World's biggest sporting event comes to a big country with some big headaches

On June 12, the 2014 World Cup (which doesn't use Roman numerals like the Olympics or the Super Bowl) will get underway in São Paulo, when hosts Brazil face the checkerboard-bedecked team from Croatia.

And if all goes to plan, the championship match will take place on July 13 in Rio de Janeiro's famed Maracanã stadium. For all but seven days in that 31 day period, there will be at least one match going on, likely putting a big dent in worker productivity throughout the world. In Los Angeles, most of the matches will start around 9 am, with more matches during the afternoon. Lunch hours will be long. (I have scheduled some staycation time from my job, much of it in front of my father-in-law's 55" TV.)

640px-WC-2014-Brasil.svg.pngThe U.S. team's matches will be June 16 vs Ghana at 3 pm in Natal, then vs Portugal on June 22 at 3 pm in Manaus, and against Germany in Recife on June 26 at 9 am. The Mexican team will play June 13 vs Cameroon at 9 am in Natal, against Brazil on June 17 at noon in Fortaleza, and against Croatia on June 23 at 1 pm in Recife.

ESPN and ABC will televise all the matches, but if you don't have cable, you can watch with a digital receiver on Univision in Spanish. And if you want Portuguese, ESPN will have feeds online and on ESPN Deportes. (The Portuguese word for sports is actually eportes.)

The tournament, which the Brazilian government was hoping to use to showcase how the nation was now a respected major player in the world economy, but instead has met with wide-scale protests from the Brazilian people, who have decried the cost of the tournament, as well as the upcoming 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff faces re-election on October 5, but is not exactly helping out her cause. Polls show her with a lead, but not enough to avoid a runoff in the multiparty contest.

Further complicating matters is that three stadiums, including the one in São Paulo for the opener, still are not completely finished. And, most likely, the stadiums will be hurriedly built, only to fall in to disuse after the World Cup is over.

The Brazilian government expected broad support for the World Cup from its normally soccer-crazed nation. However, the Brazilian government has done a horrible job of taking care of its poorest citizens while building slapdash soccer stadiums. Matt Negrin's piece in SB Nation about life in a Rio favela captures the scene very well. If you want to enjoy the World Cup and still acknowledge the problems that Brazil is facing, you should set your cognitive dissonance meter to high.

Organizers have placed matches all over Brazil, which, if you can stop looking at the Mercator projection map you have, is a very large place. It is over 3.2 million square miles, which makes it a little bit bigger than the lower 48 of the U.S. Most of the matches are being held in coastal cities, but some matches will be played in Manaus, in the Amazon rain forest. Others will be in Cuiaba, which prides itself on being the geographic center of South America. Capital city Brasilia will host matches even though there is no major soccer team to use the stadium there after the tournament.

The USA team was drawn into one of the most difficult groups of the tournament, Group G, where they will face Germany, one of the favorites to win the tournament; Portugal, who feature one of the world's best players in Cristiano Ronaldo (who may be slowed with a knee injury); and Ghana, the country that eliminated the US in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa in the round of 16.

Most of the news around the US team has been about coach Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to cut the most recognizable player from the squad, the Galaxy's Landon Donovan. The decision has been dissected from every point of view. Although it seems to me that the most obvious reason for Klinsmann's decision is that he didn't think Donovan was going to help very much in Brazil. Klinsmann compared the situation with Donovan to the Lakers extending Kobe Bryant's contract. This was followed by ESPN talking head Michael Wilbon coming to Bryant's defense and suggesting that Klinsmann be deported.

Klinsmann has also made headlines for stating that he didn't think that the U.S. team was good enough to win the World Cup in 2014 anyway. Klinsmann's contract with the U.S. national team runs through 2018. So, he is unlikely to be fired regardless of the results in Brazil.

Only the top two teams in each of the eight groups of four advance to knockout play and the US will be hard pressed to get out of the first stage. It is not impossible though, and, in 2002, the US managed to advance from a fairly difficult group and make it all the way to the quarterfinals. But, don't count on the U.S. playing any matches after its match on June 26 against Germany as the defensive end of the team looks suspect. The Americans' best hope is that they can hold up to the travel and extreme weather conditions better than the European teams, as well as Ghana, whose players are mostly based in Europe.

