Friday, 11 June 2010



I was a guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last night, and it was wonderful experience in which I was very well-treated. I was amused to be introduced as a “World Cup expert,” which I think is gracious but maybe overshooting the mark. I’m just an enthusiastic fan, but in US, maybe that does make me an expert.

Don’t get me wrong, I know my share of soccery what-not. But the closer we get to the big tournaments, I have an against-my-better-judgment tendency to throw all logic out the window.

So it is with great trepidation that I respond to the feedback I get from readers of late (always appreciated), wherein folks want to know who I am picking for the World Cup.

Guys. Really. I unequivocally suck at making soccer predictions. They are, along with overly-planned-out amusement park prop comedy, my Waterloo. I’m flat-out terrible at it.

For one thing, I’m an incorrigible homer, with a tendency for blind fanboy picks, such as when I talked myself into picking the US over the Czechs in ’06. Never has a bad pick been proven bad quicker. Going the other way, I also can talk myself into losses for teams I dislike, such as Portugal, who almost always prove me wrong. It got so bad that year that I eventually was even made fun of by jinx-fearing Australians.

After my ’08 predictions didn’t go much better, I resolved to never predict again.


I mean. Jeez. Really, now. I'm terrible at this.

Eh. The hell with it. It’s a new day. Let’s get predictin.’

As a nod to another one of my favorite sportswriters, Sports Illustrated’s NFL maven Peter King (who will also be covering the World Cup this summer from South Africa), I give you: Ten Things I Think I Probably Shouldn’t Think. Also, just to dissuade those of you foolish enough to make bets based on my lame-ass guesses, I will let you know after each prediction just how dumb a prediction it is.


There’s a reason no home team has ever failed to get out of the first round (well, the cynics will say there are a few, and they’re not all soccer-related), and it remains formidable- home field advantage. Not just home field advantage- but the greatest home field edge in sports.

First of all, the World Cup only happens every four years. That’s four year’s worth of waiting that has to come out. Add on top of that the honor of hosting the tournament, an event that comes once in a lifetime, and you have a uniquely heaving wave-pool of emotion.

When you then add that this is the first Cup to be contested in Africa- well, I just think people are going to go pretty damn nuts. Plus they will have (literally) deafening plastic horns in their hands. Oh, and the team is actually playing okay of late, which is the bare minimum they should need, especially as their group isn’t that threatening.

(How Stupid Is This? Not that stupid. Just misguided. Stubborn. Questionable. Like choosing to be a Cubs fan.)


I’m not sure why so many pundits are so quick to dismiss Nigeria and Cameroon. These are decent tournament sides, despite a lack of recent dominance. Isn’t there a school of thought that teams do better on their home continent? If an unfancied Italy can win the whole thing in Germany, why do folks so quickly discount the Super Eagles and Indomitable Lions, who each have decades of accomplishment behind them, from even getting out of their groups? Especially as neither of them seems to be in too tough a group anyway. (This stampede to prescribe Denmark 2nd place in their group particularly befuddles me.)

As for the Ivory Coast, it all rests on Didier Drogba, of course. If he can play, the Elephants nip Portugal. Portugal’s form is just too poor, and they are coached by the Forrest Gump of soccer management. Cote d’Ivoire to the knockout rounds, Drogba’s arm willing.

(Stupidity Factor? High. If this was blackjack, I’m splitting fives. Then doubling down twice. All I can think of is the payoff!)


I’m really not trying to gang up on Portugal (though I remain less than a fan). They’re just in terrible form. They barely- barely- even made it into the tournament at all. The other week they couldn’t score against Cape Verde (sure, friendlies are meaningless, but form isn’t, so emphasize whichever one you want). Now they’ve lost Nani. Ronaldo or no, Portugal is in trouble.

Yes, North Korea will be terrible (we think). But any propaganda-fed illusions that they will have of themselves will already have been shattered by Brazil in their first group match. So they will be only too happy to put ten men behind the ball (if they hadn’t already) and frustrate the Selecção.

(How Stupid Is It? We have no idea, for these North Koreans are devoted mystery men.)


Sometimes in sports, a team improves slowly, on a clear and gradual upward arc. Sometimes, less often, it leaps past expectations ahead of schedule. I have a feeling Slovakia could be such a team.

They aren’t coming completely out of nowhere, of course. Old Czechoslovakia made two World Cup finals and won Euro 76 (the first ever major international tournament decided by shootout, and to this day it’s the only shootout the Germans have ever lost, on a winning shot so ballsy that they named it after the guy who shot it- Panenka).

But also, soccer nerds have been hearing for years that the Slovaks were about to break out. Their youth teams had a decent decade and the senior squad made it to the final hurdle of qualifying for Germany 2006, before getting Spainked in the playoffs 6-2. On top of all that they have a legitimate world class player, young midfielder Marek Hamšík, who, as you will hear ad nauseum, also has phenomenal hair. Italy will be saving energy, Paraguay will be undermanned, and New Zealand will be happy to be there. Slovakia will win the group.

(Stupidity Factor on this one is manageable. Like picking Matthew Perry to win a fight against Michael Douglas.)


