Protests, Upsets, and Carnival: A Viewing Guide to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil (VIDEO)
Chaos and rioting has engulfed Brazil for at least a year, on the countdown to today's kickoff between the hosts and Croatia.
This World Cup brings tension off the pitch – particularly because it's being held in a country that also has to host the Summer Olympics in 2016, a country that will spend roughly $14 billion on this month's 'futbol' festivities, launching the nation's purse at hundreds-of-million-dollar stadiums in remote (but gigantic) cities you haven't heard of, like Manaus and Cuiaba.
Will those stadiums ever be used again? Well, Manaus has three Brazilian club teams – none of which can fill it – but Manaus also had to build a new airport and the Arena Amazonia, which was built after the city's Viviado (their already existing stadium) was torn down. Cuiaba's stadium will only host four World Cup games, and the city's population is only 550,000 – that sounds like a lot, but for Brazil, that's basically Lloydminster to us Canadian. The Alberta half of Lloydminster, that is.
(I'm being sarcastic, of course, but Sao Paulo – Brazil's largest city, duh – has over 11.3 million people.)
The irony of this whole controversy – which is the sort of thing only privileged people like myself, a sheltered Canadian, can point out – is that the World Cup should be a truly global event, so it needs to be hosted somewhere different, somewhere previously neglected, every four years... and for it to be hosted in Brazil, it needs to involve more than just the country's twin cities of Rio and Sao Paulo, where crime and the gulf between rich and poor are no more resolved than they are in Cuiaba, Manaus, or Recife... but for it to be hosted in those cities, the World Cup needs World Cup-worthy venues.
It's an infuriatingly inconvenient truth, but we'll watch the World Cup because we love to watch it, and because we can.
This World Cup also brings tension on the pitch, too...
The First Game
At 1 o'clock, Brazil will kickoff their World Cup with what could be their most challenging first-round game, a standalone Thursday showdown against Croatia.
The Croatians are always a tough out and there are questions surrounding Group A's other sharpshooter, Mexico.
The Mexicans have gone from greatness in London's Olympics – winning Gold over Brazil – to dysfunction, although they're still dangerous.
The other team in the group is Cameroon. I repeat, the other team in the group is Cameroon.
All predictions aside, this is really a terrific day for the sport of football – the first game of the biggest sporting event in the world, in the one nation (Brazil) that has dominated the game for a century and is madly in love with it, even with all the stuff mentioned at the top part of this (quote-unquote) article.
South Africa was a journey – an expedition to a new country and a new continent.
But this one? This is a return to the holy land.
Ronaldo and Messi
Cristiano Ronaldo is, for now, the best player in the world. His dominance over the past year – in particular with Real Madrid in Spain's La Liga and when the camera was on him during Portugal's qualification make-or-breaker against Sweden, when he scored four goals in two games (video above) – has elevated him to a status above the one he already had, the one we already thought he couldn't possibly top. And then he did.
But Ronaldo doesn't need to win a World Cup to prove his greatness, or to catapult his reputation. It would help, but his legacy doesn't hinge on it.
Portugal is relatively new to the international soccer scene – only really coming about as a heavyweight from the 2004 Euro on, with the exception of star Eusebio a very long time ago – and the team is perceived as rather shallow away from Ronaldo, although that's probably not true with players like Nani, Joao Moutinho, and Pepe on the scene. But if Portugal loses and Ronaldo scores, his country will love him more.
Meanwhile, Lionel Messi – the best player in the world before this last season, but probably still the best player in the world in all reality – doesn't have Ronaldo's luxury.
Messi's team is stronger than Portugal's. And with the Cup in South America, Argentina will be as favoured to win the whole thing as much as any other country, and they won't have the pressure Brazil has, not in the same pressure-cooked way.
It sounds silly to say that Messi has to win a World Cup to be considered one of the game's greatest ever, on that Mount Rushmore with Pele and Diego Maradona.
It sounds silly... but is it?
Think about Lio's competition – Pele and Maradona both won World Cups. Both were tremendous at World Cups actually, with Maradona's Argies winning in 1986 and finishing second in 1990. Pele basically invented the sport, and he won three World Cups playing for Brazil for 14 years.
Messi's only had one chance to win it, but Argentina went out in the quarterfinals.
