FIFA is an especially grotesque specimen of vampire squid. Its kleptocrats have no apparent conscience about the mounds of corpses sacrificed to build a World Cup. When confronted with this body count, they become a model of bureaucratic dissembling. They even have the gumption to confront their accusers with absurd charges of racism. At FIFA, the run of play is bribery and cozy deals with vile dictators. Its method is the cash-filled envelope pushed across the Michelin-starred lunch table.
But there’s one thing that needs to be grudgingly said on this scummy organization’s behalf: Goddamn, does it know how to produce a spectacle.
Here’s what I love about the World Cup: the way it is sublimely paced for maximum pleasure. There’s the preamble, with the kids filling their sticker books and the endless study of African federations and the YouTube footage of unknown kids on the cusp of massive transfer deals. Then there’s the debate that follows the downsizing of rosters to 23 men—and speculation about the unhealed meniscus and tweaked hamstrings of great stars. Anticipation builds to the point where it can only be healthily dissipated with several weeks of non-stop matches.
This blog has become, for me at least, a treasured ritual of the World Cup. It started in 2006 as a low-fi affair. We joined up with Sasha Hemon, who, in turn, brought along the other members of his fantasy football league, Rabih Alameddine and Daniel Alarcón. There were international contributors like León Krauze and Alex Massie. At its purest, blogging is an activity of writers who can’t help but write. And that was the raison d’etre of the New Republic’s soccer blog: a home for the World Cup musings of novelists, intellectuals, and journalists who have an implacable compulsion.
This is our third iteration—the fourth if you count the one we did for Euro 2012—and the blog is higher tech. It’s a new New Republic, after all. We have a first-rate engineer on staff, Justen Fox, who shares our enthusiasm for the sport. He’s built us this fancy new page. And a few other bells and whistles have fallen into our lap. The terrific photojournalist Mathew Neiderhauser got a grant from the Pulitzer Center to produce a visual journal of the tournament, with a focus on how it will be experienced by Brazilians. He’s just landed in Sao Paulo. You’ll see his work shortly. There’s one other visual feature: The illustrator Simon Prades will quickly sketch the crucial moment of matches, just after they are complete.
But the essence of the blog remains our distinct brand of useless punditry. And in the cause of igniting discussion, I will hazard a few predictions that will quickly be exposed as ignorant:
The United States Will Cheat the Group of Death. Jürgen Klinsmann will take his bunch of largely mediocre players and provide them with a sensible system that permits them to play with sufficient competence to break American soccer’s Ghanaian curse. I like how he seems inclined to fill his team with holding midfielders to compensate for defensive weaknesses—and Michael Bradley will soon replace Landon Donovan in folklore. Meanwhile, Ronaldo is tired and hurt; he is containable as Atlético Madrid showed in the finals of the Champions League. (If Ronaldo were in peak form, I would be tempted to pick Portugal to win the whole thing.)
Bosnia Will Become Your New Favorite Team; They Are Already Ours. The Balkan wars happened nearly twenty years ago, yet they will reverberate strongly in this tournament. (And not just because Sasha will write for this blog!) Families from Bosnia and Kosovo were dispersed around the world and their kids are now reaching the primes of their soccer careers. Switzerland has benefited immensely from this diaspora—Shaqiri, Xhaka, Seferovic—and given the weakness of their group and the quality of their manager (Ottmar Hitzfeld), they have a chance at some glory. The Bosnian teams itself is a soul-warming story of a squad that overcame ethnic divisions to thrive. (I recommend Ed Vulliamy’s story of how Edin Dzeko united the country.) Bosnia plays a creative, freewheeling style of attacking football—despite drawing on a very limited talent pool—that is as compelling as its narrative.
Argentina Will Be Champions of the World. I find the tasking of picking a winner one of the most useless pieces of punditry. But it’s so much fun...There’s every reason to tout Brazil, even though they are hardly the best edition of Brazil. But I’m going with their despised neighbor. For starters, they don’t have the whacky tactics of Diego Maradona getting in their way this tournament. And by discarding Tevez, they have a system that allows Agüero, Di María, and Messi to fruitfully coexist and to potently counterattack. This is perhaps a slightly wishful pick: a desire to have Messi’s place in history validated with a trophy that will end all arguments.
So, dear bloggers, I have bravely issued my thunderous predictions. Now show me yours....