This topic is very different than my previous posts. But sports is also a part of my life. In fact it was a very big part when I was in childhood, continuing until I became self-employed and had to devote much more time to my career.
I can think of two major reasons why I like sports. First, my brother was a big sports fan. While my mother was my primary role model, my brother was next in line. One of my goals from the time I was about four years old was to be an adult. Because my brother was five years older than me, emulating him was an acceptable way to move closer to that goal.
Second, I remember my career counselor of many years ago teaching that we tend to like what we are good at. One of his slogans was, “Like it, you’ll try it.”
I was good in sports. The only things that hindered me as I grew older: lack of size and lack of upper body strength. Otherwise, I was ahead of my peers in team sports and some other activities like the long jump or sprinting. I still have excellent reflexes (I became a competent high school level goalie in ice hockey), could throw a baseball or football for distance and accuracy (but not speed), and was a shifty runner (fine pass receiver, kick returner or defensive back in touch football).
At some point, I adopted interests not shared with my brother. In sports, that would be soccer. My primary focus is on the men’s World Cup, played every four years to determine the world champion of the sport.
In 2014, the World Cup is being hosted by Brazil, the country that has won the most World Cups. Currently, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the sport’s global governing body) only has the Brazil squad ranked tenth in the world, but we shall see how that holds up when they play all their matches in front of their fans.
Of course, I am rooting for my home country. The United States qualified for this year’s World Cup fairly easily. FIFA currently has them ranked 14th in the world. But in the random drawing for the different groups, things could not have turned out worse. Groups with three quality teams have been nicknamed “group of death”, since one quality team must be eliminated in the first round. The United States ended up in Group G with Germany (seeded – ranked #2, Portugal – ranked #5 but somehow unseeded and Ghana ranked #24).
Furthermore, the USA team ended up with a horrible travel schedule for its games. The games, which will begin on June 12 and end on July 13, will be played just before and during the winter season in the southernmost cities of Brazil. The temperatures in the south of Brazil should be moderate. Porto Alegre, the venue furthest south, enjoys average highs in the mid-upper 60’s and average lows in the lower 50’s at this time of year.
However, the USA team will be playing their games in three of the four northernmost cities, near the Equator where the change of seasons matters little. Two of their games are on the coast. But their middle game, against Portugal, will be played in Manaus, a city of two million people deep in the interior of Brazil. The average temperatures are fairly constant throughout the year: average highs range from the upper 80’s to lower 70’s. The average humidity is over 80%. It is the city all the teams wanted to avoid. By having their middle game there, USA will have one of the longest travel schedules.
Each opponent provides an interesting matchup for the USA squad. Their opening game is against Ghana. Four years ago, the USA was eliminated by Ghana with a goal in the final seconds of their second round game. And in 2006 USA and Ghana were also in the same group, with Ghana’s victory (despite some controversy over the officiating) eliminating the USA squad. Hopefully, with less on the line in an opening match, the USA team will prevail as their higher ranking would indicate, but it remains to be seen.
Game two is the aforementioned sweatbox game against Portugal. The recent history for this matchup has been better for USA. In 2002, USA defeated Portugal in the opening game of their group. USA eventually advanced while Portugal was eliminated. But remember that Portugal is the mother country to Brazil. There are close language, cultural, historical and ancestral ties between the two countries. It is likely that Portugal will be a clear fan favorite in any matchup unless they eventually play Brazil.
The final game of the first round is against Germany. Although USA defeated Germany in a “friendly” match (i.e., international exhibition) played this past June in Washington, DC, Germany is ranked as the superior team and should be favored in a key match played at a neutral site. However, the USA team manager in the upcoming World Cup is Jurgen Klinsmann, former star player for the German side in the 1980’s and 90’s (West Germany before the country was reunited). He also coached a young German team to a third place finish in the 2006 World Cup that was played on home soil.
The current German coach, Joachim Low, was Klinsmann’s assistant coach in 2006. The two coaches will be very familiar with each other’s style and tactics. One also needs to keep in mind that in the final game of the first round, team strategy is also dictated by where they are in the standings, whether they need a win or a draw to advance, or if they have already clinched a spot in the next round.
A quick look at the other groups:
Group A (Brazil, Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon): Brazil should advance easily. Croatia and Mexico are fairly evenly matched. Croatia has the edge on offense but Mexico might be better able to handle the climate conditions with most of the matches closer to the Equator.
Group B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile and Australia): Spain and Netherlands faced each other in the 2010 World Cup Final, yet one of them might fail to advance as Chile has been coming on strong in recent games.
Group C (Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan): Despite missing the last three World Cups, Colombia is ranked number 4 and is the seeded team. Greece puts all their emphasis on defense. Ivory Coast barely missed moving to the second round in 2010. While Japan is the lowest ranked in this group, they advanced in 2010 and can give any team trouble. This is a group where upsets are likely.
Group D (Uruguay, Italy, England and Costa Rica): Uruguay, Brazil’s neighbor to the south, plays a key match against England in nearby Sao Paolo. Italy is looking to atone for finishing at the bottom of a group they should have won four years ago, while England has been uninspiring of late. Because of these three teams, this has been labeled the other group of death.
Group E (Switzerland, France, Ecuador and Honduras): This is one of the weaker groups. Switzerland is a good squad but the least regarded of the seeded teams. France, another disappointing team four years ago, barely advanced in the qualifiers. Ecuador and Honduras have had little success in past World Cup play.
Group F (Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria, Iran): Argentina figures to breeze through to the next round. Bosnia-Herzegovina is the only newcomer this year, but that is due in part to their short history as an independent country. Nigeria has a young team that is capable of producing an upset in this round.
Group H (Belgium, Russia, Algeria, South Korea): Belgium, qualifying for the first time since 2002, looked good in the qualifiers. Russia also played above their ranking in the qualifiers, beating Portugal and Sweden. These two teams should advance. Algeria has not played outside of Africa in 2013 and may be overrated at #26 (only four places behind Russia). They finished at the bottom of their group in 2010 and could do so again. South Korea built up a big lead early in their qualifiers and stumbled home the rest of the way, barely advancing on a tiebreaker.
At some point in the future, I expect to post about the only team I still avidly root for, explaining why I still bleed Dodger blue. But I will get back on topic in my next post, looking at my own life as an example of the difference between wanting something and knowing something to be true.