Saturday, 29 May 2010


(Part Two of your World Cup History for Dummies. For Part One, click here. For the blog comparing the 2010 World Cup teams to US sports teams, click here.)



Host: USA
Champ: Brazil
Runner-up: Italy
Golden Ball: Romário, Brazil
Golden Boot: Oleg Salenko, Russia, and Hristo “The Dagger” Stoichkov, Bulgaria, 6 goals each.
Format: Same 24-team deal.
How’d We Do: We, quite surprisingly really, made it to the second round, where an otherwise friendly-looking Brazilian fellow cracked one of our best player's skull with his unfriendly elbow. This was our reward for hosting? Still, getting out of the group was an unexpected success.

The two rule changes imposed were:

1. The back-pass rule, which put an end to defender bail-outs and deathly boring “four-corners”-type play.
2. The points received in the standings for a win in the group stage were increased from 2 to 3. This rewarded, it was hoped, the risks of attacking soccer.

They worked, sort of. The tournament goals-per-game went up from 2.21 to 2.71 (it has since come back down to 2.3 in ’06). So it’s a shame that it all ended in the World Cup’s only scoreless Final.

The thing is, it was a massively successful event, even if the country as a whole didn't appreciate the significance (I myself only heard about it a few days before it started; was I ever so young?). It remains the best-attended World Cup in history.

But it didn't click here nonetheless. Why not? Three doses of bad luck.

1. England weren't there, after a miserable qualifying campaign.  What a boon it would have been, from a US media standpoint, to have the English around. At least we had the Irish for a little while.
2. The day of the opening match, June 17, 1994, when soccer should have been the top story in the headlines... it got bumped.
3. The scoreless Final confirmed every "soccer sucks" cliche there was.

Here's the thing. American likes a show. All eyes turned to Pasadena for Italy and Brazil, ready for fireworks. There were none. Not only was the 0-0 game settled by shootout, it was settled by a missed kick. A nation yawned. Imagine if we'd gotten the '86 Final? Or '06? No. Instead we got the worst, most anticlimactic championship game in the history of the tournament. Strike three.

The shame of it was that those who hadn't been paying attention (like me) had missed a solid tournament with some iconic moments. Maradona celebrating creepily, then being booted for ephedrine use. The most unexpected nominee for best goal ever. And some legendary, must-see work from Diana Ross.



Host: France
Champ: France
Runner-up: Brazil
Golden Ball: Ronaldo, Brazil.
Golden Boot: Davor Šuker, Croatia, 6 goals, and totally stealing Toni Kukoc’s thunder as World’s Most Famous Croatian Athlete That Summer.
New Format: A beautiful, perfect, 32-team group-stage based structure of eight groups of four teams, 16 of which meet in the first of the KO rounds. It passes the true test of a good tourney set-up: it makes sense visually on a wall poster. The fact that they’re talking about changing it again sickens me to my core.
How’d We Do: Horrible. Lost all three games, including to Iran.

Notable from ’98…

- Another disappointing show from Spain, of the sort that was becoming typical of this under-achieving nation.
- Croatia- which hadn’t existed just a few years before- storming to third place.
- A phenomenal game between Argentina and England in the second round, featuring 18 year-old Michael Owen's wonder goal and David Beckham's low point.
- An even better goal by Holland’s Dennis “The Iceman” Bergkamp with time running out in the quarter-final against Argentina. Watch it again. He catches a 50-yard pass delicately, without breaking stride, while being closely guarded, juking his marker in the process, in the dying minutes of the biggest game of his life.
- France’s best player, Zinedine Zidane, got a red card in France's second game of the tournament (at 3:25 of this clip), then came back to score two goals in the Final. Scores goals AND has a temper? Foreshadowing!

The big story that won’t go away though is Ronaldo. Ronaldo was at his unstoppable best in this tournament, winning the Golden Ball. The day of the Final however, was a bad day (and not just because of the collision at 2:40 of this clip). France’s 3-0 victory, while certainly deserved, was shockingly lopsided. Who beats Brazil 3-0?

It came out later that Ronaldo had suffered an epileptic fit hours before the match, and as close as 72 minutes before the game he wasn’t in the starting lineup. Conspiracy theories abound as to why he was eventually allowed to play, a particularly pernicious one being that Evil Nike ordered him to. It's still shrouded in mystery. Again though, I don't go in for conspiracy theories. I just like to hear the evidence.



Host: Japan and South Korea
Champ: Brazil (third straight Final, tied for record)
Runner-up: Germany
Golden Ball: Oliver Kahn, Germany (the only goalkeeper ever to win the award).
Golden Boot: Ronaldo, Brazil, 8 goals.

How’d We Do: We did quite well. Let's pause for a moment to discuss.

First came a shock 3-2 win over 4th-ranked Portugal. After a 1-1 draw with South Korea and Portugal's helpful disposal at South Korea's hands, the Yanks were in the 2nd round for only the third time in 72 years. Their opponent: arch-rival Mexico.

Mexico has dominated this rivalry historically. But on the day of the biggest game in these two teams' shared history, the United States rose to the occasion, winning 2-0 (with Mexico really keeping it classy after the 3:14 mark).  With that win, the US advanced to the quarterfinals, for the first time since 1930, where they faced a Germany side that was far below typical vintage. Denied by Kahn, and by a criminally unpenalized handball on a ball that was halfway over the goal line, the US lost narrowly 1-0. A sad day, but a great tournament for US Soccer.

