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

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