Friday, December 06, 2013

LIVE CHAT: The 2014 World Cup Draw


Thursday, December 05, 2013

A Soccer Hater's Guide to the World Cup Draw

Okay, so we're big on the goofy glee that comes along with the World Cup Draw. My toes curl up and down with every potential permutation. But I'm fully and wildly aware that watching 95 minutes of highly choreographed FIFA frooferah, may not be the average American sports fan's favorite thing. So allow us to get you fired up with these simple factoids.

1. Check out the pretty lady.
FIFA understands that they are a collection of old, white men in suits, and, therefore, not terribly interesting to look at for an hour-and-a-half. Enter the pretty lady presenter. The equivalent of a lotto-girl for 90 minutes, only rather than some wanna-be actress down on her luck, FIFA brings in a gorgeous celebrity. This year it's Fernanda Lima, Brazil's leading actress.

Yes, she will be there with her husband Rodrigo Hibert, but worrying about whose wife your ogling is not a custom most sports fans are familiar don't worry about it.

2. Hey, this music isn't bad!
In between staring at Fernanda Lima, and feeling kinda bad, but not really bad about it, you can listen to music from the leading star of Brazilian hip hop (Emicida) and the Brazilian Aretha Franklin (Margareth Mendez). Okay, and back to ogling Fernanda Lima...

Okay and on to the sports part of things

If you like the actual sports part of sports, you might want to know why all this matters. Well, lets answer that with an analogy.

Imagine the World Cup as an international version of March Madness. (It causes entire nations shut down, productivity to go down the toilet, normally sane people make totally inaccurate predictions, etc.)

That makes the World Cup Draw an international version of Selection Sunday. (You figure out who you're playing, and start to have a more specific sense of whether or not you can actually win).

If you like Selection Sunday, you should like the draw part of the World Cup Draw. Sure, part of the thrill of Selection Sunday is how quickly the tournament starts after it, and sure there's seven months between our draw and the actual kick-off. However, FIFA needs that time to make sure that fans can buy tickets, book travel accommodations, inspire Brazilian airlines to gouge prices, it is a slightly larger undertaking than sending a couple hundred college kids to Dayton for the weekend.

But the other fun part of Selection Sunday is the frenetic pace of analysis. So, if you like frenetic analyses, then here are a few guidelines to sound intelligent.

3. Fear the seeds: the mighty, mighty seeds.
The draw starts with Pot 1, this is host to the "Seeded teams", which, to American sports fans, might sound like "Number 1 Seeds" from the NCAA Basketball tournament.

That's because, it's EXACTLY LIKE the "Number 1 Seeds" from the NCAA Basketball Tournament. FIFA (the selection committee of these things) uses their own convaluted, quasi-RPI style ranking system to determine number 1 seeds. (Their formula is pretty brilliantly debunked by the BBC, the world's leader in nerdy Soccer analyses.)

But setting aside whether this is right or wrong, what really matters is who you get grouped with, especially because the last non-seeded team to win was Argentina in 1986, before the majority of young stars were even born. These teams are generally the top contenders for the title, so they can really damage your dreams if you get a tough one. There are 8 "1 Seeds" including defending champions Spain (i.e. Louisville), perennial blue bloods Germany, Brazil and Argentina (i.e. Duke/Kansas/Kentucky) and a couple of frequent contenders Colombia and Belgium (i.e. Syracuse/ Indiana).

That leaves two teams who certainly have their strengths, but are not guaranteed world beaters (the soccer equivalent of Pittsburgh or Gonzaga): Uruguay and Switzerland. Neither one is a walk-over, but they offer a much brighter glimmer of hope than the others. Plus, since in each of the last three cups two top seeds have failed to win their group, above average teams should keep their fingers crossed for the weaker number ones.

4. Beware the Mid-Majors/Cinderellas
The draw will continue with teams divided up by their continental affiliation first the Asian and North American teams, then the South Americans and Africans (plus a mystery European team...don't ask why), and finally Europe (which has the majority of teams in the tournament).

To continue the March Madness analogy, these teams are the squads who can spoil the party. Each continental conference has some teams that will need to get crazy lucky (Florida Gulf Coast style), and each has some legitimate sleepers (Butler style).

As each team is drawn they'll be put in groups alphabetically (A-H), provided they don't create a continental conflict. As a result, France and the African teams have to be set against Brazil, Argentina and Colombia (because Chile and Ecuador can't be).

If you don't know anything about soccer, and want to impress people who do (perhaps an attractive exchange student or a globe-trotting boss), then don't worry about the chalk picks from Pot 1: remember the cupcakes and the competitors that make the difference in each group.

