The NBA season may have just come to a close, but fortunately the first month of the usually dreary offseason coincides with the biggest sporting event on the planet. If you’ve been too fixated on the Lakers’ pick and roll defense and Doc Rivers’ substitution patterns to do your proper homework, here’s a World Cup guide specifically tailored to hoops junkies. And if you’re ever stuck in an elevator with Pau Gasol or Luis Scola, you’ll have something to talk about besides how tall they are.
We’ll start with a breakdown of the contenders (current bookmakers’ odds of winning in parentheses):
Argentina (4/1) are Jeff Van Gundy’s Knicks
Expectations are always high for Argentina, both because of past success and the world-class talent the nation churns out. Their challenge at every World Cup is to harness the team’s passion and the fervor it produces. They can beat anybody, but can also implode at any stage of a competition. Argentina’s star man is reigning FIFA Player of the Year Lionel Messi, but the team is built around a defensive spine including veteran centre-back Walter Samuel (nicknamed The Wall) and feisty midfielder Javier Mascherano, who in his own mind has never committed a foul. The mercurial team is managed by Diego Maradona (pictured), one of the game’s all-time greatest players and all-time biggest headcases. Win or lose, they’ll entertain.
Brazil (5/1) are The Gasol-Era Lakers
At every World Cup, Brazil can either leave as champions or as failures. There’s no in-between. The expectations are the same this year, but the approach has changed slightly under new manager Dunga. Old incarnations could be counted on not just to win, but do it with style. The current roster was built around elements that aren’t traditionally associated with the Brazilian team: size, physicality, defense. Yes, they still have marquee names (Kaká, Robinho, and Maicon among them), but this team was built to grind. After winning just one paltry World Cup out of the last 3, their fans will take what they can get.
Spain (5/1) are Mark Cuban’s Mavericks
Consistently tipped to be contenders, Spain always field a team of world-class players but have a tendency to underachieve on the game’s biggest stage. This year, they bring the most stacked teamsheet in the tournament, with elite players all over the park, including goalkeeper Iker Casillas, midfield genius Xavi, and goal-scoring forwards David Villa and Fernando Torres. Of course, if talent alone won games, Spain would have more Cup success to tell of than their one semifinal appearance in 1950.
The Netherlands (6/1) are D’Antoni’s Suns
The Dutch compete with Brazil for the mantle of Everyone’s Second Favorite Team, and with Spain as the Best Team Never to Win. It all comes down to their style: free-flowing and offensive, they’re fun to watch, but a lack of tactical emphasis on defense may mean they’re doomed to simply come close. Their catalyst is Wesley Sneijder, a diminutive attacking midfielder who senses movements before they occur and unleashes blistering long-range shots when defenders back off him to defend the pass.
Germany (9/1) are Duncan’s Spurs
International soccer may be characterized by creativity, passion, and flair, but the German national team does a great job of perpetuating national stereotypes by bringing a level-headed, calculating approach to the game, one based on limiting mistakes and capitalizing on the errors of opponents. Their consistent success is met by groans from those who call their formula boring, but if it was easy everyone would do it–in all but one World Cup they’ve entered, Germany has advanced past the first round.
England (10/1) are The Jail Blazers
England are high on talent and low on chemistry, a team of stars that have never figured out how to play with one another. They had an impressive qualifying campaign, but the story that got them the most press this past year was then-captain John Terry having an affair with left back Wayne Bridge’s wife. The team’s other big names, including Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, and Ashley Cole, have also had trouble staying out of the tabloids. This current crop of players might be England’s best ever (some refer to it as the team’s Golden Generation), but they’ve accomplished little of note as a team. Some blame the English Premier League’s grueling schedule, some the coaching, while others point to fluky occurrences that sunk the team’s chances in major tournaments. But the most likely reason? They just don’t like each other.
Italy (14/1) are The Big 3-Era Celtics
Granted, they won it all in ’06, but few are giving Italy much of a chance in this year’s Cup. They’re old (regulars Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, Mauro Camoranesi, and Gianluca Zambrotta are all comfortably into their 30’s) and in recent matches have displayed a lack of passion, ideas, or both. The plan, it would seem, is to switch on the intensity when it matters and then ride their famously cagey defense as long as it will take them. It might sound like a prayer, but it’s worked for them before.
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