(Author's Note: Just watched all those highlights again for the first time in years. I highly recommend it. Some of those performances are absolutely stirring, and I'd forgotten how well the boys played in the Germany game. Heavy sigh.)

As a quarter-final performance by the US might imply, this was The World Cup That Was Weird. The other entries in the final eight included regulars Brazil, Germany, England and Spain. The remain three: Senegal, South Korea and Turkey.

France, who had won the previous World Cup AND European Championship, not only failed to get out of their group, they failed to even score a goal. Brazil provided us with a weird dive and a weirdly amazing goal. And it would be fair to say that Korea's surprise run to 4th place was helped by some weird refereeing.

(Gotta say, of all the conspiracy theories presented in this blog, this one seems to have the most credence. And this coming from someone who thought at the time that people were overreacting. Now I see their point, especially with what became of the ref from the Italy match. This is very disquieting, given that it was only eight years ago, as opposed to 70.)

But the main story here was the restoration of Ronaldo. Restored from not only his troubles n the summer of '98, but from recurring injuries that had plagued him since. He would score 8 goals in the tournament- the most of anyone in 32 years- including two in a fairly mediocre final.

Fun Fact: In the third place game, Turkey's Hakan Şükür scored the fastest goal in World Cup history, only 12 seconds into Turkey's 3-2 win.



Host: Germany
Champ: Italy
Runner-up: France
Golden Ball: Zinedine Zidane, France.
Golden Boot: Miroslav Klose, Germany, 5 goals.
How’d We Do: No-so-good. Remember when we jumped out to that early lead v. Portugal last time? This time was the opposite. Went down 2-0 to the Czechs after 30, lost 3-0, and the tournament was basically done. But there was considerable dignity in being the only team in the tournament to get a point off Italy.

This one was recent enough that we can just review some highlights right?

- It wasn't quite the Battle of Santiago, but that Holland-Portugal game was ugly.
- Argentina scored a fantastic team goal, and an even better individual one.
- Wayne Rooney was on the ball.

But of course, the lasting, singular image is Zidane's moment of madness. The thing about this moment, that the casual American fan might not have realized at the time, is that Zidane is one of the all-time greats. He has a very strong argument for the title of Greatest European Player of All-Time (and I say that as a huge fan of the historical holder of that title, Johan Cruyff). But Zidane's lustre had diminished since the failures of 2002. France was expected to be only so-so at Germany '06, but then the Zidane of old began to show up. Suddenly they were in the Final, and Zidane put them up 1-0 with an early penalty. A unique sort of immortality beckoned- there aren't may players who have spearheaded two World Cup titles, much less eight years apart. For him to have thrown all of that away in one moment of madness...

Oh, Zidane. The Unmitigated Gaul.

Fun Fact: At this World Cup Ronaldo took over the record for most career goals scored with his 15th.

And now you are up-to-date with minimum threshold World Cup knowledge. Enjoy contextualizing 2010.

- Brendan Hunt

© Brendan Hunt, 2010

Thursday, 27 May 2010


by Brendan Hunt

(Author's Note: This column is a review of World Cup History. For the blog that equates US Sports teams to 2010 World Cup Teams, click here.)

I have a lot of respect for Bill Simmons, and high hopes for him as someone who will help middle America get into soccer. Unlike sportswriters of his stature of previous generations (your Kornheisers and Defords), Simmons actually likes soccer, or at least respects it, and has for some time. So when he unwittingly puts a call out as to what my next blog should cover, I answer.

At the end of his last podcast with Seth Meyers (always an excellent BS Report guest), he waxed wistful for a digest of the history of the World Cup, a World Cup for Dummies if you will.

I will.

Though, truth be told, Bill’s colleagues at have already been doing an exemplary job of that, with a fantastic feature called World Cup 101. It’s been an ongoing series since we began counting down the 101 days to the start of the tournament, and for the most part they’re the kind of universally informative and historically educational articles that will be just as good to read now as they were when they came out. I recommend the series to you, all of you, not just to Bill Simmons. (I also just came across their "I Scored a Goal in the FIFA World Cup Final" series, which looks fanfuckingtastic.)

But until then we present, with apologies to the considerably higher-brow Brian Glanville:

The History of the World Cup for Dummies/Americans.

For each rendition of the Big Enchilada I’ll tell you who hosted, who won, who came in second, who was the best player and the top scorer, and whatever else seems like the minimum relevant information. Sometimes I’ll tell you even less. Oh, and since the bulk of my soccer learning has come from living in Holland and reading English soccer publications, there will likely be a slightly unavoidable slant towards those two countries.

In the interest of expedience and the philosophy of digests, I will unfortunately have to skip most of the interesting side stories. But you can find many of them recounted nimbly at World Cup 101 (among many other places, I’m sure).

There will also be Fun Facts, some of which won't even be all that fun. 'cause I'm tricky. So tricky, that I've decided to give each section a title from an Elvis Costello song. TRICKY!


At the risk of sounding like the guy who disregards any NFL Championships that didn’t come with roman numerals on them, these first three Cups are more of a pre-history than a history. The tournaments were not comprehensive enough in their representation, through various issues (in no particular order):

- England and Scotland, the widely recognized best teams of the era, not condescending to participate.
- travel difficulties of the day, with Atlantic crossings taking two to three weeks at a time.
- relatively few countries having active professional leagues of a decent standard, thus further reducing the amount of countries who could mount a credible title challenge.
- irregular qualification and Finals format.
- a lack of iconic photography or footage that really cements this sort of thing in immortality, and
- a rather dispiriting dose of Mussolini.




