Monday, December 16, 2013

2014 World Cup Preview: Group A Predictions

Get ready for a whole lot of this
Group A: Brazil, Cameroon, Mexico, Croatia

Even though I'm in a highly competitive ESPN World Cup Bracket Challenge (you can join it here - search for the group named "Landy Cakes." The password is "landycakes" - go figure), I'm not afraid to share my prediction for the World Cup champion. It's Brazil. I simply can't see how the Seleção fail to win this tournament.

To win the tournament, of course, you've got to escape your group. And the Brazilians are uniquely poised to do just that. 

Prediction: Brazil win group, Croatia 2nd
The only thing that Brazil has to worry about is succumbing to the pressure of their soccer-mad country. It's hard for Americans to understand the passion that Brazilians have for soccer. I'm the first to admit that I don't fully grasp the power that this sport holds over the country, but you can see it in the faces of the players during the Brazilian national anthem. If this video doesn't scream "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose," then I don't know what does. 

Personally, I think this Brazilian team is in a terrifyingly perfect position to win this World Cup. The national anthem, the pomp and circumstance, the feeling of every countryman's eye and heart resting on your movement on a rectangle of grass - this is what these Brazilian players have been working towards for their whole lives. And, crucially, many of them have not had to wait long to get it.

A good word to describe the Brazilian team is "ripe." Often, pundits say that the "time is ripe," but I think that this particular squad of players is ripe. They are built with a terrific mix of experience in back, youthful exuberance in the midfield, and more experience (plus a once-in-a-generation young superstar) up front - check it out: 

GK: Julio Cesar (34)
Defenders: Dani Alves (30), Maicon (32), Thiago Silva (29 - universally lauded as a top 3 defender in the world), David Luiz (26)
Midfielders: Ramires (26), Oscar (22), Paulinho (25), Lucas (26)
Forwards: Neymar (21 - the aforementioned superstar), Hulk (27), Robinho (29)

Getting into the weeds for a minute here - pressure on a soccer field generally manifests itself in player mistakes, and player mistakes happen when a player has time to think. Further, "time to think" is something that midfielders and forwards have much more of than defenders. While a relatively ageing Brazilian back line might feel like their World Cup window is closing, they'll be too busy sweeping opposing attacks aside to notice it. The joyous, swaggerous, swashbuckling Brazilian football will be back in good hands in this World Cup - the hands of the youthful offensive playmakers who will shoot, dribble, and pass first, and ask questions of their legacy later. 

OK, enough Brazilian ballwashing. Let's discuss (briefly) the three inferior squads in Group A. 

Ranked 16th in the world, Croatia is a very respectable football team. Which is not to say that all their players are respectable human beings. Even without the services of the Nazi mentioned in the previous link, Croatia will likely gain enough points to see them out of this group. They have tested, high-level defenders in Darijo Srna, Vedran Corluka, and Danijel Pranjic, as well as 24-year-old Southampton back Dejan Lovren. 

Their midfield is anchored by true superstar midfielder Luka Modric, a 28-year-old maestro who can dictate the tempo of a game as well as anyone in the world. Modric will be the lynchpin for this team, and if he can slow the game down enough, the high-flying tactics of Brazil and Cameroon might be stifled. 

Aaron Carter is his stylist.
Croatia don't have a lethal finisher in the mold of aged legend Davor Suker, but Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic might be able to use their 6-foot-2 frames to outmuscle smaller Mexican and Cameroonian (Cameroonan? Cameroonish?) defenders.

Despite their recent run of form, including an abject beatdown of New Zealand in a two-game series to determine who would make it to the World Cup, I can't see Mexico getting out of this group. Yes, they play their home games in a hot, muggy, smoggy, loud, oxygen-deprived, atmosphere, so you'd think they'd be used to Brazil. But the problem lies less in the climate or fitness of the players, and more in the fact that the Mexicans simply can't find the net lately. 

Granted, this may change in the run-up to the World Cup, but there are only so many tactical adjustments you can make. They're already on their fourth manager of 2013(!!!), so I don't see any more changes coming on that front. Miguel Herrera has led them to the World Cup, but he doesn't have the weapons to compete with Brazil, nor to put enough goals past Croatia's stout back line. 

