5 Questions – World Cup edition
Over the ensuing month, 32 teams will compete in 64 matches across 12 venues in Brazil. The U.S. team will travel almost 8,900 miles all together, as they move from their training camp in São Paulo to Natal for the match against Ghana, to Recife to take on Germany, and to Manaus to face Portugal.
Spain enters the tournament as the defending champion and No. 1 ranked team in the world, looking to be the first repeat winner since Brazil turned the trick in 1958 and 1962. Other favorites include Germany, Brazil and Argentina.
Sometime in the early evening of July 13, one team will lift the World Cup trophy.
We’ve gathered a panel of soccer enthusiasts to talk about which games and players to keep an eye on, and try to figure out who will walk away with the sport’s ultimate prize.
Murray Alexander is an Arsenal fan living in Glasgow, Scotland. Follow him on Twitter @SadFactory.
Dr. Ralf Borrmann is a native of Mainz, Germany, a longtime soccer coach and chair of the Modern & Classical Languages Department at Western Reserve Academy.
Ash Day is a London-based Arsenal fan. He can be found on Twitter @AshDay29.
Craig Lyndall is one of the founders of Waiting For Next Year. Find him on Twitter @WFNYCraig.
Tom Moore is a Liverpool fan (and proprietor of this site) who realized what all the fuss was about after watching the U.S. draw with Italy in the 2006 World Cup.
Adam Yankay is a longtime soccer fan, a founding member of the soccer program at the University of Texas-Dallas, and a member of the Mathematics Department at Western Reserve Academy
Question: Which group stage game (or games) are you most looking forward to?
Murray: There’s quite a few. For starters, all of the Italy–Uruguay-England series of games in Group D. It’s an interesting group, because you have Luis Suárez going up against his Liverpool teammates, and then you have Roy Hodgson coaching against Italy, where he coached Inter Milan and Udinese. They are all coached by pretty tactically aware managers so they should be some interesting, competitive games.
Outside of those, Spain vs. Netherlands obviously stands out as the rematch of the last final. The big players remain from 2010 like Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, but there are a lot of new names in the Netherlands team since the last World Cup, as well as a new coach in Louis van Gaal, whereas Spain are pretty settled. There’s an interesting coaching matchup here, too, since van Gaal and Vicente del Bosque actually coached against each other as the managers of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The Group G games all look like good matchups, too, especially Germany vs. Portugal. I also think that Argentina vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina could be a pretty entertaining game.
Dr. Ralf: There are many games in the group stage which I am going to enjoy watching. The opening game (Brazil vs. Croatia) is certainly one of them. The host country’s team will try to establish early on their claim to win it all and to keep the trophy in Brazil (for the record sixth time). Any game they play will be worth watching.
I am also interested in seeing how the defending champion, Spain, is competing. Their opening game on June 13 is a replay of the 2010 final against the Netherlands and that was an ugly battle. You don’t want to miss that one.
For personal reasons, I don’t want to miss the Germany vs. USA game.
Finally, the Socceroos (of Australia) have received a lot of attention with their claim to take on any opponent and make the best of it, because they have nothing to lose. Teams with that attitude are always dangerous because they either play up to the level of their opponent or they make the opponent change their game plan and make mistakes along the way. This is where the underdog gets a chance to create upsets and we all love those games.
Ash: Right off the bat I’m excited about Brazil vs. Croatia, the opening game. Ever since I was young I’ve loved the first game of the tournament and watching Brazil is always fun. This one should be extra exciting thanks to the home support.
Spain vs. Holland will be unmissable. A rematch of the 2010 World Cup final, these two giants should put on a show. Maybe Holland will actually play football this time (they were barbaric in that 2010 final).
Craig: For me, it’s pretty simple. I’m so hyped about the United States and the World Cup that it’s the opening game. Ghana on June 16 is going to be one of those anticipatory sports moments for me that I will be nervous. I’ll have fan butterflies up to kickoff and it might last the whole game. There’s nothing like being emotionally invested in a soccer game.
Tom: All three games that involve the USA, naturally. As well as England’s games in Group D and Spain’s games in Group B.
Games with the English team are enjoyable because, as a Premier League fan, we know the players from watching them play over the course of the season. With England being placed in the same group as Uruguay and Italy, there is also the added benefit of watching and wondering what will come next from Luis Suarez and Mario Balotelli.