Chile has an offensive-minded coach and an exceedingly high-powered offense. La Roja also starts out against Honduras, whom I expect to be completely overrun. Then it’ll come up against Switzerland, who, having already narrowly lost to Spain, will need to attack more than they want to, leaving them vulnerable to the Chilean onslaught. Finally their third game, against Spain, will be a match between two teams that have already qualified for the second round. Though there will be a bit of jockeying there to not be the team that has to play Brazil next, it’ll be a contented shootout regardless.

Would this minor accomplishment be of any value to Chile? Maybe. There have only been two World Cups in which the top-scoring team from the group stage didn’t go through. The top scoring group stage team has also gone on to win three of the last five Cups.

(I am very comfortable with this one. Which guarantees it will be the stupidest of all.)


Even without the Chelsea Michaels, this is the Group of Duress. With Australia, Germany, Ghana and Serbia, we’re looking at a group chock-a-block with big, strong, physical sides looking to outbash each other. This will be the most unpredictable group, the one that ruins many a bracket.

(This one’s not that stupid. Kinda boring, though.)

Okay, I’m avoiding the stuff that people want. The stuff that will get me in trouble. So let’s do it.


Not gonna say the US will win outright. But, for various reasons, I don’t see England winning.

I will paraphrase an interesting idiom I picked up from the Tony Adams autobiography Addicted. I would quote from it directly, but I seem to have lost my copy, perhaps while drunk. Recounting his experience at Euro 96, Adams mentions that one of the most important things at a major tournament is this: Don’t. Lose. Your. First. Match.

If you come out of your first match with a point, that’s a fantastic result, almost regardless of the opposition. You have that point, while your competitor does NOT have three. But if you come out of that first tilt with a goose egg on your docket… you’re in trouble. (This claim is borne out statistically in this feature. I suspect inclusion of results from the Euros would reinforce the point.)

All this makes me think that if you’re gonna play one of the big boys, you might as well play them early, when there’s still so much uncertainty about how the month is going to go.

Besides, England has problems. This will be the Three Lions’ first game without their injured captain Rio Ferdinand, one of the best defenders in the world, and though I think they will eventually be okay without him, this might be the game where they make mistakes while they're figuring things out. With defensive midfielder Gareth Barry missing the match as well, and England’s unsettled keeper situation, it just that seems England is coming into this match a few vertebrae short of a spine.

Finally, too many of the US players are familiar with their English counterparts to be intimidated or overawed. American athletes already tend not to give a fuck who you are. In this instance, they will give even less of one.

(Stupidity Factor? Lower than you might think. Like betting on your young, dumb cousin to beat your drunk, arthritic uncle in pool. But your uncle has placed eighth in pool tournaments all around town, so betting against him marks you as a horrific dumdum.)


Sure, the Germans don’t have Ballack, but there’s no way they miss out on the knockout rounds. They should still win their group, though I expect Serbia to have something to say about that too. If they do, then it stands to reason that they would play the US. Then, with a fan base that suddenly includes most of Europe, the Americans will avenge the memory of Ulsan.

(This one’s dumb. You can see the blind homerism building now. I mean I’m making a prediction for a game that isn’t even on the schedule. How desperate.)


Serbia is good. Really, really good, despite the fact that almost no one (SI’s Grant Wahl notably excepted) is talking them up. In Raddy Antic they have an accomplished enough coach who won’t let them get all moody and what-not. If England plays anyone else from this group, I think they get by them and go far. But the White Eagles would be a nightmare matchup for them and take them down.

(Not dumb. Just sad. Like waiting for Sterling Cooper to fire Freddy Rumsen.)


Another revenge dish, best served old, and another possible naïve homer pick (I lived in Holland for about five years). But whattayagonnado?

After a horrible, demoralizing first part of the decade, Holland is back. Way back. If they meet Brazil in the quarter-finals (a game from which ESPN will cut away in order to give us an update on whatever city LeBron James is taking a dump in that day), Oranje will remind the Brazilians of how they’re supposed to be doing it. Same if they meet in the final (minus the LeBron part).

(Whoa! This one should come with a warning! “DO NOT TAKE TO VEGAS!” Yikes! This is worse than the Germany one. I mean, I’m like a broken record here with my beloved Dutch. This is like me saying that I’m getting back together with that girl who ruined my life. Stop listening to me, already. And take my keys away from me.)

Which leads me to… ahem… your totally free, bonus Eleventh Thing I think that I… ahem… shouldn’t.


Holland will win it all. It’s time. (Unless Drogba decides to ride this whole talisman-of-Africa thing really hard.)

(Didn't you hear me, buddy? I said: I’m getting married! To who? To Drea, of course! Yes, to Drea. We got back together, like, yesterday. Why don’t you look happy? It’s okay! We talked! She’s different now! She’s not gonna try to sleep with my dad anymore! It’s gonna work this time! GIMME MY KEYS BACK, I’M FINE!)

That's my honest feeling. Bert van Marwijk is a perfect coach for this team, Mark van Bommel is recalled to protect the admittedly shaky back line, and the attack that illuminated Euro 2008 is back. This isn't a totally insane prediction. I swear.

But I know I might be blind. If you’re betting, bet on Brazil. Don’t listen to me. I am not an expert.

(Gotta say, getting the prediction part over with is a massive relief.)

Game on, y'all. Enjoy.