Doing what he does best - sitting (though not on the defender's back shoulder)
Chicharito (Mexico's poaching 25-year-old forward) is not a player who can create his own shot - he needs service in order to thrive. He also is not listed on the team's current roster, though that might just be because he picked up an injury in training at Manchester United. I can't see him being left off the World Cup roster. 

In any event, teams with no playmakers facing stout defensive teams generally don't fare well. Adios, Mexico. 

It saddens me to put the Indomitable Lions in the last position in this group, mainly because their nickname is "The Indomitable Lions." How freaking cool is that?? Plus, they have easily the sweetest shirt design out of all of the countries so far unveiled at Clean Sheet's website. Seriously, check this baby out.
In any case, the Lions have a lot to like. First of all, the schedule favors them slightly. They play Mexico first in a crucial match. The loser of that game will most likely come last in the group, as the games only get harder from there. They also have a world-class player at every level of the team, with Tottenham Hotspur defender Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Barcelona midfielder Alex Song, and Chelsea forward Samuel Eto'o (who is always running).

However, I just don't feel good about their chances. African teams rarely travel well. With barely any research to back this statement up, I still feel it's true. Think about it from an economic standpoint: Croatians probably have some disposable income, Mexicans will most likely travel well just due to their extraordinary fan support, but Cameroon's traveling party will be much smaller. That bodes ill, especially when they're chucked into a group with the host Brazilians. The Indomitable Lions will be dominated.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Inigo Martinez Speculative Rip of the Week: Marcelo Vidal

If someone were to ask you to define the term "speculative rip," you would point them straight in the direction of this goal. Marcelo Vidal, a midfielder from Atletico Independiente, a nondescript second-tier Argentinian side, caught a touch of the ol' Inigo Martinez fever with three minutes left in their game against Patronato.

Straight from a free kick, Vidal takes two steps and uncorks a freaking BULLET at the opposing goal. This might even be more impressive than Martinez's two attempts, because the keeper is kind of in a good position. He is just beaten by the scorching missile that screams over his head into the back of the old onion bag. What a strike. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The 2014 World Cup Draw - Reactions and "Deathiness" Rankings

The Grail

The 2014 World Cup is stacked. The average FIFA world ranking of all teams in the tournament is 20.78, which is astonishing when you consider that Africa and Asia (not traditional soccer hotspots) got eight of the 32 tournament berths. Australia, at 59, is the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, and they have three players plying their trade in top-flight European leagues. This has all the makings to be the most hotly contested World Cup ever.

After the (potentially rigged) draw last Friday, we now know the eight groups that will make up the first stage of the competition. As you’d expect, many of these groups are absolutely terrifying. You can’t have a draw with the best teams in the world and expect the groups to work out completely fairly. Having said that, some teams (cough cough the United cough States cough) have some serious reasons for concern.

With over 6 months until the start of the tournament, there’s not much that soccer fans can do except wait, pray against injuries, and speculate. So speculate I shall.

I’ll be breaking down the World Cup through the lens of my semi-vast knowledge of world soccer, combined with my nearly airtight hunches based on such important factors as climate, travel, fatigue, player fitness, things I know about the country that the team is from, and the potential corruptness of the referees.

Since there are eight groups, and it would take forever to dissect each one’s 12 games, I’m chunking these blog posts into (hopefully) weekly breakdowns. This week, we’ll start with an overview of the groups, and give a general level of Deathiness (as a nod to the most overused phrase in World Cup parlance, the “Group of Death”).

As Michael Bolton says, let’s get to it.

Group A: Brazil, Cameroon, Mexico, Croatia
Death Scale: Brendan Fraser
"My hair product? Camel spunk."
Google is a wonderful tool. Since this group would have made up the Group of Death in 1999, when Brazil was ranked 1st in the world, Croatia 9th, and Mexico 10th, I simply Googled "celebrities who almost died in 1999", and was rewarded with this nugget from the Wikipedia entry for "The Mummy""Brendan Fraser nearly died during a scene where his character is hanged. Weisz remembered, 'He stopped breathing and had to be resuscitated.'" It's almost a shame he survived.