Host: Uruguay.
Champion: Uruguay
Runner-Up: Argentina
Golden Ball (that’s fancy soccer-talk for Tournament MVP): José “The Great Marshall” Nasazzi (ARG)
Golden Boot (more of that foreigner-lingo, this time meaning tournament top-scorer): Guillermo Stábile (ARG), 8 goals
Format: 13 teams, group stage + knockout rounds
How’d we do (the “we” being the U.S.): Third place! Which sounds a lot better before you realize that there were only two good teams in this tournament.

Only thirteen teams participated, only four of them being travel-weary European squads. Uruguay, having won the previous two Olympic gold medals, cement their status as best-team-in-the-world-that-actually-deigns-to-compete-in-a-tournament.

Still, it was a successful enough event, to be sure. Sure, only 300 people attended the Romania-Peru match, but over ninety thousand attended the final, an apparently fantastic game with two lead changes that Uruguay and their one-armed striker won 4-2.

Fun Fact: An American player, Bert Patenaude, scored the first hat-trick in World Cup history.



Host: Italy
Champion: Italy
Runner-up: Czechoslovakia
Golden Ball: Giuseppe Meazza (ITA)
Golden Boot: Oldřich Nejedlý (CZE), 5 goals
New Format (already): 16 teams in single-elimination knockout rounds; no group stage.
How’d we do: Lost to Italy in the first game, 7-1, and that was it. For the next 16 years.

Remember all those stories about Hitler using the 1936 Olympics as a commercial for the Nazis? This tournament, held in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, was the tournament that gave him the idea. Do you really think the Americans were going to be allowed to win that game?

Mind you, the Italians were surely better than the US anyway. But maybe they weren’t better than the Czechs, who sent them into extra time, before losing 2-1.

Fun Fact: Another reason these World Cups seem illegitimate is the weak eligibility rules. One of the players for Italy in the Final was a guy named Luis Monti. You may recall him from the previous Final. Playing for Argentina.



Host: France
Champion: Italy
Runner-up: Hungary
Golden Ball and Boot: Leônidas (BRA), the alleged inventor of the bicycle kick, 7 goals.
Format: 16 teams in KO rounds again.
How’d we do: We did not.

Lots of teams sat this one out. England and Scotland refrained, as usual. Austria qualified, but then withdrew due to the Anschluss taking up an unexpected amount of their schedule. Finally, Argentina and Uruguay refused in protest of Europe getting to host the event for a second straight time, rather than alternating with South America. (The preceding absences were not listed in order of importance or validity.)

France became the first host country not to make the final after losing to eventual-champ Italy in the quarters. Not sure we can blame them for that one. As described in a particularly informative World Cup 101 article (from whence the above picture comes):

As both teams sported blue jerseys, Italy was asked to bring its alternate shirts which were traditionally white. Instead, on Mussolini's orders, the team took to the field in black shirts, the Maglia Nera, a symbol of the feared and despised Italian fascist paramilitary. It was a gesture purposefully designed to goad the thousands of French and Italian protestors in the crowd. As an additional flourish, Il Duce ordered his players to hold the fascist salutes they effected before kickoff until the howling protestors had run out of energy.

In a word: yikes.

Fun Fact: In the 12 years between this and the next World Cup, a FIFA official named Dr. Ottorino Barassi hid the trophy in a shoebox under his bed. Hm. Not that fun, really.



Host: Brazil
Champion: Uruguay
Runner-up: Brazil
Golden Ball: Zizinho (BRA)
Golden Boot: Ademir (BRA), 9 goals
New Format: 16 teams in 4 groups; top team from each group advances to final group stage, meaning, quite oddly, no formal final was on the schedule.
How’d we do: Bounced after group stage, but not until recording THE BIGGEST UPSET IN WORLD CUP HISTORY (as far as you need be concerned). After which we took a break. For 40 years.

But that’s not the story of this tournament. The main thing is “The Final That Was Not a Final.” It wasn’t officially a final due to the tournament being decided by a second group stage- but Brazil v. Uruguay was the last match scheduled, and by the time it came along, they were the top two teams in the group- the winner of their match would win the whole thing. In fact, Brazil only needed a draw. At home. In front of 200,000 fans.

It’s best explained by this video (it’s long, but you’re worth it). But if you don’t have time to watch something cool (and who does, really) just know that the people of Brazil remain by their failure. Apparently the five titles they’ve won since have done nothing to assuage the hurt. Whattayagonnado.

Fun fact: one of the US players was a man named Walter Bahr, who had two sons (Chris and Matt) who went on to Super Bowl winning careers. As placekickers, of course.



Host: Switzerland
Champion: West Germany
Runner-up: Hungary
Golden Ball: Ferenc "The Galloping Major" Puskás, Hungary (one of the all-time greats).
Golden Boot: Sándor Kocsis, Hungary, 11 goals.
New Format: 16 teams in 4 groups; KO rounds restored to the system.

Hungary had come to be seen as the unofficial Best Team in the World after becoming the first non-British team to beat England at Wembley. Known as the Mighty Magyars and led by the legendary Puskás, they got to the final on the back of a five-year, 32-match unbeaten run. But, in the end, they they were undone by adidas.

Mind you, they had beaten West Germany in the group stage, by a fairly decisive score of 8-3. The Germans, who had not been allowed to compete in the previous Cup, were not seen as a threat. It was a poor and shattered country, after all.

In the Final the match started in a familiar way, as Hungary went ahead 2-0 after eight minutes. But by then, heavy rain was already affecting the pitch. The Germans had come prepared.

