First things first: The United States team will not win the 2006 World Cup. It won't win the 2010 World Cup. It won't win the 2014 World Cup. Beyond that, my crystal ball gets hazy. "Never" is a long time, but I don't expect to see the lads in red, white and blue hoisting the planet's most coveted sports trophy in my lifetime. Do my son and daughter (who are 2) have a chance to see it, if the ice caps don't melt completely and if Dick Cheney isn't rendered into an immortal, child-eating cyborg? I imagine they do.
Don't get me wrong, soccer has arrived in the United States, or at least as much as it ever will under prevailing late-capitalist market conditions. If this year's World Cup tournament in Germany (which begins today at noon Eastern time, with a laughably bad matchup between the hosts and Costa Rica) is not the massive, business-halting, schedule-rearranging event in the United States that it is in most of the world, it's still a big deal. Millions of Americans will watch the games, and every sports section in every newspaper in every town and city will cover them. The U.S. team's wins, losses and draws will be front-page news.
Sure, the sports-talk troglodytes who bash soccer haven't gone away, and some fans of the big four North American sports, especially if they're over 35 or so, still feel mysteriously emasculated by soccer's rising profile on the media landscape. But for younger sports fans who can see top-flight European soccer every day on digital cable, who've watched the U.S. women's team dominate international competition and thrilled to the American men's surprising run in the 2002 World Cup, that kind of xenophobia is irrelevant. Soccer superstars like Brazil's Ronaldinho -- who plays professionally for Barcelona in Spain -- and England's David Beckham -- who plays for Barcelona's arch-rivals, Real Madrid -- are fixtures on the global media landscape, at least as big as (and more universal than) Allen Iverson or Alex Rodriguez or Michael Vick. Being a soccer fan in no way precludes loving the Red Sox, the Redskins and the Red Raiders of Texas Tech.
Many American soccer fans, especially those who can remember the Kohoutek-like rise and fall of the North American Soccer League in the 1970s, dreamed of a different sort of arrival. Their holy grail was a U.S. professional league that would pack stadiums and play a world-class but distinctively American brand of soccer, that would sweep past Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL and NASCAR and dominate the sports landscape. To put it mildly, that ain't happening. Ever.
Major League Soccer has plugged along through 11 seasons, gradually raising its level of play, giving young Americans a low-stakes arena to learn the game and becoming incrementally more respectable. It's probably found a niche where it can survive, above the level of arena football and pro lacrosse, but a full step below the National Hockey League, weakest of the big four sports leagues. MLS games draw decently in good weather, and the league has slowly improved its minuscule TV ratings, but it has almost no hardcore fan base. There are not thousands of people who live and die with every shot and save in every Houston Dynamo or Kansas City Wizards game. (I know there are a few dozen of you out there, and you are, in an admirable way, completely out of your minds.)
MLS will probably never be more than an intriguing, mid-level developmental league that survives by selling its top talent to European teams. Young people who like soccer may or may not watch MLS games, but they won't be fooled by them. As the sport becomes more popular in the United States, so do the elite European teams that dominate the sport: Manchester United and Arsenal (of London), Real Madrid and Barcelona, Bayern Munich, A.C. Milan, and Juventus (of Turin). If I left my New York apartment right now and started walking the streets, I'd probably encounter people wearing all of those teams' jerseys before I could find a single person sporting a shirt from the New York Red Bulls of MLS.
This is the nature of soccer, and all professional sports, all over the world. Small, local phenomena may survive, but they find themselves in the deepening shadow of the vast and global ones. Manchester United has a huge following in Asia; the big Spanish teams have ardent fans thousands of miles away in Latin America. How many basketball fans in Greece or Italy or Serbia pay attention to their pretty good local teams when Shaquille O'Neal and Dirk Nowitzki are squaring off on TV, with the NBA title on the line? Japanese baseball has lost some of its quasi-religious status now that its best players, like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, ply their trade in North America.
Global info-fueled capitalism, the system that would-be French revolutionary Guy Debord once dubbed "the society of the spectacle," thrives on the Really Big Event. If the biggest European soccer leagues, the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball have turned their championships into global events, the World Cup is like all those things, plus the Olympics and a world war (without all the killing), rolled into one. Nobody seems to know how big the cumulative television audience for the Cup will be; I've read estimates ranging from 5 billion to 30 billion to roughly a googolplex (that is, a number greater than the number of elementary particles in the known universe). Let's use a more precise scientific term: It's a buttload.
