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The World Cup draw went without a hitch, surviving even the awkward chemistry of its hosts, a wooden Charlize Theron and FIFA's resident smoothie, general secretary Jerome Valcke. Theron is unlikely to receive a best supporting actress nomination for her performance. No matter. It will soon be forgotten. The draw itself is the only thing that will be remembered as it is all we have to sustain us -- and these six questions to ponder -- over the next six months:
1. Is the U.S. laughing on the inside?
U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley should sign up for the World Series of Poker right now. Friday's forgiving draw should have made him one of the happiest men in the room, but he barely broke his poker face. After being matched with seed England and two of the tournament's thinner squads, Algeria and Slovenia, the best he could manage was to begrudgingly admit that his team had "a real fair chance to move on." News just in: Not only can the U.S. do it, it really should.
The U.S. game in Rustenberg, South Africa, on June 12 against the Three Lions will receive all of the hype. Prepare to become overexposed to this story: The last time the two teams met in World Cup play was in Brazil in 1950. Then, as now, the English were considered a world power. The U.S. team was a ragtag 500-to-1 outsider. In what is considered as one of the greatest upsets of all time, America's Haitian-born striker, Joe Gaetjens, a part-time dishwasher by profession, headed in the only goal of the game against the run of play.
In today's media-saturated world, the team would be lionized. A requisite Disney version of its against-all-odds victory would hit movie screens around the same time Gaetjens cropped up on the front of a Wheaties box. But in 1950, soccer barely registered on the American radar: only one U.S. journalist witnessed the victory live and the team arrived home without fanfare, as anonymously as it had left. Bradley will be hoping that history will repeat itself, although, in reality, it does not need to. A combination of a win and a draw against outsiders Slovenia and Algeria should secure passage into the elimination round and the coach will spend the next few months preparing his squad for a very different challenge to the one his players had imagined.
2. Do the French have the luck of the Irish?
The Argentinians, Italians and Dutch will all toast the draw, but French coach Raymond Domenech is undoubtedly the luckiest man in world soccer today. On Wednesday, FIFA shunted his team out of the seedings, a move many considered retaliation for Les Bleus' blatant disregard of the rule book in the playoffs against Ireland. If that was the case, Friday's draw proved that crime does pay. The French became a de facto seed as they joined Mexico and Uruguay in landing with South Africa, a team so poor that its opponents' greatest fear might be the 90,000 vuvuzelas that will deafen them as they play.
French coach Domenech has long been a quixotic character who has strangely retained his job despite alienating French players, media and fans alike. He has publically admitted using tarot cards and astrological signs to influence past team selections, factors which might have contributed to the mediocre team performances he has coaxed from a squad loaded with talent. The draw will give his team a confidence boost it badly needs to jump-start its campaign and perhaps give Domenech the opportunity to revisit his Yogi Berra-esque position on fate. In 2008 he used a pregame press conference to announce, "I am not superstitious, it brings bad luck."
3. Could this be the best indicator 2010 will not be England's year?
British bookmakers reacted to the draw by instantly cutting England's odds to win the World Cup to 5-to-1, installing the team as the tournament's second favorite behind Spain. Expect national hysteria to ensue. Within 24 hours, tabloid newspaper The Sun, proclaimed U.S., Algeria and Slovenia to be the "Best English Group Since The Beatles." The rest of the English newspapers will soon be dominated by photo shoots of proud team captain John Terry posing with a British bulldog, cloaked in a cross of St. George flag, while proclaiming We Can Win It All! The truth is, the relative ease of Friday's draw might ultimately condemn the English to repeat the same destructive cycle of rampant overconfidence, underperformance and self-loathing they have displayed at the past three tournaments.
The task of breaking this national behavioral pattern has been entrusted to an Italian coach, the professorial Fabio Capello. On the eve of the draw, Capello made it clear he had no fear of the "group of death." While the English media went into rapture after their first-round grouping, Capello might wish, upon reflection, that his side had received a sterner opening test. In 2006, the team, then under Swedish manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, was able to top a similarly weak grouping of Sweden, Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago despite a series of mediocre performances. The English proceeded to progress to the quarterfinals, where they tripped over Portugal on penalties and exited the tournament without ever really shifting out of second gear. The current English squad has selection problems in goal, defense and up front. Capello will have to use all of his powers as a disciplined tactician to solve them if he is to be able to hum "God Save the Queen" alongside his team in the final. If not, elimination in the quarterfinals against the likes of France (no doubt on penalties) will be England's more likely fate.
4. Will a team advance out of Africa?
The six African nations in the draw might have represented the continent's largest contingent ever, but Africa's teams received few favors. South Africa are the worst side in the tournament. Algeria can play attractive soccer, but will surprise if it emerges from Group C. The Cameroonians and Nigerians will have to show more cohesion in the tournament proper than they demonstrated during qualification if they are to have an impact. The two African nations most feared before the draw received the toughest love. The Ghanaians face a bruising test in Group D against Germany and the stealth strength of Australia and Serbia. The Black Stars' lack of a consistent goal scorer might doom them. The Ivory Coast received an even tougher assignment. It will match up against Brazil, Portugal and North Korea in what many consider to be the group of death. If it emerges -- and the Ivorians' mix of force, speed and intelligence gives them every chance to do so -- the weight of a continent's expectations will prove to be as challenging as the slick passing of Spain or the pace of a Dutch counterattack.
5. Will Spain make itself feel at home?
The fact that no European team has managed to win a World Cup when the tournament is played outside of its own continent is one of the sport's toughest to explain away. After Friday's draw, Euro 2008 champions Spain will hope to make that discussion moot. The Spanish team romps into Group H with a perfect qualifying record and only Chile appearing equipped to muster a tactical challenge. As if the Spaniards needed it, the draw provided them with an additional gift. If they and the Brazilians top their respective groups, they will not clash until the final. That few would currently bet against them reaching this stage might be their undoing. La Furia Roja have a haunting history of recent World Cup underachievement. Watching the squad cope with the pressure of being favorites will be one of the most compelling psychological story lines of the next six months.
6. What the heck are we meant to do now?
The draw is now set but plenty remains unknown, which is just as well as soccer fans need something to fill the void until kick off. A slew of questions await answers: Which players will each team leave on, and off, the flight to South Africa? Which nations are so desperate for an upgrade they will ditch the coach who helped them qualify? (Rumors suggest Nigeria will dump its erratic, homegrown manager Shaibu Amodu, possibly drafting Italian Roberto Mancini to replace him. In Argentina, no one knows quite how long the circus that is Maradona's reign will last.) Which players will limp onto the injury list at domestic clubs around the world? This matter is of particular concern for the English, who will pray the curse of the broken metatarsal that weakened David Beckham in 2002 and Wayne Rooney in 2006 does not strike again.
The simple truth is, most soccer fans derive almost as much pleasure from talking about the game as they do watching it. Most will spend the days boisterously debating many of these issues, just as they will spend the nights dreaming of lashing in an unstoppable winner at the final in Soccer City stadium. Now the countdown to June 11, 2010, has begun in earnest, when hosts South Africa will kick off against Mexico. In the words of Nelson Mandela from his video address at the draw: "Ke Nako! It's time."
Roger Bennett is the co-author of the forthcoming ESPN World Cup Companion, your guide to everything you need to know to enjoy the 2010 World Cup. E-mail him at email@example.com.