Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Whole World's Watching...

Brazil has led with its chin, but that's legal, although painful, in soccer.  With a well-developed domestic league, it could have simply designated its largest eight stadiums for renovation and presentation for the World Cup games.  Instead, it has created some massive boondoggle--a stadium in the jungle that will be used for four games and then possibly left to rot,  another new one that will not be ready for the games--and some bad P.R. amongst its citizens.  I suspect that--like similar problems for the Olympics, or with South Africa for its 2010 games--these will recede once the actual games begin tomorrow.  The message--you listening, Poland, Russia, and Qatar?--is don't bite off more more than you can chew (or handle, if you prefer).

In terms of my predictions for the tournament, there have been a lot of changes in the anticipated personnel (due to injuries and such), but not much change in the big picture since my posting when the groups were announced last fall.  If the task is to identify the final four teams, I find there is little to debate:  any logical, probabilistic look at the brackets and the talent would come up with a clear, most-likely pair of semifinal matchups:  Brazil-Germany, and Argentina-Spain.  The winning teams from within those could be debated endlessly, and the finals as well, with plenty of room to make cases for any outcome, but it's hard to argue that those are not going to be the final four. 

And yet:  The whole thing could get upset in the second day of the first round, if Netherlands could pull off an upset of Spain.  If Spain finishes second in its group (and Brazil first in its), then Brazil and Spain would meet in the round of 16, which would inevitably leave an opening for some other team in that spot in that upper-right corner of the bracket (and the possibilities would be many).  So, that would be something that would immediately make the whole first three rounds a lot more interesting and thus something to root for, regardless of your preference (unless it's for Spain).   Is it possible?  Yes; likely, no.  Netherlands and Spain met in the finals of the last World Cup, but Spain's national fortunes remain extremely strong, while the Dutch performed poorly enough to lose their seeding among the top eight (they are currently ranked 15th). Simple factual evidence that Spain has the strongest national league comes from its Liga having produced the two finalists in this year's Champions Cup as well as the winner of the Europa Cup; granted, many of the players are from South America and elsewhere, but it does mean that Spain's players, in general, are in the fray at the highest level week in and out.  There is also another contender in the group to consider:  Chile has been looking very strong, and the Chileans could also throw the calculations of that group into disarray, by defeating either Netherlands or Spain. 

Besides the broadly and accurately lamented "Group of Death" with Germany, Portugal, the US, and Ghana, there is another complex and interesting group competition, one that could bear on that upper right corner: Group D has Uruguay (semifinalist in 2010), 2006 champs Italy, and England, along with a respectable, though probably overmatched, team from Costa Rica.  Uruguay has the top striker from the 2013-14 Premier League, Luis Suarez (Liverpool), but he may not be 100% for the tournament, and also some other top players.  Italy will have its usual tough defense and a set of question marks up front, while England looks decent and could pull a surprise. 

So, like a men's tennis Grand Slam these days, there is plenty of good competition in the early rounds, even if we all know who it's most likely to boil down to in the end (i.e., Nadal and Djokovic).   There are a lot of groups in which there's a likely winner but plenty of doubt about the selection of the second-place team which will get through.

Here are eight other first-round games (besides Spain-Netherlands on June 13) of intrinsic interest which should have some bearing on the teams which will advance:
England - Italy (June 14)
Russia - South Korea (June 17)
Uruguay - England (June 19)
US - Portugal (June 22)
Netherlands - Chile (June 23)
Croatia - Mexico (June 23)
Greece - Ivory Coast (June 24)
South Korea - Belgium (June 26)
In terms of my "official" predictions for the record, I went mostly with the chalk (based on FIFA rankings) or with very credible substitutions (France over Switzerland for first, Ivory Coast over Greece and South Korea over Russia for second places).  You can see them at 'chinshihtang2' on espn's bracket game (easily found in the group "Fans of Singapore").   Still thinking Brazil-Argentina in the final.  I'm hoping the US can dislodge Portugal, but I wouldn't (didn't) bet upon it happening. 



Chin Shih Tang said...

June 11--follow-up: For my first-round picks of those key games (on the record on espn's World Soccer Pick'em, name chinshihtang, Fans of San Marino):
Spain, England (draw), S. Korea (win, vs. Russia), Uruguay, Portugal, Netherlands (win vs. Chile), Croatia, Greece (draw), Belgium.
In that game, you either pick the favorite to win, or the underdog to draw or win (I like the format). If you're thinking there's some inconsistency with my bracket in the other game, I also picked Ivory Coast to defeat(or draw)vs. Colombia, and Chile (to defeat or draw) vs. Spain. It's all possible, within the groups, and I find it important to have a scenario you like and stick to it.

Chin Shih Tang said...

June 13: So Netherlands could beat Spain, as I suggested? Eccome!
The goal by Van Persie in the first half is one for the ages, with the first of Robben's right up there, as well. It's like a brand new tournament now--well, OK, it pretty much was already.