In short, this is a tough group for everyone except Brazil. The gulf in quality is so vast that it feels like Croatia and Mexico are 116th and 120th in the world, rather than 100 spots better. 

Group B: Spain, Chile, Australia, Netherlands
Death Scale: Steve Irwin
"MY hair product? Crocodile kisses."
You had to see this one coming. In the land down under, they're probably lamenting this group as the worst possible outcome. Wait, let's check.... Yup. They totally are

Only one death has hit this country harder in the recent past, and it was the tragic passing of everyone's favorite bushy-haired and bushwhacking television presenter, Steve Irwin. 

Federal buildings should probably just stay closed until July to mourn the inevitable and untimely passing (soccer pun intended) of the Australian national soccer team at the 2014 World Cup. This could be the kind of total destruction that turns an entire generation of young Australians away from soccer and towards a more successful sport, such as rugby, avoiding sharks while on a slice of wood in the ocean, or kangaroo boxing. 

Seriously though. Spain and the Netherlands played for the 2010 World Cup trophy, and Chile will be bringing their entire population across the Andes in waves like the Huns in Mulan.

Group C: Colombia, Ivory Coast, Japan, Greece
Death Scale: Kel Mitchell
"I'm not dead. I promise." 
Despite what you may read.. um... everywhere, Kel Mitchell is not, and has never been, dead. He's the perfect representation of this group, though, because everyone knows about the Kel Mitchell Death Rumor. Every few years, someone will trot out the old "Hey, did you hear Kel Mitchell died?" routine at a party, only to go on Wikipedia and find that, once again, he's managed to not die yet. 

In the same way, I feel like the general public knows just enough about every team in this group to make it seem really intriguing. The playing styles and the talents in these games will clash mightily, and just like Kel's life post-Kenan and Kel, we'll learn a little bit more about each of these teams every time we check in on them. 

Group D: Uruguay, Italy, Costa Rica, England
Death Scale: The Old Christians Club Uruguayan rugby team
My, what big teeth they have.
The 2014 World Cup will be played in South America for the first time since 1978. That year, the host Argentinian side won the tournament. Chile played host to the 1962 World Cup, and Brazil came out victorious. Twelve years earlier, Brazil hosted the tournament and Uruguay lifted the trophy. Are we seeing a pattern here? 

South American teams win South American-hosted World Cups.

It even happened at the very first tournament in 1930, when Uruguay won the inaugural World Cup as the host nation. 

Unfortunately, the only logical Death Scale photo for this group recalls the story of the 1972 "Miracle in the Andes" - when a planeful of Uruguayan rugby players on their way to a game in Chile crash-landed on the snow-covered slopes and had to resort to cannibalism before their eventual rescue. 

Uruguay has to channel their miraculous 1972 ancestors and, unfortunately, feed on their less fortunate Central American opponents, Costa Rica. England might continue its recent run of slip-ups at major tournaments, especially as this World Cup will be played in muggy Brazil.

Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras, France
Death Scale: Nicolas Flamel
"My hair product? ... Also camel spunk."
Many of you know Nicolas Flamel as a French Alchemist, and the only known creator of the Sorceror's Stone, a bloodred rock from which one can create the Elixir of Life - a substance that makes the drinker immortal. (He was also a real guy.)
In terms of ranking the Deathiness of this group, there is no better half-fictional sorta-real French alchemist than our boy Nicky here. The man was flat-out unable to die, despite his outrageous age (he was 665 when the Sorceror's Stone was destroyed), much the same way that this French national team seems unable to fail despite their very best efforts.

After being left for dead less than a month ago (seriously, more than 8/10 French people thought they were screwed), the French somehow roared back to life. They needed to beat the Ukraine by at least three goals (or by four if the Ukraine scored a goal) on the last day of European qualifying in order to make it to the World Cup, and somehow they pulled it off - winning 3-0 in Paris for one of the country's most famous victories.

