Since the last World Cup, I have mastered the arts of international affairs (incidentally, this is the excuse I have for not posting for a month - celebration around graduation). So I came up the following formulation: in the world of soccer and in the international system, the roles of the United States and Brazil are reversed. In the real world, the United States is the hegemonic superpower and Brazil is the emerging great power that isn't quite there yet (as the West, Russia and China's response to the Brazil and Turkey-brokered deal with Iran on nuclear energy shows). In soccer, the roles are reversed. The USA is one of the most likely countries who has never won the World Cup to win one this time or in the near future (Goldman Sachs gives the USA a 2.81% chance, ninth most likely overall, behind fellow never-wons Spain and the Netherlands and a bit ahead of fellow dark horses Serbia, Mexico and Portugal). But they are an underdog, and it makes them easy to root for.
It is Day 1 of the World Cup, and while I have not managed to write about the Cup ahead of the start of play, I have been eagerly anticipating this day and am plenty inspired now. I have made my predictions with several brackets, bought a Greece jersey as I have decided to make them my second-favorite team, at least at the start of the tournament (why? because they've been in my thoughts, and I am of one-eighth Greek ancestry, and because I thought it would be fun to wear that jersey at European Studies cocktail parties around graduation; its cooling technology also made it a great choice to wear under the graduation gown), and have washed my USA jersey for tomorrow's match with England. Today I was drinking a Dos Equis at Cafe Citron watching the Cup opener on Univision with a bunch of Mexico partisans before 10:30 a.m. Unfortunately I had to closely watch my alcohol intake during the games today, with an afternoon optometrist appointment, lest the World Cup leave me with several years of headaches from a bad prescription, that would be a truly terrible hangover.
OK, not a game was won today, but the games were quite enjoyable, and host South Africa got a good result, if disappointing considering their chances for more goals. The vuvuzela horns made their presence known, filling bars across six continents with a droning noise to accompany the match and the commentary. South Africa is an easy team to root for, we'll see if they can make it out of the first round. I also like Uruguay, perhaps the most improbable of the seven teams that have won the Cup (Brazil five times, Italy four times, Germany three times, Argentina and Uruguay twice, England and France once). Uruguay hasn't won since 1950, but still, all the other countries that have won are much bigger (Uruguay has about 3.5 million people, Argentina has more than 40 million and the others are larger).
I love the World Cup, it is indeed my favorite sporting event. Four years ago, I was lucky enough to be living in Hamburg, teaching less than 20 hours a week, and had plenty of time for enjoying the full Cup experience, and the fantastic chance to blog about it for the International Herald Tribune (the 2006 blog site is no longer online, and I had technical difficulties posting my writings a week ago, so let me know if you really want to read them and I can e-mail you my copy as Microsoft Word document). Four years prior to that, Team USA's surprise showing made me a World Cup fan. I had to leave home for the airport to fly to Alaska, where I was spending the summer, in the middle of the game against Germany, and did not see the Cup to the end from the Alaskan wilderness, where I was learning the arts of birdwatching and bicycling and hiking on glaciers and living in a tent and drinking my dirty dishwater. But the experience (along with playing youth soccer in Mia Hamm's old league, the Annandale Boys and Girls Club of Northern Virginia) primed me for football fandom when I arrived in London for my study abroad program the next year.
Speaking of England, tomorrow's match is simply the most exciting of the 48 first round match-ups. If any of the 32 teams could play any of the others, North vs South Korea might be most interesting, but that's impossible because they're both from the relatively weak conference of Asia which only gets four slots. Brazil vs Portugal is another great match-up of former colony vs its old master, and the level of football might be even higher there, except that it's a game 3 and chances are both will have advanced already and the stakes won't be as high. So USA vs England is the pick of the group stage. Like many a patriot, I'm predicting a USA upset. It won't be easy though. I really think Germany, Italy and France are all going to have disappointing Cups, which leaves England as one of the strongest European powers. But then there is Spain flying high in recent years, and ever-dangerous Holland.
OK, lest I go on for too long, here are my picks for the cup, from my brackets. I filled out a bracket in January when I first could, and picked Spain to beat the Netherlands in the final (by the way, Argentina, Brazil, Germany or Italy has played in every final, so this would be unprecendented), with the United States and England both making it to the semifinals. In May, I couldn't edit this bracket because I couldn't remember my user name or password, so I just discovered this today, although I remembered I had picked Spain. In my main bracket, my May bracket, I picked Spain over Brazil, with the United States and Greece in the semis. And yesterday, not being allowed by ESPN to enter my May bracket in a fourth group, I chose to go a little wilder on the group stage, and ended up with the Netherlands over Spain simply because I had given my bracket a Dutch name from a Wikipedia article on the Dutch War of Independence and why not (although a Dutch victory would probably give rise to mixed feelings for many in South Africa), with the United States and England again in the semis. So those are the teams I think are going to have a good Cup. And we'll just see what happens.
May Wayne Rooney sleep tonight like Richard III before the battle of Bosworth Field. USA! USA! USA!