A College Basketball Fan’s Guide To Watching The World CupPosted by jstevrtc on June 10th, 2010
In less than 48 hours, our televisions will be taken over by the biggest sporting event the world has to offer. Your TweetDeck (or whatever Twitter application you use) will be lousy with friends, celebrities, and sportswriters tweeting about it. Your Facebook friends will be centering their status updates about it. And, for the next five weeks, when you walk into your favorite sports bars, as you peer at the flat-screens you’ll notice an increased presence of a game to which you might not be accustomed.
It’s World Cup time.
Like the Olympics and the Fields Medal, this is an every-four-year event. It pits nation against nation in the sport that still stirs up the most passion among its fans on a worldwide scale. Imagine if we only got one NCAA Tournament every four years. Well, this is the one summer in four that soccer (the word we’ll use for this article, though we’re aware that most of the world calls it football) lovers get to enjoy their chance to crown a champion. If you follow RTC on Twitter (if you don’t, shame on you, and go click our logo at right), you’ve probably been impressed by our occasional tweet about other sports or even current events. It’s not exactly a long limb we’d be going out on for us to assume that if you’re a college basketball fan, you’ve probably got an interest in other sports, too — though international soccer might not be one of them.
Worry not, our fellow college hoopheads. We’ve got you covered. We want you to be able to hang in those conversations at those sports pubs. We want you to be able to approach that lovely blonde bespectacled German girl wearing her Deutschland jersey in the supermarket (this actually happened to us a week ago). We want you to impress your friends with your world vision and increased overall sports knowledge. You think those kids in the stands at Duke or Xavier or Utah State are both well-prepared and berserk? Wait until you hear the crowd at a World Cup soccer match. We want you to enjoy that vital aspect of it all, as well. We’re by no means experts on the subject, but to those ends, we give you — trumpet flourish — Rush The Court’s College Basketball Fan’s Guide to Watching the World Cup.
First, let’s list some of the participating teams and define those squads in terms familiar to college hoop fans. As you’ll see, by the way, national soccer teams have some of the best nicknames you’ll ever hear. The best? Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions. I mean, COME ON…
South Africa. The host nation. Not much is expected of them, but this is a sports-loving nation that’s becoming more soccer-savvy by the day. They’ve improved in recent years and they’ll be better after this particular World Cup. They don’t have the resources of the bigger national programs, but the chance to play history-making matches in front of their home fans may propel them farther in the tournament than a lot of people will pick them. In terms of college basketball parallels, could this be anybody else but the Butler Bulldogs from last season? We haven’t asked him, but we guarantee you, this is the side (soccer teams are often called “sides” by the way) for which Kyle Whelliston and the Mid-Majority are rooting.
Argentina. Here’s an interesting bunch. This is a side with a proud history in the sport that’s also a sexy pick to win the whole thing. It’s not just because they have the guy largely considered the best player in the world right now in Lionel Messi, but the supporting cast is high-quality as well, with a fiery finisher in Carlos Tevez and stable midfield presence of Javier Mascherano. The biggest problem — their coach is kind of a boob. He may be one of the great soccer personalities and players of all time, but Diego Maradona’s coaching ability has been questioned from the day he was hired, and for good reason. So, we asked our guys here about a college basketball example of a team with possibly the best player in the game and a decent supporting cast, with sort of a boob of a coach whose talented players only made him look like slightly less of one. At that moment, the Wake Forest grads here — without looking up — simultaneously raised their hands and said, “Wake Forest, 1995 to 1997. Tim Duncan. Dave Odom. Take it to the bank. You won’t find a better one.” We’re going with it. And we’re sorry, Winston-Salem.
England. America’s first opponent reminds us a lot of the Kentucky program from the last couple of years. England has a proud history, a crazed but phenomenal fan base, and some titles in their past, but have posted some disappointing results in recent World Cups while playing under coaches that might not have been good fits for such a high-pressure job. Kentucky went through a similar phase from 2007-2009 under Billy Gillispie, but hope returned when a new coach of Italian descent arrived in the form of John Calipari (for England, it’s Fabio Capello) and loaded the team with exciting young stars and turned things around for them instantaneously. Like Kentucky last season, England is one of the top teams in this tournament and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they won it all. Also like last year’s Wildcats, England are fielding a much more exciting team this time, with their version of John Wall being Wayne Rooney, a fierce competitor, great scorer, and exemplary teammate, not to mention a fellow who will gladly sacrifice his body to score, or assist on one. Similar to Wall, Rooney might be considered the best player in the game…were it not for just that one other guy (the aforementioned Messi, in the role of Evan Turner). And the recent English soccer infidelity scandal involving John Terry and Wayne Bridge makes this whole Eric Bledsoe nonsense look like a jaywalking ticket. Maybe we should have chosen Louisville.