Sitting on the German bench was a man named Adi Dassler- that’s ADI DASsler- and he brought with him a new invention: soccer boots with exchangeable, screw-in studs, allowing the Germans to play on the increasingly muddy surface with little problem.

Ten minutes after going down 2-0, they had tied it. With 6 minutes left, they went ahead 3-2 and held on for the upset. A World Cup dynasty was born. An athletic shoe giant was as well. As was an apparently quite good German sports film.



Host: Sweden
Champion: Brazil
Runner-up: Sweden
Golden Ball: Didi (BRA)
Golden Boot: Was it everyone from France? No. Just Fontaine.

The most important thing to know about the 1958 World Cup- besides Fontaine's amazing 13-goal tally for 3rd place finisher France- is that the tournament marked the first championship for Brazil as well as the rise of Pelé.

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of Americans know who Pelé is, but they don’t necessarily know why Pelé is.

Pelé was a poor 17 year-old when he arrived in Switzerland; by the time he left he had shook hands with the King of Sweden. He was the youngest player to appear in tournament history at the time, on a Brazil team that was (as would become typical) stacked; he remains the World Cup's youngest-ever goal-scorer. After being shut out in the group stage matches, he scored six goals in the final three matches (including a hat-trick in the semi against France) and two more in the final, the first of which being seen as one of the all-time best. The second was the final punctuation in a 5-2 win. It’s the most goals ever scored by any team in the World Cup Final.

Fun Fact: Pelé was never top scorer at a World Cup.



Host: Chile
Champion: Brazil
Runner-Up: Czechoslovakia
Golden Ball: Garrincha (BRA)
Golden Boot: Garrincha and five other dudes tied with four goals each.

Brazil win for the second time behind Garrincha, after Pelé was injured in the second match. Interesting dude, Garrincha. Second-best Brazilian of all-time, they say. Best dribbler ever. Deformed legs. Huge wang.

But the lasting images from this World Cup come from one group stage match between Chile and Italy, one known as The Battle of Santiago; this match is the reason yellow and red card were invented. Here’s what happened. And here’s why.



Host: England
Champion: England
Runner-Up: West Germany
Golden Ball: Bobby Charlton, England.
Golden Boot: Eusébio, Portugal, 9 goals

It was, like the ’62 vintage, a very physical tournament. Portugal’s game plan vs. Brazil: beat the shit out of Pelé. It worked. Argentina’s plan vs. England: beat the shit out of everyone. It failed.

England won the final 4-2 in extra time, behind a hat trick from Geoff Hurst. This extra time is one of the iconic scenes of soccer.

West Germany had scored at the end of regular time to tie things up 2-2. Then in the first extra period, Hurst rattled a shot off the bar that bounced straight down. Replays fairly squarely show the ball to be on the line, and keep in mind that the rule is that the entire ball has to be all the way past the white line to be a goal. But the referee conferred with the linesman, who paused dramatically, then nodded furiously that it was a goal (seen at 1:30 of this video with a rather England-friendly bit of editing about the ball's landing spot). One of the great fables is that the linesman, from the USSR, decided to award the goal as war-based revenge on the Germans. In one of the great soccer fables, he is rumored to have been asked on his deathbed why he awarded the goal. His alleged answer: “Stalingrad.”

England had returned to the top of the soccer world, only this time they had a trophy to show for it.

Fun Fact: There are conspiracy theories of recent vintage that England's win was a semi-fix. I tend not to believe in such things, but I never mind hearing their arguments.



Host: Mexico
Champion: Brazil
Runner-Up: Italy
Golden Ball: Pelé
Golden Boot: Gerd Muller (West Germany), 10 goals.
New rules: Substitutions allowed for the first time, though only two. Yellow and red cards instituted, though no red cards were given. Mind you, expulsions had existed already, but the cards helped to get through the inevitable language barriers.

They say that the ’66 Final rematch in the quarterfinals, with England going up 2-0 before losing 3-2 was an all-time great match.

They say that the semi-final between Italy and Germany, which was 1-1 after regulation, but finished 4-3, was the Game of the Century.

They say that the final goal in Brazil’s 4-1 win over Italy in the final, scored by Carlos Alberto, was the greatest team goal of all time.

They say that this Brazil team was the greatest team of all time.

They say it was the best World Cup ever.



Host: West Germany
Champion: West Germany
Runner-Up: Holland
Golden Ball: Johan Cruyff, Holland.
(AUTHOR'S GRIPE: I can't stand the British tendency to mispronounce the name of one of the five greatest players of all time. The "uy" sound in Dutch sounds like "ow," not like "oy." So it should sound like CrOWff, not CrOYff. I don't understand continuing to get his name wrong while doing the correct work on the comparably insignificant Dirk Kuyt. If you hear a Brit call him Croyff, set them straight. There's nothing more enjoyable than watching the look on an Englishman's face when he realizes he's been corrected about football by an American. It's just priceless.)
Golden Boot: Grzegorz Lato, Poland, 7 goals.
New Format: 16 teams, two group stages, then a Final.

This tournament has gone down in history as being defined more by who lost it than who won it. The losing Dutch have gone onto become one of the most beloved teams in soccer history, despite coming up short in the Final to the unfazed hosts.