Adam: USA vs. Portugal. You have to go with a game in the group of death, don’t you? Let’s assume Germany wins every game. If the USA can at least tie Ghana, then this game could be for advancement to the knockout stage from the hardest group in the tournament. It may also be the best measure of how far the Jurgen Klinsmann-led American squad has come under his tenure.
Question: Spain comes into the World Cup as the defending champion as well as the two-time European title holders. Do they have one more championship run in them this summer?
Murray: Absolutely. They’re still one of the best teams in the world. They were undefeated in UEFA qualifying and conceded the fewest number of goals. It seems like they have been around for so long that their window should be closing, but the team still isn’t too old. They have in the past struggled with the form of their strikers, but they now have Diego Costa naturalized and he will add a clinical edge to the team. They do have a pretty challenging group, being in with the Netherlands and Chile, but they should feel like they can win the competition, not just get out of that group.
Their football is probably the best suited of all the European teams for this competition considering the hot conditions. A lot of the other European teams like to attack with pace, but Spain are going to keep the ball and control the pace of the game as expected. They are also such a settled team. This squad has been winning together at an international level for such a long time and the spine of the team is still very similar to their European Championship win in 2008. Sometimes in international tournaments there can be a few teething issues as squads settle, but that shouldn’t be a problem. This team is ready to go and I expect them to be as good as ever.
Dr. Ralf: I think they have it in them to go very far – if they show up as a team. They have a lot of great players, but they are also in the difficult position that everyone wants to play their best against them. As I said before, their first game is a rematch of the 2010 final against the Netherlands. Way to start with a bang!
Ash: I don’t think so. They are undoubtedly one of the greatest international teams in history, if not the greatest. But they’re probably on their last legs, and the golden generation of Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Xavi and David Villa, et al, aren’t getting any younger. I think this tournament might just be a step beyond them. They’ve looked vulnerable at times since Euro 2012, and the 3-0 loss to Brazil in the 2013 Confederations Cup final will have hurt their pride more than they’d admit.
A European team has never won the World Cup in the Americas as well, and the games against South American opposition, in their own backyard, will decide how far Spain will go. The older gentleman in the Spanish side might find the playing conditions in Brazil on the harsh side, especially after grueling club campaigns. It doesn’t help that the one world class striker they have, Diego Costa, is struggling with a thigh injury. You can’t count them out though; their midfield players are proven winners and would walk into any team’s first XI.
Tom: They definitely have the talent to be the first repeat winner in 52 years, but there are legitimate reasons why no team has repeated in 52 years.
Through qualifying, winning the 2010 World Cup and back-to-back European championship runs, this squad has played a lot of high-level games over the past six years. We equate it to teams going deep in the NBA playoffs year after year; the games may all be 90 minutes, but with the pressure and the level of competition, those are so very difficult 90 minutes and they eventually start to take a toll.
There is also an element of fortuitous involved in winning a major tournament. It’s not luck, you still need talent, but more of avoiding mistakes at the wrong time – both those you can control and those you cannot. A misplay by the goalie, a slip at the wrong time, or a missed call by an official at just the right time can spell the end of a title run.
Adam: Absolutely. Barring a disaster against Chile, they have an easy advancement to the second round. If they beat the Netherlands and win their group, they will likely face Italy in the quarterfinals. After that, I have it playing out as Spain versus either Argentina or Belgium in the semifinals. I’d pick Spain over either of those squads. Let’s go back to group play, however. If they don’t beat the Netherlands, or tie and manage to finish second in the group, they would face Brazil in the knockout stage and, later, likely the Germans in the semifinals. For Spain to make a deep run, I’d say they need to win their group.
Question: Which player will people be talking about after this summer’s tournament?
Murray: I hate to give you an obvious answer, but probably Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s probably wrestled the title of the world’s best player away from Lionel Messi for the time being,tiano Ronaldo. hey now have Diego Costa hould be able to. and at 29 is at his peak as a player. His goal scoring record has been absurd since he joined Real Madrid, but he hasn’t really starred at the World Cup in his two previous tournaments, his only goal at the last one came against North Korea in a 7-0 win. So I think he’s going to be talked about regardless of his performance. People will either be talking about him starring at the tournament or about how he didn’t live up to his billing.
