The World Cup is underway in Brazil and the result of the opening match was unsurprising, Brazil topping Croatia 3-1. There is much more to come, including Monday’s matches in the Group G, otherwise known as the “Group of Death.”
Roger Bennett, ESPN soccer expert and co-host of Men in Blazers joined Bill Littlefield to discuss the Cup so far.
BL: The host country is off to a good start, so good for everyone except Croatia?
RB: It was a good start, a little surprising. Croatia took the lead, and it was unclear who the best performer on the night was, whether it was Neymar, the charismatic No. 10 who plays for Brazil, or Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura who awarded, let’s say a slightly dodgy penalty that left the Croatians fuming, ‘There’s no point in playing this if FIFA wants Brazil to win so badly they should just give them the trophy right here, right now.”
BL: Let’s jump to Group G, wherein reside Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the U.S., all of which begin play on Monday. If the U.S. can’t get a result against Ghana will they have any shot of getting beyond group play?
RB: Absolutely. Group G is an unbelievably difficult hand that’s been handed to this team. They’re not just playing three incredible teams, they’re also travelling over 10,000 miles in between games and playing in ecosystems that range from microwave ovens to Heart of Darkness. But this is going to be a group where each team will take points off each other. And I have to tell you, this U.S. team is well-organized. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has them incredibly motivated, and they believe they’re going to take points off teams who won’t want to play them as much as the mighty Portugal [or] Germany. And Ghana has knocked them out of both of their tournaments. I believe they will get a result in that first game.
BL: There is a historical tendency for European teams to come up short in World Cups played in the Americas, and the last time I checked Germany and Portugal were located in Europe whereas the U.S. was not. So perhaps that will work to the U.S. team’s advantage?
RB: It’s a very funny statistic. There honestly have not been that many World Cups that have been played in South America, so it’s much bandied around but I think it means nothing. It’s going to be a World Cup. There will be one better squad that has the deepest bench, the most athletic players, and the ability to be tactically flexible. And you look at the German squad, and you look at the Spanish squad, who have the ability if they go back-to-back for the first time since 1962, throw in the two Euro championships, [to earn] their fourth major title in their run. And you’re looking at the kind of dynasty that’s Boston Celtics 1950-60. It’s that enormous.
BL: Argentinian star Lionel Messi is considered to be at the top of his game, but the pressure on him and on his team must be almost as great as the pressure Brazil is facing.
RB: The knock on him is that he’s undoubtedly, over the past 10 years, the world’s best player. Barcelona wobbled this season, he had a stop-start season nicked by injuries, [Cristiano] Ronaldo trumped him with the Player of the Year award, and he’s never really done it in an Argentinian shirt. Last time he was stymied by Maradona’s tactics, Diego Maradona who was Rob Ford before there was a Rob Ford, but this time they’ve made him the star of the team. He’s a fulcrum of an attacking team with defensive questions, they have a very forgiving opening round group, they don’t have to travel much. If Argentina do win the World Cup in Brazil, their heated rival, it may just be the end of history.
BL: It sounds like you’re very keen on Spain and Germany. Who else do you think we’re likely to see in the semifinals?
RB: I’m very bullish about the United States. I’ve followed them for the past 100 days making a behind-the-scenes documentary for ESPN, and I’ve had a recurring dream for the past six months of seeing them lift the trophy, July 13th. Failing that–I have to say, my dreams could be shattered–but rationally, if I had to make a pick I would go Lionel Messi and Argentina. The one thing I can say for sure, Bill: anybody but England.