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06/25/10 1:06pm

diego forlan

On Saturday night at 7:30pm local time, the town of Dunshaughlin in north county Meath will host it’s 31st annual 10Km road race. At the same time that the earnest running population of the eastern seaboard set off around the picturesque countryside, the men of the USA will take the field in yet another test of character as they face the Ghana national football team for, wait for it, a place in the quarter finals of the 2010 World Cup.

As I prepare to try and break 50 minutes for 10k I am thinking of declaring Dunshaughlin an independent sovereign state or maybe the “United States of North Meath” (would mean we could get that half decent goalkeeper from Ratoath that coaches the under 12’s on Sunday mornings), and entering the 11 ‘ne’er do wells’ I play with on Thursday nights into the next World Cup. Going on the results and performances thus far, I think we’re in with a shout.

The USA national team is a good role model: Limited players, making up for their limitations with application, drive, energy and above all guile. They are a clever team. Their plays are well thought out and the manager Bob Bradley does a sterling job of transforming his band of merry men into a force to be reckoned with. And they never, ever give up. It’s refreshing to see a team that plays the game like it used to be played before the egos and the sponsorship deals. The way the game is played on Sunday mornings up and down the country.

As for the opposition, Italy, would be no sweat. A team built around a world class goalkeeper, a once iconic centre half, and a midfield magician cannot really function if said keeper is in a back brace and said midfielder appears for the first time in the dying embers of their third qualifying game. England, the inventors of the game, can’t function as a team with no midfield general and a static back four that looks as leaky as a BP oil pipeline. France, mon Dieu, les enfants terrible n’est ce pas? And as for Serbia, the great hope of Eastern Europe has been dwarfed by its much smaller and newer Slovakian neighbors: a team that promised so much in qualifying has gone the way of so many other Eastern European teams at major championships and completely freezing like the Czech Republic and Croatia last time around. It may be a fanciful dream but the crux of the argument is that if you can get a team together you can be in with a shout to win this thing.

The semifinals will contain one of Uruguay, South Korea, Ghana, or the USA this time around. They will get to play in a one-off semifinal game to reach the final of the World Cup. There is very little to choose between the four, but they all have one thing in common: Unity. They’re unified teams with a system and questionable talent. Yes, there are pockets of brilliance: the once premier league journeyman Diego Forlan has reinvented himself in Spain. Landon Donovan is playing as if possessed. Park Ji Sung looks masterful in Korea’s midfield and the Ghanaian centre half pairing of Mensah and Mensah look formidable.

So far, apart from the Dutch and Maradona’s men, all the big teams look vulnerable. Portugal fired blanks versus Ivory Coast, a team that was put to the sword by an underwhelming Brazil (by their standards). Spain were victims of their own vanity against Switzerland. Germany seemed decidedly un-German against Serbia (they even missed a penalty!).

Yes, this is the year of the Mexicos, the Uruguays, the States, Koreans, and quite possibly the Dutch. The bookmakers are laughing all the way to the bank, the sponsors are taking down the 100 foot billboards of the ‘superstars’ of Italy and France, and the dreams of kids, small and big, all over the football world seem that little bit more achievable when New Zealand finish ahead of Italy in a World Cup.

06/23/10 12:01pm

raymond domenech

Let’s get one thing straight. I am not a francophile. But I am not a francophobe either. Sure, I hate the music (who actually likes Serge Gainsbourg, anyway?), and I’m irritated by the pretentious treatment of food as art, but I do like the wine (who doesn’t?), and I like the movies (Betty Blue was a highlight of the 1980s)… Today, however, I must admit to celebrating the fall of La Republique.

Why I am celebrating is the deeper question. Football needs to re-examine itself. It would be easy to blame this whole debacle on the French manager. Indeed Raymond Domenech is pilloried across the football community as a brusque man with no people skills. Brian Kerr, the ex manager of the Republic of Ireland, called him “an extremely rude and ignorant man” on Morning Ireland yesterday. It would also be easy to blame it on the Gallic mentality and the propensity for striking and protest that seems to be concentrated to 100 proof in France—think taxi drivers, lorry drivers, air traffic controller strikes. But that’s not it. It’s more an indictment of the modern footballer and his inflated sense of self worth, and even more so a severe warning to FIFA to start putting its house in order on the commercial front.

