Ed's note: If you played U12 indoor soccer in Wheaton, Illinois in the early-1980s, then today's guest lecturer hardly needs an introduction. Blake is a legend. But for the other 99.999998 percent of the human population, here's a quick bio: Blake was an all-conference collegiate soccer player, he's run a World Cup pool for many years (purely for fun), he's a former teammate of this dude, and he owns a great deal of Chicago Sting memorabilia. Impressed? No? Too bad. He's your 2010 World Cup expert. Please be respectful, as always…
There are plenty of sure things at this year's World Cup: The teams will score about 2.5 goals per game, the referees will dish out about 4.5 cards per game, and the networks will show about 335 slow-motion Mandela smiles per montage. The nations of earth will unite in contempt for the "vuvuzela," which is the South African name for those tacky plastic trumpets that will fill the stadiums with the sounds of elephant porn, while drowning out the voices of two billion people complaining about them. In pubs across the world, the droning sound of death-by-kazoo will only be interrupted long enough for fans to occasionally scream "GOOOOOOAL!" just like they did in 1994 when it was still a neat thing to scream. And in bars across America, Real Americans will continue to grumble that soccer is too boring, too socialist, and that Slovakia and Slovenia are probably the same place so why don't they just build a spooky moat together and call the inside part Transylvania?
There are some other sure things for people filling out World Cup office brackets: Not only will the tournament champion be a team from Europe or South America, but so will the runners-up, and so will the third-place team. In 18 World Cups, 54 squads have finished first, second or third, and 53 of them have been from Europe or South America. The lone exception was in the 1930 inaugural tournament, when the third place winners were from — you guessed it — the United States.
Hang on, if you actually did guess that, then nice work! World Cup pools are tough; it's pretty tempting to pencil in the usual suspects straight through to the quarterfinals, but because everyone else is doing the same thing you're left with little room for error. The solution is to give yourself some breathing room by pinpointing a few dark horses that have a fighting chance to survive the group stage and maybe even reach the quarterfinals. Easier said than done, of course — after all, no one expected the United States to be international soccer's original dark horse — but that's just it: The calling card of the dark horse is that there is no calling card.
Here are a few worth considering:
Uruguay won the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, not too shabby for a country with a population roughly the size of Chicago. But they've been mired in a 60-year slump ever since and most people are expecting more of the same in South Africa. They might be in for a surprise. Uruguay is a scary team; their roster has struck a happy balance between flashy forwards who smile for the cameras and bloodthirsty defenders who then assault the photographers and eat all the film. They also have the advantage of acclimation: While June in South Africa might sound like a day at the beach, remember that it's winter in the Southern Hemisphere and the nights can be chilly, and also seven of the stadiums are at altitude, all of which is good news for Uruguay.
But the best news might be their opponents: Uruguay's group consists of Mexico and France — both of whom suffer from inconsistency and one of whom suffers from being French — and also South Africa, who as the host country will be too preoccupied with running around refilling drink glasses to concentrate much on the soccer. Indeed, one of the tournament sideplots is that South Africa is at risk of breaking an unblemished streak — no host country has ever failed to qualify for the second round of the World Cup. But while that is certainly impressive it must also be said that no World Cup has ever been hosted in Africa. The bottom line is that it's really hard to say how much the home-field advantage will help the South Africans, but even if you could say it, no one would be able to hear you in the hive of trumpets.
Chile is another underrated team from South America. How any team from South America could ever be underrated is a quadrennial mystery, but apparently the combined dazzle of Brazil and Argentina is simply just that blinding. So it can be easy to forget that in the South American qualifying stages, it was the longitudinally-challenged Chileans who finished in second place, ahead of Argentina and just one point back of Brazil. On the field, the team has adopted the moxie of its charismatic coach, Marcelo "El Loco" Bielsa, who looks like the exact opposite of one of those Easter Island statues that I believe has something to do with Chile. When Bielsa isn't giving an impromptu four-hour press conference, he can be found coaxing his players towards a lively possession-mad style that will be frustrating for Spain, Switzerland, and Honduras to cope with.
