inventiveness of some of the legends in that space (Ronaldinho, Kaka, Zico, Socrates, or Falcao, to name just a recent few).  Oscar has potential, but he's still young... I just hope they won't "choke" as they did against the Netherlands four years ago.  A World Cup without Brazil all the way to the final won't be as much fun (not to speak of potential riots)... 

Croatia - inexplicably absent from the last World Cup -  has a few strong players and will not go down easy.  Interesting to see if Modrić and Rakitić can be on the same sheet of music (I think they're very similar players, the latter slightly better).  Ditto for Mandžukić and Eduardo (although that coupling should be easier, as one is a point person and the other likes to attack from between the lines).  Their problem area: a somewhat inexperienced back 4 (aside from the veterans Srna and Ćorluka)

Group B:
The group opener should decide who comes in first.  Expect fireworks, as the Dutch are still sour after losing that final 4 years ago and being eliminated - with 0 points - in the group stages of Euro 2012.  Spain will be favorite - since they won the last 3 major tournaments - but age is starting to play a factor with some of the stars (Xavi in particular).  Yet despite a decline in form recently, they have a huge boost from a strong European season for the Spanish teams.  Just look at the finalists for the Champions League and UEFA Europa League winners.  It's up to del Bosque now to find the right mix and they should be able to go all the way through to the final.  Interesting to see how Brazil will react to Diego Costa, who switched allegiances in order to play for Spain...if he will get fit, that is...

Back to Holland for a second: they're clearly in rebuilding mode and I think the young apprentices have a lot to prove.  But with all of Van Persie's recent injuries, inconsistency from the fickle Robben, and the duo of van der Vaart (who I hear might not make it) and Sneijder past their prime, I don't see them going far.  Not with that inexperienced defensive block, despite the outstanding Tim Krul.

Chile should be entertaining to watch, and will put in a good fight...but even though they did well in the qualifiers, there's lack of solid players in the squad, aside from Arturo Vidal (Juve), Alexis Sánchez (Barça) and maybe Eduardo Vargas (Valencia).  As for the Aussies, I know they'll go down swinging and have a blast regardless of what the scorelines will show.   I love that about them!  And I don't think I've yet met an Aussie I didn't like.  I'm sure I'll meet one or two in Rio!

Ooops!  Cat's out of the bag!  Yes, I'll be down there for some of the action.  Bucket list material...  Experience of a lifetime... Dream come true... Kid in a candy store... All that! But i'll come back to that and the "live" personal impressions in a separate post...

Group C then...
This one's tricky.  I see Columbia and Japan go through, with their direct match deciding the order.  But Ivory Coast can spur a surprise here.  With a midfield orchestrated by Yaya Touré and Tioté, the "secret sauce" will be in the ability for Drogba, Kalou and Gervinho to find the net (something they're all very comfortable with).  Oh and Greece... sorry, but they'll be lucky with 1 point out of this group... In the end, regardless of who qualifies, they won't get past the round of 16 (against Italy and England and/or Uruguay)

Group D:
On paper, Italy and England should fill the top spots.  But it will come down to the direct England - Uruguay encounter.  Remember, Uruguay came in 3rd place 4 years ago, with Forlan et. Co. in amazing form.  Most of those players are still in the squad and have the experience.  The Three Lions, on the other hand, are bringing a rather young [read inexperienced] team who hasn't impressed in recent friendlies.  And that defensive block will have a lot of trouble against the likes of Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani.  It will be a matter of how hungry the young lads are in terms of making a name for themselves... Game on, Wilshere, Oxley-C [who's doubtful], Raheem, Sturrige and Welbeck!

As for Italy... That 4-0 defeat from Spain in the last Euros final must still be stinging!  They have something to prove, but this should be the swan song for Pirlo (35) and there are doubts about whether or not he can still deliver at this level... And then, there's the matter of the most volatile attacking partnership of Cassano and Balotelli... Imploding much?

Group E: 
The French and the Swiss have it easy in this group, and despite Ecuador being somewhat of a surprise in the qualifiers, the gap is seriously too big.  Unfortunately for Switzerland, they'll likely meet Argentina after the group stage...

