Friday, June 13, 2014

The Greatest Sporting Event on Earth

The 2014 FIFA World Cup opened yesterday with host Brazil coming away victorious with a 3-1 result over Croatia.

Every four years, national teams from around the world meet in what has become by far the world's most-watched and followed sporting event.

While American football and baseball are king here in the sports-crazed USA, it is "football", or what we here call "soccer", that is king most everywhere else on Earth. It is estimated that 48% of the globe's population watched some portion of the 2010 World Cup, won that year by Spain in South Africa.

The host nation, Brazil in this year's case, receives an automatic invitation to the tournament. But to reach the World Cup, the 206 other national teams play a series of qualifying matches in their geographical section of the world, known as "federations" in soccer-speak, during the preceding couple of years.

The results of these regional federation qualifying tournaments enable another 31 nations to qualify for the actual World Cup tournament. The whole system is run under the FIFA umbrella, the world's ruling and governing body for the sport.

After decades of lagging behind the rest of the planet, the U.S. has finally begun to take the sport more seriously. Over the last couple of decades the American men have become a legitimate force in "the beautiful game", with the women already a dominating presence.

The U.S. Men's National Team (USMNT) competes in the federation known as CONCACAF, short for the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football. They have qualified now for 6 straight World Cups, hosted the 1994 edition, and are currently ranked 14th in the world.

There have been a handful of great results for the team. In the 1930 World Cup, they reached the semi-finals and finished in 3rd place, the best-ever finish for the USMNT. The next great moment came in 1950, when they defeated heavily favored England 1-0 in a group match. It would be 40 more years before the men again qualified, but have been regular participants since 1990.

In more recent World Cup appearances, the 2002 USMNT reached the quarter-finals, finally falling to a powerful and experienced Germany, the eventual tourney runners-up, by just 1-0. In 2010, they finished with a 1-1-2 record, but were eliminated in the round-of-16 by Ghana in a frustrating 2-1 defeat.

The World Cup tournament begins by dividing the 32 qualifiers into 8 groups of 4 teams each. The top 8 teams in the world are placed in separate Groups, and the others all randomly drawn. In this 'Group' stage, the teams play each of the others in their Group, with the top 2 finishers advancing to the round-of-16.

Those top 2 finishers in each Group now qualify for what is known as the "Knockout" stage, where you either win, or you get knocked out of the tournament. Teams cannot play others from their previous Group stage unless they meet in the Final.

The national teams seeded 1-8 as the top seeds in each Group this time around, are: Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Uruguay, and Switzerland. The U.S. was drawn into 'Group G', a particularly tough one that includes Germany, Portugal, and Ghana.

Three clear patterns have emerged in World Cup history. First, no team from outside of South America has ever won a World Cup held in the Americas. Second, the beaten team in the Final in each of those American tourneys has been from Europe. Finally, in 19 tourneys, any "top-tier" host country has finished among the final three on 11 occasions, boding well for top-tier hosts Brazil.

The current favorites among odds-makers to emerge from the 8 Groups are: Group A - Brazil & Croatia, Group B - Spain & Netherlands, Group C - Colombia & Ivory Coast, Group D - Italy & Uruguay, Group E - Switzerland & France, Group F - Argentina & Bosnia, Group G - Germany & Portugal, Group H - Belgium & Russia.

You may have noticed a pair of notable omissions from the odds-makers favorites to advance from the Group stage. The United States is not there, and neither is England, where the game is the national past time and passion, and home to the Premier League, the top-rated professional league in the world.

The USMNT is picked to finish 3rd in their Group G, behind both Germany and Portugal. The Germans are obvious favorites for the Group as the #2-rated team in the world. But despite being ranked 13th and Portugal ranked just behind at 14th, the odds-makers have made the Portuguese, led by one of the world's top players in Cristiano Ronaldo, slight favorites to slip past the Americans and out of the Group stage.

If all goes according to form in Group G, the Germans will advance without too much trouble. The 2nd team to move on will come from a scrum between the USA, Portugal, and Ghana. The results of games among those teams will be pivotal. Ghana has become an American nemesis, eliminating the USMNT with 2-1 victories in both the 2006 Group stage and the 2010 round-of-16.

Between now and the 2014 World Cup Final to be held in Rio de Janeiro on July 13th, the drama will unfold, first in those Group stages, and then through the three Knockout stages, until one nation is left standing, it's players holding aloft the gold World Cup Trophy as the citizens and fans of that nation party in the streets.

And also between now and the Final, approximately half of the population on the planet will tune in to the matches on television. From the frozen tundra of Antarctica to the African desert, from the war-ravaged Middle East to the Far East of Japan. From pubs in England and Ireland to American homes across our own country, support will come for the national teams, and even if eliminated, interest will continue all the way through.

The soccer World Cup is simply the greatest sporting even on Earth. As much as I personally love baseball and as big an event as the World Series is here in America, and even recognizing the growing global interest in the Super Bowl, perhaps the planet's most-hyped single day sporting event, the scope and impact of the World Cup cannot be denied.

If you are a soccer fan, you don't need me to sell you on this tournament. If you are just a casual sports fan, try to tune in at some point. Many of the games will be covered on TV here in the United States by the ESPN and ABC networks. Here is the schedule for Group stage matches involving the USMNT:

Monday, June 16th, 6pm: Ghana
Sunday, June 22nd, 6pm: Portugal
Thursday, June 26th, 12pm: Germany


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