If there's one thing this troubled world can agree on, it is this: With those kazillions of butts sitting in yurts and dachas and chateaux and tract houses and dusty alleyways watching guys in shorts kick a ball around, it's a good time to sell beer and cars and cellphones. Germany 2006 is a marketing and advertising event of unprecedented scale, representing globalization at both its most endearing and its most loathsome. About 1.1 billion people, close to 20 percent of the world's population, watched the championship game live in 2002, and with the inexorable spread of communications technology, viewership for this year's final (on July 9, at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin) ought to be significantly higher.
What will we see, in between the lovingly crafted commercials for Budweiser (the tournament's official brew, to the chagrin of all Germans), Adidas, Yahoo and MasterCard? We'll see a 32-team tournament with one overwhelming favorite, surrounded by a modest constellation of hopefuls, also-rans, runners-up and just-glad-to-be-heres. I didn't follow the African qualification process, so I don't quite know what sequence of fluke events got Angola here, but God love 'em. Each World Cup tournament has to include one team from way off the radar screen of world soccer, and this year the Black Antelopes (yes! that's their nickname), representing a desperately poor country that's been beset by civil war for 20 years, are it. Never mind winning a game; if the Angolans score a goal while they're in Germany, the whole world will cheer.
If you've even heard of this sport before, you know that the favored team is Brazil, a showboating ensemble of superstars in those Zoloft-like canary-yellow uniforms. The Brazilians have won two of the last three Cups, and five of the 17 tournaments overall, yet hardly anyone hates or fears them with the kind of vitriol baseball fans reserve for the Yankees (or British soccer fans reserve for Manchester United). The Canarinhos play a wide-open, attacking, improvisational style that other nations lack the sheer skill to emulate. In international tournaments, so often characterized by hacking and diving, relentless defensive play and calculated 0-0 draws, this makes Brazil tough to root against.
This year's Brazilian squad has been acclaimed as among the best ever, perhaps second only to the legendary 1970 team featuring such demigods as Pelé, Carlos Alberto, Jairzinho, Rivelino, et al. But therein lies a trap. I'm only riding a hunch here, along with some potentially bogus psychologizing, but Brazilian teams have often struggled when playing tough, tactical European teams in Europe, and also have not thrived in the favorite's role. (In 2002, they were widely seen as a struggling team in generational transition -- and they cruised through the tournament.)
If this year's World Cup theme is "Can anybody beat Brazil?" I'm betting someone can and someone will. Here's a quickie profile of the leading contenders, along with each team's big first-round games. We'll begin with the U.S. team, out of sheer jingoism, and then move through the favorites. (In the first round, the 32-team field is divided into eight groups for round-robin play. The two top teams in each group advance to the round of 16. Goal differential and goals scored are the key tiebreakers, so every first-round game -- win, lose or draw -- is fraught with tension.)
I've selected these teams through a complicated algorithm I'm not at liberty to discuss. No, actually, I bought an unlicensed knockoff World Cup souvenir ball from a street vendor in the south of France. These were the nations represented on the ball. If you have complaints about this process, take them up with Hamid behind the bus station in Nice. (He's rooting for Tunisia.)
Yes, the Americans belong on this list (hey, our beloved flag was on Hamid's ball), even though they really don't have a shot at winning the whole enchilada. After the great run of 2002, when the United States beat Portugal and Mexico, and probably outplayed the Germans in a 1-0 quarterfinal defeat, American soccer is now a known quantity on the world stage. Yank players run like hell and are superbly conditioned. Their touch on the ball has improved dramatically, although they lack flair and finishing skill. They believe they can beat anybody, given a break or two. Although the United States was drawn into a difficult group with Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana -- two legitimate Cup contenders and a skilled, unpredictable neophyte team -- no one has been so foolish as to write the Americans off.
Coach Bruce Arena's boys will have to win one game (presumably against Ghana), and tie either the Italians or the Czechs, to have a chance of advancing. That won't be easy, but the Italians, with a history of World Cup meltdown and associated far-reaching conspiracy theories, look like an easier target from here. This is a solid American team that may lack the freshness and vigor of the 2002 squad but is vastly more experienced. They're not exactly going to be pure ecstasy to watch; the core of the team is defense. Goalkeeper Kasey Keller (of Germany's Borussia Mönchengladbach) is among the world's best, and a back line anchored by other European-based pros like Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo and Oguchi Onyewu will need to be rock-solid.