The favorites in the tournament are the usual suspects as soccer, especially on the international level, rarely has dark horses that make it to the finals. The hosts, Brazil, are considered the favorites, despite all of the tumult in the country. In the 2013 Confederations Cup tournament, which serves as a tryout for World Cup facilities, Brazil beat the 2010 World Cup champion Spain 3-0. Brazil is always popular with fans all over the world, although in recent years, Brazil has gone away from a free-flowing style to the more technical style of play that dominates today. Brazil is also counting on history as no European team has ever won a World Cup that was played in South America. (Or North America for that matter.) Expect yellow shirts, one named players (yes, that guy is named Hulk), and a lot of noise in the stadiums when Brazil plays.

Spain is still a formidable force in international soccer and won the 2012 European championship fairly easily, 4-0 over Italy. If you enjoy watching passing, you will enjoy watching Spain. The Spanish pass. A lot. They maintain possession better than anyone else in the world. And the Spaniards are willing to wait to find their chance to score. And wait. In the 2010 final against the Netherlands, it took nearly 120 before Andres Iniesta finally found the back of the net against a packed Dutch defense that played more like the 1974 Philadelphia Flyers. (The Spanish and Dutch will have a rematch on June 13 in Salvador.)

Argentina has Leonel Messi, but he has never featured as brilliantly in the World Cup as he does playing for Barcelona. But, Argentina is loaded with players aside from Messi (such as Javier Mascherano, Pablo Zavaleta, and Sergio Aguero) and should be able to make a good run.

Germany is always one of the top sides in Europe, but recently lost midfielder Marco Reus to an ankle ligament injury. The Germans are still a very deep squad. They look to be on a collision course to play Argentina in the quarterfinals.

Outside of Brazil, Argentina, Spain, and Germany, picking any other team from the rest of the field to win would be a major leap of faith. Belgium has some of Europe's top players, including Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany. But, this generation of players hasn't played much together, so it might be a lot to expect them to jell that quickly. Colombia will be without Radamel Falcao, yet another top player missing the World Cup with an injury. Chile is another dark horse that is receiving some attention.

Mexico barely qualified for the tournament, needing a late goal from the U.S. against Panama to make it (the Mexicans subsequently had to beat New Zealand in a playoff). The roster has been turned over in the last six months in a desperate attempt to improve results. Mexico is in Group A with Brazil, Croatia, and Cameroon (whose players are threatening not to show up because of a pay dispute*). If Mexico does make it to the Round of 16, Spain would be the likely opponent.

*The Cameroonian team's boycott was short-lived and they will play.

The other past champions of the World Cup (it's not a big group, just eight countries have won) all have problems. Three of them, Italy, England and Uruguay, were drawn into the same group. (Costa Rica is the odd team out.) Uruguay finished 4th in 2010, but are likely to be without the services of Luis Suarez, the top goal scorer in England's Premier League, for the group stages. Italy and England may move on just because two teams will have to. Or you could root for the Ticos, who are likely the only country participating in the World Cup that nobody else is mad at right now.

Historical aside: When the World Cup was previously contested in Brazil, back in 1950, England lost to the United States, 1-0, in Belo Horizonte, one of the biggest upsets in the tournament's history. England returns to Belo Horizonte on June 24 to play Costa Rica, who should be big underdogs in that match.

1998 champions France disgraced the country with poor play and a public insurrection against its manager in South Africa in 2010. France needed a big rally in its playoff qualifier against Ukraine to even make the tournament. France plays in Group E against Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras, which should be easy enough to get the French into the knockout stages, even without star midfielder Franck Ribery.

In a city as diverse as Los Angeles, it is nearly impossible to not run into someone who has a rooting interest or personal connection to any of the 32 participants in the World Cup. (I don't believe Los Angeles has a Little Yaoundé neighborhood though.) Even with the all problems that the 2014 World Cup is facing, a good chunk of the world will be watching, and moaning and groaning and cheering and yelling together. Those sounds are one of the few times that the whole world actually seems to understand each other.


More by Bob Timmermann:
World's biggest sporting event comes to a big country with some big headaches
Newest O'Malley bio looks deeper at the move from Brooklyn to L.A.
UCLA basketball and me: drifting further apart
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Next Native Intelligence story: Opera showdown: Are women fickle, immoral and crazy?

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