If he doesn't do something now, you won't be knocked for saying he'll retire as one of the three best players ever... but he won't have the resume of Maradona or Pele.
That's a fact.
The Twitter Thing
Back in 2010, Twitter was still the sort of company you'd catch on the podium at SXSW. It was a giant darling, but a darling still.
And during that summer's World Cup, the social network repeatedly crashed – that'll happen when you're unprepared for 150,000 Tweets sent an hour while 3.2 billion people watch on live TV.
Hopefully, you won't be interrupted when you're trying to hashtag #WorldCup this year...
"... back at Twitter's headquarters, the company's goal is to prevent another replay of the 2010 World Cup tech troubles. They're a publicly traded corporation now, and one that wants to take on Facebook and even SMS text messages as the way the world communicates," writes Fast Company's Neal Ungerleider.
One of Twitter's main engineers, Raffi Krikorian, told Underleider that he still has "PTSD" from the last World Cup.
"When you come to my floor at Twitter headquarters, we have signs all over the floor with a countdown to the World Cup. Reliability is at the top of our minds, and reliability first is the mantra. Somewhere in the world, there is a sporting event, an election, or an earthquake."
I'm sure a bunch of those blue-bird nerds will be working their tails off to prevent another siege, and the last thing I want is to have my Tweets delayed by, like, 30 seconds or something.
But I do like what Twitter's done so far...
So, Who's Gonna Win?
Predicting the World Cup is much simpler than you think. It's not about knowing which country's the best – that's easy: Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Spain, and Italy.
It's about knowing weaknesses.
Like, take the teetering Europeans from Holland, Portugal, and France. Is it worth it for them to have a few good games, maybe to the threaten the podium again? For the Dutch, we're looking at a team that overcome odds and favourites to make the final in 2010, and then they blew all that goodwill by engaging in 120 minutes of rugby against Spain. Now they're old, they're unhinged, and they're still very, very orange.
The French are the French, and their mid-tournament mutiny in 2010 still hangs over the club's head, even if four years is more than enough time to wipe that slate clean. They also won't have star Franck Ribery.
Portugal is more skilled than many give them credit for, but skilled teams all have the same crux – they play down to their opponent.
Sure, Portugal can play with Germany... they may even win.
But the United States and Ghana – the other two teams in Group G – certainly smell blood.
Take the English, too. Is there a more perpetually disappointing country in the past 20 years? They let their golden generation go by without a major international trophy, hitting a low point when they failed to qualify for the 2008 Euros, and then bottoming out when a disallowed goal burned them in a 4-1 loss to Germany in South Africa.
And if any of those cold, pale European countries like Germany, England, and Belgium were going to make a charge, can they really do it in the hostile, hot confines of South America?
As for Belgium, they're the hipster football fan's choice, based on their climb to an 11th overall ranking and the presence of English league stars Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany. Switzerland made a move to steal a top seeding in this year's World Cup – helped by their strategic strikes in qualifications – and are ranked sixth in the world. They're are also in a group with France, Honduras, and Ecuador, so even if the carriage turns into a pumpkin, the Swiss should still expect to make the knockout round.
There are a slew of teams just hoping to score a goal, from Iran (with Whitecaps defender Steven Beitashour) to Korea Republic to Australia.
You've got Japan – an exciting, quick team that'll be fun to watch, but they barely have a benchmark we can judge them by. The Japanese are ranked outside the Top 30, but that won't matter for them. Like the African countries, Japan's fortune will be based on what they do in the next month, not what they've done in the last four years.
And as for the African nations, Nigeria, Algeria, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Ghana will all be looking to capitalize on their groups and the fact that they'll most certainly be overlooked.
Every African nation is a fan favourite, especially in North America. We're sympathetic in a synthetic way... they're from Africa, right, so they must be an underdog?
In the rankings, they certainly are. The top teams are Algeria and the Ivory Coast, at nos. 22 and 23, respectively. Ghana is the continent's headliner, due to their beautiful jerseys and their run in 2010. Ghana could also make moves in a log-jammed Group G – if they can beat the United States or Portugal, or draw both, they'll be right there below Germany.
As for the United States... yeah, they're better than you probably think. But they can't get a fair draw, falling into a group with two of the top four teams in the world in Portugal and Germany, according to FIFA's metrics.
