The Five-Minute Guide to the World Cup

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If you’re like me, you love soccer. You already have your Donovan jersey laid out for tomorrow. You know the nicknames of all the top teams. You cannot wait for the World Cup to start tomorrow.

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If you’re not like me you are two things.

1) Nuts. Because the World Cup is the single greatest international sports tournament in the world.

2) In luck. Because this five-minute guide will turn you from a know-nothing to a know-it-all in time to savor the Beautiful Game, impress your friends and watch the best of the best compete for the ultimate glory.

The World Cup features 32 teams divided into eight groups, A – H. Each group has four teams. In the first stage, group play, each team plays three games. The top two finishers move on to the round of 16. The winning teams move on, the losers go home, until one team is crowned champion. The group to pay attention to is Group D (Group of Death), the toughest group in this year’s World Cup, featuring Brazil, Portugal, Ivory Coast and North Korea. Any match in this group is worth watching.

My pick? The Netherlands. But there are plenty of other contenders. Spain is the top ranked team in the world, Brazil is bursting with talent, England has a real shot this year, Serbia is a dark horse, Argentina has the best player in the world, and France and Italy, the top two teams from the last World Cup are still really, really good. Portugal, South Korea and even USA also could pull off upsets.

If you live in the US and aren’t rooting for team USA and captain Landon Donovan, you’re out of your mind. Even still, here’s a list of the players you should say are your favorites if you want to become a fair-weather fan of another team.

Spain – David Villa
Brazil – Kaka
Netherlands – Wesley Sneijder
England – Wayne Rooney
Germany – Michael Ballack is injured, if you know your stuff you’ll root for his replacement Mesut Ozil
Argentina – Messi
Serbia – Milos Krasic
Italy – Gianluigi Buffon
Portugal – Cristiano Ronaldo
France – Franck Ribery
South Korea – Park Chu-Young

At the very least make sure you have an opinion on the best players at every position. The top strikers are Messi and Rooney. The best midfielders are Xavi (Spain) and Cristiano Ronaldo. The best defenders are Nemanja Vidic (Serbia) and Maicon (Brazil). And the best goalies are Buffon and Iker Casillas (Spain).

Start off on day one as host country South Africa takes on Mexico if for no other reason then to see the opening ceremonies. June 12th is all about England vs. USA followed by Serbia vs. Germany the next day. On June 15th I like Ivory Coast vs. Portugal. On June 24th Cameroon takes on my pick to win it all, The Netherlands. Chile vs. Spain on June 25th should be great but not as good as Portugal vs. Brazil on the same day. And my pick for the number one match of the first round? Brazil vs. Ivory coast on June 20th.

The biggest pre-tournament injury belongs to Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast. If he doesn’t recover from his broken arm Africa loses its biggest star. Michael Ballack of Germany has an ankle injury, Nani of Portugal is out with a bruised collarbone and Fernando Torres of Spain is questionable because of his knee issues. Wayne Rooney, Kaka, Robin van Persie (NED) and Jozy Altidore (USA) are also recovering from injuries that could impact how their teams finish.

South Africa, as the host team, needs to do well, and all the African teams are under pressure to get someone out of the round of 16. Team USA didn’t make it out of group play in 2006 and as a top 15 team they’re under real pressure to contend. Argentina has the world’s best player in Messi and the world’s craziest coach in Diego Maradona. If Argentina busts, heads will roll. As usual the defending champ (Italy) has pressure to win again.

1) “Italy is good but they’re too old to win back-to-back World Cups.”
2) “Maradona (head coach) has turned Argentina into a mess and should be blamed if the team doesn’t do well.”
3) “Can you believe that only seven different teams have won the 18 World Cups? Wouldn’t it be cool if Italy, Germany and Brazil faded and a new team won?”
4) “Germany’s defense is great but they don’t have a goal-scorer to match the offense of the other top teams.”
5) “Whichever team has the most aggressive fullbacks, who can attack and score, will win.”

(Recall these recent World Cup moment to make it seem like you’ve been watching soccer all your life)

2006 – Zidane’s infamous head-butt of Materazzi in the final. Italy wins it all.
2002 – USA stuns the world by making it to the quarterfinals after beating Mexico 2-0.
1994 – Everyone said the US would fail as host. Instead, attendance records were set and respect for the US team was gained.
1986 – Maradona’s Hand of God goal wins it for Argentina over England.

Well folks, there you have it! The whole world loves Soccer (or Football) and you should too. The World Cup only happens every four years. Don’t miss your chance to enjoy it. And feel free to leave me questions in the comments sections if I left anything out.