Pot 2: Cupcakes--Australia, Honduras, Iran  Competitors--USA, Japan
Pot 3: Cupcakes--Cameroon, Algeria Competitors--Ivory Coast, Ghana, Chile
Pot 4: Cupcakes--Bosnia/Herzegovina Competitors: Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal

5. Where You Play Matters Too.
While the groups are assigned alphabetically, the position in the group is a little more random. Seeds get to be #1, other teams are given a another random spot from two to four. Those spots determine exactly when and where each squad will play. So it's not just who you play, but which spot you land.

The road to the finals will wind all throughout Brazil, the fourth largest nation in the world (7 times larger than South Africa, 23 times larger than Germany) and the position you draw determines just how much you have to travel. Since teams like to set up a single camp as their home base and spend as little time on the road as possible, you can expect a few highly pampered international stars to have their preferences.

For instance, the lucky seed that gets F1 and can camp out near the relatively tropical climes running from Belo Horizonte, to Porto Alegre and then to Rio de Jenairo. However, hardest hit will be the poor shmuck who gets stuck with A2. They'll kick off the tournament against Brazil (with precisely 0 people cheering for them) and Antarctic winds cooling the stadium during the southern hemisphere's winter months, then fly four hours north to Manaus in the middle of the northern rainforest's rainy season, then have to go 4 hours east to Recife and the heat of an Equatorial summer. That's a lot less pleasant.

6. It's Smart to Look Ahead.
As the groups fill up, letter by letter, you can start looking not just at whose in your first group of four, but who your team might face if they qualify for the playoff rounds (the Sweet Sixteen).

Your first opponent will come from the group right next door (A v.s. B; C vs. D; etc.). And if you pass that, your quarter final rival will come from the next pair (ABCD in one batch, EFGH in another). Once you hit the semi-finals and finals you could be facing anybody, but by that point it's all a crapshoot anyway, so don't worry about that.

So, if you're rooting for the US (and if you're a typical soccer-hating American, I can't imagine you rooting for someone else), your best case scenario would be a group with Cameroon, Switzerland and Bosnia, but that doesn't mean doodly-squat if Spain's right next door and Brazil's likely to be waiting you in the quarter finals.

By the same token, it might be frightening to land in a group with dark horse Belgium, Chile, and Portugal. But if you can find a way through (hint--fluid passing v.s. Chile, scrupulously careful marking against Ronaldo) and find patsies like Uruguay, Switzerland and Mexico, you may be bound for the Final Four.

Hopefully now you have a little more reason to watch, a little more reason to care, and a lot of new ways to sound smart about the World Cup. And know about Fernanda Lima

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

In it, But Win It? #9: Better Late than Nevers

There's a sad truth about the play-off games for qualification to the world cup: often times they are easier to win than the regular qualification stages themselves.

Think about it. You're several points down, thrashing and battling with a continental rival who knows exactly how you're going to play and what you're going to do, because you've played each other dozens upon dozens of times, and your players face-off in club leagues on a regular basis. Sure, you could grit your teeth and charge head long into the face of certain death.

On the other hand, you could shrug your shoulders, let your rivals win and not worry about it, because in one month you'll get to kick the snot out of a group of part-time semi-pros from around the world who will be happy just to shake your hand.

So it is with the last two teams who qualified for the FIFA World Cup. Mexico and Uruguay. Both are talented, both should have been in long before, both got to beat up on a pair of lesser luminaries en route to their eventual destiny.

(What is that destiny you asked? Allow me to make a wildly inaccurate guess!)
File:Mexico national football team seal.svg
Contender Credentials: Mexico is and will always be the class of the non-power associations. They have been the most consistently excellent team not from either Europe or South America. They make the second round every time out, like clock-work and have, in Giovanni dos Santos and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez a prodigiously talented top two striking combination.
Pretender Problems: Mexico has been playing abysmally for the last three-four years. The once nightmarish setting of Azteca means nothing to their fellow CONCACAF foes and they look utterly baffled by any pressure or difficulty thrown their way. Mexican fans are already despondent about El Tri's chances (as one of my students said: "we don't deserve to go there...we just don't.") On that, we agree lad.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Enrique Pena Nieto swings a free trade deal with Brazil just in time to offer Mexico City "drinking" water to every other country's training camp. Montezuma's revenge leaves Meixco victors by default.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: The team struggles to find their way out of their hotel rooms. The FA fires three coaches after each dispiriting group loss, and Mexico crumbles into their worst showing ever.
Prediction: Chichirito chokes on the biggest stage of his career, no body else has any idea of how to help. The ugliness continues 4th place.