The basic premise upon which a football squad is built is not dissimilar to that of a fascist dictatorship: all the great teams had one leader; one person who called the shots, and anyone who misunderstood the hierarchy was dispatched. But for this system to work you must have the right man in charge.

Ireland in 2002 did not have the right man in Mick McCarthy and lost their best shot at the title because of infighting and bad management, but even Mick was a damn sight more in control than Domenech. Diego Maradona, for all his perceived madness has the right attitude. He hugs the players with a big smile when they are substituted. He has instilled a sense of family and camaraderie into the Argentina squad. Mourinho does exactly the same at club level. Millionaire 21-year-olds will walk across coals for the “special one.” Wenger at Arsenal seems to lack the magic touch and avoids signing any ‘big name players’ in favor of grooming 15-year-olds through the Arsenal ranks. Ferguson at Manchester United adopts the ‘Fatherly’ approach and famously had every taxi driver in Manchester on his phone list as lookouts for errant footballers sneaking into nightclubs. All of the above never, ever adopted the consultative approach, never entertained the culture of agents and representatives. These men are football men and they are being marginalized by an industry that seems to be growing like weeds through the grass roots of the game.

But the French team were a disgrace. A disgrace to any French football fan who spent any amount of money supporting this team who gave up the ghost at the first sign of adversity. The great french players like Zidane, Platini, Tigana, Fontaine must have been watching the totally inadequate displays through gritted teeth: Henry, the shadow of the player he once was, left sulking on the bench for most of the tournament; Benzema, the young and talented heir to the Platini throne left at home; Ribery, ineffective, and still it seemed, haunted by the allegations of underage prostitution; Malouda, the shining light in Chelsea’s season reduced to a bench warmer by a manager obviously struggling with egos and personalities.

By the end of the tournament they had become laughable. The sponsors all bid retreats so hasty it was like Dunkirk all over again. The final starting XI was like a reserve team featuring only players who obviously had bitten their lips during the last few days. They fly home with their tails between their legs and the most stylish centre half that France has produced in modern times get’s the job of putting it all together again as the Laurent Blanc era begins.

Who is to blame for all this? The French FA for appointing Domenech? Domenech for failing miserably as an international manager? The players for their totally unprofessional and childish behavior? It’s like the Dylan song about the boxer Davey Moore who died in the ring. Dylan asks us was it the boxer who killed him? Was it the manager who knew he was sick? Was it the gambling man?

In this case, football is the big loser: the game has eaten itself by creating an industry of agents, managers, owners, sponsors, TV executives and untold hangers-on and sycophants around these big money commodities blessed with physical attributes that allow them to do magical things with a leather sphere.

Once you allow a player of John Terry’s mindset, a man with exaggerated opinions of himself, the forum to cast aspersions over the management—a captain of his national team publicly criticizing team selection—you have a problem. Capello, much more the astute manager than Domenech has nipped a potential revolt in the bud by slapping down the player rather than martyring him like Domenech and McCarthy before him. If both Anelka and Keane had been reprimanded and kept on, then the manager would have had the upper hand.

When money corrupts street kids and when agents and managers and chairmen are constantly telling these boys that they are heroes, they are leaders, they are better than everyone, sooner or later even John Terry starts to believe it.