Now, French fans must think they've died and gone to ciel. (That's "heaven" in French). This group is an absolute joke, and the French have a 78% chance to get through. Sacrebleu.

Group F: Argentina, Nigeria, Iran, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Death Scale: Jimmy Fallon
"I'm famous. I don't do my own hair. Jeesh."
Know how when someone famous dies, people say: "Wonder who had her in the death pool?" Well, two years ago, my friends and I started an actual celebrity death pool. Each person can pick up to three people, and the group gets to haggle on the odds of each celebrity's death. If your person dies, you get the amount of money that your person's odds were relative to 1. For example: I had Kim Jong Il at 9-1 last year, he died, and I got 9 dollars from everyone.

To keep things sane, we figured the longest possible odds should be 50-1. Then, you couldn't haggle for like 1,500-1 odds on Kate Middleton, then go to England and run her over with a truck (or something).

We decided that the celebrity with the longest odds of death, the one furthest from kicking the bucket, the human being at whose death you would be most shocked, is Jimmy Fallon. He is just so goddamn alive.

Now, don't get this confused. A low Deathiness rating does not mean that every team in a group is "alive" with a chance to get into the knockout stage. It simply means that the group is weaker than an unevolved Magikarp. Argentina should stomp every other team in this group. Period.

Group G: Germany, Ghana, United States, Portugal
Death Scale: (Sorry to do this, but) Paul Walker
I had to do it. It's that bad. Even if you're not a soccer fan (and if you're not, and still reading, congratulations), you've probably heard of either the death of Paul Walker or the impending doom faced by the US Men's National Team (AKA the mighty Von Trapps). These two things are not on the same level of tragedy, but they both represent the worst thing that had even a reasonable chance of happening.
Paul Walker loved fast cars. If someone asked you what terrible thing could perhaps be expected to happen to him, you'd say a death involving a fiery car wreck.

The USA was in Pot 3. If someone asked you what terrible group they could perhaps be expected to fall into, you'd inevitably give a top 3 team in the world, a team with which the USA has historic trouble, and a team with one or more unstoppable playmakers.

Well, that's exactly what you've got. The analysis will come later, but for now, it's hard to see a way out for the Von Trapps.

Group H: Belgium, Algeria, South Korea, Russia
Death Scale: Seven fluffy newborn ducklings
"Jeff? Turn around bro. Can we get one good photo please?"
Jesus Christ this group sucks. It was absolutely agonizing as a United States fan watching the draw, because the time in between the announcement of each successive team gave me more than enough time to release my inner cynic.
Let's review the tape. The USA had a 50-50 shot at being in this group, but instead were dumped into a group with the 2nd and 5th ranked teams in the world, rather than the 11th, 22nd, and 26th.

The polar opposite of a Group of Death. Coin flips are annoying when you lose three straight.

Friday, December 6, 2013

World Cup Draw Day!

Today is the day that the 32 qualifying nations will see who they'll face in the 4-team, round-robin group stage of next summer's World Cup.

Depending on your allegiances, today can either feel like an undefeated college basketball's Selection Sunday, or a District 12 teenager's Reaping Day.

Regardless, today is a great day to be a soccer fan. It's the much-anticipated, often-simulated, superstar-populated World Cup 2014 Draw.

As with everything that Sepp Blatter (FIFA President and known snake) touches, this is complicated. There are wheels within wheels.

How it works

Despite the fact that FIFA is a ridiculously corrupt entity, the strange machinations of the draw have been laid out with good intention: to ensure the greatest possible geographical diversity of each group.

In a nutshell, there are 32 teams waiting to be placed into 8 groups. Right now, they are in 4 "pots" according to various rules. Pot 1 houses the top 8 teams in the world. Pot 2 holds all of the teams from Africa and South America. Pot 3 holds the Asian and North American teams, and Pot 4 holds the European teams.