File:Uruguay football association.svgContender Credentials: The most dangerous team in South America: La Celeste combines all the creative prowess of three of the world's most feared strikers: Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and (new gun) Edison Cavani. While the highly touted Brazil and Argentina went into South Africa as favorites, Uruguay was the only one still standing by the semi-finals, and pulled the same trick again in the Copa America.
Pretender Problems: Good as they were four years was four years ago. Forlan is on his last legs, Suarez has become the Diego Maradonna of his nation (both in talent and in bizarrely erratic behavior). The midfield is older and still underwhelming, so it will fall to the strikers to create their own chances...good luck with that.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Forlan finds the fountain of youth. Suarez finds the fountain of Adderall and a stout defense of Pereria and Caceras hold off all foes en route to a repeat of their last Brazil...sixty years ago.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: The magic is all dried up and they play much more like the squad that struggled versus Venezuela than the world beaters of 2010. Only now there's no Jordan to beat up on.
Prediction: Forlan has one shining moment, Suarez does something sketchy, Cavani looks brilliant but exhausted and only a group of death (plus suspect goalkeeping) marks them out as a stunning underachiever. 3rd place

In case you haven't been keeping score at home: here's how I've predicted the tournament before I know who will be on the rosters and whom will be playing whom.

4th places: Iran, Costa Rica, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Honduras, Algeria, Cameroon, Greece, Mexico

3rd places: Australia, Holland, Switzerland, Russia, Ecuador, Nigeria, Croatia, Uruguay

16s: South Korea, Columbia, Belgium, England, Chile, Ivory Coast, France, Portugal

Quarters: Japan, Italy, USA, Spain

Semis: Brazil, Ghana

Runners Up: Germany

Champions: Argentina

That would require pretty much, this exact draw:

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Starting XI: Federation Badges, We'll Miss Next Summer

In our Happy Trails series we've profiled the teams who won't be at next summer's world cup, and in the process highlighted a few awesome federation logos of teams that didn't make the grade. In that spirit here's a special recognition for the well designed, if not the terribly talented.

I. Pakistan--I'm not sure if it's the flaming soccerball's definitely the flaming soccer ball. Pakistan's badge looks like something that would be batted around an MLS expansion team office in the late 90s. Only better because they all hold on to it.

II. Anguila--When Anguila was ousted I said that I shared the mourning of Three Dolphins supporters, not least because they seemed to have captured Flipper in mid-flip. I have expect the subtitle of this badge to be "So Long, and Thanks for All the Futbol"

III. Palestine--The Palestinian national side isn't so much a nation and isn't so much a side as it is a collection of people with Palestinian heritage who take time out of their doctoring, lawyering and all around livelihoods to play against the big boys of Asian futbol. Hopefully, some day, this logo is an aspirational target for young athletes in the disputed territory--the swooping arcs seem enticing enough to me.

IV. Azerbaijan--Similar to the Pakistani logo, I appreciate a little bit of the "ball on fire" motif. But it's nice that the Azerbaijani powers that be chose to have the ball falling rather than soaring, and allowed the flames to match the national flag.

Shirt badge/Association crest
V. Solomon Islands--The first of two circa 70's era emblems, The Solomon islands manage to work in the colors of the flag in a new and intriguing way while still having an ample amount of style (between the stripes, the stars, and the stylistic "S") it looks a little like a Cable News logo (assuming that all cable news was run out of the Solomon Islands)
VI. Czech Republic--National FA emblems are about the last vestige of the "animal rampant" style that dominates so may family crests. What's great about the lion for the Czech logo is both the double tail and heavy mane as well as the color palette mixing and matching red white and blue (even if it does skew a little too close to Pepsi for copy right lawyers.

VII. Dominican Republic--Speaking of the Red, White and Blue, here's another play on those colors from the Caribbean. Baseball is king in the Dominican, but soccer continues to make inroads. The structure of the FA's logo is unlike almost anything else out there. The cup looks aspirational (even if the "D" seems to have been an after thought), and the island outline in the middle of the ball is a nice way to make clear who is playing here.
File:Federatia Romana de fotbal.png

VIII. Romania--One of the more recent eliminations, I'm a big fan of the Romanian spinning wheel of death motif. The whirling colors make for a nice piece of perspective, as if there's an entire universe spinning around the ball (something the New York Cosmos also use to great effect). The simple primary colors of the national flag, and the language surrounding the claim are perfect for a classic, timeless look.

IX. Benin--The second 70s era logo, Benin's choice uses the ball more pointedly than the others did, turning it into a "b" for "Federation Beninoise". I said when they were eliminated that it looked like a soccer version of the Montreal Expos, or Milwaukee Breweres logo, something that both covered the letters of the location and team and also evoked the sport (with gloves and balls implied in both)


X. Guatemala--The most decidedly postmodern of all the federation logos, Guatemala has a sweeping set of arcs that seem to be at once a parrot, a ball, a keeper mid-savea gigantic eyeball, or god knows what. Whatever it is, it definitely stands out and signifies that Guatemala is a serious country...for artistes nouveau.

XI. Senegal--Finally there's this from Senegal. Like Guatemala they eschewed the standard issue "letters and a ball" set up, for an implied ball that uses both national flag, the team mascot (a lion) and
a subtle connection to the African continent. It look slightly like an elementary art project, but that just reflects how soccer unites everyone and infuses a childlike joy.

So there you have it, the style champs we'll be rooting for on the Road to Russia