06/21/10 1:33pm

sven goran eriksson

  • Manager of Expectations

I had half-prepared a very poignant and witty piece about my first Father’s Day, and my young daughter’s efforts to scupper my plans to watch all three games from within an espresso-and-lemon-cake-filled euphoric haze. I abandoned this when France sent Anelka home and the Director of Football resigned inspiring a gloating, “what goes around comes around” piece and how Laurent Blanc will reinvent the French team from the embers of the Domenech ruins—but we’ll leave that till tomorrow when they head into their final game. Instead, sports fans, after Cote D’Ivoire’s apathetic performance against, it must be said, an unusually ordinary Brazil team, we must devote today’s column to one man. The mysterious case of Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Eriksson, who’s last job was as manager of a Mexican team that was completely dysfunctional in 2009, a year in which they won only 1 in 7 competitive outings, and which, since his departure, has looked one of the unlikely favorites for the 2010 tournament. The Mexican fans were so happy to see him sacked that they held a 30,000 strong victory rally on the day he was deposed. He was, prior to thatm laughed out of Manchester City where, with untold wealth at his disposal, he nearly managed to get them relegated. He is now putting himself in the frame for the Liverpool manager’s job after this World Cup. All this for a man who also took the most talented bunch of English players since 1970 and turned them into headless chickens in Germany 2006.

Sven-Goran Eriksson’s playing career was cut short by injury in 1975 and his managerial career began two years later at Degerfors in his native Sweden. Before moving into international management with England in 2001 he’d managed club teams in Portugal, Sweden and Italy, all of them “big” clubs (Lazio, Roma, Benfica, Sampdoria, Goteborg, Fiorentina) and was relatively successful in short stints, winning domestic cups and UEFA cups and, with Lazio, a major title by winning the Serie A. Since then he has achieved, umm, nothing!

John Giles, RTE’s excellent TV analyst calls him a “spoofer,” and one can’t help agree with John’s assessment. Here is a man who was set up by an English tabloid newspaper, approached by the now infamous ‘fake sheik’ and taped accepting an offer to manage in Dubai. So what did the English FA do when the story broke? Offered him more money of course. The footage of the RTE panel on the aftermath of the France vs. Mexico game is required viewing for all real football fans, as they express their complete bewilderment at how Sven has kept his career afloat after the litany of fiascos that accompanied his England career. Affairs with his secretary, the WAG debacle in Baden Baden, the Ecuador game in Germany… the list goes on.

There are two excellent clips from the RTE boys that highlight the point, and both are highly entertaining. The first, as I said, from last week’s France vs. Mexico game. From left to right are John Giles (former Manchester United, Leeds and Ireland manager), Graeme Souness (Liverpool and Scotland and ex manager of Liverpool and Blackburn), Eamon Dunphy (ex Manchester United and Ireland and author of the acclaimed It’s Only a Game).

To really get a handle on how these guys have followed Eriksson and his career you also need to refer back to what was probably the most fawning TV interview ever given by a BBC journalist and ex-player to Eriksson in the aftermath of the disastrous Ecuador game in 2006. It’s also highly entertaining fare. Here’s the same panel in a bit more agitated mood with Eriksson’s attitude:

So how does he do it? How does he command big money contracts to manage high profile clubs/countries? The stupid Irish have him tapped since 2006; every club or country even thinking about appointing the Swede should watch the clips above. Ivory Coast are probably the most talented team in Africa. They have Champions League winners in Yaya Toure, England’s top goal scorer in Didier Drogba, and yet North Korea put up a better performance against the Brazilians. Why? The Sven effect. He has consistently turned above average teams into disasters. The Mexican case proves this beyond all doubt. If he goes to Liverpool in the close season it will be the same story again. Lengthy interviews from a Swedish man who looks like he is embroiled in the science of football. From the rimless glasses and the professorial demeanor he looks the part. He won the Italian league 300 years ago. And he’s Swedish, don’t they make Volvos? Reliable, consistent, that’s what we want. No No No. He’s a total spoofer, isn’t that right John?

06/18/10 11:35am
ronaldo.jpg

It feels like the fumbling and the awkwardness of the first date has succumbed to the much more bravado second date. Top buttons have been opened and everyone’s showing their real personalities, rather than the veiled insecurities of the first time ’round the block.

The once dark and mysterious Argentinan clicked her fingers and tangoed her South Korean prey till they were sore. Rose planted firmly between her teeth, she glided across the floor but was careful to display just a hint of that vulnerability that can be so endearing.

