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Roger Bennett is a journalist and author who has written about soccer and popular culture for the finest publications and websites in the known world. Michael Davies is a complete amateur who somehow blagged his way into covering the 2002 and 2006 World Cups for ESPN.com. Together they will be covering the 2010 FIFA World Cup in blog, video and pod from New York, Los Angeles and points east. What is "Off The Ball"? Join us as we read, watch and listen as Roger and Michael figure that out.
Tuesday, June 8, 11 a.m. The crap part of Soho, New York -- booking celebrities for the pilot of the new "$25,000 Pyramid"
This is the longest week of the World Cup, Rog. Yesterday lasted a week and a half. Today has moved slower than a block schedule of eighth-grade algebra. The rest of the week will be slower than Brian Scalabrine's crossover. Until finally, several years away on Friday, South Africa will play the opening game of the World Series of Jabulani against France in the noisiest sporting event in the history of television.
Nothing worth writing about will happen this week, but millions, perhaps billions, of words will be wasted anyway. And that's just on Twitter.
So let me waste a few more with some notes on the USA and England as they prepare for their most-anticipated skirmish in 234 years.
A. @herculezg is by far the most entertaining tweeter on the U.S. team. He really doesn't know how to use Twitter, Facebook, a camera or any other piece of technology. He retweets the Dalai Lama. He even got to play with some lion cubs. Priceless.
|Calm down, Roo. You were playing some team called the Platinum Stars, not Brazil.|
B. Of the many disturbing aspects of England's lackluster display in its warm-up game Monday against the Platinum All-Stars (why, oh why, did they not play the Buena Vista Social Club?), perhaps the most alarming was not that the red mist of yore seemed to descend upon Wayne Rooney in such an unimportant game -- he was booked for dissent -- but that Don Fabio saw fit to have assistant coach Stuart "Psycho" Pearce attempt to calm him down. This does not bode well.
C. It seems we know eight of the starters for England versus USA. Barring injury, the back four will be Glen Johnson, John Terry, Ledley King, Ashley Cole. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard will anchor the midfield. Emile Heskey will partner Rooney up front. Goalkeeper -- my hunch is Joe Hart, but it could be any of the three. On the flanks, the smart money seems to be on Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon. But I just have a sneaking suspicion it's going to be James Milner instead of Lennon. This, of course, is based on nothing other than a deep-seated desire to inhabit, for an hour, the mind of Don Fabio.
And one more thing. "Pyramid" is the greatest game show in the history of Christendom.
Only Idiots Attempt to Predict The World Cup -- Part 2
So thanks to goal.com we know that even the great Pele spectacularly failed in his footballing predictions, Rog: Colombia to win the World Cup in 1994, an African nation will win the World Cup before 2000, Nicky Barmby will be up there with Zidane, Maldini and Ronaldo -- so what hope is there for us? Who cares, right? Here are some more spurious predictions.
1. Referee Carlos Simon will do something ridiculous in the U.S.-versus-England game.
This photo of Brazilian referee-slash-Sepp Blatter doppelganger grinning as he shows Teddy Lucic of Sweden a red card at WC 2006 is beyond creepy. This guy has a somewhat checkered past and as you pointed out on your Twitter yesterday, Rog, he has been described by one of the leading figures in Brazilian football as "a crook, a scoundrel just a shameless bastard. He must be in someone's pocket. If I met him in the street, I would slap him. What he did was unbelievable. He should be driven out of football."
2. Because absolutely no one is talking about Portugal, everyone is going to be talking about Portugal.
This doesn't mean I think Portugal is going to win it all. But it's just weird that they never seem to come up in conversation. They have one of the best players in the world in Ronaldo, and a bunch of world-class stars like Deco and Nani (wait a minute, he's injured and out) plus Danny. They even have some players with two whole names. But I just feel like something's going to happen with this team. I'm having another psychic moment, Rog. And again today, I forgot to put on deodorant.
3. Strangest goals ever at World Cup
I am seeing something, Rog. Something stranger than that Sheffield United goal against Man City two years ago in the FA Cup from the cross that bounced off two balloons. Something stranger than the Watford own goal in the Championship the same year that missed the goal by at least three yards. Stranger than Maradona's "Hand of God" against England in 1986. Yes, Rog, even stranger than Peter Crouch's dreadlocks-assisted header against Trinidad and Tobago in Nuremberg in 2006. There will be (cue strange music) straaaaange goals scored at this World Cup, Rog. And not just because of the Jabulani's mystic qualities. Mark my wasted words.
1 p.m., Eating a hot dog, Gray's Papaya, Hell's Kitchen, New York City
Davies, you have strange and wonderful gifts. Please only use them for the power of good. This World Cup is going to see a lot of strange goals, for sure. Along with a ton of great goals, an obscene amount of deadly set pieces and final scores that will -- at first glance at the ESPN ticker -- look as if the World Cup is playing by American League rules. And for every goal, a thousand tweets will bloom, which leads me to my next prediction.
