The first time “Let the Games begin” was announced, it was to a few hundred athletes and spectators at the inaugural Olympic Games in Greece in 776 BC. Five centuries later it was proclaimed again as gladiators fought and died to entertain and pacify thousands of bread-hungry citizens in the Roman Coliseum.
On Thursday it will be announced once more, but this time it will welcome five billion viewers from around the globe to the opening of the 2014 Soccer World Cup in Brazil.
The best players from the top 32 nations will be gathered there, already separated into eight groups of four. Each nation will play a round-robin against the other three in their group, after which the two with the worst records will be sent home red-faced and apologetic, while the top two will advance to the sweet sixteen and single-elimination matches, and all ending with the grand final on July 13.
Team America is there already in a quietly confident frame of mind, having just finished a ten day warm-up in which we defeated Azerbaijan, Turkey and African champions Nigeria. At the risk of upsetting the soccer gods, I’ll add that we looked especially good against Nigeria, which is also in the final 32 and no slouch either. Team USA, led by a truly world-class player in Michael Bradley, looked solid in defense and attacked with speed, skill and venom, and thoroughly deserved the victory. Our opening game in the World Cup will be against Ghana at 4pm MST Monday June 16, and it will be live on network TV. By unfortunate coincidence, Ghana caused USA’s elimination from the previous two World Cups, so “third time’s a charm” is being muttered a lot around the American camp right now.
It will be exciting to see our young American team compete against the world’s best players, but the sheer drama of the entire spectacle should be even more memorable. With 64 games to be played at 12 venues over five weeks, the stadiums will be filled with spectators from every corner of the world, many of them wearing traditional costumes and playing traditional music.
Interestingly, in one of those strange touches of nature, each nation plays soccer according to the rhythms and styles of their own country; the Germans perform like a Mercedes-Benz, fast, powerful and dependable but also just a touch stodgy and unimaginative, while the Latin countries, especially Spain, Portugal and Italy, play with verve and drama but frequently lapse into histrionics. The Central and South American nations have tremendous fire and passion, but often lack discipline, while the Aussies will be athletic and good-humored, but sometimes inclined to go walkabout.
Then there are the quiet ones that require close watching, like Japan, South Korea, Switzerland and dark horse Belgium, while Croatia and Greece play with the fervor that their brooding eyes and fierce looks warn about.
Then there’s the Dutch – always one of the most talented teams and certainly some of the jolliest people in the world, yet their soccer team has frequently imploded under pressure.
And, of course, host nation Brazil, who are favored to win the trophy for the fourth time, thanks to their home field advantage and the skills earned by years of samba dancing with soccer balls made of rags on sandy Copacabana beaches.
Finally there is Team USA, and if it were not for the fact that our round-robin group includes Germany and Portugal, ranked #2 and #4 in the world respectively, we could well be one of the dark horse favorites. However, with our ingrained American blend of youth and fearlessness, this just could be the year in which we surprise the world and rise to the top. Either way, it’s bound to be an exciting, entertaining and dramatic tournament, so please cheer for Team USA as we weave our way across Brazil in our three round-robin games … and, dare we hope, even beyond to the round of 16?
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