The workaday girl from Mexico, forever concealing her grace and beauty beneath a working-girl exterior, pulled the pin from her hair and sashayed onto center stage, leaving the once-omnipresent French supermodel from the 90’s well and truly in the wings. This younger, prettier, more daring and gutsy Mexican starlet may well pose problems for many more established European mainstays as she has the attitude of someone with nothing to lose. A dangerous Latin vamp indeed.

Her cousin from Uruguay is from the same stock. Once renowned for kicking and scrapping her way to achieve what she wanted and so often left on the shelf, Miss Uruguay 2010 is a lot more upfront and a lot less hostile. She has been to finishing school, has adopted a new poise, and can handle the most hostile receptions. She, too, is well-worth getting to know, as she can delight with a magical touch and change everything in an instant.

But what of the all-American prom queen? Will she arrive at the ball with her inhibitions cast aside or will she be prudish and prudent, careful not to slip up in front of her peers for fear of being scandalized? She could screw up the match of her dreams if she doesn’t put-out with the Slovenian, for she needs to score and get her confidence up. Her once-shy English half-sister is putting on her fake tan and throwing caution to the wind with an Algerian. Her eyes are fixed firmly on the prize and a date with that handsome Serbian or Ghanaian, rather than the cruel German Prince she hopes to pawn off on her half-sister, who may be less talented but is far more popular.

But spare a thought for the overlooked Europeans, the burned out has-beens like the French surrealist painter haunted by the color green as she sits on the sidelines drawing ominously on her Gitane, or the over-confident Spanish Senorita who pays too much attention to the details and forgets what the ultimate goal is. She who wants to make everything she does look beautiful and graceful is a victim of her own vanity, and the oft-overlooked farm girl from Switzerland steals her date while she isn’t looking.

No one can figure out the North Korean in the corner. She looks stunning one minute and pretty ordinary when the light changes. Her Brazilian counterpart showed her a few new moves in the first dance but she must fancy her chances against the pompous Portuguese princess who almost always flatters to deceive at these occasions.

The ball is in full swing, now that the dancers are all showing a bit more flesh and the music is changing tempo. The waltzes have been replaced by Latin Jazz and Tangos, and I’m hoping we might hear a couple of rock ‘n roll numbers before today is out.

06/16/10 3:39pm

gerrard

  • In order to fly, you have to run.

Our man at the World Cup (well, via his TV in Ireland) Derek Keogh chats with Tiernan Henry and Tom Buckley about the first week of World Cup action. And yes, they hate Emile Heskey and the French, which is kind of like hating candy thieves and Stalin. (For the record, all the negative talk about just knocking the ball to Heskey with his back to the goal, and Gerrard sprinting forward all the time… it did lead to a very nice England goal, fellas…)

(Enjoy World Cup Weekly, ep. 1, here.)

06/15/10 1:01pm

Denmark v Netherlands World Cup

I didn’t get to see as much of yesterday’s fare as I would have hoped. I was flying solo with a 6 month old whilst my good wife took care of procurement duties downtown. I did however manage to engineer nap time to coincide with the second half of the Holland v Denmark clash and from what I witnessed it seemed the notoriously inconsistent Dutch side were treading on familiar ground.

Pre-tournament cards were well and truly marked orange in favor of this Dutch team by all of our glorious pundits, but the performance left me a little nonplussed. There’s a cheap and nasty lager beer that is the preferred tipple of many an Irish town drunk called Dutch Gold. It’s the kind of beer that tastes like it’s an imitation of a very noteworthy Dutch beer but leaves you feeling a bit ropey by the end of the day. That was kind of what this Dutch team delivered. Yes, there were sparks of genius from Snjeider and Van Persie looked lively, but this all came after a breakthrough from one of the most calamitous own goals you are likely to witness. It seems a confidence problem permeates the Robben-less Dutch outfit and a team more talented than Denmark is destined to end the orange odyssey prematurely.

The other game last night saw “Team Keogh-alini” do a very good impression of an Italian national team against a stubborn and dogged Paraguayan team that made them fight tooth and nail for a well deserved point. Nothing strange in an Italian slow start and no complaints for giving me a chance to invoke World Cup cliche #3: “They only start playing when the knockout stage begins”.

