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Sunday, December 20, 2009
World Cup spoiler ... may the worst win

By Roger Bennett
Special to ESPN.com

If you can't wait until July 11, 2010, to discover who will win the World Cup, I understand your pain. The six-month gap between World Cup draw and kickoff already feels like an endless abyss. The NCAA tournament has it right leaving only two days between scheduling and tip-off. The questions raised once its bracket is announced are answered quickly and with mercy.

World Cup fans have to endure the agony of winter and spring before gaining relief from the mysteries that torture them. Will the U.S. safely navigate the hidden dangers of Algeria and Slovenia? Can the Ivorians emerge unscathed from the Thunderdome that is Group G? Exactly how many questionable refereeing decisions will it will take to drag hosts South Africa into the second round? And, most importantly, which nation will leave Soccer City in Johannesburg with the trophy in its luggage?

Successfully divining an answer to that question from long range is a tricky craft. Aside from New Zealand, most teams can construct an imaginative case as to why they could go deep. A dozen harbor realistic visions of winning it all. To complicate matters further, many sides will land in South Africa with their starting lineup still in flux. Whereas NCAA tournament participants arrive battle hardened by the regular season, the true personality of World Cup sides do not emerge until they bunk down in their pre-tournament training camp. It's the crucible in which the coach attempts to harness the personalities and raging egos of his players around a common mission, persuading them to set aside conflicting agendas and domestic rivalries, whilst insulating the enterprise from the lurking media, sponsors and agents who seek to undermine him.

Javier Mascherano
Argentine captain Javier Mascherano anchors a powerful midfield, but the defense remains a question mark.

A nuanced appreciation of the alchemy of training camp is the key to predicting victory. In recent years, the World Cup has been conquered by the squad with the greatest collective desire. This characteristic is most often forged by adversity, which is why the bookmaker's favorites rarely prosper. Brazil melted down in the 1998 final and were uncharacteristically dumped in the last eight in 2006. 2002 co-favorites Argentina and France flamed out even earlier. Both failed to escape the mire of group play. Perhaps current favorite Spain will ultimately rue the perfect record it accumulated in qualifying for 2010. History suggests it will be sucker punched and unceremoniously tossed aside come June.

The last three champions have utilized stealth, employing World Cup variations of the rope-a-dope strategy to overcome glaring handicaps which appeared set to hobble them at the outset. Nothing burnishes the reputation of a team like the joy of victory. It is easy to forget that Zinedine Zidane's heroic, multicultural 1998 "Rainbow Warrior" French team lacked both confidence and the ability to score in the year before the tournament. At Le Tournoi, a warm-up competition held in 1997, home fans called for coach Aime Jacquet to resign and did not rally behind their team at the World Cup until it had dispatched the airtight Italians on penalties in the quarters.

The Brazilians labored to qualify for the tournament in 2002, losing a third of their games and shedding two coaches along the way. The squad had played so poorly, many deemed it to be the weakest squad ever to represent the nation. However, once Ronaldo netted in the opening game, the team marched on to a redemptive victory few had predicted. And in 2006, the victorious Italians arrived in the shadow of a match-fixing scandal which had engulfed their domestic game and tarnished the reputations of many of the national team. Such was their disgrace, a segment of the media initially bayed for defeat. The Milanese newspaper La Padania, ahead of the Azzuri's opening game captured this sentiment perfectly: "I hope they go out quickly. They are arrogant, shameful, and above all, without balls." Once the Italians won, many of the same journalists changed their tune and demanded an amnesty for every member of the team. Midfield workhorse Gennaro Gattuso told the BBC the squad was motivated by the dishonor which surrounded them, "If the scandal hadn't happened I think we wouldn't have won the World Cup. It gave us more strength." Italy, like Brazil and France before it, did not win despite the distractions, but because of them.

If adversity, scandal, coaching chaos and chronic pre-tournament underperformance are the true breakfast of champions, both the damp Portuguese and the embarrassed French can take heart. But if history is anything to go by, then Argentina, the ultimate hot mess of this World Cup, may yet enter the tournament perfectly positioned to win. Its hopes revolve around current coach and former captain Diego Armando Maradona, a monumental character who summed up the epic nature of his strengths and flaws in 2006 upon checking out of a psychiatric clinic and quipping to the Manchester Guardian, "There were people in there because they thought they were Robinson Crusoe and they didn't believe me when I told them I'm Maradona."

In October 2008, Maradona was plucked from a retirement marred by cocaine addiction, organized crime ties and idiosyncratic foreign policy pronouncements on behalf of Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, and handed the reins of one of the most powerful teams in world soccer. His appointment was a surprise because he had scant managerial experience and the elation surrounding his selection quickly evaporated once the team was thrashed 6-1 by Bolivia in La Paz. "El Diego" was a flummoxed figure on the sideline. Bloated and Botoxed, he resembled Liza Minnelli's stunt double more than the impudent player, part urchin, part prince, who had once single-handedly lacerated the world's best defenses.

Admittedly, Maradona's reign as coach has bordered on the surreal. Repeated threats to quit have been interspersed with his best efforts to stretch the notion of squad-building to its limits in search of a formula that works. Nearly 80 players have pulled on an Argentinian shirt in the past 14 months as their coach has employed a dual strategy of frantically recycling aging veterans in the twilight of their careers and blooding raw debutants at the most unpredictable moments.

Critics have heaped scorn on their coach's apparent preference for passion and emotion in lieu of strategy and tactics, but Maradona has always held his detractors in contempt. No sooner did his team scrape into the tournament courtesy of a 1-0 victory over Uruguay in its final game, than Maradona used a news conference to command his critics to "take it up the a---," grabbing his crotch, and suggesting the world's media "should s--- it and keep on s------." FIFA banned him from the game for two months.

Perhaps there is a method in Maradona's madness. Argentina's triumphant 1986 campaign began in similar circumstances and its victory in Mexico offers a precedent. Ahead of that tournament, the team's performance was similarly listless and lacked cohesion. The coach, Carlos Bilardo, feared for his job too as he was publicly pilloried by fans, media and even the president. Maradona, then captain, admitted later in his autobiography that the "Argentinian people watched [the opening game] with their eyes half-closed." However, he was canny enough to use this fear to motivate his teammates, infusing them with an "us against the world" spirit and delivering the greatest virtuoso performance the competition has ever seen. In the locker room after the final, he held the trophy aloft and harangued those who had doubted his team by leading a rendition of a crude terrace chant "Argentina will be the champion, Argentina will be the champion -- we dedicate the victory to you all, even the f------ w---- who gave birth to you."

So as Argentina continues its preparation for 2010 with a match against Catalonia on Dec. 22, Maradona may feel he has his side exactly where he wants it. After leading Argentina to the edge of the abyss in qualifying, it can now relive the glory of 1986 in the tournament proper. With Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, the squad has more than enough firepower to finish off any opponent. If his coaching staff can shore up the defensive unit, with Inter Milan's Walter "The Wall" Samuel heavily backed for a return by the media, the team will fear no one. Many neutrals hope this will be the case, if only to witness the creative foul-mouthed stream of consciousness that will inevitably cascade from Maradona's lips should he once again prove his doubters wrong and win it all.

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 sirfabiocapello@yahoo.com.