The World Cup is but a couple of weeks away, and, if you are not trembling with anticipation, now is the time to start. There has never been a World Cup like the one about to take place in nine South African cities: For the first time ever, the greatest soccer tournament is being held in Africa. Soccer, an essentially populist game—requiring but a stretch of reasonably flat ground, around, kickable object, and anything as goal posts—has long been part of daily life in Africa, but now, African soccer will be smack in the center of the world stage.
The continent will be represented by six national teams full of world-class talent: Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and the host, South Africa. The talented players who have been mercilessly exported—often at cut-rate price—are coming back home, and one should reasonably expect the African teams to reach new heights. (No African team has placed higher in a World Cup than Cameroon in 1990: They heartbreakingly lost their quarterfinal game against England in overtime.)
Indeed, if the experience of the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan is anything to go by, the South African team—which is playing Mexico in the opening game on June 11—will be carried by the home fans’ euphoria and some flexible refereeing. Should they falter, the home fans’ support will doubtless be transferred to one of the other teams. Ivory Coast is the best in the African lot, what with superstars like Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, and the Touré brothers. But, besides being in a difficult group with Brazil and Portugal, they have the bad luck of being coached by the imagination and courage-free Sven Göran Eriksson, the former England coach. Despite Eriksson’s joy-killing shadow, the Brazil–Ivory Coast game on June 20 promises to be one of the highlights of the tournament.
When the preliminary World Cup squads were announced not so long ago, soccer lovers (and bookies) intensified the foreplay consisting of delicious prophecies and baseless punditry, whereby whimsical assessments of the teams traveling to South Africa are dispensed with impudence. No one, however, with any knowledge of soccer would be crazy enough to exclude Brazil from the short list of favorites. Nonetheless, the trepidation of many a Brazilian fan is focused on the coach, Dunga, who could not care less about placating the nervous fan.
Thus, he included neither the perpetually grinning Ronaldinho, who had a decent season with AC Milan, or the ever unpredictable Adriano. Dunga—which is Portuguese for “dopey”—is not given to fancy footwork and artistry, habitually expected from Brazilians and practiced by Ronaldinho and his samba ilk. As a crucial member of the 1994 Brazilian team, which won the World Cup held in the United States, Dunga was the midfield enforcer and played in a way that was considered thuggish and boring—an insult to soccer, according to the Brazilian press and fans. Dunga’s squad plays much as he used to; they’re tough, tactically disciplined, and very hard to score against. Focusing on defense and midfield, Dunga’s team will rely on breaking up the other team’s play and counterattacking at the blistering speed provided by Sevilla’s Luís Fabiano and/or Kaká,even if his first season with Real Madrid was middling at best. Brazil unfussily qualified for South Africa, and one should expect unspectacular consistency from Dunga’s team, which might easily take them all the way. But, if they fail to do so, expect Dunga’s effigies to be burned all across Brazil.
Spectacular inconsistency, on the other hand, is the story of Argentina and, indeed, their coach’s life. Diego Armando Maradona, arguably the greatest player of all time, became the national team coach in November 2008, after a tumultuous period in his life that included a gastric bypass surgery, a stint in drug rehab, a heart attack, and befriending Fidel Castro. During his reign, Maradona managed to call up more than 70 different players, lose 6-1 to the normally hapless Bolivia (which equaled the worst loss in Argentina’s history), and wreck the nerves of the jittery nation by waiting until injury time to beat lowly Peru in a decisive game, which he celebrated by sliding on his considerable belly along the rain-deluged pitch.