On an overall note, this tournament has so far played out as expected. Opening salvos have been cautious, the fear of losing being more evident than the blood lust one always hopes for. I have high hopes for this afternoon’s Portugal v Ivory Coast game. The Irish Times‘ World Cup magazine runs a very optimistic eye over Ivory Coast and all but dismisses Portugal from this group. I feel Ronaldo may have other ideas and for all his ego and narcissism, I do feel he is a big game player and that he has something to prove internationally on the same stage as Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney.

And finally, the best quote of the competition comes courtesy of my German-fancying wife.

Wife: “The American number 3 is cute, who’s he?”

DK: “Carlos Bocanegra, he’s left back”

Wife: “Mmmm.. They can leave him back here anytime they like…”

(photo Getty Images)

06/14/10 12:23pm

Klose

  • Klose actually counts in soccer.

It seems like the old diesel Mercedes now comes in a sports coupe edition. Who would have predicted that that of all teams, Germany would succeed in setting World Cup 2010 alight after the French, Argentinians and the English all failed miserably to light the torch paper?

The Germans looked sprightly, the first team thus far to enforce an attacking modus operandi upon their opponents. Granted, the woefully monikered Socceroos were hapless in defence, and once they were unjustly deprived of their best player, Tim Cahill, it did seem like the Vuvuzelas in the stands were playing the “imperial march” from Star Wars. But one couldn’t hep from being impressed.

Kitted out in a slightly different incarnation of the famous Adidas German kit (the black red and yellow stripe now goes vertically rather than horizontally) this sowed the seeds for ‘change’, a word that there probably isn’t a German translation for. The normal mechanical and reliable German machine has developed a rather easy-on-the-eye touch of beauty and grace. Fair to say this team is far more Claudia Schiffer than Boris Becker.

The Germans’ approach to the game is what we’ve all been hoping for so far. The tournament has labored thus far with over precautionary defending and conservative midfielders. For those of you who suffered the early games yesterday between Ghana and Serbia, along with Team USA’s other opponents, Algeria and Slovenia, will take at least one small comfort from three hours you’ll never get back. That comfort being that USA should have more than enough to deal with their remaining opponents.

But Germanically speaking, this youthful side attacked in waves. The youngest German squad in 76 years has brought the arrogance that youth almost always offers and Mesut Ozil, in for the injured Ballack, has grabbed his opportunity with both hands and should be a star of this tournament. The 21-year-old Werder Bremen midfielder was a clear choice by all and sundry as Man of the Match and orchestrated the German attack like a master conductor. It’s a very simple game, is football, when broken down to the basics. Pass the ball accurately, then move into space beyond defenders and put the ball in the net. Who better than the Germans to demonstrate how simplicity mixed with a dash of flair can make this work so wonderfully well.

The USA will need to win their remaining two games by a bigger margin than the English. Whoever finishes second will almost certainly fall at this particular German sword. It pains me to write this as the wife has once again, it seems, managed to pick a serious contender for a tournament that has just begun.

06/13/10 12:21pm

Robert Green

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday was National Football day in England with the new Prime Minister urging more to get involved with the national sport with video messages from the number 10 website. At 12:10am this morning the BBC’s flagship football show ‘Match of the Day’ sobered up a nation drunk on its own propaganda.

The four horsemen of the apocalypse, Lineker, Shearer, Hansen and Dixon, all fine footballers in their day, cast a long shadow over the proceedings in Rustenburg. England weren’t good enough; everyone except Steven Gerrard was showered in thinly veiled criticism. Lennon for being unable to cross, Carragher for his lack of pace, Milner for being obviously unfit (I thought he was just useless!), Heskey for his lame attempts on goal, Wright-Philips for the same. “But we will win our next two games,” offered Alan Shearer, the last voice of hope in BBC.

