Yesterday, we encouraged anyone unfamiliar with soccer to watch as many games as possible before World Cup starts in six days. Now, before we go any further, we should acknowledge something upfront: the United States is probably (definitely) not going to win the tournament. Right now, oddsmakers have the U.S. Men's National Team's odds at hoisting the World Cup trophy between 150- and 300-to-1. What's worse, the U.S. may not even advance out of the first round.
For the uninitiated, the first round of the World Cup is divided into eight groups of four team that play a round-robin format, with the top two teams advancing. Every year, one group is deemed the "Group of Death" because the luck of the draw has put three or more very talented teams in a group.
This year, the U.S. is in the "Group of Death" with Portugal, Germany and Ghana. Portugal has arguably the best player in the world in Christiano Ronaldo, Germany has made the semi-finals of the last two tournaments and Ghana knocked out the U.S. from the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. Now, the USMNT is no slouch and has pulled off some incredible feats before (see above) but anyone watching this year's tournament should do so with measure expectations.
This is all a long way of saying that if you're only watching the World Cup to see how the U.S. does, chances are you won't be watching for long. And that would be a shame because you would be missing out on some incredible soccer, not to mentnion some juicy off-the-field drama. So without further ado, here are three teams (one from each continent) to watch and keep you entertain after the U.S.' inevitable loss.
1 - Brazil - This seems like an obvious/bandwagon choice seeing as how they're the host nation, odds-on-favorite and already have more World Cups that any other country, but here me out. Brazilians invented the beautiful game and, on the pitch (that soccer-speak for "field"), you'd be hard-pressed to find a more creative and free-flowing team than the Brazilians.
But beyond the seleçao's fortunes on the field, the real reason to follow the Brazilian team is all the drama that's occurring off of it. Did you know that a majority of Brazilians think hosting the tournament is a mistake? Or that many of the facilities for hosting the tournament are laughably behind schedule? Or that Brazil's own professional soccer leagues are struggling to play games? Or that, for the most part, the World Cup represents the latest in a long history of government corruption and mistreatment of the country's poor?
There is a chance that if the Brazilian team doesn't win the tournament, that it could lead to a riots and general mayhem throughout the country. Hell, there's a chance that could happen even if Brazil wins. Either way, the pressure on the players will make for some high-stakes drama.
2 - Spain - Another favorite to win the World Cup, defending champions Spain has also faced its fare share of civic unrest. If ever there has been proof that sports aren't always great motivators of social change, La Furia Roja has won the last three major international tournaments it has played in and, somehow, the Spanish economy has continued to flounder. Things have gotten so bad that the Spanish king recently abdicated the throne after over a year of pressure.
What's worse for Spain is that they are a team on decline, their best players are on the wrong side of 30 and no European team has ever won a World Cup played in the Americas. So why watch them? Because whether they win this tournament or not, this team will go down as one of the greatest international teams in history and that alone is worth watching.
3 - Ivory Coast - No African team has ever won the World Cup and, unfortunately, this may not be the continents lucky year either. But for the last few tournaments, the continents' best hope for a World Cup champion has been the Ivory Coast. Unfortunately, the Black Elephants haven't lived up to expectations and have failed to make it past the group stage in the past two tournaments (both times, they were placed in Groups of Death like the U.S. this year).
This is a shame because of all the African teams, the Ivory Coast has the most European League players and, on paper, should have a good shot of advancing far into the tournament. And if any country needs a pick-me-up, it's the Ivory Coast which just last year ousted a president who's been accused of basically robbing the country. If the Ivory Coast advance far in the tournament, this could be the feel-good story of this year's World Cup.
BONUS TEAM - France - At the 2010 World Cup, France had one of the most epic and embarrassing flameouts in the history of the tournament that included, and this is still crazy four years later, the players going on strike. But don't sleep on Les Bleus, as they have shown they are consistent only in their inconsistency. After winning the World Cup on home soil in 1998, the French were knocked out in the first round of the 2002 tournament. They followed that up by reaching the 2006 Final, which was marred by Zinedine Zidane's infamous head butt (seen above). Then there was the aforementioned disaster in 2010.
Does this mean that France is poised for another run at the championship game? Honestly, nobody seems to know. But remember that it was the French that founded New Orleans and that's reason enough to cheer them on.