Many favorites but one winner.
With the World Cup just a month away, I figured that writing a preview might be the best thing I could do. With some of the finest players in the world all descending on Brazil in just under a month, this is really the best chance to measure what’s going on and see where we are. The trouble with this understanding of it is that, quite honestly, a lot can change and has changed between the last major international tournaments and now.
Teams who looked unimpressive and staggered to lower seeds are now in perfect position for a run that reminded us all of how good they were. Think France in 1998, or Italy in 2006 for an idea of what I’m talking about. And as we learned, and will continue to learn, sometimes those teams with glittering high seeds show up and have their doors blown off. Think England for the past two decades on that end of things. The point of all of this is to say that we know one thing for sure, for absolutely certain: We don’t know anything. What we think we know, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter.
(Photo Credit: Elise Amendola\AP)
They’ll be no more of these moments.
1: Landon Donovan not making the 23-man roster for the US World Cup Team is both the end of an era, and the start of another one.
The End Of An Era.
It’s difficult to overstate this, in an era where overstatement comes as easy as it ever has maybe, but Landon Donovan is the greatest player in US Soccer history. And he is not coming with the rest of the 23-man team to Brazil. This is the equivalent of Kobe not getting invited to the last Olympics, or Michael Phelps not being on the USA Swimming team. Not so much because he’s unquestionably one of the 23 best US-born soccer players in the world right now, but because he is someone whom could provide valuable veteran leadership and a steadying hand to a team that is awfully young and inexperienced at handling the type of pressure that comes with heading to the World Cup. Now while some of the more analytically-inclined among you might very well point out that things such as this are merely fever dreams of sportswriters, I would counter that theory with the following point:
That is the most important goal in US Soccer history.
And if nothing else, if he can provide nothing else, having the guy around who can remind those young guys wearing Old Glory what the difference is between where they are now and where the country was just 3 short World Cups ago is a vital thing. But with his departure from the world stage, this is no longer his team anymore. His specter no longer is there, haunting everyone with what used to be. This is the team of Jozy Altidore now, of Clint Dempsey, and increasingly of Michael Bradley. It’s also the team of all of those young guys molded by the US Development Team. We will now find out if the future is really as bright as we have been told it is.
2: By the end of this, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi will either be being feted for finally knocking the monkey off of their back or questioned loudly and vociferously for somehow managing to be the 2 best players in the world and yet not having a signature World Cup moment.
(Photo Credit: AFP)
Dos Gran Reyes (the Two Grand Kings).
It seems odd to say it out loud, and yet the truth of it somehow dulls the oddness. Between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi we have two players who have accomplished everything that a soccer player could accomplish individually. And yet, for all of their undeniable greatness, something is missing. What, you might be asking? They are missing their “eater of worlds” World Cup run. Every other player who they have been compared with, every single one (insert bold here), has had that run where they seemed unstoppable. Diego Maradona had his in 1986. Ronaldo had two in 1998 and 2002. We’re still waiting for Cristiano and Lionel to have theirs.
In fact, truth be told, Messi has it the worst out of the two of them. Why, you might be asking? The answer is Maradona. He lurks, as well as it is for him to lurk anywhere considering he has a seeming addiction to finding the spotlight, and in so doing reminds Argentina of their greatest victories. And every time he appears, popping up like some whack-a-soccer legend, he can’t help but remind those hardcore Argentine fans, the sort who still fetishize 1986 in the same way Knicks fans fetishize the 1990’s, what Messi isn’t.
So until Messi can give them what they want, what they have had so many years ago and would like to have again, they will never love him unconditionally as they do Maradona. Simply put, while he might be heroic at this very moment, he will never become the hero Maradona is. And perhaps, even after he gives them what they want, he will never be the figure Maradona is.
3: Because of the sheer number of quality contenders to win the whole thing, it feels odd and dangerous potentially to pick a winner here.
Let’s be clear. A tournament that is every 4 years, and wholly dependent on whether or not you can create chemistry in what is essentially off-time, is not usually the domain of the teams favored coming into it. There might reasonably be exceptions in this model, as there are exceptions in everything, but rare is the time where we can say the team that was the favorite coming in to the tournament ended it holding the trophy. And it’s with that thought in mind that I make this promise: I’m not picking a winner. Not just because I have no desire to have my twitter mentions turn into the towering inferno, but also because I don’t know enough about this tournament and what’s going to happen to really make a statement with anything approaching certainty.
And since that’s true, I’ll leave you with this. If you root for one of the traditional favorites, this is a great two weeks. If you ride for a dark horse, hope and pray things go well. And if you’re for the lowest-ranked team here, Vaya Con Dios.
I’ll see you back here when this is over.