Today is the first day of the world's most-watched sporting event (except in America) -- the World Cup. As I noted here, the US got pounded by FIFA's ridiculous seeding and slotting system and is in the toughest group of the eight. Each team plays every other team in its group once, the top two teams from each group go to the 16-team knockout stage (one-match playoff).
Some notes on the competition: (1) no European team has won a World Cup hosted outside of Europe, only one non-European team (Brazil 1958) has ever won in Europe; (2) host nations have won about 33% of the Cups. This year's host nation is Germany, which won the Cup in 1990 and lost the Final to Brazil in 2002.
Easily the best part of the competition is the hate: English fans will continually chant about WWII while tromping through German streets; the English and Argentines have a rivalry spurred by the Falklands War and Argentina's mysterious ability to beat the English (1986, 1990) in knockout games. Look for lots of parties in Warsaw
if Poland beats Germany next week. Any European country that beats the Germans will have colossal celebrations -- all the Europeans hate the Germans.
After the group stage, the playoffs go like this (fill in the bracket borders in your mind):
Group A #1 - Group B #2
B1 - A2
C1 - D2
D1 - C2
E1 - F2
F1 - E2
G1 - H2
H1 - G2
Without further Adu, here are The Monk's predictions:
GROUP A: Germany, Poland, Ecuador, Costa Rica
Not a complete cakewalk for the Germans, but a favorable draw. Costa Rica is overmatched and is Germany's warmup today. I'm hoping the Poles whack the Germans next week.
GROUP B: England, Sweden, Paraguay, Trinidad & Tobago
Easy pickings for the English and the Swedes, two of Europe's better teams. Justice means that the two will face each other first, not last. The English are one of the best squads here and could win the tournament -- and that would be pretty awesome for England to conquer Germany yet again. Much depends on the health of Michael Owen (good) and Wayne Rooney (unknown). Paraguay is a dark horse and could top the Swedes. T&T is overmatched.
GROUP C: Netherlands, Argentina, Ivory Coast, Serbia & Montenegro
One of the two "group of death" groups: CONMEBOL runner-up and powerhouse Argentina plus two UEFA group winners in S&M (which topped a group that included Spain) and World #3 Netherlands. The Dutch are extremely good and Argentina believes it has its best team since the Cup winners in '86. After Argentina's complete honk in 2002, much is expected. Poor Ivory Coast, in its first ever Cup.
GROUP D: Mexico, Portugal, Angola, Iran
This is why Mexico getting one of the eight top seeds -- the US credentials are better and the blasted Mexicans get this candy-a** draw. Portugal may be Mexico's equal, but who cares b/c the top two go through and the other teams cannot compete. Neither is good enough to survive Netherlands or Argentina in the knockout stages.
GROUP E: Italy, USA, Czech Republic, Ghana
Some good team here will honk and The Monk is betting on the Czechs (not least of all because he's an American). This is the toughest group: Italy is top-15 in the world and its history landed it a "seed" more than recent results; nonetheless, the Azzurri always do enough to get to the playoff rounds, then put on a run. The Czechs have no World Cup pedigree, but they are #2 in the World (even though Netherlands beat the Czechs twice in UEFA qualifying and won that group). The US won CONCACAF. The Ghanaians are fresh meat but have talent (Michael Essien -- plays for English Premier League champ Chelsea). The US needs to whip Ghana and either pull off two draws (ties) or beat the Czechs. This is rough going for the US. Expect one team to go 2-1, two teams to go 1-1-1 and the last place finisher to go 1-2. There are a lot of storylines here too -- will Italy's stars be affected by the investigation of corruption in Serie A, will the Czechs be another high-level flame out (France, Portugal, Argentina 2002), will the US be able to beat a European team in Europe?
GROUP F: Brazil, Croatia, Australia, Japan
A stroll in the park for Brazil, whose second-team could win most groups. Croatia is tough but Australia is the dark horse -- all of its players have European professional experience, most in top leagues (English Premier, Serie A, Spanish Primera) and the Aussies knocked off South American contender Uruguay to get this far. Japan is not bad but won't get the friendly treatment it received when it cohosted in 2002.
GROUP G: France, Switzerland, South Korea, Togo
If the SoKors can play as tough as they did at home in '02, this becomes interesting because France is solid, but far down from 1998 and the Swiss are good, but not great. Problems for SoKorea = (1) Guus Hiddink, the manager who took the Koreans to the semifinals, is managing the Aussies; (2) no host-country favoritism from the refs like the horrid calls that enabled the SoKors to beat Italy in 2002.
GROUP H: Spain, Ukraine, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia
Spain is a perennial underachiever and if Ukraine and Tunisia make it out of this group, it would be hilarious. The Saudis cannot compete in this group. Ukraine was the first Euro team to qualify, and it'd be a surprise if it didn't advance.
Yes, my picks are Euro-heavy and safer bets but with good reason -- middling non-European teams have no chance in a Europe-based World Cup. And the top African squads (Ghana, Ivory Coast) are buried in the two toughest groups.
Here's the knockout stages:
Germany > Sweden
England > Poland
Netherlands > Portugal
Argentina > Mexico
Italy > Croatia
Brazil > USA
Ukraine > France
Swiss > Spain
England > Germany
Netherlands > Argentina
Brazil > Italy
Ukraine > Swiss
England > Netherlands
Brazil > Ukraine
England > Brazil
It can happen.
But it probably won't.