Previewing the World Cup
Every four years an event comes along that is bigger than any other in the world. It has started wars, ended rebellions, crippled economies and liberated countries.In Brazil it is The Beautiful Game, in the United Kingdom it is football, in the Spanish speaking world it is ftbol, soccer in America and fusbol in this years host country of Germany.Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, period. And the World Cup is the crme de la crme of the game. The absolute best players in the world assemble based on nationality. They do not play for insanely huge pay checks on super teams such as Rel Madrid, Arsenal, Manchester United or AC Milan. They play for pride, they play for country and they play for the billions of fans who swell with national pride every four years in search of that glorious golden idol.In the United States, soccer is gradually gaining popularity. That popularity should grow this year, due to the U.S. squad entering the finals ranked fifth in the world. A ranking perhaps undeserved and perhaps unrespected by much of the world, but an official ranking nontheless.With 32 quality teams pitted against each other for the top honor and bragging rights for the next four years, anything can happen.
Having qualified for the World Cup 12 times, El Tricolor is no stranger to what it is about to face.Currently ranked fourth in the FIFA standings, Mexico has all chances of advancing past the group stage of Germanys big event.Ricardo Lavolpes side had no trouble qualifying out of their region, suffering only two real blemishes, a draw in Panama and a loss to the United States in Columbus, Ohio.Mexico has solidity and strength throughout the squad. Vets like Rafael Marquez and Oswaldo Sanchez provide ample experience. Combine that with the youthful talent of players like Carlos Salcido and Francisco Fonseca and Mexico has a blend of strengths that make them a tough team.While Mexico is always on top of the CONCACAF nations, El Tri does not have the strongest World Cup record when it comes to finals played on European soil.Mexicos best results have come in 1970 and 1986, both times reaching the quarterfinals, both times losing to eventual runners up and both times hosting the finals.While Mexico has not been placed in an easy group, it is a group the Mexican side is capable of advancing out of.Along with Mexico, Group D consists of Iran, Angola and Portugal, each a dangerous team.Currently ranked 23 by FIFA, Iran is looking to prove itself throughout the next month. Having only been to the finals twice, Iran has what is widely accepted as its strongest team in history, with a balance of experience and youthful talent. Iran will be Mexicos first test, as El Tri opens against the Iranian side on June 11 in Nuremberg.After six attempts and 21 years, Angola has finally qualified for a World Cup finals. While no one expects them to get very far, and Mexico should (theoretically) have little trouble with the African nation, they are for that very reason dangerous. Ranked 57 by FIFA, Angolas recent success on its own continent has given pride to its people and players, all who stem from a country ravaged by war and poverty. Angola will be the underdog in group D, often a deadly force in the group stage.Portugal should be Mexicos biggest competition in the group stage, and in all rights both teams should advance. Ranked seventh by FIFA, Portugal is entering the finals on a very impressive qualifying record. Portugal blew away all European competition on the points board, scoring 35 goals and conceding only five in qualifying rounds while winning nine of their 12 matches.
The United States World Cup team enters this tournament ranked fifth by the FIFA World Federation, a ranking far above anything the Yanks have ever achieved in the history of soccer.While most of the world has zero respect for that rank, and even US team members such as attacking midfielder Landon Donovan have expressed skepticism about the ranking, it does reflect the improvement in U.S. soccer in the past two decades. In the 94 World Cup, which America hosted, the U.S. team was not fantastic. In Korea/Japan, we shocked the world by making the quarterfinals only to lose to eventual runner up Germany, who arguably should have won the entire thing.Germany is the yanks opportunity to prove that finish four years ago was no fluke.The strength of the United States side is a solid blend of veteran experience such as Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna and young talent like Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, who are youthful but old enough to have been on the team in Korea and know what a World Cup finals is all about.The U.S. squad looked strong in qualifying rounds, making the cut with three games still to play in North, Central American and Caribbean qualifiers. Despite suffering a loss to Costa Rica late in the tour, the U.S. still finished on the top of the region for the first time in history.The Stars and Stripes may have a quality team with a legitimate chance at glory for the first time ever, but one very substantial hurdle stands in its way.The dreaded Group of Death. In every World Cup, one of the eight four team groups stands out as the obvious group of death. Four solid squads, equally matched, fans agree that each team probably deserves to advance past the group stage, but only two will make it.With this years evenly matched and equally tough groups, there may not be one single Group of Death, but with Italy, the Czech Republic, Ghana and the U.S., Group E is as tough as any. Italy enters the final rounds ranked 12 by FIFA, and carries a long tradition of solid teams. The Czechs come into the cup ranked second, and sport a team capable of backing that rank. Ghana, while newcomers to the World Cup finals, is not to be overlooked. Always competitive in the African Cup of Nations, Ghana is also coming off a 3-1 route of South Korea in their last warm up before the big show. The United States will have to be on its game right out of the gate, as the yanks open on June 12 with the Czech Republic. The world will find out right away if the Americans are as strong as they appear.