Before 1974, Holland had only appeared in two pre-war World Cups, playing two games and losing them both. They brought with them to Germany their new system, called Total Football, that proved to be virtually unstoppable by anyone but themselves. Total Football was the Triangle Offense of the day, an offense based more on flow than strictly-assigned roles and positions. Defenders were free to attack, because their attacking teammates would rotate to cover; it was a philosophy that was committed to high-scoring, “beautiful” soccer. The fact that this philosophy was coming from a bunch of longhairs from free-spirited Amsterdam helped reinforce the vision that the Dutch were the coolest thing going. Cruyff was Holland’s Magic Johnson (not to mix the metaphor, but imagine how good Magic would have been in the triangle), running the show from the middle, free to score but just as likely to set up teammates. Oranje came through the six group stages with a goal differential of 16-1, and the only goal they allowed was an own goal.

When they arrived at the Final, it appeared there would be more of the same as they scored their first goal in the second minute, before Germany had even touched the ball (at the 2:15 mark). After that, they got cocky. They didn’t try to win the game- they tried to embarrass the Germans, against whom they still held some latent invasion-based hostility. Germany stayed patient in their manner and were up 2-1 by halftime. Despite an absolute barrage by the Dutch in the second half, the Germans held on. In his fantastic book Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, David Winner explores how deeply this disappointment affected the Dutch people for over a decade to come.

Fun fact: Every country that was won the World Cup has done so on home soil at least once, except Brazil, who have won it five times other places. Even so, Germany are the only of the home-winners to have won their first Cup in another country (if you count Switzerland as another country, and you might as well).



Host: Argentina
Champion: Argentina
Runner-Up: Holland (losing to the home team in two straight Finals)
Golden Ball and Golden Shoe: Mario “The Matador” Kempes, Argentina, 6 goals.

Politics were not quite as central to this Cup as it had been in ’38, but it was in the neighborhood. Argentina was run by a military junta at the time and the country was not in good shape; they wanted a win, and bad. At the end of the second group stage, Argentina needed a 4-0 win over Peru to advance to the Final. They won by the incredible score of 6-0, and Peru magically received a few extra tons of grain that harvest. Now, maybe Peru’s hearts just weren’t in it, as they had already been eliminated- but they sure didn’t look like they were trying very hard.

In the final, the gamesmanship continued. Argentina let Holland wait ten minutes for them on the pitch- surrounded by 71,000 people shouting for their blood- before coming out of the tunnel. When they did, they filed a protest with the referee over a Dutch player’s cast- a cast that he had been wearing all tournament. It is thought by some back in Holland that there was no way the Dutch would be allowed to win that game and leave the stadium alive. This might be hyperbole- but it’s a great story, eh?

It never came to that, though it came close. Argentina took the lead through Kempes in the 38th minute. Holland equalized in the 81st minute, then dramatically hit the post in the 91st. Argentina scored twice in extra time to win their first World Cup.

Fun Fact: Argentina’s trembly-legged Osvaldo Ardiles plays for the Allied team in the film "Victory", the third World Cup winner (along with Pelé and England captain Bobby Moore) to do so.



Host: Spain
Champion: Italy
Runner-up: West Germany (first of three consecutive Finals for them)
Golden Ball and Golden Shoe: Paolo Rossi (Italy), 6 goals
Format: For the first time, 24 teams participate. This leads to bulky system of 6 groups of 4 in first group stage, then four groups of three, then a semi and a final; this is the beginning of these things getting unnecessarily complicated. Also, penalty kicks used for first time to settle draws in KO stages.

Poor Italy. They can’t seem to win a World Cup without there being some kind of character-based asterisk attached. If it’s not Mussolini, it’s Materazzi. And if it’s not them, it’s being led to the title by a match-fixer.

Paolo Rossi won the Silver Ball (second-best player) at Argentina ’78, and the Golden Ball at Spain ’82. In between, he served a two-year suspension for being what appears to be a small part of a large culture of, shall we say, “goal-shaving” in Italy’s top soccer division.

Rossi’s suspension ended- was, in fact, helpfully reduced from three years- in time for the World Cup. The amazing thing about his performance was that it took him so long to get going. He didn’t score at all in Italy’s first four games. Then he exploded, eliminating a very popular Brazil side with a hat trick in the process. Then he scored both goals in the 2-0 semi-final win over Poland before scoring the first in the 3-1 win over West Germany in the Final.

The Germans had again proven their relentless mettle by coming back from 3-1 down in extra-time against the French, tying the match before winning on penalties. But that was overshadowed by goalkeeper Toni Schumacher’s Jack Tatum moment, his unwarranted and cold-blooded destruction of Patrick Battiston, which the referee inexplicably did not punish in any way, as Battiston’s colleagues searched in the grass for their unconscious teammate’s teeth.

As for Paolo Rossi, I think it’s interesting how his Anglicized name- P. Rose- attaches extra weight to his story. It seems quite likely that the footballer’s crimes were far milder than the baseballer’s- but it all makes me wonder what Pete would have done with such a chance at redemption.

Let me be clear though- despite the asterisk, this was an exceptional Italian team, and deserved champions. And whether you love or hate the Azzuri, you gotta hand it to ‘em- they know how to celebrate a goal.



Host: Mexico
Champ: Argentina
Runner-up: W. Germany (again)
Golden Ball: Diego Maradona (Argentina).
Golden Boot: Gary Lineker, England, 6 goals.
Format: Convoluted 24-team affair. Six groups of four teams in typical group stage, top two advancing from each, with- stick with me here- the top four third place teams also advancing. Then a 16-team KO bracket.

Diego Maradona, for those of you joining us late, is either the best or second-best player ever, and the 1986 World Cup was his happy place.

