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Thursday, July 1, 2010
Time to choose a new team

Brazil may look like the team to beat. But is it the team to cheer for?

Thursday, 4:18 p.m., Pizza Hut, Midtown.

I have spent a large chunk of the last four days scrubbing my face raw, desperate to remove the remnants of the Stars and Stripes face paint, which seemed like such a good idea at the time but has now cast a faint stain over both of my cheeks. The sting of this procedure hurt a lot less than the unspeakable dual U.S./England ouster that preceded it. But, it did give me plenty of quiet time to focus on picking a new team to cheer for with all of my little heart ahead of the quarterfinals of this, the World Cup of Parity.

For me, the singular glory of this tournament, aside from the effervescent verse of World Cup laureate Mr. Ian Darke, has been that many of the sides are hitting their stride right when it counts. As we approach the business end of the World Cup, and the battle to qualify for OTB's favorite game, the third-place playoff, there are five or six squads who will be tucking themselves up in their South African hotel rooms Thursday night, dreaming sweet, credible dreams of winning it all come July 11. Even better, virtually all of them (Brazil aside) have glaringly obvious weaknesses. When the World Cup kicks off again on Friday, prepare for one game after the next to be cliché-ingly referred to as "good enough to be the final." Unless it has Paraguay in it.

Articulate cases can be made for getting behind each team. You are all blessed to live in the world's greatest democracy, so make your own choices. Tweet them to us at @rogbennett and we will report back as to which team is officially, definitively, America's Team.


Pros: A forbidden love for an Englishman perhaps, but there is so much to admire about this German outfit. Starting, literally, with its outfits. It takes a bold man to sport the synchronized Tweedledum/Tweedledee combos Jogi Low has rocked in harmony with assistant coach Hans-Dieter Flick. Believe me, Michael Davies and I have tried. But the more I see of them, the more I dig it. Laugh now. We will all be wearing Der Jogi Low für Menschen line come fall.

Joachim Loew and Hans Dieter Flick
It must be a German thing.

A second marvel is the youth system that has spawned both Thomas Mueller and Mesut Ozil. Mueller is a technical wonder. The fact that a little over a year ago he was playing for the Bayern Munich reserves in the regional league suggests there is much to the German grassroots infrastructure that both the U.S. and England systems can learn from.

Cons: The German youths destroyed England clinically, demonstrating little in the way of apparent emotion. This game against Argentina appears to be different. German fans have been left to parse Bastian Schweinsteiger's lip-shaking news conference outburst in which he revealed a pain still searing in the wake of the 2006 World Cup clash between the two teams. That game, which Germany won on penalty kicks, culminated in a spot of Argentinean-induced fisticuffs, an event Schweinsteiger admitted he could not get out of his head. Diego Maradona wasted no time before unleashing some Phil Jackson-grade mind games suggesting Schweinsteiger's comments indicated the Germans were lacking in confidence. There is only one thing I know for sure about the unpredictable world of football: Do not mess with Maradona. There can be only one winner. Just ask Pele, who always seems to come off second-best in their surreal, long-running war of words. Irrespective, I find it hard to cheer for a team whose big tabloid pregame press cycle is dominated by stories of a prognosticating octopus.


Pros: I love this team and I don't care who knows it. I adore the human way its strengths and weaknesses, like those of its coach, are on display for all to see. I watch in wonder as plucky Li'l Leo Messi takes the field to renew his joust with tournament history and our craven desire to etch his name into the pantheon of World Cup greats. I adore the way the team moves forward at full tilt, Carlos Tevez all-a-frenzy.

Cons: Gonzalo Higuain leaves me cold. I yearn for him to be replaced by the admirably doleful Diego Milito, even though Higuain will undoubtedly disregard my disdain (word has it he is a big fan of the OTB Pod), win the Golden Shoe, and then move on to a big-money, mediocre spell at Chelsea.

And what of Argentina? I have read Chris Farley's biography enough times to know the good times do not last. With a defense liable to crap out at any second, I fear my Argentinean love-in is not going to end well.


Pros: English journalists have dubbed Spain's inimitable possession-hungry style "PlayStation football." And while watching its smurfish midfielders paper-cut opponents to death is a joy to behold, it is forward David Villa, a player impossible not to love, who has used this World Cup to prove he is one of the world's finest.

David Villa
The Spanish assassin: David Villa's goal-scoring exploits have carried Spain.

Cons: Fernando Torres cuts a lonely figure. The Spaniards really clicked against Portugal only after he was substituted. After his face appeared on practically every promotional item released before the tournament, he arrived injured, ditched his signature frosted hairstyle and is now struggling, Samson-esque, shorn of locks and shorn of match fitness.

However, Spain's greatest opponent is probably the extent to which it is haunted by a sense of its own history, both ancient (its staggeringly poor World Cup record) and modern (the recent memory of Barcelona's Champions League second-leg undoing against Inter Milan's valiant Paraguay-esque rearguard action).