The place in South Africa was not ensured for Lionel Messi (hands-down the best player in the world) and his stellar compatriots until the eighty-fourth minute ofthe last qualification game against Uruguay. In the post-game press conference, feeling vindicated by the success, Maradona graciously told the press corps “to suck it and keep sucking it,” and he was subsequently suspended by fifa for two months, following which his dog bit his face. Maradona’s instability—some would be tempted to call it insanity—is visible in his team selection: the unbalanced defense, marked by the presence of chronic blunderers like Coloccini and aging players like Demichelis; the uneven midfield, short on passers (except for the aged Verón, who was lazy at his peak), inexplicably devoid of Inter’s Zanetti and Cambiasso, who carried Inter to Champions League victory and are the kind of players Dunga dreams about; and a set of blindingly brilliant forwards: “Kun” Agüero, Higuaín, Tévez, Milito, and, the greatest of all, Lionel Messi. Among the five of them they scored more than 150 goals this season, Messi alone scoring 47. Typically, Maradona was compelled to bring along another forward, Martín Palermo, who will celebrate his thirty-seventh birthday this year and whose main, and possibly only, quality is that he still plays for Boca Juniors, the club particularly dear to the coach’s heart.
Maradona’s penchant for the spectacular and farcical, coupled with a complete absence of tactical acumen (which made it very hard for Messi to score for the national team) makes Argentina a very long shot for the world champion title. But then. . . Maradona’s life is nothing if not a series of what-ifs inexplicably becoming reality. So: What if the team miraculously clicks together and the front line starts scoring according to its fantastic abilities? It’s a painfully titillating possibility.
If Argentina indeed overcomes the chaos in Maradona’s head and progresses deeper into the competition, it might run into Spain, the reigning European champions. Spain’s midfield is beyond awesome: Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas, Xabi Alonso, and David Silva, while its firepower is not at all inconsiderable in David Villa and Fernando Torres. The Spaniards have the advantage of having handily won the 2008 European Championship with the same core players. A brilliant generation has come of age, managing to overcome entirely the fear of success that had paralyzed many a talented Spanish team. But, to advance in the tournament, they might have to beat Italy, the reigning world champions, which they had quite a hard time doing in Euro 2008. The Italians lost on penalties, and it was by far the hardest game for the Spaniards.
The 2010 Italian team is led again by the genius of Marcello Lippi, who took them to the top of the world in 2006. His squad has aged considerably, consisting almost entirely of players who play in Italy’s Serie A—only the New Jersey–born Giuseppe Rossi plays in Spain. Lippi unsentimentally failed to call up Francesco Totti and the 2006 World Cup hero Fabio Grosso and has plenty of confidence in his team—anyone who is foolish enough to underestimate the Italians will do so at their peril. Few expected them to win last time, and, the next thing you knew, my barber was paying a nice chunk of money to hang the Italian national jersey, signed by all the world champion players, on the wall of his Chicago barbershop.
A touch of Italian magic might help England finally live up to the collective delusion that is usually triggered by their appearance in the World Cup—the British press and beer-soaked fans usually expect a shot at the title, only to witness a self-inflicted shot in the foot. Fabio Capello, their capable Italian coach, led them through a nearly flawless qualification campaign—they won all their games except the last, irrelevant match against Ukraine—and has instilled self confidence that, during Sven Göran Eriksson’s hapless mandate, was simultaneously overpronounced and fragile, always a sure symptom of a delusion-ofgrandeur infection. England’s problem is, as always, a short bench. The current squad is entirely dependent on Rio Ferdinand and John Terry in the back, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in the midfield, and Wayne Rooney up in front. If any of them goes down with an injury—and they’re all hurting considerably after a long and demanding season—Capello’s options are substantially limited.
The beauty of the World Cup (and life, for that matter) is that few things turn out the way you expect. Germany and France are impressive on paper but have, for years now, been playing haphazardly, nowhere near their reputation. Still, they should be reckoned with. Brazil might have to get by the unpredictable Netherlands, while Serbia, Chile, and the United States—who knows!—might spoil some already scheduled celebration parties.
Life is too short to miss any games to be played this summer in South Africa. A sad fact of human existence is that an average life seldom contains more than 20 World Cups—our games are tragically numbered.
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Lazarus Project and Love and Obstacles.
Aleksander Hemon is the author, most recently, of The Book of My Lives and The Matters of Life, Death, and More: Writing on Soccer.