Volumes have been written- in multiple languages- about his performance in the quarter-final match against England alone. You will hear of his famous (over-vilified) "Hand of God" goal, where he faked as though he was heading the ball while, with clear intention, he punched it with his hand. You may recall the political situation between England and Argentina at the time and see how they may have informed this performance, even explaining why, when asked after the game if he handled the ball, Maradona replied "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God" (he has since admitted God was not involved). You may have seen his (slightly overrated) Greatest Goal of All Time. You may yet be surprised to realize that these goals came a mere four minutes apart.

But the thing is- and this is the main argument of the pro-Diego/anti-Pelé faction in the “Who’s the Baddest?” Debating Hall- is that Maradona more or less won the World Cup by himself. Pelé’s trips to the World Cup were always in the company of all-star teams. Maradona might as well have been a one-man band.

It is only somewhat anticlimactic then that he did not score in the final, but the Final itself was climactic enough. Argentina were up 2-0 until late in the second half. Then the Germans scored twice to tie before Jorge Burruchaga- set-up by Maradona- put the game away. These last three goals were all scored in a nine-minute span.



Host: Italy
Champ: W. Germany (their third straight Final)
Runner-up: Argentina (it’s the only World Cup Final that was a rematch of the one before)
Golden Ball: Lothar Matthaus, West Germany.
Golden Boot: Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci, Italy, 6 goals.
How’d We Do?: We decided to stop by the party and see how everyone was doing, felt a little ill, tried to make the best of it, and eventually had to go. We did volunteer to host the next get-together, though.

This was The World Cup That Sucked. It sucked so much that the powers that be would make two subtle but crucial rule changes that would lead the game down a newer, healthier path.

But they didn‘t know that yet. All they knew was that dudes were beating the crap out of each other, diving more than dribbling and that things were getting ugly.

The final was, as our English friends might say, dour. Only one goal, a penalty. Two player sent off. A brutish, cynical, forgettable match.

Despite this, there were many iconic performances. Roger Milla’s flag-dancing for Cameroon, who finished higher than any African team had ever done. Toto Schillaci winning two awards despite starting the World Cup on the bench. And then there was the semi-final between England and West Germany, and Gazza's tears.

England hadn’t beaten Germany in a competitive match since that Final back in ’66. It would be another ten years before they would do so. In this time, Germany became their Moby Dick, an illogical obsession not unlike the Yankees for the pre-2004 Red Sox. Similar to that relationship, the dominant party didn’t quite see this as a “rivalry.” For Germany, their rival was (and remains) Holland. For England, Germany had become everything.

England were led by a man-child named Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne. With the game tied 1-1 and in extra time, Gazza was given a yellow card. This being his second of the tournament, and the World Cup having a cumulative punishment system that I find anachronistic, this meant that he would be suspended for the next game. Should England make the Final, he would be banned from the match.

Gazza wept. The game went to penalty-kicks. Germany, uh... they're pretty good at them. England? No-so-much.

Other teams have had their troubles with PKs, notably Italy and Holland, but they have gotten off the schneid of late. England (outside of the ’96 quarter finals against Spain, overshadowed by the events of the following round) still have not. Let's look at England's finishes the last 20 years:

1990 World Cup – Semi-Final loss to W. Germany on PKs
1992 European Championships – eliminated in group stage
1994 WC – did not qualify
1996 EC – Semi-Final loss to Germany on PKs (as host country!)
1998 WC – 2nd round loss to Argentina on PKs
2000 EC – eliminated in group stage
2002 WC – eliminated in quarter-finals
2004 EC – QF loss to Portugal on PKs.
2006 WC – QF loss to Portugal on PKs.
2008 EC – did not qualify

In the last twenty years, England have qualified for eight major tournaments. They have been eliminated on penalties in five of them, in four different countries, against three different teams. This. Is. Astonishing. And is in the back of everyone's mind- both of the team and their opponents- in every single elimination game England play.

And now: PART II

- Brendan Hunt
© Brendan Hunt, 2010

Monday, 10 May 2010


(DISCLAIMER - I'm new to this site and I'm having a hard time getting the formatting to be consistent. Apologies for sudden changes in font size, and thanks for your patience.)

If you're American, soccer probably isn't your cuppa tea. But, due to ESPN's admirably relentless promotion (they'll be unleashing their three Big B's: Bob Ley, Bill Simmons and Bono), you're probably at least a little curious about the World Cup, if you're a sports fan anyway. But when it comes to going the extra mile and actually learning about all the teams, perhaps that sounds like something for which you can't be bothered.

I'm here to help.

What follows is a list of every one of the World Cup's 32 teams, alongside the American sports team it most parallels. Some of these analogies are slightly better than tenuous. Some of them are dead-on. All of them are at least a decent starting point to give you a frame of reference.

(This next bit is the part where I explain the process and criteria. It's skippable if you're already too curious.)

First of all, at all times I used the soccer teams themselves as a starting point, so as to assure that I was going off of their qualities and not just what I want them to be. For example, I didn't just ask “Who is the most like the Vancouver Canucks?” This would have been the wrong way to go.

In that vein, I also eschewed trying to fill out US rivalries. For example, if I'd equated someone to the Chicago Cubs (I didn't) I wouldn't have then tried to find that team’s rival and make them the St. Louis Cardinals. That would have been a most unsavory shoehorning.

Another criterion was to look at how good the given team was, both on a World Cup scale, as well as in their respective regions and their given confederation tournaments. More weight was given to having won Europe or South America, slightly less was given to titles in CONCACAF and the rest.

Another question was "are they good?" and also "when were they good?" This would help to give a historical frame of reference for the team and their fan base.

