The world's biggest sporting event is upon us, which can mean only one thing: a planet-wide spree of braying, drunk-in-broad-daylight, chest-thumping nationalistic mania and a staggering decline in worldwide productivity.
You know, the World Cup.
So prepare your face paint and start concocting reasons to have meetings wrap up just in time for the afternoon kickoff. But before you shell out the dough for a team USA jersey, know that you'll probably only have three chances to wear it this summer. Sad but true. Why? Because ...
The U.S. Is Screwed. Really Screwed.
Shall we move on? No? Okay. Let's carve out a conceivable scenario in which Sam's Army can escape the "Group of Death" and squeak past Germany or Portugal into the knockout round.
It's not a nice thing to wish injuries on anyone, but the U.S.'s chances have been helped somewhat by the fact that German midfielder Marco Reus has been taken out by an ankle injury (okay, not really; Germany could field two threatening teams with the depth of talent they have). Also, as of this writing, World's Best Player™ Cristiano Ronaldo is suffering from a knee injury – you can thank a Ghanaian witch doctor for that – and is hobbling around the training ground in such a way as to render him only about 200-percent more gifted than, say, American hero Landon Donovan, who has scored more World Cup goals than anyone in U.S. history and, oh, that's right, wasn't selected for the team.
That isn't to say the U.S. doesn't have some very good players. They do. Clint Dempsey. Michael Bradley. Jozy Altidore (assuming he continues his form from last week, and not last year). Tim Howard. They're all solid. But the U.S. doesn't have a squad of great players, and great players playing great soccer is what it's going to take to get out of the group.
The U.S.'s first match, on June 16, is its most vital: bag three points against Ghana and you can keep hope alive. Anything less is an early ticket home. Ghana's a young squad with some veteran talent, and, yes, they eliminated the States from the previous two World Cups. Both sides know this is their best chance to rack up points, so it should be a battle from the first whistle to the last. It'll probably also be a draw, but for the purposes of our best-case-scenario, let's say the U.S. wins it. Three points, thank you very much.
The U.S. then faces the horror of playing in Manaus, the East St. Louis of the Amazon. Manaus is a 1,670-mile flight from Sao Paulo (site of the U.S.'s training facility), nauseatingly hot and humid, and also reported to be something of a bloody narco murder hole. Three workers have died building the brand-new stadium where the U.S. will play Portugal on June 22 — and the cement will just be drying as the tournament kicks off.
So maybe the witch doctor's been working overtime and Ronaldo's still not up to par when the teams meet on a cruddy sandlot pitch. It's not inconceivable that the U.S. could escape with a draw. That's four points going into the match with Germany, which means the U.S. closes out the group stage with, at best, four points. Germany coasts through the group undefeated. Ghana has zero points, and is out. Portugal: did they beat Ghana by a bigger margin than the U.S. did? No! The States go through on goal difference.
Yeah, never mind. The U.S. is screwed.
Okay, So Who's Going To Win This Thing?
The easy money is on Brazil. Great team, buckets of talent, playing at home, etc. But none of the probable roads to the final are easy for any nation, and once you fiddle with the bracket a bit and throw back a couple caipirinhas, you start thinking, well, what if …
Germany is a perennial favorite, but the likeliest road has Germany facing Brazil in the semi-final. Anything is possible, and you could also argue that it's Brazil, in fact, who will have to get past Germany, but it's tough to imagine Brazil choking that close to bringing home the trophy.
Spain has a legitimate chance at being the first country to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil did it in 1958 and 1962. They can hold the ball for eons, have a rigid defense and a swarm of assassins on attack. The problem here is that Spain's system is anything but a secret, and while it's one thing to think of a way to counter it, and quite another to actually go out and do it, Brazil did just that in last year's Confederations Cup. The blueprint is out there.
Which is why I think Argentina's going to take it. They have a roster of perversely talented players, seemingly few banana peels to slip on, and the other World's Best Player™, Lionel Messi, who is overdue for a big showing in the national colors. What better time to deliver than in the World Cup final against great rivals Brazil, on enemy territory, moments before the riots begin?