Another pretty obvious one is Neymar. His season was a little up and down this year following a (very) big money move to Barcelona, partly due to injuries, but he has been on a ridiculous run of goals for Brazil. He’s scored 11 in the past 12 months for them and will be seen as their main attacking threat. He’s going to be relied on by Brazil and manager Luiz Felipe Scolari for his flair and creativity, and in front of his home crowd if he performs, and Brazil do well, then he’ll be the star of the tournament.
Of the lesser household name players, I’ll be keeping an eye on Paul Pogba of France. He’s been stellar for Juventus since joining from Manchester United and looks like he could actually be their next Patrick Vieira. France have a lot of very good young players (such as supposed Arsenal target Antoine Griezmann, who could see more time now that Franck Ribéry is out) and Pogba is one I’m looking forward to watching the most.
Dr. Ralf: If you are talking about the bad way, watch Spain vs. Netherlands and see who gets yellow or red cards right away.
In a good and bad way, watch Brazil’s Neymar. He is a former street baller and you don’t mess with him. In the Confederations Cup 2013, he took out Italy’s Ignazio Abate in a nasty retaliatory foul (result=dislocated shoulder, Abate never came back). Neymar has also great skills (and an interesting dance) – his goals are worth watching, so there is potential for both with him. He is the one about whom we will talk afterwards.
My personal favorite is Germany’s Thomas Müller, a forward who earned the Golden Boot as the leading goal scorer in the 2010 World Cup. No one talks about him, but he is only two years older than Neymar and is very unassuming, but he has the scorer’s instinct close to the goal. If you don’t know him, watch his game-tying goal against Cameroon earlier this week (about 1 minute in).
Ash: Neymar has been, and will be, the story of this World Cup. The hype has been built to a level so high, it will be almost impossible for him to please everyone. There’s a lot of pressure on his young shoulders, as he follows in the footsteps of Pele, Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, etc. He proved in last summer’s Confederations Cup he can perform on the brightest of stages.
Despite what many critics consider an unexceptional debut season at Barcelona, Neymar becomes transformed when he puts on the yellow shirt of his country, with 30 goals for Brazil under his belt already, at just 22 years of age. Some believe Brazil to be over-reliant on the youngster’s abilities, but he is their best hope at winning the cup on home soil. If Brazil don’t go all the way, he’ll have to shoulder some of the blame. If he plays poorly and Brazil are dumped out earlier than expected, he’ll take all of it.
Craig: I prefer to think of some phenomenal player to watch as opposed to an infamous one. There are so many to choose from, whether it’s Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal or Lionel Messi from Argentina, but I’m picking a local boy.
Neymar, from home team Brazil, will be the player that everyone’s talking about this year. He’s an unlikely star athlete with his slight frame, but if I have to predict a guy, he’s the one I’m betting on. Plus, that’s who Gisele is rooting for, so …
Tom: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the former taking over the title as the world’s best player from the latter in the previous year.
Neither player has won on the world’s biggest stage, however, and it would be interesting if Ronaldo could carry Portugal to the title in a country that was a Portugal colony for 300 years. At age 26, this could be Messi’s last great chance at capturing a World Cup.
Outside of the obvious, we’re going to go with USA goalie Tim Howard, who earned his 100th cap and 54th win in the past week as a member of the U.S. Men’s team.
With Landon Donovan not on the roster, the U.S. will turn to captain Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Howard when things get tight. As much as the U.S. needs Dempsey and Bradley, as well as Jozy Altidore to be on their game, with a defensive backline that is still suspect, the team’s hopes of advancing out of the group stage rest on Howard’s shoulders.
This past season at Everton may have been one of Howard’s best as he posted 15 shutouts – just one off the Premier League record – and if he can bring that form with him to Brazil, the U.S. may just surprise a few people.
Adam: Cristiano Ronaldo. Although Portugal is highly ranked (No. 3 in the FIFA rankings), they almost didn’t make the field for this World Cup. Tying Israel and advancing on aggregate 4-2 over Sweden is cutting it close. If they fail to get past the United States, Ronaldo will be the center of focus. If they advance as the runner-up, they have a good chance to beat a strong Belgian squad and then Argentina to make it to the semi-finals. But when the third-ranked team in the world is so highly dependent on one player, how can he NOT be the talk of the tournament?
Question: How will the national team you follow do?
