Despite the fact that FIFA, the world soccer governing body, is run like an old-fashioned Soviet-era kleptocracy, whose leaders gorge themselves on seven-figure bribes and somehow still radiate indignation when their collective shred of integrity is questioned, the greedy bastards still know how to throw one hell of a tournament. The World Cup begins today, and for a month, anyone with a love of soccer or international sporting mayhem will be adhered to his TV set, hoping that the total goals scored comes close to the number of flops by various high-strung drama kings.
The World Cup is the greatest sporting spectacle on the planet. Nothing else attracts the kind of attention that it does, and nothing else brings out more national pride. You can have the Olympics, largely because the average sports fan doesn’t care about 75% -- or more – of the events at any time other than when the Games are contested. Curling? Kayaking? Biathlon? Not a chance. No way. You must be high. Hmmm. Maybe those sports should relocate to Colorado and repackage themselves to the newly baked populace. “Dude, did you catch that stone’s hog-to-hog speed? Awesome!”
This year’s competition is in Brazil, which has a thrilling blend of stifling Amazonian jungle heat, angry subway workers (and practically everybody else) on strike, way over budget costs, crushing poverty and Pele. If it weren’t for Carnivale, thongs and that giant statue of Jesus, there might be no reason to go there. But hundreds of thousands of soccer pilgrims will flock to South America’s largest country during June and July to watch the action. Here are some of the storylines they will be following.
England Win – Not! The last (and only) time St. George’s crew won this thing – 1966 – the Beatles were hot, and Sean Connery was still making Bond movies. Ah, those were the days. No wonder Austin Powers was so happy. Sir Bobby Charlton and the boys dumped West Germany in the finals before a delighted home crowd at Wembley. Alas, that was it for British supremacy in the sport that gained steam on the island during the Middle Ages. (The Chinese were said to have kicked a ball around in the second or third centuries, but Mao later said that they were actually booting about the heads of dissidents, and everyone agreed.) This year, the Brits have a fine side, led by Wayne Rooney and some other pale folks. And they have little or no chance of winning it all. In fact, they may not even get out of group play, since they have been cast in with mighty Uruguay and perennial power Italy. Perhaps the most interesting thing will be whether the English soccer hooligans will be able to overcome the swelter and copious amounts of Brahma Beer to riot properly.
Group(s) of Death: The England/Uruguay/Italy collection is nasty indeed, but things are even worse for the U.S., which has to deal with the Squareheads and Portugal, not to mention the scary Black Stars of Ghana, who reached the quarterfinals four years ago in South Africa’s vuvuzela-thon. (A side note: Brazil’s answer to the cacophonous ‘zela, the serpentine-sounding caxirola, has already been banned from the ’14 proceedings. El Hombre is sure the Brazilian faithful will obey the orders.) Anyway, there’s no chance whatsoever the FIFA crooks conspired to create some of these death traps. Right. Meanwhile, Argentina gets to hang out with the non-threatening trio of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria and Iran, which had considerable trouble arranging “friendly” exhibitions, since nobody wanted to come to the archaic theocracy, despite promises of yellowcake uranium parting gifts.
Mr. Personality: That would be Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, who during the last few years has bitten an opponent, called another a racist name and threatened to make the French look positively heroic by flopping more than Ben Afleck’s movie career did from “Chasing Amy” until “Argo”. (“Dogma” not included.) The man can score goals, as evidenced by the pile he accumulated for Liverpool this past season, but it will be interesting to see whether he can keep his cool as the cauldron heats during the Cup, or if he goes nuts. Here’s a vote for nuts. It’s always more fun.
Lionel Messy: Yes, soccerheads, El Hombre is aware that the Argentine striker’s last name is spelled “Messi”. But when he hurled during La Albiceleste’s final tune-up game, Messi reminded everyone of the pressure he is under to revive his country’s World Cup glory. Puking on the pitch has been Messi’s calling card of late, and it’s hard to tell whether he is merely channeling Willie Beamen or is succumbing to the stress of being this generation’s Diego Maradona. (Maradona, by the way, has made himself look like a complete ass of late by criticizing Pele’s talents and accomplishments. Hand of God. Mouth of moron.) For all of his magical work with F.C. Barcelona in La Liga, Messi has scored just once in World Cup play. His countrymen are already mad at him for playing professionally abroad. If he doesn’t deliver in Brazil, Messi’s nerves may be the least of his problems.