The general personality of the team and their fans over the years was also a consideration; do they have a recognized playing style, for example? Are their fans particularly insufferable?

So overall, I tended to look at the historical totality of a team or a franchise, and not try to make them immediate match-ups for this exact moment in time.

Then, when in doubt, I just went with the color of their unis.

And that’s about it. The descriptions of the teams are also intentionally vague, so as to keep them applicable to both teams in the equation.

I welcome your constructive suggestions where I could get this one or that one even more perfect.

And with that, here we go


They are not good. At all. And they’re obsessed with their more-successful neighbors. Not to say that they don't have some degree of history to hang their hat on, but... that was a while ago. And no one, outside of their fans, remembers anymore. This team is easily underestimated. Too easily, I fear.




They've been good for about as long as the game has been played. They have so much history that your default expectation is for them to always be good, even great. But the reality doesn't support that: they haven't won anything in around twenty years. They haven't been horrible (usually), but they have not at all lived up to the greatness of their traditions. Supposedly, this will be the year when they restore the luster. But we've been hearing that for a loooooooooooong time.




This team used to be almost completely insignificant, and were shown a thorough lack of respect. But then they moved*, and since then they have taken on an unshakable legitimacy, evolving into an opponent that must be taken very seriously indeed. Their fans are vocal, though most people in the area prefer (their) football.


(* In 2005 Australia switched allegiances, leaving the ineffectual Oceania region for the more competitive Asian confederation.)


If we were to go strictly in terms of dominance, we would have to go with the Yankees, or even the Canadiens. But Brazil is more than dominance, they are also glamor, style and exuberance. They are known for their amazing offensive displays, but this overshadows a history of champions who have relied on defense to kick-start those attacks. Plus they have yellow shirts. I mean... there's only one choice here, right?




A powerhouse from a medium conference who are making noise that they are ready to finally step up into the championship picture. No one knows for sure until they do it, of course, but they’ve been around the block enough that it’s no longer a crazy idea. They're fun to watch and easy to root for. (They're also innovative with the external trappings of the game, so to speak.)




A team for whom recent natural disasters overshadow the trivialities of sport. A fan base for whom their team means more now than it ever did before. A team that has never won anything at all from a land with a distinctive physical shape. A high-octane offense. For the rest of us, a sentimental favorite, a team we wouldn't mind seeing rise above. (And one of only two entries that will have a specific time period attached to them).




A respected team with a tradition of consistently making the big tournaments, where you always have to take them seriously. Occasionally throws a truly great team together, though even then they usually fall short. Finally won (a) big one in the ‘90s, and that probably wasn’t even their best-ever team. Generally associated with one long-serving head coach named Olsen. Or Olson.




Man oh man do their fans talk a lotta shit. A LOTTA shit. Not so much in praise of themselves as raggin’ on other squads. Way too much for a team that’s won it all exactly one time, and that was way back in the '60s. Since then, they haven’t even finished second. Yet they talk and talk and deify the main man behind that '60s win. As opposed to their local tabloids, who take every chance they can to tear the team apart one day, while predicting impending championships the next. This team will almost always fall before the final hurdle, but… their current coach might just be the perfect man for this team. He has them playing better than they’ve played in decades, behind a mix of veterans and one gifted youngster whose performance will be the primary determining factor of where they finish. Still, you generally have to assume that they will buckle under the double burdens of incredible media pressure and inescapable history.



Some undeniably great players have been on this blue-clad team, a team that has provided the sport with some of its defining matches and greatest plays. But something about them drives the neutral fan crazy. Almost nobody who’s not from there roots for them, which they bring on themselves for being a little snooty, and by so often being the recipient of grossly questionable calls by the refs.


(I mean, come on. The dude even looks French.)


They may not have won the big game the most times, but they’re close. And no one’s been to that game more than them. They’re hard to root for if you’re not from there, moreso than France, even. That’s partly cultural, sure, but it’s mostly because they do so much damn winning (especially in the '70s and '90s). The team is always made up of a combination of straight-laced leaders and absolute looney-tunes. It’s dysfunctional but seems to work. One of the all-time great squads, like ‘em or not.



Sadly there is no American sports entity that matches the gravitas of Ghana’s nickname, The Black Stars. So, as we shall do with another African team, let’s just try to define them by their on-field situation.

They have a longer history of being good than people give them credit for and, while they haven’t won anything lately, their current team might be the baddest, deepest squad they’ve ever had, man-for-man. They play fast and physical and on their day they can beat anybody.




A team of no importance until they came out of nowhere to win a title, early in the 21st century, that was won almost entirely on defense. Before that, they sucked. Now they suck again. Still dangerous D though.




From a land of free spirits comes a team who will never be able to completely let slip of the long-hair hippie image their greatest sides exuded. They’re not in the list of never-wons, but they’re not quite among the all-time greats either, as they’ve fallen victim to a) some of the greatest performances ever, b) some gut-wrenching choke jobs and c) some horrible injuries to players who could have been all-time greats. Still, this is a widely admired team, respected for the way they play the game and their amazing fans.



They were really good in 1981. Haven’t really made noise since, until now. They’re adorable! Who would root against these irascible underdogs!?!




Italy are a tough one. At first I wanted to go New York Giants. Both have won titles sporadically since the '30s. Both wear blue. Both are built on a commitment to defense. Both won the big one in the '80s and in this decade. But in the end I had to go with a team that better fits their current personality and identity.