Murray (Scotland):Well, as a Scotland fan, they’re already done! (Editor’s note: Sorry about that.) They failed to qualify again, and although they played better under new manager Gordon Strachan, it wasn’t soon enough to have any effect on qualifying. The last time they qualified for a World Cup I was 10 years old, and I’ll be at least 30 by the time they next qualify for one. They might make the next European Championships as they are expanding the competition, so we’ll see.
As for the other British teams, England are the only one in Brazil and I don’t expect too much from them. Their squad is a little bit in transition, they have quite a few good young players and a few older, experienced ones, but it’s very much a new team. They have some exciting young forwards, but I don’t think they are very good in defence. The conditions aren’t ideal for them either, and I don’t think they have the type of players to be patient and play within the conditions like Spain should be able to. They’ve also been handed a very tough group with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica, so it wouldn’t be a great surprise if they didn’t make it out the group. If they do, I don’t think they’ll get much further.
Dr. Ralf (Germany): Of course, I am going to follow Germany’s team and everybody seems to expect great things from them. In true German fashion, I am going to hold back in my enthusiasm. The team has three championship titles and two third-place finishes in the last two World Cups, only falling to the team that ended up winning it all. My dream final would be Brazil vs. Germany and again there is history. Remember the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan? Well Germany lost that one 2-0.
Ash (England): The England squad has never entered a World Cup with lower expectations in my lifetime. That being said, this youthful team could cause a surprise. The draw could have been kinder though, as we’re in a really tough group. We know how good Italy are, and Uruguay will be challenging, and Costa Rica, who are almost guaranteed to finish bottom of the group, will not lie down for anybody and will be out to capture a big team’s scalp.
The news that Luis Suárez might miss the tournament is welcome news for England fans. Even if he does play, he’ll be short on fitness and I feel more confident we can beat Uruguay without their star man. If England can get out of the group, they stand a great chance to make it to the quarter finals.
In the round of 16 we will likely face Columbia or the Ivory Coast, depending on whether we win the group or finish second. I like our chances against either of those teams, although it wouldn’t be an easy victory by any means. In the quarters though, we’d come up against the likes of Brazil, Spain, Holland, maybe even Chile. This is where we’ll see how far this England team can go, and I’m not optimistic about our chances against those teams. But hey, anything can happen in 90 minutes
If Daniel Sturridge can carry over his form from Liverpool and Wayne Rooney can finally perform when it matters, this England team might surpass the legendary Italia 90 side of Paul Gascoigne fame.
Craig (USA): The USMNT will give their fans a couple of amazing moments in this World Cup, but ultimately it won’t be considered a successful tourney for them. It will be like a frustrating round of golf that had just enough good shots to make you want to play again the next day. The U.S. appears poised to look toward 2018 and this World Cup will look more like the first step toward that mission.
Tom (USA): As hard as it is to think about it, the entire World Cup for the U.S. comes down to their opening game against Ghana. Win, and suddenly the group may not be as daunting. If Portugal loses to Germany, then all the U.S. would have to do is earn a draw against Portugal and one against a German squad that will have already secured its place in the knockout stage and the U.S. could go through with five points.
Lose and, well, we really are not prepared to talk about that.
The U.S. has had six months to prepare for Ghana, which eliminated them in both 2010 and 2006, and this is why Jurgen Klinsmann was hired to lead the squad. The Gold Cup win last summer was nice, the run through qualifying for this World Cup was nice, but the games against Ghana, Portugal and Germany are why Klinsmann is on the touch line. He may (allegedly) be looking toward 2018, but the U.S. can’t afford to flame out in the group stage this year – that would be a big blow to the team and its supporters.
Simply put, the U.S. must come out of the Ghana game with three points to have any hope of making this anything but a disappointment.
Adam (USA): Sadly, I think the USA’s fate has little to do with how they play and instead on which Cristiano Ronaldo and/or Portuguese squad shows up. If it’s the group that couldn’t hammer Israel, I think the USA advances to face Belgium in the knockout round. Given their previous performance against Belgium, that’s probably the end of the road.
But let’s be silly. Let’s say this improved squad actually beats Belgium. They likely then face Argentina. Hey, if you can beat Ronaldo then you can beat Lionel Messi. On to face Spain or Italy.