Over on RTE (Ireland’s National Broadcaster) it, as always, was a lot less PC than the stuffier Beeb. Eamon Dunphy described the England team as “inept” and “to realize just how poor they were you had to look at their opponents. Mike Bradley was man of the match, a playmaker in midfield around a team of players with clearly defined roles. England had none of this. No playmaker, and no defined roles.” Graham Sounness said he had “never seen an England team play so badly”.

This morning, as Dunshauglin Town opens its eyes to a watery sunshine, the shelves of ‘Tara News’ are stacked with British press. “Hand of Clod” screams the ‘News of the World,” while the ‘Sunday Mirror’ goes with “Worst Howler Ever!” Robert Green is the story for the tabloids and once these fellas get the scent of blood I really fear for the lad.

The press lynching of the England team has begun. God help them if they screw up the next two matches that the English nation has now transformed into training sessions for the knockout phase. God knows they need them, but Algeria and Slovenia, no matter how inferior they may be, will see a very large chink in the armor of the English

06/12/10 11:07am

wags

  • Vanity, Avarice, Cupidity, Caprice and Frivolity go shopping on the high street.

As the biggest game in the brief history of the east eastern branch of the USA supporters club approaches we will take a brief respite and look at a lighter and very unique side of our upcoming opponents psyche. The infatuation of the English media with the WAGS.

The term WAGs entered the vernacular during the 2006 tournament when a media circus seemed to forever surround the misadventures of the England squad’s Wives And Girlfriends in the German town of Baden Baden. Papparazzi and tabloid journalists caught every sip of champagne and every ‘Christian’ this or ‘Louis’ that which was sported whilst the competition for the highest heels was attracting at least as much attention as that for the Golden Boot.

Ultimately though the press eventually turned on the infamous WAGS when England whimpered out of the competition at the hands of Portugal blaming their distraction for the underachieving performances of their menfolk on the big stage.

So where are they now? Well VB, (which I always remembered as the only really acceptable Australian beer) Victoria Beckham is obviously cursing the achilles tendon of her somewhat famous husband for completely screwing up her PR diary for the summer. His injury means there’s really no need for photographs of her in overly large sunglasses to adorn every front page on Fleet Street. Missus Rooney is at home with new baby Kai (does this make her a Wagamama?), Cheryl Cole has recently and quite publicly been involved in the latest of a long line of “Love Rat” scandals to hit English football, so has Mrs. John Terry, when he was involved with a teammates ex girlfriend. Alex Curran, who is the wife of new England captain Steven Gerrard is staying home with the kids, presumably because she will have no one to play with over in South Africa, and probably key to the whole disbandment of the WAG circus is the fact that unlike his predecessor, Sven Goran Eriksson, Fabio Cappello has vetoed all forms of WAG being in contact with the squad whilst they are on duty.

There is, however, a timing aspect to the no-show. In 2006 it was spend, spend, spend. The “Sex and the City” effect was in full flow with opulence and narcissism the trend du jour. The WAGS epitomized a Europe which was running away with itself financially and in all honesty it was all very, very tacky. One economic crash later and a shift of continent to Africa would render any Champagne sipping in 10,000-dollar dresses a PR disaster and rightly so.

But what does this mean to the real football fan? There is one down side. Key to the enjoyment of the tournament is the engagement of one’s own WOG (Wife or Girlfriend). A key factor in WOG engagement is the weekly women’s magazine keeping the tournament firmly in the zeitgeist. I fear that this year, the pages of said publications will turn to the latest reality TV show whilst ignoring the fact that the World Cup is even happening. This is bad. This means that key to a successful engagement of one’s WOG is now hinging on her gambling selection staying the distance. This has proved to be my trump card in past tournaments as my wife has an uncanny knack for picking the winner. Last week I alluded to the fact that she had selected Spain, however, after reading my piece in this fine publication, she has exercised her right as a female to change her mind and nailed her colors to the German mast in sympathy with what she describes as a “misunderstood race.”

So for at least the group stages, if you listen real close you may just hear a muffled sigh of relief coming all the way from the east when the Germans sneak a one nil win. Who said this tournament was fair?

Keys to successful WOG engagement

1. Gambling. Place a sizeable bet for her on one of the favorites. Spain, Brazil or Argentina should keep her appetite in that elusive handbag whetted till at least the semis.