Spain is the tournament's co-favorite with Brazil and is the clear front-runner of Group H, but don't count Chile out. They should be unanimously favored to get to the second round, but the recent buzz seems more focused on Switzerland, mostly because of all the people who get twitchy if you're not talking about a team from Europe every third sentence. My advice is to keep your fingers crossed, because when Chile ultimately does advance, then the real fun could begin if it gets matched against the prancing Portuguese in the second round, a game that would have the potential to send all Portugal into a codfish-fueled hissy fit.
The six World Cup teams from Africa have some pretty snappy names. South Africa is called Bafana Bafana ("the Boys"), Algeria is the Desert Foxes, Ivory Coast is the Elephants, Ghana is usually the Black Stars, but sometimes the Black Meteors, and Nigeria is the Super Eagles. And if you think that teams with names like those couldn't possibly fly under the radar, then the case of Cameroon is the strangest of all, because they're terrific at soccer, they're being overlooked, and they're called the Cameroon Indomitable Lions. Nigeria is too trendy a pick to be a sleeper, and everyone knows that Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana are dynamite teams with injured superstars. But Cameroon's superstar, Samuel Eto'o, seems as healthy and as petulant as ever, and the rest of the roster boasts more professionals on European clubs than any other non-European team in the tournament. And their group is far from terrifying (Holland, Japan, Denmark). Best of all: If Cameroon advances to the round of sixteen, they would likely play the weakest Italian side since polenta.
It's fun to think about dark horses, but don't get carried away and fall for a team like New Zealand. If Uruguay is a dark horse, New Zealand is bright glue. Ignore the murmurs of hope that have been swirling around the Kiwis, for the murmurs originate from the recently poisoned who are confusing the soccer team with the punishing New Zealand rugby team. The optimists who argue that New Zealand is in a weak group are conveniently forgetting that New Zealand is the defining weakness. It's worth mentioning that two weeks ago, when the New Zealand team surprised Serbia 1-0, the Serbian fans felt that the only reasonable response was to riot — and while a riot is never right, this one seemed less wrong.
Team USA is tough to figure. In the last 20 years our US squad has been underrated both by Americans and Europeans, but at the same time we are often overrated by casual fans who keep hearing that we're no longer a pushover and mistakenly assume that we must therefore be elite — a cycle which ends in disappointment every four years when we lose 2-0 to Transylvania.
Hey, the World Cup is tough, it's a bigger tournament than people realize. The qualifying matches began three years ago and involved 204 countries, so the final field of 32 contains no cupcakes, not even New Zealand. The United States' group includes one outstanding team (England) and three decent ones (USA, Slovenia, and Algeria), and it's a measure of how far the US team has come that it is justifiably considered a favorite to advance.
But would I bet on them? Not at these odds. Bookmakers are giving Team USA about a 60 percent chance of advancement, a number that seems inflated by apple pie enthusiasm and is just begging to be shorted. I think they have a coin flip's chance, and in my office pool I will be betting against them, not because I have a heart of brie, but because I'm surrounded by people who will be betting the other way.
Calm down Limbaugh, it's just the Tao of the World Cup pool — you must look for sensible spots where you can get some separation. And it's a low-risk move even if it backfires, because whoever finishes second in Group C (likely the USA or Slovenia) will probably face Germany in the round of 16, a juggernaut that has marched into the quarterfinals in 13 of the last 14 World Cups, and is now marching through my mental bracket to the tune of the Darth Vader theme song. Could the United States and Germany be heading towards a rematch of their 2002 thriller? Definitely. And would the United States then at least have a puncher's chance of surprising the Germans and stringing together a deep run into the tournament?
The answer is nope. But try telling that to the guys from 1930.
Photos via US Presswire (trophy) and Getty Images (Uruguay, Eto'o, vuvuzela)