A team that has had tremendous success this decade, despite constant underestimation from the media, who always seem to think this squad is too old and not talented enough. But the thing is: they don’t give a fuck what the media says. When their opponent makes a mistake they pounce, with a surgical accuracy and unspeakable togetherness. They’re not afraid of a well-timed flop and not one of their players has ever, EVER committed a foul. They focus on D and do whatever it takes to win. Whatever it takes.




Y’know, in the '80s, they were okay for a little while. Since then they haven’t done much, which is a shame, since they’re from a depressed region that could use the pick-me-up. But this current team might be special. I say “might” because, though people love to watch them and talk them up like they’ve already won something… they haven’t. The thing is… they’ve got this one dude… and this dude is a freak. I mean, he’s big and strong, but also fast and nimble. Everything they do runs through him. When he turns it on, you can see it in his eyes; he’s unstoppable. You do not want to be a defender looking up to see this dude bearing down on you. That would be truly scary. If it happened to me, I would poop.


(NOTE - I am NOT saying Drogba is the Soccer LeBron. But their teams do depend on each of them in a similar way. And they're both bad-ass dudes.)


A team that has come to dominate its humble region the last couple decades or so. But they don’t make a dent in the big dance, despite amazing hair.




This side is a big player in a small conference. In fact they have basically owned their conference since the damn thing started. But when it comes to matching up with the big boys, they fall wayyyyy short, almost every time. Also, they have a tendency to employ combustible coaches who try to assault the other team. Finally, their logo prominently features a winged bird of displeasure.




A bunch of squirrelly, over-matched, mostly white guys with dodgy haircuts, who play with so much heart that they just might cause some trouble for a big team. But overall, these irrepressible scamps are basically just happy to be there.




This team has a degree of success that any reasonable fan base would be happy to have. But this team’s fans are tired of disappointment, tired of seeing generation after generation of great players fail the final hurdle. This of course just compounds the problem, putting undue pressure on a very talented group of players who should be appreciated more for what they have accomplished than derided for what they have not.


(Nigeria's team is also nicknamed the Super Eagles, which helps.)


Isolated. Military. Probably not very honest with their fans about their chances. Will not be around the tournament long.




An unassuming team from an unassuming (and not heavily populated) part of the world. Not a huge threat, but no pushover, either.




I’m not quite a journalist, I don’t have to be that impartial, so let me just confess that Portugal are probably my least favorite team in the world. Not just in soccer- in all of sports. I might hate them as much as I hate the Packers and Vikings combined. They are classless crybabies and divers, and have been so since at least Euro 2000. They prance and preen, but they’ve never won a damn thing, which is problematic since they are HORRIBLE losers. Their best player comes off as a Hall of Fame douchebag, despite his exemplary skills. Their coach is an outmatched drone. Despite all this, they are in the upper echelon right now, always a legitimate threat. But be sure: no one likes them. This one was easy.




Fast. Strong. High-scoring. Well-organized. Always dominant on the way to tournament, always likely to fall apart once they get there.





Ummmm… Both were founded in 1993. Yes. Yes, that will do.


There used to be a different team here, a much better one, but they’re gone now. They do have tradition, but expectations are low for this expansion team in green and white.


(NOTE -Those different teams were Yugoslavia and the Minnesota North Stars, who don't get mentioned in the same sentence often, so enjoy it.)


Obviously, it is pretty impossible to equate South Africa and everything going on there with a mere American sports team. So let’s just say that, in strictly sporting terms, they are a team that isn’t very strong, from a less than dominant conference, on an ongoing journey of releasing themselves of a tragic history. The sort of team for whom you can’t help but cheer, though victory will likely elude them.




Haven’t been around all that long. Amazing fans. Incredibly fast-paced offense. Tireless. Relentless. But on D? Can’t stop anybody. Won’t stop anybody. Side note: local government is very concerned about border control.



(NOTE – At time of writing, the Suns are inconveniently ripping through the NBA playoffs. If they win the title, I will revise this. But not before.)


After decades of torturing their fans with mind-boggling losses and historical disappointments, they finally got their shit together last time out and brought home a trophy. All the tortured ghosts are now banished. They still basically have that same side together and had another dominant regular season. What now? Can they keep it going? Will the removal of their back-monkey set them forever free, or was it a blip, with more harrowing failure waiting around the corner? We're gonna find out, starting now. La maldición ha sido invertida!



Not a great team, but they’ll beat you if you’re not careful. Fundamentally sound, if lacking great athleticism. Also, they all probably have rich parents.




They were the first great team. They’ve been winning it all since the earliest days. But now they haven't won anything in years, and despite this fact, they (and their fans) carry with them an almost revolting haughtiness, allowing a nostalgia-distorted self-image to fuel utterly unrealistic expectations. Maybe it's because of all the Catholicism.


32. USA

A place with more tradition in the sport than people remember. Still, a fairly recent addition to the big scene. Haven’t yet gotten over the hump to be a real contender, despite considerable resources. Their fans, being new to this, expect too much. But their enthusiasm is somewhat justified- this team has been slowly stockpiling sneaky-good young talent, with a stable, patient organization running the show. It’s quite possible that their ascendancy, when and if it comes, will come before anyone but them expects it. All in all this is a solid but flawed team, one that absolutely can beat the big boys… but probably won’t.



So now that we have that, let’s take a look at how this lays out this summer. Perhaps this will give you a better sense of who to expect to do well in each group.









Only two teams advance from each group... but you knew that, right?

I hope this helped. Give the World Cup a chance, y’all. It’s good times.

(If you'd like to know more about World Cup history, click here.)

- Brendan Hunt
© Brendan Hunt, 2010