Group F:
Naturally, Argentina should top this group.  The question is, do they have what it takes to go all the way?  Despite a solid squad, and some great names in the attaching portion of the roster, the over-reliance on Messi will hurt them.  And as much as I love Leo, he's not a leader, not in the sense that he can carry a team in the way Maradona used to [sure, most of you will cite troubled drug addiction and an explosive personality, but frankly, he single-handedly won titles for Napoli ('87 & '90) and Argentina ('86); quite possibly the greatest ever talent in the sport].  Plus, Messi has seen a lack of form (and/or interest) lately.  I hope he was saving it all for the World Cup and he proves me wrong.  Bosnia-Nigeria will decide second place, but neither of those two will go beyond the round of 16.  

Group G:
Germany first, Portugal second.  In any other group Ghana may have had a chance (I think they're the most complete African team) but here they'll come in 3rd, unfortunately.  The US will come back "pointless" which will see the departure of Jurgen Klinsmann.  OK.  Go on.  Accuse me of lack of patriotism.  I'm just being realistic here... This is a sport that in the US gets little attention (after the gridiron thing, baseball, basketball, hockey and even NASCAR).  Until that changes, can't have much more hope than that... 

Group H:
Russia and Belgium will play for the top spot.  Frankly, Belgium looks better on paper, and they may push harder just to avoid playing Germany/Portugal in the round of 16.  Something tells me it wouldn't matter beyond the group stage anyway... But as each World Cup seems to have a surprise team (Bulgaria '94, Croatia '98, Turkey '02, Portugal '06, Uruguay 2010) I see Belgium being the one this time around.  Courtois has grown into a huge keeper, Kompany, Vertonghen and Vermaelen defensive stalwarts, Dembélé and Fellaini strong in midfield, and up front, not too many teams have the options of Lukaku, Januzaj, Mirallas, and the "slippery" Hazard.  I think it's time for the Red Devils to once again reach the heights once set by Preud'homme, Pfaff, Gerets, Ceulemans and Scifo.

Round of 16:
Brazil will beat Holland and England (or Uruguay, because I'm not entirely convinced yet) will eliminate the winner of Group C (whether that's Columbia, Japan or Ivory Coast).

France will dispense of Bosnia (or Nigeria) and Germany of Russia.  Spain will eliminate Croatia and Italy will take out the second placed in "C".  Argentina will displace the Swiss and Portugal should move past Belgium... although I see the potential for it to go the other way around in this one... Frankly, the more I think about it (and based on my aforementioned "surprise") I'm gonna go with Belgium here...

QF and beyond:
Now the "big boys" start playing.  Mouth-watering matches all around.  Brazil will move on, either by getting that revenge against Uruguay, or beating England.  France-Germany has always been a classic (especially that semifinal in '82.  If you're too young to remember, try this).  I'll be pulling for the Germans (I loved them at the last World Cup and I think they're more of a "team" than the French (who always seem to implode when the pressure is on, and are now hurt by the absence of Ribery).  Spain will beat Italy once more, and Argentina will be eliminated by the winner of that other round of 16 game (the "surprise" Belgium); I just think Argentina lack the leadership and depth.  On the other hand, they [almost] have the home field advantage, since after Brazil and US they are the 3rd country in terms of tickets bought.  That could play a big factor!

Off to semifinals: Brazil vs. Germany will be hard fought, but home turf advantage will prevail.  Spain will win the other one comfortably, as Belgium will eventually run out of steam (the 'prerequisite' for any of these "surprise" teams that don't have much depth beyond the starting 11).  If by any chance Argentina beats Belgium (meaning the Red Devils run out of steam earlier) I'll still go with the Furia Roja, but a game against Argentina will be one for the ages!

Which brings us to a Germany third place and a fantastic final between Spain and Brazil.  Two teams that love to attack.  That should be a cracking game!  And we'll leave it at that.  Brazil will win, because they can't afford to lose another World Cup final on home turf, and because the Spain dominance has to stop at some point... but me, siempre voy a estar con la Furia Roja!

¡Arriba España!