The world championship of soccer is going to be decided this summer in Brazil in a little tournament known as the World Cup. It is the biggest sporting event on the planet, surpassing even the Olympics. For those who aren’t addicted to the game, the whole thing can be something of a bore, rather the way I feel about Fashion Week (I am quite possibly the least fashionable man in New York). However, good manners and social precedent demand that we sometimes make small talk about things that don’t matter to us. At the same time, no one wants to sound like a fool.
So, to help some of you who don’t give a damn but may be seeing someone who does, here are a few things to know about the World Cup, which kicks off June 12 and runs through July 13.
First off, the competition is among nations rather than specific clubs. Manchester United and Barcelona aren’t going to be there — England and Spain will.
Second, there are 32 teams in the tournament. They were decided by regional tournaments that started about three years ago. The host nation and the winning nation of the previous World Cup automatically get a spot. The other 30 are there based on performance and geography. The fact is that there are more berths for European teams than Asian or African teams. This is technically based on the caliber of soccer in each region, but there is a certain amount of politics that interferes, too.
Third, the tournament is set up in two different stages. In the first, the teams are broken up into groups of four, and each nation in a group plays all the others — three games each. The two teams with the best records in each group move on to the knock-out round. So finishing second in your group isn’t the end of the world. Finishing third is. Winning a game earns a side three points in the standings, a tie gets you one point, and there’s nothing for losing. So if you win all three games in your group, you’ll have nine points. This is the same system used in all the major soccer leagues. Since it is possible to have a tie in the standings (a team with three ties has three points, and a team with one win and two losses has three points), there are a load of tie breakers, but they are too boring to worry about now.
Fourth, once we’re down to 16, it’s just like the NCAA Basketball tournament, win or go home. And in this round, there are no tie games — there is a shoot-out at the end if need be. The winner from Group A will play the runner-up from Group B and so on. By the time we get to this stage, there are no easy games, and people will get crazy because their side lost a close one.
If you don’t know much about the relative strength of each side, but some jerk has asked you to join an office pool or something, there is a way to make an intelligent guess. The organizing body is FIFA (the French name translates to Federation of International Football Associations — soccer is an abbreviated term for association football). FIFA is hated by just about every soccer fan for some slight or other in the past. The body serves the same function globally that the NBA or Major League Baseball’s corporate offices do for American basketball and baseball. Anyone who likes the league commissioner probably was inspired by his high school vice principal, too. However, FIFA ranks the nations based on numerous factors, and their rankings are reasonably accurate.
For instance, Spain at No. 1 does have a better side than Mexico at No. 19. Is Germany at No. 2 worse than Spain? That’s a tougher call. Just be careful that you don’t get too far into the ratings, as soccer is full of surprises. Also, if you think Scotland at No. 22 in the FIFA rankings will beat Algeria, which is No. 25, you may notice a few smiles — Scotland didn’t qualify for a spot, while Algeria did (different qualifying regions).
And so, the real question most neophytes (that is, Americans) want answered: How will team USA do? I’d like to say the Yanks are in the running for a spot in the quarter or even semi-finals, but I am a realist. We have drawn Group G, the Group of Death. Every World Cup has had one, a group in which there are no weak teams, therefore, no easy points.
On June 16, America (ranked No. 13 by FIFA) plays Ghana (ranked No. 38 by FIFA). This is the first game for both sides, and as such, the players will be nervous, and that means there will be more mistakes and mental lapses than usual. I think the U.S. wins this 2-1, but it could just as easily go the other way. The next game for the USA is June 22 against Portugal (FIFA ranks them third). An American win would be a huge upset, a draw would be a respectable outcome. I think the U.S. loses this 1-0. Finally, America plays Germany on June 26, and I just don’t see a way past a 3-1 loss. So my prediction for the Americans is three points in the standings at best, and a ticket home after the first round.
And the other big question, who will win it all? Brazil is the host, and that should tell you all you need to know. They aren’t about to lose at home — they’d have to emigrate if they did (presuming they even were able to get to the airport alive).