As you move forward, the Yank team is full of questions. Is fragile midfielder Claudio Reyna, the key playmaker, really ready to go? Is Landon Donovan, the team's greatest talent -- who crapped out on a career in Germany to come home to the relative obscurity of MLS -- going to carry the team to glory or disappear in a cloud of excuses? Brian McBride (of London's Fulham team) is the only experienced goal-scoring forward on the roster. For the team to repeat any version of the 2002 success, somebody unlikely, like untested MLS players Eddie Johnson and Brian Ching, or oft-injured veteran Josh Wolff, will have to put the ball in the net.
Still, there's plenty of upside here. If the Americans do go out in the first round (as I expect), it'll be because better teams fought them tooth and claw and prevailed. The Italians and Czechs know these games will be tough, and they're not looking forward to chasing speed-burners like Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley (of the Dutch pro team PSV Eindhoven) and Bobby Convey (of England's Reading) all over the pitch for 90 minutes. Nobody thinks the Yanks don't belong here, and they genuinely believe they can win. I believe that facing these tough, opportunistic and massively experienced teams, in a European venue (amid an unfortunate if predictable cloud of anti-American sentiment), is just too much to ask.
Key matches: All of them. Opening against the Czechs (June 12 at noon EDT, ESPN2) will be a harsh assignment. Getting a draw or a win against Italy (June 17 at 3 p.m., ABC) is crucial. The game against Ghana (June 22 at 10 a.m., ESPN) may well be an afterthought.
No argument here: This is the world's best team, and the one every soccer fan on earth wants to see play. With the curly locks and magic feet of Ronaldinho (justifiably acclaimed as the world's best player), the veteran goal-poaching prowess of his "big brother" Ronaldo (they're not related), and a new generation of stars headed by midfielder Kaká and striker Adriano, the Brazilians strike fear and wonder into all opponents, and they're capable of winning any game they play by four or five goals. But will they?
As I wrote above, the questions about Brazil are partly psychological (can they win in Europe?) and partly tactical. The tendency of Brazilian defenders like Roberto Carlos and Cafú to come forward on attack is part of what makes the team so exciting. But a disciplined and patient opponent, like the English and German teams, might be able to victimize Brazil with fast counterattacks and cut them apart with early goals. I also think it's a problem that the Canaries drew an exceptionally easy first-round group, and won't be tested until the round of 16, if then. I won't be surprised if Brazil wins it all again, and given everything they represent in world soccer (openness, style, beauty and sheer joy) I definitely won't be disappointed. But this smells like upset-land to me.
Key matches: Arguably none. Croatia could provide a decent game (June 13 at 3 p.m. EDT, ESPN2), and the gritty, plucky Australians won't be intimidated (June 18 at noon, ABC). Neither presents a threat.
Look at my last name; I am genetically predisposed to root against the English. But even though British pundits, and others, ritualistically announce every four years that the hour has arrived when the game's inventors will reclaim their rightful place -- and they're always wrong -- this year may be different. Sven-Goran Eriksson has put up with considerable abuse from the xenophobic media for the crime of being Swedish, but the team's first non-Brit coach has assembled the most exciting collection of talent, and bred the most exciting style of play, seen on the Sceptred Isle in many a year. If superstar striker Wayne Rooney and attacking midfielder Steven Gerrard are really healthy -- and these are closely guarded secrets at the moment -- I think England has an excellent chance of dethroning Brazil and winning it all.
Having said that, I'm aware that English footballing history at the international level is an almanac of cataclysm, and that this exciting team faces many pitfalls. Even if Gerrard and Rooney are OK, somebody else crucial could get hurt. English fans will watch the entire tournament from prayerful, near-prone positions, convinced that goalkeeper Paul Robinson or defender Rio Ferdinand or (most of all) David Beckham is about to make some critical blunder. If the English offense is, for once, terrific (with Rooney and Michael Owen supplying the sock), the defense looks long in the tooth and the midfield, beyond Gerrard and Beckham, is a little weak. (Are Frank Lampard and Owen Hargreaves really World Cup-caliber players?)
Sometimes writers overvalue psychology as a factor in sports, but the burden the English football team carries -- the burden of heartache and disappointment and expectation that's been building since the country's lone World Cup triumph 40 years ago -- is comparable to almost nothing else in international athletics. Perhaps only a foreign coach could have persuaded this team to put that stuff aside and focus on the opponents it can reasonably defeat. I see England having a clear path to the semifinals, where it may well face Brazil. That's the game Eriksson has been pointing toward for four years.
