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Friday, December 09, 2005

Ugly American

draw, that is, in the World Cup.

No one really knows how the denizens of the World Cup draw up the brackets, but what you should know is that there are 32 teams in the World Cup, there are eight brackets, eight top seeds, and that two from each of the eight brackets advance to the second round. Sounds easy, you say, for the Americans, given that earlier this year FIFA, the international soccer body, rated them fifth in the world (they were seventh in the last ranking)?

Well, you say wrong. Because unlike getting a dance card with Togo, Trinidad and Tobago and the Galapagos Islands, the U.S. men's team drew Italy and the Czech Republic in their group, along with Ghana. Italy is the top seed in the gropu, but at one time this year the Czech Republic had a top-five FIFA ranking. Put simply, the World Cup moguls aren't about to let an upstart American team take over the sport the way some of the politicos who run their countries think America would like to take over the rest of the world. Most definitely, the road to the top, if they get there, will require the Americans to knock off some heralded programs.

To me, though, the groupings strike me as a bit ridiculous. Mexico, whom the Americans handled in Columbus, Ohio in a key qualifier late this year and seemingly have overtaken as third best team in the Western Hemisphere after Brazil and Argentina, is a top-seed. And who's in their bracket? Iran, Angola and Portugal. Okay, the Portuguese can be dangerous, but I doubt that a top seed will lose too much sleep over either Iran or Angola. Neither rival the Czech Republic in terms of the quality of their play. The interesting game could be Portugal versus Angola; when the last time these two teams played, there were such fireworks that the game had to be stopped with 20 minutes to play -- onfield fireworks -- in terms of dirty tackles.

And then there's England, an international power, yes, but an international power whose best-known player, David Beckham, is aging, and whose future star at striker, Wayne Rooney, has all the maturity of a rapping American footballer matriculated at the University of Miami. Mighty England got an interesting draw too as a top seed -- Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago and Sweden. Someone in the English Football Federation must have some great dirt on the World Cup bracket makers, because none of those teams is really a threat to do that much damage in the tournament. Perhaps England's soccer team needs a newfangled bit of lend-lease, because they didn't set the world on fire with their play in the qualifying rounds. Easy draw for the Brits. J.K. Rowling couldn't have written a better early-round story for them.

Finally, there's host Germany, who gets Poland, Costa Rica and Ecuador, none of which is likely to send the German national team packing before the round of 16. Okay, though, you have to give the bracketers a pass here, because the Germans are the hosts, and, well, it wouldn't have been fair to pair them with the United States and the Czech Republic. Then again, Ecuador beat Brazil in a World Cup qualifying game, Costa Rica finished third in its qualifying group behind the U.S. and Mexico, and the Poles played well in their qualifying group too. All well and good, and the Germans are a little nervous.

But they still should advance.

As for the American team, they have a tough road ahead. Their bracket isn't as tough as, say, Argentina's (Argentina, eliminated in the first round in 2002, drew Cote d'Ivorie, Netherlands and Serbia and Montegro -- considered the toughest group). Quicker than you can say Hernan Crespo ten times in a row, the Argentines could get sent packing again in the first round.

But it says here that they will not.

I still say that an interesting bet would be Brazil versus the field to win the entire tournament, albeit with great odds. None of the other international powers seems to have the firepower that the Brazilians do. As I've written before, I think that their second team could probably have qualified for the World Cup as its own country. No other country, I believe, can make that claim. The rest of the international powers have their flaws on some part of the field; it's hard to argue that Brazil does. The only question for the Brazilians is if they all can work together and subordinate their wills for the good of the entire national team. They have talent to burn, but can they meld together to win the World Cup again?

It's a tempting bet.


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