Ivory Coast. I know…who? Don’t kid yourself, the Elephants (niiiice) have been an emerging soccer nation for a while, now, and this was a World Cup in which they were expected to break through and do some real damage. A lot of experts picked them to go as far as the Final Four, er, I mean, semifinals. But you’ll note my use of the past tense, there. That’s because they are the 2010 World Cup version of the Cincinnati Bearcats from the 1999-2000 season. You recall that that UC team had Kenyon Martin, a fierce, physical specimen of a player who was thought to be the best player in the game at that time, expected to take his team pretty doggone far. Then he broke his leg on the virtual eve of the NCAA Tournament. Those who don’t consider Lionel Messi the best player in the world say that it’s either Wayne Rooney, or Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba. Unfortunately for the Ivorians, Drogba also suffered a bad fracture — to his elbow, in this case — a mere eleven days before his side’s first game. And like Martin’s Bearcats from 2000, Drogba’s squad is now considered to be pretty much toast, their chances of advancing far into the tournament all but gone. Incidentally, Drogba had emergency surgery and is actually going to try to play, but that experiment will unfortunately end with the first hit on that plates-and-pins rigged elbow.
Spain. They’re currently the world #2, but they’re the team everyone’s picking to win it. If you took last year’s Kansas and Syracuse teams and made an all-star team out of it, you got Spain. Like both of those teams last season, Spain can get scoring from any position, except maybe from defender and captain Carles Puyol. I wouldn’t leave Xavi, David Villa, Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas, or Andres Iniesta open past the midfield line. The problem is, like Cole Aldrich, Wesley Johnson, and Sherron Collins, they’ll use their size and/or speed to create their own scoring space regardless of what you do, unless they allow you to bring a baseball bat, and even that might not do it. Like our KU/SU all-star team parallel, there just aren’t any weaknesses, here — the second team would contain starters for most other squads. Ridiculous athletes? Check. Gorgeous passing? Check. Scoring ability? Double check. Coaching? Check. Most experts feel you can go ahead and write the check for La Furia Roja (awesome, again). Of course, that’s what we thought about Kansas last season…which is why we threw Syracuse in there.
Germany. Die Mannschaft (that’s the national team’s name…yeah, I know, right?!?) always exceeds expectations, no matter what they look like leading up to any World Cup. Even if they look mediocre on paper, they’ll do better than that. You can count on it. For this cup, they’ve got a core group of three fine players — Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski up by the goal, and a midfielder with what we consider the best and likely most fear-inducing name in the tournament: Bastian Schweinsteiger — with some good role players surrounding them. This brings to mind Tom Izzo of the Cleveland Cavaliers and his Michigan State program, a bunch that always seems to do better than people think they will even though they might look ordinary in the regular season and Big Ten Tournament. Also, they lost the former Big Ten Player of the Year to injury when Kalin “Cool Hand” Lucas suffered that awful Achilles tendon rupture against Maryland in the Tournament last year; Germany also lost their most important player, Michael Ballack (nicknamed the “Little Kaiser”), to an ankle injury back in mid-May, and he won’t be playing in South Africa. Still, like the Spartans in any NCAA Tournament, you’d be a doofus to ignore Germany.
Brazil. The current top-ranked team in the world. Out of the 18 World Cups that have been played, only seven countries can claim to have ever won the title. Brazil has five Cups, the most of anyone, and two of the last four. They are constantly loaded with stars, on-the-ball magicians of the highest order. We’ll go ahead and say that they’re “led” by midfielder Kaka, striker Luis Fabiano, and one of the top defenders in the world in Lucio, but the reality is there’s not one player on the Brazil side who can’t put it in the net. Each one of them can kill you. It would be easy to compare Brazil with UCLA, since each has the most titles in their respective sport. But Brazilian coach Dunga couldn’t carry Ben Howland’s jock if he had a wheelbarrow. And we won’t even mention him in the same sentence as John Wooden. No, if we remove this past season, Brazil reminds us of North Carolina — rich in tradition, two recent titles, constantly talented at every position, always possessive of great depth, and an automatic first- or second-favorite to win any tournament in which they find themselves. By the way, most Brazilian players are mononymic because Portuguese names can be pretty darn long (Kaka’s real name is Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite), so that’s what that’s about.
Netherlands. A national side with a proud and illustrious history (but no World Cup titles), this year’s Netherlands team is loaded with goal scorers possessing laser-knife accuracy, namely Arjen Robben (who’s 26, looks 40, but plays with the passion and speed of 19), Wesley Sneijder, and that bully Dirk Kuyt. And we think Robin van Persie still has some goals in him. Despite the loads of skill at both ends, almost nobody’s talking about them, and they also have a pretty easy draw, all things considered. The parallel may break down as far as the titles are concerned, but otherwise this sounds a lot like last year’s Duke Blue Devils — overflowing with talent, getting blamed for an easy draw, and ignored without good reason. And, like some recent Blue Devil teams, the Netherlands has a little recent history of bowing out of the big tournament earlier than expected. We saw what Coach K’s team thought about that last year, though, didn’t we?