So then.. what are the weaknesses for the South American teams, specifically the heavyweights like Argentina and Brazil and the rest, like Colombia, Chile, and Uruguay?
Well, they don't have many. And if Ghana could use geography to its advantage in 2010, don't be surprised if all five of those teams above channel something similar down south.
But the weight of being a heavyweight brings just that – there's more pressure on Argentina and Brazil than there is on every other team. Is that encouraging or suffocating?
It's also hard to judge the well-ranked, well-assembled squads from Colombia, Chile, and Uruguay... any one of them is a sexy, trendy pick. But which one is the right one?
They can't all make the final four. And there's no telling if the European teams will really wilt under that Amazonian sun and foliage. Sure, they haven't been great in tournaments like these, when they're not playing in Europe. But Spain and the Netherlands were the last two teams in South Africa four years ago and Canada just won an Olympic hockey gold in Russia.
Again, predictions aren't about knowing who's good or not, it's about knowing how big they pitfalls in front of those good teams are.
If you're picking a South American team to win, pick them because they're good enough, not just because they're playing in their own hemisphere.
The Boot Business
A nice piece from the Associated Press here and reporter Anne M. Peterson, on the business of cleats and their elevated commercial place with the World Cup:
"Gone are the old-school black boots like the fabled Puma Kings worn by Pele.
"Legend has it that Pele was paid $125,000 for his deal – a paltry sum by today's standards – to wear the boots starting with the 1970 World Cup. The contract was sealed in the final between Brazil and Italy when Pele asked a referee for a moment so he could tie his shoe – guaranteeing that the TV cameras were pointed at his Pumas.
"Now shoe deals are part of the game for every star and even some average players. Cristiano Ronaldo wears Nike. Lionel Messi wears adidas. Puma and Mizuno have their own athletes. So when the World Cup opens in Brazil on Thursday, there will be a clash of competing cleats on the pitch with everyone trying to get a leg up on the other guy."
The Great Grantland Guys
Let's take a second to honour the huge favour Grantland has done us, basically solely on the work of Michael Davies and Roger Bennet – otherwise known as the 'Men in Blazers' – and the mad crew that drew their illustrations for them.
Will England Advance From Group D?
Belgium and the Netherlands Will Come Up Short in Brazil
The Fashion Police
Leave it to GQ to rank every uniform in this year's World Cup.
But you know what, for all that magazine's silly, completely childish and meathead'd write-ups on whether the clothes should wear you or whether you should wear a suit to a black-and-white event – they seem to think it's completely unacceptable to do so unless your name is Paul Newman or Steve McQueen, in which case your refusal to conform has made you a style icon...
Well, considering that stuff, it's a pretty useful and welcome list:
1. France (makes sense)
2. Colombia (huh?)
3. Mexico (what?)
4. Ghana (yup)
5. Argentina (default)
Who Is Andrea Pirlo?
Andrea Pirlo is Italy's best player.
Andrea Pirlo is the most interesting man in the world, for real. The title was left vacant after Hemingway killed himself, and it seems Pirlo picked it up 50 years later.
Andrea Pirlo likes to drink, and doesn't care if you know.
If you believe in Italy, you believe in Andrea Pirlo.
So, What Games Should I Watch?
The first one, happening on Thursday at 1 p.m. PST – Brazil vs Croatia.
Day 2: Spain vs Netherlands, 12:00 p.m. PST
Day 3: England vs Italy, 3:00 p.m. PST
Day 4: Argentina vs Bosnia & Herzegovina, 3:00 p.m. PST
Day 5: Germany vs Portugal, 9:00 a.m. PST
Day 6: Brazil vs Mexico, 12:00 p.m. PST
Day 7: Spain vs Chile, 12:00 p.m. PST
Day 8: Uruguay vs England, 12:00 p.m. PST
Day 9: Switzerland vs France, 12:00 p.m. PST
Day 10: Germany vs Ghana, 12:00 p.m. PST
Day 11: United States vs Portugal, 3:00 p.m. PST
Day 12: Netherlands vs Chile, 9:00 a.m. PST
Day 13: Italy vs Uruguay, 9:00 a.m. PST
Day 14: Nigeria vs Argentina, 9:00 a.m. PST
Day 15: United States vs Germany, 9:00 a.m. PST