Booooring: There are plenty of drab teams in the Cup field. Greece plays as if its players will be denied ouzo rations if they score too many goals. The Squareheads’ maddening efficiency doesn’t exactly inspire great excitement, either, and is sort of scary, given their martial history. Then there is Spain, the defending champs. The lineup is packed with talent, and the side’s success has been impressive. But let’s hope the Spaniards don’t make it too far in the tournament, because they just aren’t that much fun to watch. Fans ought to hope for semifinals that include as many South American countries as possible, the better to guarantee some lively soccer – and crazy fan antics.
The Pick: It’s tempting to go with the home side here. The frenzy that would accompany a Brazilian championship would make Mardi Gras look like a monks’ convention. But the Selecao doesn’t have the all-around excellence necessary to survive. Spain is dangerous, but its time has come and gone. Messi could morph into a Maradona-style hero for the Argentines, provided he takes enough Pepto-Bismol. But the pick here is Germany. Yes, Euroteams rarely thrive off continent, but it’s not like there isn’t a solid Vaterland presence in South America, if you know what El Hombre means.
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EL HOMBRE SEZ: San Antonio interrupted espn’s LeBron-a-thon Tuesday night with a remarkable display of team basketball, or to put it in modern NBA terms, “what the hell was that?” A Spurs win would be dangerous for the league, because it might interrupt its individual-based marketing system and prove that good teams can actually be successful, rather than just stars, or those we are told are stars. James, of course, fits into the real category. But the Heat didn’t have enough surrounding him Tuesday to offset San Antonio’s devastating all-for-one attack…Joe Namath checked in with some support for Johnny Overrated this week, asking us to let the Browns rookie “live his life”. It would be great if the media would back off until we learned whether the QB’s back-foot throws will be successful in the NFL. In an attempt to fill the pipeline with new personalities to hype, Overrated has been already elevated to hero status. Come training camp, his every move and utterance will be celebrated. If you thought the Tebow circus was bad, wait until Overrated grabs the starting spot in Cleveland…California Chrome’s owner apologized earlier in the week for his classless outburst after his horse didn’t close the Triple Crown deal. Here’s hoping his whining doesn’t add any momentum to the idea that the three Crown races should be spread out more, or that all horses wishing to run at Belmont must also compete in Kentucky and Maryland, too. There’s a reason why only horse racing’s greatest have accomplished the feat: it’s hard, and only the best of the best prevail three times, no matter the conditions or the fields’ compositions. Let’s not devalue a classic sporting tradition because it’s a tough thing to accomplish…Speaking of sports classics, the U.S. Open kicks off today at Pinehurst, and without Eldrick Woods in the field, media types starved for stories beyond Bubba Watson’s Waffle House predilection (duh!) will be chasing Payne Stewart’s ghost. That’s what happens when a game builds its entire popularity around one player. Golfers will tune in to admire the pros’ swings. Everybody else will focus on buying last-minute ties for Fathers Day.
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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Phillies are so bad and lifeless that it’s not even fun to scream for Ruben Amaro’s ouster anymore. That may be his greatest sin as GM: he turned a team that captivated the area into a non-factor, something so banal that it can’t engender outrage, much less enthusiasm, from fans. Amaro’s mistakes – big and small – are on full display each night before ever-shrinking audiences. Worse, with a farm system bereft of Major League talent at its top levels, the franchise is facing several years of malaise. At least when the team stunk from 1994-00, it generated some interest from fans hoping for better times. These days, the Phillies are like that business you pass on the way to work every day. It’s there, but you don’t really notice it. That is Amaro’s legacy. Nobody cares.
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AND ANOTHER THING: The unseemly Donald Sterling saga had better teach professional sports owners something about the people with whom they associate. Perhaps the upper reaches of the NBA’s community had no idea what a jerk Sterling was when he bought the Clippers, but it soon became apparent that his business practices were shady, at best, and downright unethical, at worst – to say nothing of his personal beliefs and behaviors. The recent efforts to remove him have created a surreal set of circumstances that could continue to haunt the league for months, if not years, should Sterling persist, and the courts refuse to sweep him aside. From this point on, leagues had better vet those eager to buy in for more than just financial stability. They must know as much as possible about them, the better to avoid future fiascos like the Sterling debacle. If his actions weren’t so contemptible, this would be pretty amusing. It isn’t, and the NBA could still pay a sizeable price for consorting with such a buffoon.