|ESPN.com: Off the Ball Blog||[Print without images]|
Tasti D-Lite, 101 West 31st St., 11:20 p.m.
Thank God the World Cup proper is set to begin in a matter of hours.
For the last week, we have been powerless as the injuries piled up, an experience akin to watching a WWE Battle Royal in which the battered bodies of some of the world's leading stars have been hurled out of the ring. We stood by helplessly as the defenseless vuvuzela had its good name tarnished by health organizations who proclaimed it to be a leading cause of both flu and deafness, and we rolled our eyes as panicked IT staff nationwide issued dire tech warnings while readying their servers for the game-time onslaught.
Are we gussied up and ready to go?
• Have one million free condoms been readied for use in South African host cities? CHECK.
• Has FIFA president Sepp Blatter fired up his Twitter account @seppblatter? CHECK.
• Have three members of the Greek team had their hotel rooms robbed while out training with the team? CHECK.
• Has John Travolta descended from the skies in his Boeing 707 to randomly give a pep talk to the Australian players ahead of their Sunday opener against Germany? CHECK.
Then we are ready for some football. Not too much, mind you. The first day of World Cup action is served in an appetizer portion. Two games large.
A candid warning up front: The opening day of a World Cup can often be a snore. The teams are tense and tightly wound. Goals have traditionally been few and far between, although this year, we can hope for a rash of long-range shots as eager players test the physics-bending properties of the Jabulani.
Don't give up on it, America. Give humble footy a chance. Greatness will emerge. Rivalries will play out. Brave new heroes will be forged, along with rogues, scapegoats, comedic errors, unjustifiable referring decisions, and choked penalty kicks.
While we wait for the quality to emerge, soak in the atmosphere, and marvel at the lavish stadium architecture, let's see whether the South Africans can top the elaborate opening ceremony from the U.S. World Cup in 1994 when Jon Secada broke his collarbone after a trapdoor malfunctioned. He gamely sang the national anthem with just his head protruding from a hole in the stage. Oprah then proceeded to topple off a platform, before Diana Ross delivered the coup de grace, slicing a fake penalty wide of an open goal.
Let the games begin.
South Africa versus Mexico
Will South Africa, the home team, be propelled toward victory by the waspish rasp of 90,000 wailing vuvuzelas? In a word, no. The Bafana Bafana are the worst host since Chris Harrison. While the spritely Steven Pienaar will flitter around the midfield and occasionally look world-class, the only way South Africa will maintain the World Cup's perfect tradition of home nations' reaching the elimination round is courtesy of a deluge of dodgy refereeing decisions.
South African president Jacob Zuma's feigned confidence in a public address Thursday, when he cryptically remarked that he expected to see the trophy staying in South Africa after the tournament, caused heads to be scratched across a puzzled nation as people wondered whether their president had just intentionally given them the green light to try to nick it. Well, it would not be the first time.
Mexico was chaotic and lightweight early in qualifying but discovered a force of will once the sternly charismatic Javier Aguirre was appointed coach. Aguirre coaxed a menacing pace and style from his team with the impish Giovani dos Santos, a dud at club level, emerging as an international spark plug.
Mexico should be disciplined enough to edge this contest, though do little more. At the last four World Cups, the Mexicans have been bounced in the first elimination round, always qualifying but rarely making an impression. As with Brendan Fraser, an actor with a devoted fan base but little discernable talent, the passion of Mexico's supporters will overshadow the performance of their team.
Uruguay versus France
Two playoff survivors will clash in the second game. France, shamed by the controversy surrounding the way it qualified will battle their own demons in the opening round.
The French have limped into South Africa, a richly talented squad undermined by the lack of any discernible plan. Lame-duck coach Raymond Domenech is a quixotic character, a former actor who could give Diego Maradona lessons in crazy as he has become despised by his players, media and fans alike. After the stain of Thierry Henry's handball, morale was battered further when three key players were ensnared in an underage prostitution scandal so shocking it offended even French sensibilities.
Domenech's desperate efforts to rebuild team trust have backfired. A dune-buggy race designed to raise spirits triggered a pile-up, a rollover and a calf injury for William Gallas. A mountain-bike expedition that followed saw striker Nicolas Anelka fall off his bike and require treatment. With MLS savior-in-waiting Henry now on the bench, bookies Bodog are offering 100-1 odds on the French scoring a handball-assisted goal. They will need a couple if they are to proceed.
Uruguay is the Sears Roebuck of the World Cup. A once-famous brand whose best days are behind it. The team battled its way to win two of the first four World Cups yet has done little since, failing to win a single tournament game after 1990.
The nation has long been saddled with the stereotype of playing a brawny, bare-knuckle brand of football, but this team is different. Coach Oscar Tabarez has masked a defensive weakness by building around the menacing forward tandem of Diego Forlan (whose finishing is as clinical as his choice of twitter photographs are freaky @diegoforlan_) and Luis Suarez (35 league goals in 33 games, albeit in the Dutch League). Uruguay will be buoyed by the undying supporting of Republic of Ireland fans. Not because they bear a grudge but courtesy of Pizza Hut, which is offering Irish customers free pizza for every goal scored against the French.
On a final note, I am not very good at math. Hence, my wife and I are expecting a baby, slap-bang in the middle of the World Cup. The due date is June 22 (when Mexico is due to play Uruguay). There are a handful of rest days ahead of the quarterfinals. I don't think we are going to reach them. We have very different positions over names. My wife has already swatted aside my two favorites, El Diego and Puskas. If you have any suggestions, please tweet them to me.
I am secretly hoping one of the following gentlemen would be good enough to step up and deliver a World Cup performance so sterling they make the choice for us. I believe they would all work well in a first-name, middle-name combination with Bennett:
• Georgie Welcome (gangly Honduran striker)
• Edson Buddle (burly boy with an eye for goal and, as we have already noted, an entrepreneurial bent)
• Surprise Moriri (aggressive South African midfielder)
• Waldo Ponce (super-cool Chilean defender)
• Shane "Smeltzy" Smeltz (lethal New Zealand marksman, of whom I have said enough)