USA. This is a tough one, because of the obvious bias. We won’t expound on why soccer has yet to take off in the US as much as people seem to keep predicting it will; that’s for another time and another blog. Soccer in America is still a work in progress, but this year’s side has got more talent than some of the international experts are letting on, and they’ll be one of the fitter teams in the competition. Striker Jozy Altidore has something like -13% body fat, defender Oguchi Onyewu has a suspect knee but looks like he could go a few rounds with Floyd Mayweather, Landon Donovan is becoming one of the world’s finest midfielders (and was once married to Bianca Kajlich, so props, brother), the versatile Clint Dempsey tends to rise up and score right when you think he’s literally sleeping, and goalie Tim Howard is one of the world’s best at his position. It’s tough to think of an analogous college basketball team, and people aren’t going to like this, but we’ll call them last year’s Northern Iowa squad. Dangerous if they’re on, and capable of one big upset, but the best-case realistic scenario is the Sweet 16. We hope we’re wrong.
ESPN has brought in a cadre of Englishmen to call the games on TV (actually, Derek Rae is Scottish, not English…we saw Braveheart), a decision that has rankled some American fans. But it all depends on how you look at it. If you’re someone who thinks America deserves the best, that’s what you’ve got here with this crew:
Martin Tyler — Named the Commentator of the Decade by the English Premier League. In terms of where he stands in terms of the history of the game, we’d parallel him with Brent Musberger during the CBS days. Dan Shulman also comes to mind, as he’s probably moved up to the level of the top announcer in college hoops in recent years. He’ll be objective while doing USA vs England on Saturday, you can count on that. His delivery is as soothing as morphine, and he won’t have a Dick Vitale to contend with in the booth. We’d actually pay double to hear a Tyler/Vitale booth for UNC vs Duke. Actually, we take that back. No we wouldn’t.
Adrian Healey — Probably our favorite of the group. He’s a tad younger, and he comes across less like a schoolteacher and more like a friend of yours who’s talking only to you and nobody else while calling a game. Sounds like he’s genuinely surprised by any goal, as if he’s never seen one before, but it’s great. If you were ever going to get a Bill Raftery-like call of “Les Onions!” during, say, a France vs Mexico tilt, this would be the guy. But that won’t happen. You’ll still like him.
Derek Rae — Mr. Rae can be a puzzler. At times it seems like he gets a little too comfy and when that happens, he can lapse into a monotone. Even when a goal is scored, you’ll wonder if he’s rooting for the other team, since he never gets too excited about it. When you listen to him, though, don’t sweat the intonation — concentrate on the content. Nobody does their homework like this guy. He even calls embassies to make sure he knows how to properly pronounce players’ names. His knowledge of soccer is encyclopedic. When he’s on the mic, you’ll enjoy the call despite the lack of variance in volume, and you’ll learn something. In this way, he reminds us of Len Elmore. Mr. Elmore isn’t an excitable guy when he does color commentary, but he’s probably the most insightful. He’s one of the best college basketball announcers out there, and it’s because of what he says, not the volume with which he says it, even though he’s even better when he gets fired up about something.
Ian Darke — Here’s another man capable of giving us a Raftery moment. Darke can bring you out of your seat with his excitability, so hold onto your chair if a particularly sweet goal is scored. If you’ve ever watched an English League game, it’s probably his or Tyler’s voice that you’ve heard. Understand, please, that these comparisons are relative, but Darke sometimes reminds us of Kevin Harlan and his crazy inflections and one-liners at big moments. Like Harlan, he likes filling most of the space in a broadcast, and he has no problem yelling at you.
Andres Cantor — You know him. “GOOOOOOOOOOOAL!!!!” Yeah, that’s him. Unfortunately, he’ll only be on the radio, and in Spanish. If you can understand him, you’d be hearing the Gus Johnson of soccer. Which would be phenomenal.
Keep in mind, this is a college basketball blog. We don’t even know if what’s written above is coherent. We just took what we know about these teams and personalities and made connections with what we really know, which is college roundball. So don’t be making any special trips to the ATM after reading this, unless you’re betting opposite what we say.
So, disclaimer out of the way, here we go: we’ll take England over Mexico in a seriously close quarterfinal, and the Netherlands surprising the holy living caipirinhas out of Brazil in the other quarter on that side. On the other end, we’ll take Tim Duncan and Argentina over Tom Izzo’s Germany side, and Spain’s La Furia Roja over Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions in a battle of great nicknames (Cameroon wins that one if it were nicknames only, though). That gives us Netherlands over England is the first Final Four matchup, and call us crazy, but we’re taking the Oranje (that’s Holland). Then it’s Spain over Argentina in the other Final Four bout.
It would be the safe play to take Spain in the final…but where’s the fun in that? We’re going with the Netherlands to pull the shocker. It wasn’t a shock when Duke won in Indianapolis a few months ago, but as far as the tournament as a whole, the similarities are there. They’re talented at every spot, deep, have scorers who can light up the scoreboard and defenders who can turn out your lights. They’re well-coached. The road in won’t be very difficult, and despite all that, nobody will really talk about them until they actually get close to winning it. If they actually get there and knock off the Spaniards, it would be closer to Villanova over Georgetown, but what the hell. The Netherlands will be singing “One Shining Moment” on July 11th — or some strange-sounding version thereof.
And that pick has nothing to do with the fact that the administrative assistant here at the RTC Southern Compound is a knockout babe from Maastricht.
Enjoy the World Cup, fellow college basketball fans…now that you can.