Key matches: Sweden (June 20 at 3 p.m., ESPN) will provide a good storyline, as Eriksson faces his countrymen. They'll be playing for second-round placement.
The hosts aren't feeling the love from the soccer punditry, and I can't figure out why. Yeah, this isn't the star-studded West German team of the '70s and '80s, but they're young and hungry, tremendously skilled, and play a newly aggressive style under controversial coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who has adopted American-style training methods. Low expectations and home sauerbraten could be just what the Deutschlanders need; I wouldn't be the least surprised to see Germany sneak into another World Cup final, against either Brazil or England.
Yeah, there are injury problems here too, perhaps worse than England's. Star midfielder Michael Ballack has a calf strain and apparently won't play against Costa Rica today. If I were Klinsmann, I'd shut Ballack down for the whole first round and bring him back for a probable second-round matchup with Sweden. Soccer usually isn't a sport dominated by single individuals, but Ballack is at the center of every key play for the Germans. If he's badly hurt, they're in trouble. Mind you, even beyond Ballack this is a talent-loaded roster that mixes youth and experience. Veteran goal-poachers Miroslav Klose and Oliver Neuville are up front, while newcomers like the electric Lukas Podolski and the bruising Bastian Schweinsteiger lurk in midfield. Defense is more a question than in the past, and I know that makes Teutonic fans unhappy. But the Germans have an easy path through the first round, and then will get to play the big games in front of the home fans. They should go far.
Key matches: Poland (June 14 at 3 p.m., ESPN2) should provide a decent struggle; these teams know each other well and play similar, bone-crunching styles.
I've picked Argentina in World Cup tournaments for what seems like decades, and I'm done with it. Despite the fouling, the diving and the drama-club theatrics, the Argentines at their best can play a highly compelling brand of football that combines European discipline with Latin flair. They also find a way to shoot themselves in the head, without fail. Even their last and greatest World Cup triumph, in 1986, was tainted by Diego Maradona's infamous "mano de Dios" goal against England.
So Argentina is back this year with another great team -- almost indisputably a better roster than Germany or England or France can offer -- and I'm here to tell you that they'll play down to the level of their opposition, commit shameful fouls, and manage to lose one or more games they should have won. Will I watch the prima donnas in blue and white to see if I'm wrong? You bet I will. From defenders Juan Pablo Sorín and Gabriel Heinze to midfielders Juan Román Riquelme and Pablo Aimar, from veteran goal-scorer Hernán Crespo to young phenom Lionel Messi, this is the strongest, deepest squad in the tournament that isn't wearing yellow. Most of the Argentine stars already play in Europe, so they won't be intimidated or jet-lagged. This team is a trendy pick, and a perfectly logical one. They face one of the toughest opening-round groups and should emerge battle-tested. As I say, I'm not buying it, but you may wish to clip and save these words so you can e-mail them to me in two weeks.
Key matches: They're all tough. Ivory Coast (June 10, 3 p.m., ESPN2) is a skilled, speedy African team who could be a tournament surprise. Serbia (June 16, 10 a.m., ESPN2) is a defensive powerhouse that could give the Argentines fits. And the game against the Netherlands (June 21, 3 p.m., ESPN) is the must-see clash of the entire first round.
A team of crafty veterans, ranked by insiders as one of Europe's best, that could shock the world. Led by terrific goalkeeper Petr Cech (of the two-time English champions Chelsea), midfielder Pavel Nedved and forward Milan Baros, the Czechs are rock-solid at the back, opportunistic on offense and not intimidated by anyone. If you're looking to play a long shot at your favorite Internet bookmaking firm, this might be the one.
Key matches: The Czechs know they must beat the United States (June 12 at noon, ESPN2) and at least tie Italy (June 22 at 10 a.m., ESPN2) to get out of this tough group. Count on it happening.
Supposedly the Azzurri have graduated from the ball-deflating, vicious defensive style known as catenaccio and will finally use their prodigious talent to play real soccer. We've heard that one before. The Italians' finest soccer skill has always lain in finding excuses for their many humiliating defeats. With Italy's professional league racked by financial scandals, and the Germany-bound team hit by injuries, that tradition should go unbroken. Star striker Francesco Totti is reportedly OK after an ankle injury, but defenders Gianluca Zambrotta and Alessandro Nesta, along with midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, may all miss the opening match against Ghana (which won't be as easy as it sounds). Of course the Italians could pull together for a strong run, but they probably won't. If the U.S. team gets out of the first round, it'll be on the back of a spectacular Italian implosion.