Pros: For a team that shamelessly plays such dour football, the Paraguayans sure conjure a lot of love from the ladies. First, swimsuit model Dallys Ferreira offered to "make love to each member of the Paraguay World Cup team" if it lifts the trophy, adding somewhat superfluously, "Women from my country are ardent, and to be honest, I'm more ardent than most. I take no notice of societal norms." Now her rival, swimsuit model Larissa Riquelme, has demonstrated her sophisticated grasp of what passes for an important news story as she unveiled her plan to acquire a celebratory world-title tattoo on her breast, and then channel Diego Maradona by running through the capital city of Asunción -- painted only in the team colors.

Cons: Buoyed by their most excellent penalty experience against Japan in the round of 16 (a fixture dubbed by no less an expert than the Guardian's resident technical genius, Jonathan Wilson, as "probably the worst game of the World Cup") the Paraguayans will undoubtedly attempt to cling on for a shootout one more time. Their coaches are obsessively breaking down footage of Switzerland's defense-first victory in the opening game, even as I type. As much as I love and admire the enthusiasm of Ms. Ferreira and Ms. Riquelme, I cannot bring myself to support such behavior. I am sure the Paraguayan players, fine-looking to a man, do OK in that department without the fleshy victory bonus.


Pros: Old-time fans will no doubt blather on about "Total Football," but this Dutch side has found a way to flip its traditional script. Usually beautiful yet fragile, Holland typically seduces all neutrals before imploding. This team, though soaked in skill, has efficiently shuffled to victory, welding a defensive efficiency to its high-octane offensive game. Arjen Robben looks supremely tasty. A little like a younger me who went to the gym a bunch and was really, really good at footy. (Note to Brazilians: Here's how to defend Robben based on 50 minutes I have just spent watching him on YouTube: The dude has one move. He cuts inside from the right and bangs it past you with his left. Everyone knows it. Yet no one can stop him.)

Cons: Few teams love to self-combust more than the Dutch. Just when the team has won us over with the effortless menace displayed throughout qualifying and tournament proper, cue Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder to start locking horns in the media like a pair of petulant young gazelles sparring on the savannah. There can be no greater indicator that the Dutch are not long for this world. This team has a death wish it does not want to shake.


Pros: The one team which has evidenced little weakness thus far, Brazil is a thorough, rigorous side. Whereas England was undone by ego, Coach Dunga's team appears willing to leave its individual agendas in the locker room, preferring to collectively unfurl its deeply disciplined, systemic football. Robinho is a case in point. English Premier League reject he may well be, but his performance at this World Cup indicates his rejection may be more about the artlessness of England, as opposed to the competence of the little bearded wonder. And tune out the faux debate about the death of the beautiful game. As captain Lucio asserted before the tournament, "There is nothing more beautiful than winning."

Cons: I simply can't bring myself to cheer for the Brazilians. It is just too obvious. Akin to picking "Citizen Kane" as the best movie of all time, or "Everyone Loves Raymond" as your favorite TV show.


Pros: You had me at three-man front. I adore the movement of the Uruguayan forward line as Edinson Cavani pushes forward alongside the coveted Luis Suarez and the dreamy Diego Forlan. But my favorite Uruguayan is undoubtedly captain Diego Lugano, who gallantly throws himself around with little regard for his own personal safely. This as per his own website: "Blond, restless, smart, he knew since he took his first steps what his passion was: football." Ian Darke, your wordsmithing skills may yet be needed.

Cons: Uruguay is a tiny country. It is the Slovenia of the elimination round -- 3.4 million people live in the country, which makes it roughly the same size as Montreal. Mark my words, the Canadiens will never win the World Cup.


Pros: So many reasons exist to cheer the Black Stars:

1. They are hometown heroes in this, the African World Cup.
2. Classic underdogs hoping to become the first African nation to shoot for the vaunted third-place game.
3. The most fetching jerseys left in the tournament.
4. South African television urged all Africans to wear yellow, green and red in support of the Black Stars on Friday. This kind of regional pride simply does not exist anywhere else in football. When France was eliminated, did you hear Sarkozy urge his nation to throw its support behind the Spanish?
5. They have a stretcher blessed with magical powers. Ghanaian players are felled, left to roll on the turf in agony, raising the specter they will not walk again. The stretcher is summoned. Aforementioned player lies motionless upon it for one minute. Player is healed. 100 percent. Every time. If Billy Mays were still alive, he would have fired up an infomercial for the "Ghanaian stretcher, a miracle cure," before the group stage was done.

Con: They beat us. Again. Too soon? Yes, too soon.

Time to make my pick. For the record, Davies is wedded to the magic of Ghana. James Frey is all over Spain. Seth Meyers loves the Dutch, as does Friday's pod guest, the remarkable Joe Scarborough. Judah Friedlander loves Argentina but thinks Brazil will win. I will be bellowing for Argentina. Maradona reminds me of a young Michael Davies.