2. Food. When the Germans are playing make a German-themed dinner, and that doesn’t mean beer and hotdogs. A nice Paella when the Spanish are on. Fajita’s when Mexico play. She’ll just love the sense of occasion.

3. Celeb spotting. Leverage the female infatuation with celebrity and fashion. “I was watching the Brazil game and Giselle was there in a very striking dress that would look great on you” and watch her flick through the channels looking for reruns.

4. Hot men. The Italian team is always full of good-looking men. The US team has, so I’ve been told, one Carlos Bocanegra who is the ultimate Californian pin-up and there’s Didier Drogba, Robin Van Persie and Cristiano ‘Hair Gel and Hot Pants’ Ronaldo. Finding a heterosexual way to drop this into conversation may be a challenge.

06/07/10 4:00am

Ireland will not be represented at the World Cup finals this time around, upon which no more need be said. Instead I am temporarily turning my garage on the Dublin-Meath border on the eastern most island of America into the unofficial European headquarters for the USA supporters club as we invoke the words of the Pogues, made famous on the TV show The Wire and sing loud the official anthem of the unofficial supporters club, “I’m a free born man of the You Ess Ayy”.

This allegiance to the United States didn’t happen easily. There was much soul searching and an inordinate amount of pacing up and down the hall. I’ve never really identified politically with the USA apart from confessing to being a big fan of President Bartlett; but I identify completely with American music a million times more than its British equivalent, and frankly, I’m enjoying the idea of the USA in the unaccustomed role of rank underdog (it also doesn’t hurt that, theoretically, they could cause the downfall of England).

Required reading before attempting to make sense of the World Cup for the average American Sports fan is Brendan Hunt’s excellent ‘World Cup Translated into American‘. In this piece he very accurately compares the tournament’s clear favorites, Spain, to the Boston Red Sox 2005 team. A team that has played for so long with a monkey on its back, promising so much, and delivering so little, has very recently turned a corner and won the 2008 European Championships. They are clear favorites for the tournament because they A) play the best football and B) have the best players. Barcelona have recently offered 33 million pounds sterling to Arsenal for Cesc Fabregas and he can’t even make the starting 11! But, very rarely does the best team win this rollercoaster tournament.

The Brazilians are underrated, primarily because of poor seasons for Robinho and Kaka, but have a very balanced system under Dunga—much more defensive than previous Brazilian incarnations.

The Argentinians have a crazy demigod as a head coach who left Champions League winners at home in favor of younger local boys, and once the aging supreme passer Juan Veron was named in the squad one can’t help but suspect that their game plan is “get the ball to Messi” and let him wave a magic wand. Not exactly from the FIFA strategy DVD.

The English have a manager this time, but their defense is slower than a week in jail. Especially that Rio Ferdinand is now icing his knee and his partner in crime, John Terry, has been repeatedly exposed when playing higher up the field under Capello than he was sitting on his 18 yard line under Mourinho.

Italy get my vote, because Italian football is undergoing a huge injection of feelgood right now after winning the Champions League, there is also the siege mentality the Italians possess that made my wife plump 100 euro on them in 2006 when they were rank outsiders at 12/1. One penalty shootout and a very nice handbag later she has assumed football bragging rights in this residence for almost four years and it has to stop. She, for anyone interested has plumped for the Spanish this time around.

The Germans, as Kinky Friedman famously said, “Are my second favorite people, my first, is everybody else.” They play the most cumbersome style of football. Like a giant Aryan Borg collective they bore their opponents into submission in wars of attrition and feats of strength. This time around they have no leader though. Michael Ballack was ruled out after a particularly bad tackle in the FA cup final.

You could possibly see potential in the Dutch side, but they always promise so much until the infighting starts and they beat themselves before they even kick a ball. The usual noises are being made about a ‘new’ winner of the tournament, but unless the Dutch or the Spanish go the distance I really can’t see a Serbian or a Mexican or even a preening Portuguese number 7 hoisting the trophy.