Can anyone beat Brazil?
For the half dozen or so teams that have a chance to make it to the finals of this year’s World Cup Soccer tournament, the answer to that question will be found in how fit their players can stay during their run for gold as well as how some of their key stars perform under the enormous pressure of playing the game at the highest levels of competition in the world.
But most of all, the answer to the question can anyone beat Brazil rests, as it usually does, with the Brazilians themselves and whether their phenomenally talented team of international superstars can play together as a team while the minor controversies and stratospheric media hype swirls around them. They carry the hopes of 175 million of their fellow countrymen who eat, breathe, live, and die Brazilian football. And anything and everything that impacts the games, even tangentially, is blown up, analyzed, discussed, fretted over, and becomes part of the weight placed upon the team as they struggle to perform up to expectations.
For the nation of Brazil, those expectations include nothing less than a World Cup championship. The people feel they own the Cup, that it is Brazilian state property. An enormously proud people, the Cup is a part of their national identity. And while they can be fiercely loyal to the “SeleÃ§Ã£o Canarinha” , they are unremitting task masters, demanding perfection at all times.
Alas, the players are but human beings and therefore incapable of perfection. But given the level of talent belonging to this year’s group of Brazilian immortals, they may get closer to it than anyone imagines.
There are legends like Cafu who anchors a stifling defense. And Ronaldo who Americans may remember from the 1994 World Cup played here. Just a teenager then, Ronaldo went on to become FIFA Player of the Year 3 times (1996, 97, 2002).
And then there is simply Ronaldinho. English language adjectives fail to do justice to the speed, skills, and instincts of a man considered by many to be the greatest player in the history of the game. Do yourself a favor, even if you are not a soccer fan; watch every game Ronaldinho plays in during this Cup run. At 26 years old, he is at the peak of his powers. And the chances of you seeing his likes again in your lifetime are pretty close to nil.
For the next month, the Brazilian gross domestic product will suffer enormously as the nation stops everything it’s doing and holds its breath every time their beloveds take to the pitch in Germany. No matter what time of day, it won’t matter to the Brazilian people. Who, despite poverty, violence, and the growing pains associated with a third world nation struggling to rise above its past, will unite for one glorious month and revel in the knowledge that the eyes of the world are upon them.
If Brazil stumbles, it will probably be in the finals match set for July 9th in Berlin. Chasing the opportunity to play the Brazilians will be a small group of nations whose own World Cup aspirations are just as high and whose fans will also be living the dream for the next month.
Many feel that the English are the strongest side in the world next to Brazil. But that is with a healthy Wayne Rooney, the dynamic striker from Manchester United who, at 21, is the future of world soccer. Strong, speedy, and possessed of enormous talent and courage, Rooney is as tough as they come and will prove it in Germany coming off a broken metatarsal bone in his foot barely 6 weeks ago. He will probably be held out of the preliminary round games unless England finds itself facing elimination in game 3, an unlikely event given their relatively weak draw of Sweden, Paraguay, and T & T.
In addition to Rooney, the English midfield will also shine with international heartthrob David Beckham trying to shake the ghosts of past disappointing Cup performances and the all-world talent of Frank Lampard set to take up some of the scoring burden caused by Rooney’s absence.
A potential roadblock may occur on the road to the finals because England is expected to win Group B. This would place them on a collision course with Brazil in the semi finals.
Much will depend on Rooney’s match fitness. But it appears that coach Goran Eriksson’s huge gamble in naming Rooney to the team 3 weeks ago will pay off handsomely.
Next to the Brazilians, the Italians might take home the second place honors for most rabid and demanding fans. The Azzuri will be sorely tested in the preliminary round, having to play a slightly aging but still formidable Czech squad and the young, speedy, up and coming Americans.
But in some ways, what is going on off the pitch could be more distracting than anything that takes place while the team is playing. An ever widening match fixing scandal has roiled the Italian’s number one soccer league perhaps involving dozens of players around the world and at least 2 of its top club teams. The scandal almost cost coach Marcello Lippi his job – along with the usual complaints about some stars left off the final roster which had some players calling for Lippi’s head – but through it all, the Azzurri endure.
The name of the game in Italy is defense and if there is a side capable of shutting down the Brazilians, it’s the men in blue. However, in order to avoid Brazil until the finals, the Italians will have to win Group E outright as the second place finisher in that Group will face Ronaldinho & Co. in the second round. The Italians will rely on defensive stalwart Gianluca Zambrotta and his mates to keep the high powered offense of the Czechs and speedy Americans from upsetting their hopes while superstar Fracesco Totti sets up a potent group of strikers led by Luca Toni.
Italy will try its best to win Group E in order to avoid a second round match up with the Brazilians. Their match against the Czechs set for June 22 will probably decide their fate in that regard.
Deep, experienced, and relentless on defense. If the Azzurri can ignore the swirling controversy, they very well may win through to challenge for Cup gold.
The French are flying under the radar so far this tournament which is just how they like it. Few observers are giving them a chance of advancing past the second round because they appear to be limping a bit coming into the Cup, having lost their stellar striker Djibril Cisse just prior to the competition to a broken leg.
But the 1998 World Champions were stung to the quick in 2002, failing to score a goal or win a game in the preliminary round. To say that their poor showing in Korea has motivated them this time around is an understatement. The players and the nation are salivating at the chance for redemption.
Any team that features Arsenal’s Thierry Henry, who many consider one of the top three strikers in the world, has to be in the mix for championship consideration. Add 1998 hero Zinedine Zidane as well as an elegant and perfectly positioned defense and you may have a recipe for Les Bleus to make a legitimate run
There are few other teams given much of a chance. The Germans and Dutch appear to have fielded inferior teams this time around compared to previous squads. And the Spanish, whose Primera Liga is perennially considered one of the top leagues in Europe never seem to be able to make a run despite excellent talent. Argentina, long a rival to Brazil, are in the so-called “Group of Death” and will be hard-pressed in the preliminary rounds against the Netherlands and Serbia. While most expect the Albiceleste to emerge victorious in Group C, history has shown that a tough prelim schedule is not conducive to success in the later rounds.
And the Americans? I think that the United States is one or two Cups away from making a run for glory. It would be a huge upset if Team USA makes it to the second round, probably needing a result against both the Czechs and Italians in order to advance. That’s a lot to ask of this group of talented Americans who, I think, will give the two European soccer powers all they can handle and then some.