Key matches: Against the United States (June 17 at 3 p.m., ABC) and the Czechs (June 22 at 10 a.m., ESPN2), Italy will face disciplined opponents looking to exploit their histrionics and internal discord.
Right about here we descend to the also-rans. The sudden ascendancy of France on home soil in 1998 was that country's biggest moment since the Liberation. Since then it's been all downhill for les Bleus. Zinédine Zidane, the star of that '98 team and the heart of French soccer, was talked out of retirement to fuel another World Cup run, but it won't be enough. With the shocking news that striker Djibril Cissé has a broken leg and will miss the whole tournament, any reasonable hopes for a return to Gallic glory went out the window. Still, I'm a fan, and I'd love to see this storied French squad provide a surprise or two after their easy opening group. Besides Zidane, returning stars include Mikael Silvestre and Lilian Thuram on defense, Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira in midfield, and Thierry Henry and David Trézéguet up top. (Yeah, this team will need a massive infusion of new blood by 2010.)
Key games: Switzerland (June 13 at noon, ESPN2) is a boring matchup but a must-win. South Korea (June 18 at 3 p.m., ABC), with its tireless attacking style, will pose a stiff challenge for this creaky French squad.
I've heard mumbling about El Tricolor as a long-shot Cup candidate, and this is, as usual, a Mexican side with a lot of offensive weapons, most notably lanky scoring machine Jared Borgetti, who plays in England. But Mexican squads have never played well in Europe, and as the United States demonstrated in the 2002 Cup, Mexico doesn't defend well against sustained attack. Actually, they don't defend too well, period. Which doesn't mean they won't be fun to watch, especially when talented midfielders like Gerardo Torrado, Ramón Morales or Luis Pérez are on the ball. They'll cruise to the second round, but no further.
Key matches: Iran will provide an interesting early test (June 11 at noon, ABC), but the Portugal game (June 21 at 10 a.m., ESPN) should be among the first round's most dazzling displays.
Another team with great talent (arguably rooted in the world's best professional league) but little international success. Spain's burden of dreams is nearly as heavy as those of England and Italy -- unlike those nations, the Spanish have never hoisted the Cup -- and it won't be relieved this year. Or at least not quite. Beyond Real Madrid striker Raúl and 19-year-old midfield phenom Cesc Fabregas (who plays for Arsenal), this Spain team isn't as loaded with dysfunctional superstars as usual, and only the most demented fans really expect them to get beyond the second round. Therefore, a mild surprise could be in order: In a relatively even field (if you subtract Brazil) the Spanish could easily make it to the quarterfinals or beyond.
Key matches: Facing the tough and talented Ukraine team right out of the gate (June 14 at 9 a.m., ESPN2) will let the Spanish know where they stand. If they don't win there, then Tunisia (June 19 at 3 p.m., ESPN2) becomes a critical match.
The Dutch glory years of "Total Football" in the mid-'70s are gone but not forgotten. What's left is a team with many international superstars that never seems to mesh, and thereby becomes seen as a symbol of Holland's social and racial problems. Still, you can't count these guys out, not with deadly scoring threats like Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, all stars in the English league. The midfield features veteran Phillip Cocu and young stud Rafael van der Vaart, while the backline is anchored by Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar and Barcelona defender Giovanni van Bronckhorst. If coach Marco van Basten (one of the greatest players in Dutch history) can get this team to play together harmoniously, they'll beat anybody, up to and including Brazil. For reasons I'm not smart enough to understand, it probably won't happen.
Key matches: The game against Serbia (June 11 at 9 a.m., ESPN2) pits Europe's most lethal offense against its deadliest defense. As already mentioned, the Argentina match (June 21 at 3 p.m., ESPN) should be the first round's best single game.
Another talent-rich team of perpetual underachievers, still trying to overcome their crushing 3-2 opening-round defeat by the United States in 2002. A strong run into the second round or beyond might do it. I'm skeptical, but with Manchester United midfielder Cristiano Ronaldo on the ball -- he's one of Europe's single biggest talents -- anything is indeed possible. The fluid Portuguese attack also features midfielders Deco and Luis Figo, along with forwards Pauleta, Luis Boa Morte and Nuno Gomes. As usual, the defense is a question mark, and unless you're Brazil, you don't win the World Cup without it.
Key matches: The showdown with Mexico (June 21 at 10 a.m., ESPN), another offensive power, should decide the group and position both teams for the second round. I'm guessing this is the only game of the first round to provide eight or more goals.