By Ryan Thies of the Long Beach Post
We’re now three-quarters of the way in, and despite talking about 20 different countries and why they won’t win, I think today’s might get me in the most trouble…
Italy- I’m not going to make many friends by saying this (or more precisely, I’m going to piss off a lot of my current friends by saying this) BUT–I can’t stand the Azzurri. I have been known to describe the Italian team as “a bunch of cry-baby, over-the-hill, cheating, over-rated thugs who would rather dive their way to a one-nil win than to play good-looking football.” To which my friend of Italian heritage replied “I believe you are talking about the French.” Touché, ‘Seppe.
But in all seriousness, the Italian team has not made many friends in America. There was the ’06 World Cup in which they broke Brian McBride’s nose, and then there is Giuseppe Rossi. The striker that talks like a cast-member of Jersey Shore is the Bendict Arnold of the World Cup (Benedicto Arnoldini?) He was born in Jersey, loves the Yankees, and chooses to play for Italy instead of the US. He was quoted as saying: “The TV I watch, the websites I visit, the music I like — it’s all from America. But Italian soccer is what I grew up watching, and Italy is where I grew up as a player. Off the field, I have always felt American. On the field, I’ve always felt Italian.”
Oh ok then, since you feel Italian on the field all is forgiven. That’s like a Korean gymnast saying they “felt Chinese”, which really just means they wanted to play for a country with a stronger chance to win. To make matters worse, Rossi came off the bench in the Confederate’s Cup to score two goals against the US.
Rossi, in what can only be described as “karma,” was the last guy cut from the squad (an injury might call him in to action, but that looks unlikely). Rossi can’t make Italy’s squad but for the US he would be a star. He would get to go on Letterman with his beloved Derek Jeter. He would partner with Jozy Altidore up top and prove to a whole generation of American-born players that they should choose the country of their birth not the country of their parent’s birth. He would permanently rewrite the Statue of Liberty: “give us your poor, your tired, your center-backs…”
Instead he chose to play for a team whose stars are past their prime, and that team chose to ignore the potential of youth and instead put guys out there that were old four years ago. The talent level of Italy deserves to lose in the first round–but an easy group amounts to a stay of execution til the second round. This team does not have the talent to win it all. And I will Zidane-like headbutt anyone that says differently.
Paraguay- Paraguay is ranked 30th in the world but somehow is the second best team in this group. Every other group has 3 teams ranked higher than Paraguay. It is not an exaggeration to say this is one of the easiest groups imaginable. I point this out because Paraguay has no business being in the elimination round of the World Cup, at least not compared with the many talented teams that will be forced to watch on TV (just in their friendlies they have lost to Ireland, tied South Africa, and only scored one against North Korea). However a recent 2-2 tie with Ivory Coast and a 2-nil win over Greece suggest that they will almost definitely survive the group stage.
Paraguay has made a living off of easy draws, in ’98 and ’02 both they survived an easy group to make it to the Elimination stage. However Paraguay has been known to have some good days (in qualifying they had a win at home against Brazil, and a tie on the road and a win at home against Argentina). They also have a very good striker in Roque Santa Cruz (who was dangerous at Blackburn, but at Man City has been buried on the bench). If they continue their good defense, and Santa Cruz can pick up a goal or two, this team could even beat Italy (and definitely should beat the other two).
And that Italy game might mean a lot because the winner of that game should win the group which would get them the 2nd place team from Group E in the elimination round–Paraguay could absolutely beat Denmark and possibly could beat Cameroon. Of course lose to Italy and you then look like a gift from heaven to the Netherlands. But whether they make it to the quarters or lose in the group Paraguay can take one solace: at least you’re not from Uruguay. (See guys, I didn’t forget about you.)
Slovakia- I will just admit this now: I don’t know a whole lot about Slovakia as a country. I could probably tell you something about the other 29 World Cup countries (including, I’m pretty proud to say, all of the African teams) but show me Eastern Europe (Slovakia, Slovenia, and Serbia) and you might as well ask me to name all of Jupiter’s moons.
I like to think this is because the Eastern Europe map is ever changing; and it’s that same reason that the Eastern Europe soccer teams are hard to peg. They are tabula rosa when it comes to World Cups of the past; history is just a hard thing to use in this part of the world (Slovakia, as its name suggests, used to be a part of Czechoslovakia.) But even when they were still with the Czechs they never had much success at the World Cup.
More recent history hasn’t been in their favor either–they lost to Norway, lost to Ukraine, lost to England, lost to Cyprus. They did beat the US’ JV squad, and they did advance out of Europe–which despite the easy group is still no easy task. The problem though is they just don’t have the squad, they have no world-class players and they have little international experience. It would make an interesting story if they pulled an upset (or three) and advanced, but even in a fairy tale tournament it would be ridiculous to expect them to make it past Round 2.
New Zealand- California does not have die-hard baseball fans. We have good fans but we don’t have Red Sox-level devotion. And the reason for that is simple: we have better things to do. The weather is nice, the women are lovely, and we’d just rather be out doing something. Such is the case of New Zealand. Australia’s little brother made the World Cup but surely they’d rather be somewhere else. The country loves their rugby and their cricket, and soccer seems to fall to a distant third on the sports totem. That always creates a chicken-or-egg thing–in order to care about soccer they probably need to get good at it, but they will never be good at it until they start caring about it.
They made one World Cup, 28 years ago, they lost all three games and they went back to watching Russell Crowe movies. This year won’t be different. Just getting a tie would be an accomplishment. A win would be a miracle. And advancing would be absurd. But their all-black Rugby uniforms look pretty bad-ass, so they’ve got that going for them.
Ryan Thies is a writer for The Long Beach Post. This Column originally appeared on the Long Beach Post and is republished here with written consent.