TAMPA — Planet Soccer is back.
The World Cup begins today in Brazil, which for the next month will be one long samba line. Never mind that paint is still drying on some of Brazil’s stadiums, where several construction workers died building them. Riots have occurred, and squatters camps have been erected, to protest the costs of staging this tournament and to demand more affordable housing.
Today, the host country plays Croatia in the opener. Friday, reigning Cup champion Spain meets the Netherlands in a rematch of the 2010 final in South Africa. Monday, the United States hits the pitch looking to make goners out of Ghana, which booted us from the previous two Cups, truly lousy showings.
Here’s U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann at a news conference:
“For us now, talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic.”
The guy is a regular Herb Brooks, isn’t he?
Planet Soccer is back: nations screeching to a halt, living and sometimes dying with their heroes. For the next month, the world belongs to Lionel Messi (Argentina) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), and Andres Iniesta (Spain), Neymar (Brazil), and Luis Suarez (Uruguay), and Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany), and Arjen Robben (Netherlands). And to Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore and other members of our red, white and blue crew.
Landon Donovan, once the face of the franchise, won’t be playing, having been left off the team by former German star Klinsmann, who makes his Cup debut as American manager. Naturally, the U.S. plays Germany in group play. Who says FIFA, the sport’s governing body, doesn’t have a sense of humor when not being bribed?
There are allegations of corruption and payoffs, everything but gift-wrapped oil rigs made in the name of Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup. You had to figure something was up when a place with 110-degree heat got the nod. FIFA would award this thing to the planet Mercury if the price was right.
It has been 20 years since the United States hosted its first and only Cup, which, by the way, remains the most heavily attended Cup in history. We should be hosting in 2022. I hear Qatar is after the Rays, too.
The U.S. faces a tough road in Brazil playing out of Group G, dubbed the “Group of Death,” though the group might be upgraded to fair condition if we beat Ghana, and Ronaldo and Portugal, before running into Deutschland.
If you Dono-fans are too upset to pull for America, then try Japan. I did.
Whether you know it or not, the Japanese national team trained in Tampa and played two friendlies, against Cup-bound Costa Rica and Zambia, before heading to Brazil.
It was a blast mingling with Japan and Costa Rica fans before the countries’ tilt at Raymond James Stadium. I met Ken Kousaka and his father, Yoshi, who had flown down from New Jersey to see the Japanese men. The Kousakas were adopted in the parking lot by a merry Costa Rica tailgate party, and the master of ceremonies appeared to be Giovanni Monge, a Costa Rica native who owns a Tampa limousine service.
By the way, the U.S. women’s national team is in town. It will play France on Saturday night. Their World Cup is next year. Giovanni Monge explained the simple magic of the Cup:
“Your team is your country,” he said.
Just 32 countries remain. Basically, everybody on Planet Soccer tried to qualify. Here’s a tip of the cap to Andorra and San Marino, two tiny European nations that had a combined record of 0-20 in qualifying and were outscored 84-1. San Marino scored the lone goal, which means, per the side bet, it owes Andorra lunch.
The first time the World Cup came to Brazil was 1950. Pele was 10, learning to play with a ball made from rags; Brazil had yet to become Brazil, winner of a record five Cups. For the final, more than 200,000 fans crammed famed Maracana Stadium to watch their team defeat Uruguay. Only they didn’t. Uruguay won. The crowd didn’t leave immediately. People sat, row after row, and wept.
Such is life on Planet Soccer.
Ready or not, here it comes.