Let’s say it’s Spain. Who stopped the Spanish win streak a few years ago? USA! It can happen again. Which would land the Americans in the final against Brazil or Germany.
Didn’t the USA have a lead on Brazil a couple of years ago, right around the time they beat Spain? Hmmmm … dream big!
Question: Who is going to lift the World Cup Trophy on July 13 in the Estadio do Maracanã?
Murray: I think I’m going to have to go with the hosts. They have a very good mixture of talent and experience and under Scolari they are going to be very organized. They have a lot of talent in defence, historically not something you’d associate with them, with Thiago Silva, who many consider the best centreback in the world, and two very talented fullbacks in Dani Alves and Marcelo, who will tear up the pitch as the stereotype of Brazilian fullbacks suggests. They are physically strong in midfield and it will offer their defence a lot of protection when Marcelo and Daniel Alves (and wild centreback David Luiz) attack.
They are a little weaker at striker than usual, Fred (top 5 Brazilian international name ever) isn’t going to do much but score, but he’ll do that a lot (nine in 10 games last year). They have a lot of pace in the side, and shouldn’t be bothered so much by the conditions since it’s their country after all!
They handily beat Spain, their likely competition, 3-0 in last year’s Confederations Cup, the warm up to the World Cup, and I think they can best them again if it comes down to those two. If they don’t win it, I hope for their sakes that they go out before the final. I don’t think the country can take a repeat of 1950!
Dr. Ralf: I am going with the majority and say it will be Brazil. The chance to play at home, with a young team filled with great players will give them the edge. I can’t wait. I am expecting to see moves, goals and plays that we have not seen before. This will create new and more excitement for the sport.
Ash: Some part of me thinks a South American team will win it, like Argentina or Brazil. I’d prefer to see Brazil win out of those two. However, I have a feeling Germany will come out on top and I’m choosing them to be winners. They’ve come so close in recent years, and are historically guaranteed to make the semifinals at least. This is the year I think they finally go all the way.
Their squad is just too good; the Germans have strength in depth in every department and are probably the only team whose midfield rivals, if not betters, the Spanish pass-masters. They can call upon Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Julian Draxler, Marco Reus, Mario Gotze, Thomas Müller, Lukas Podolski, Andre Schurrle, and more. They have a solid defence as a foundation and their team is full of winners: all the Bayern Munich guys have the winning mentality that could prove vital when it comes to crunch time.
If they can come away from their very difficult group (which they should) without losing anyone to injury, then the Germans will be tough to beat. It saddens me to admit it as an Englishman, but the Germans will emerge victorious.
Craig: Give me Argentina. It’s not in their home country, but it is on their home continent. Additionally, Lionel Messi is one of the greatest players in the world and I can’t imagine he won’t have a breakout World Cup at some point in his career. I’ll assume it’s going to be this one as he’s in his absolute athletic prime at 26. It’s the perfect age where maturity and experience meet peaking athletic ability before decline starts to set in. Plus, looking up and down that roster, it’s far from a one-man show even, if Messi is the clear headliner.
Tom: Spain seems like a good bet – they are the No. 1 ranked team in the world – but it just feels as if too much has to go right for them to repeat. History is not on their side, and while they have the talent to compensate for a lot of mistakes, asking them to come out of the other side of a fourth-consecutive major tournament with a trophy may be too much for even them.
We would not be opposed to England winning, but like the U.S. they may be one World Cup away from being a true contender. It seems more likely that the Three Lions will exit in a painful fashion.
As good as he is, it is probably too much to expect Cristiano Ronaldo to carry Portugal to a title; the same goes for Lionel Messi and Argentina. And the pressure of playing at home will ultimately be too much for Brazil.
With all the other contenders out of the way, that leaves Germany as our pick.
Adam: My honest final four is Brazil vs. Germany and Belgium vs. I-can’t-make-up-my-mind-between-Italy-and-Spain. No team has an easy road. Brazil, it could be argued, has the easiest group. And the home team usually plays above expectations. So although I don’t think they are the best squad at the tournament, I think the combination given above makes Brazil the safest bet to lift the Cup.
Excellent work everyone. To learn more about the rest of the countries in the World Cup field, check out World Soccer Talk’s guide to each club.
To see who else to follow on Social Media during the tournament, Planet Futbol has a list of recommended sites and people.
(Team posters courtesy of ESPN. Photos courtesy of Getty Images)