For the first time, the tournament will benefit an institution even more than it does FIFA: Welcome to the Twitter World Cup.
At times, this World Cup will feel as if it was solely designed as gigantic piece of product placement for Twitter. In the 1970s, the rapid growth in the number of television sets around the globe refashioned the competition into a lucrative, instantaneous, worldwide event/giant billboard. Get ready for the nonstop torrent of reporting, opinion and first-person insight spewing forth from the Twitter spigot to remix the equation even more.
The precise impact is yet to be experienced, but the World Cup will be the largest global happening in the platform's short history, and has added another dilemma to the list of critical decisions managers must consider. To tweet or not to tweet? Some have embraced it as the perfect antidote to the numbing boredom that is a World Cup camp. Holland's Bert van Marwijk has been vocally pro, but he's also reportedly an active tweeter. The puritanical Don Fabio has unsurprisingly adopted a firm no-distractions approach, banning Twitter, along with sexual relations, like John Lithgow prohibiting rock 'n' roll and dancing in "Footloose."
What will the revolution sound like? Unclear. But it is safe to say it will be sandwiched somewhere between these two tweets: the soulful and the materialistic:
@Realkaka: (9:47 a.m., June 6) Nothing to do ? Pray !! Something to do ? Pray .. Pray all the time !!
Edson Buddle jabbed home two goals against a traumatized Australian team and wasted no time in dropping the following tweet:
@edsonbuddle: (5:08 p.m., June 5) The shop on my website is opening soon! Create a design for a shirt that I like and win a prize. Send designs to Shirt@EdsonBuddle.com
Davies, while I know you are a big fan of Herculez Gomez's daily lamentations (@herculezg) on the teachings of the Dalai Lama, the only thing I'm sure you regret is that Darren Bent was not selected for England. If he was, he would be banned from tweeting, and the world would be blissfully unaware that you, @embassydavies, ripped off the mood lighting he used in his profile picture, @DB11TT.
This World Cup will bear witness to the longest penalty shootout of all time.
Unless they are clad in the chain mail of an England shirt, driving home the ball from a mere 12 yards with only the goalkeeper to beat should be child's play for the world's most skillful players. But at this World Cup, converting the opportunity will prove to be as dicey a proposition as booting home a 50-plus-yard overtime field goal in the Super Bowl. Kickers who already have the pressure of the world on their shoulders will be forced to compute complex physical equations factoring in both the altitude and the juiced-up swerve of the Jabulani. This is Stephen Hawking territory, people. Suffice it to say, Row Z is going to see a lot of action, and the Jabulani will go down in history as the ball that truly brought the crowd into the game.
Spoiler alert: These teams will dominate.
As we discussed yesterday, this is shaping up to be the World Cup of ParityTM, which means every team will have a chance of wreaking 90 minutes of havoc. The opening round will be particularly unpredictable. Teams will look like world-beaters in one game and be thrashed in the next. Picking a stealth team is a mug's game, but as this is the "Only Idiots" preview here goes. To spread my bets, I will go continent by continent.
With immense passion but little confidence, I have already pledged undying support to Nigeria as the pick of the African teams, and Shane Smeltz's White and Black Army (New Zealand) as Oceania's most ruthless, and only, contender. Out of South America, I can't wait to watch Chile, which fields my favorite plump striker, Humberto Suazo, and the young prodigy known as "El Niño Maravilla," Alexis Sanchez. A surprise second to Brazil in South American qualifying, Chile is led by stern coach Marcelo Bielsa, who likes to use an unorthodox lineup with three defenders and three attackers, coaxing his young, inexperienced squad to surge forward like a poker player going all-in.
|Jong Tae-Se, more popular than Rooney!|
From Europe, while I enjoyed watching Serbia's rugged play in qualifying, I am starting to doubt it can overcome the devastating loss of Montenegro, so I am going to plump for Denmark. Partially because they have a collective spirit that will serve them well in this tournament and partially due to their World Cup single "The Danish Way to Rock," recorded with Scandinavia's Depeche Mode equivalent, a band named Nephew. Intoxicating stuff.
Finally, I cannot wait for North Korea to take the field. There is so much to look forward to. A quarter of the squad hails from the nation's crack military side that has cheerfully been branded 25 April (in honor of Military Foundation Day, apparently), and the team has trained together tirelessly for the past six months, which should give them a unique edge. Striker Jong Tae-Se, known as "The People's Wayne Rooney," has vowed to score a goal a game. Their anthem consists of the kind of stanzas Herculez Gomez likes to retweet ("The glory of a wise people/Brought up in a culture brilliant/With a history five millennia long,/Let us devote our bodies and minds/To supporting this Korea forever") and while I do not know the Korean word for chutzpah, their brassy attempt to smuggle in an extra striker by pretending one was a goalkeeper hints at the kind of Machiavellian scheming that wins World Cup games. (FIFA wised up to the strategy, leaving the Koreans with just two keepers, which is still one more than England.)