The Pots

Pot 1: Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland
Pot 2: Chile, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria, Cameroon
Pot 3: USA, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, South Korea, Iran, Japan, Australia
Pot 4: Russia, Portugal, Netherlands, Italy, Greece, France, England, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Because nine teams from Europe made the tournament and only seven did from Africa and South America, Pot 4 has 9 teams and Pot 2 only has 7. So, right before the draw, they'll pick one team at random from Pot 4 and place it in Pot 2. Then, they'll start the draw.

With me so far? Good. Now it gets complicated.

Brazil, as the hosts, will be put in Group A (the first of the 8 groups that will play a round-robin format when the tournament begins in July). Then the seven other teams from Pot 1 will be put into the top slot in each of the remaining Groups B-H.

Remember, though, that FIFA is trying to keep maximum geographical diversity between the teams in the groups. So after Pot 1 has been emptied, the four South American teams that were in Pot 1 (Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay) will be put into a super-secret highly mysterious pot called "Pot X."

Yes, while it sounds like something the kid at the frat house next door might try to sell you, it's actually a way to make sure that there aren't three European teams in one group.

So, they'll pull one team from Pot X. That team will AUTOMATICALLY receive the European team that was placed from Pot 4 into Pot 2.

I like examples. Let's do one so it's easier.


They pull out England from Pot 4. England now goes into Pot 2.

They draw the 8 teams and put them into the top slots of Groups A through H.

They put the 4 top South American teams into the mystery-shrouded Pot X.

They pull out Brazil from Pot X.

Since Brazil is in Group A (as the hosts), England now goes into Brazil's group on the second line.

The rest of the draw proceeds as normal, with Pots 2, 3, and 4 emptying sequentially, and at random, into the 8 groups.

As they say in the Hunger Games, "May the odds be ever in your favor."

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Luis Suarez is a Magical Being

I'm almost positive that Luis Suarez is not a human being. Much like Lil Wayne, Suarez's powers at his chosen profession are so astounding, when he chooses to use them, that people who don't even care about the topic are left stunned.

The man plays for a team called Liverpool, and that team is currently stomping the cat farts right out of a team by the name of Norwich City. It's halftime, and it's already 3-0 thanks to three Suarez goals.

Now, three goals in the first half of a professional soccer match, at any level, is damn good. The fact that it's in a match in the best league in the world is simply superb. And the fact that two of these goals are things made of stardust and moonbeams is simply magical.

Here's the first one. Presented without comment.

HauntingDigitalGerenuk Luis Saurez volleys a bouncing ball over John Ruddy from fully 40 yards [GIF]

That ball was roughly 40 yards from goal. No biggie. Just a dipping full volley from just inside the halfway circle.

Here's the second one. The most benign of the bunch, and still an acrobatic, left-footed, volleyed finish.

And the third might actually be the best of the bunch. Everything you could ask for in a striker: pace, cleverness, balance, and a fucking LETHAL finish.

Suarez solo goal vs Norwich

Again, Luis Suarez is not a human being.


He scored again. Of course he did. Free kick from 25 yards, and Suarez was locked into some sort of goal-scoring zone that he seemed unable to escape. This ball was a homing pigeon and its destination was the back of the onion bag. Simple as that.

EnchantingImmaculateHumpbackwhale video iframe

The game ended 5-1 Liverpool. Suarez got the assist on the fifth. Of course he did.

Honestly, I couldn't care less if he bites people (which he does) or calls people racist names whilst in the heat of battle (which he allegedly does). I just like to watch the man score goals. And goddammit he is good at it.

The Inigo Martinez Speculative Rip of the Week: Paul Scholes

That's right, folks. It's everyone's favorite ginger midget, Paul Scholes. I'm not sure what the man they call "Satnav" has been up to during his second retirement, but clearly he has a hard time staying away from soccer matches.

Usually known for inch-perfect passes and laser-guided rocket goals, today we see Paul with a more delicate attempt.

Playing in some nondescript Sunday league match, Scholes slips in from the left and nips the ball around the 40 second mark in the video, then lets fly with a Beckham-esque attempt from over the halfway line. The keeper is obviously stunned, as anyone in their right mind would be.

Just Satnav being Satnav. If only we knew how he did it!