Following the FIFA World Cup is an experience rivalled only by the Open Bar and the Mile High Club. Sure, the Olympics are both bigger and more respectable as an event, but nothing captures our collective imagination like the FIFA World Cup. What happens at the World Cup is the stuff of legends and is retold in folklore for ages to come. Previous World Cups have brought us stars like Pelé, who was so astonishingly talented that every other super-athlete will be measured against his persona forever. Michael Jordan was the Pelé of basketball, Wayne Gretzky the Pelé of ice hockey.
In the 1986 World Cup, in the aftermath of the Falkland Islands dispute, Argentina and England met in the quarterfinals in front of 115,000 spectators in Mexico City. Five minutes into the scoreless second half, Argentina’s Diego Armando Maradonna pounced on a failed pass back to England’s goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Maradonna beat Shilton to the ball but clearly used his hand in the process, although this went unnoticed by the game’s referee.
Five minutes later, Maradonna eluded five England players to score what many consider the best goal in the World Cup history. Argentina subsequently won the game 2-1 and went on to claim the tournament trophy. After the game, Maradonna insisted the ball had been aided by ‘the hand of God’, a phrase that has since entered the pop culture lexicon. The incident had a more lasting effect on the relationship between the two nations than the Falkland Islands war.
This year’s competition is hosted by international football powerhouse Germany, runners-up in the last World Cup in 2002. The games will be played in Berlin, Cologne, Dortmund, Frankfurt, Gelsenkirchen, Hamburg, Hannover, Kaiserslautern, Leipzig, Munich, Nuremberg and Stuttgart.
Going into the competition, the boys from Brazil look like the team to beat. They are the current champions, and have won two of the last three World Cups. With Ronaldinho, arguably the world’s best player, fronting a team that consists of spectacular stars like Kaká and Adriano and savvy veterans such as Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, this might be the most combined talent on a single team in any sport since the USA’s Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Not surprisingly, Brazil remains a heavy favourite to defend its title among oddsmakers.
England fields its strongest team in decades built around the midfield of Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and David Beckham. With a midfield like this, the English team is a force to be reckoned with. However, their attack remains suspect and the team is shrouded in controversy over the situation surrounding the eminent departure of the team’s manager, Sven-Göran Eriksson.
After coming up short in both the last World Cup and the last Euro Finals, France looks like it is back on track. ‘Les Blues’ are still able to field some of the world’s most prominent players in Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry. This is an experienced team that no one should be sleeping on.
Argentina will make a push for the title as well. With players like Javier Saviola and Pablo Aimar spearheading a talented team, it is still probably too young and inexperienced to go the full distance. In addition, Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic and even Holland and Sweden have an outside shot of going far, although none of them could realistically be considered a likely bet to take home the trophy.
At the end of the day, home court advantage is the mother of all advantages. My official pick to win it all is Germany. In 1974, the last time the FIFA World Cup visited (then West) Germany, the hosts secured the title in a dramatic victory over Holland. I predict the Germans will repeat that accomplishment behind the talent of Michael Ballack and Sebastian Schweinsteiger, among others. You read it here first. Germany takes the World Cup.