Even as the NBA Finals is far from settled, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant can’t wait to start tracking results in the World Cup, which starts today and ends on July 11 in South Africa.
Bryant, however, isn’t thinking soccer at the moment because basketball is the only thing on his mind. Boston hosts the Lakers in Game 4 of the title playoffs this morning (Manila time) with the Celtics looking to even the series count at two wins apiece.
“The World Cup is one of the most amazing things in sports,” said Bryant. “I love it. I love watching the games and seeing it all. I love seeing the greats and the big teams and we all want to see our country fighting hard against those big guys.”
Once the Finals are over, Bryant said he’ll be glued to his TV set and catch all the soccer action. The Lakers star is featured in Nike’s big-budget World Cup commercial with England’s Wayne Rooney and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo who are both seeing action in South Africa.
How the US, one of 32 countries that qualified to play in the eight-bracket eliminations, will fare is a big question mark although there is optimism that coach Bob Bradley’s squad won’t disappoint. The Americans, after all, upset Spain, 2-0, in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup in South Africa last year and led, 2-0, at the half before bowing to Brazil in the championship match.
The US is bracketed in Group C with England, Slovenia and Algeria and will play the Three Lions to open its campaign tomorrow. Group A is made up of Mexico, Uruguay, France and South Africa while Group B is composed of Argentina, Nigeria, Greece and South Korea. The others are Group D – Serbia, Germany, Ghana and Australia, Group E – Netherlands, Cameroon, Denmark and Japan, Group F – Italy, Slovakia, Paraguay and New Zealand, Group G – Brazil, Portugal, Ivory Coast and North Korea and Group H – Spain, Chile, Switzerland and Honduras.
The 18th edition of the quadrennial World Cup will be staged in venues located in nine South African cities with Johannesburg hosting the finals. The four teams in each group play a round-robin in the first round with the two top finishers advancing to the round of 16 where first-placers and second-placers face off in crossovers between Groups A and C, E and G, B and D and F and H. Survivors move on to play in the quarterfinals, then the semifinals and ultimately, the finals.
Sports Illustrated picked Spain and England to reach the finals with La Furia Roja becoming only the eighth country in history to capture the World Cup since its inception in 1930. German legend Franz Beckenbauer chose Brazil and Spain to vie for the championship. Aside from the World Cup trophy, the Golden Boot is at stake – the special award for the top scorer in the tradition of Just Fontaine in 1958, Eusebio in 1966 and Gerd Muller in 1970.
Brazil has won the most titles with five in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002. Italy is second with four in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006. Germany is third with three in 1954, 1974 and 1990. Argentina clinched in 1978 and 1986 while Uruguay did it in 1930 and 1950. France captured the trophy in 1998 and England, in 1966.
At the last World Cup in 2006, Italy defeated France, 5-3, in a penalty shootout in the pulsating finals that saw French captain Zinedine Zidane ejected in the last 10 minutes of overtime for head-butting the chest of Italian Marco Materazzi.
The tournament opens with two matches today – South Africa against Mexico in Johannesburg and Uruguay against France in Capetown.
Three Asian countries made it to South Africa via the two-year qualifying competitions involving over 200 countries all over the world – South Korea, North Korea and Japan. In 2002, co-host South Korea became the first Asian team to advance to the World Cup semifinals, ousting Italy and Spain in the process. Back from the 2002 team are goalkeeper Lee Woon Jae and midfielder Park Ji Sung. However, Argentina and Nigeria are expected to leave South Korea behind in the group stage. North Korea’s hopes hinge on goalkeeper Ri Myong Guk, known as the “Gatekeeper of the Iron Wall” and cerebral coach Kim Jong Hun but the Democratic People’s Republic will encounter rough sailing against groupmates Brazil and Portugal. Japanese coach Takeshi Okada is dreaming of qualifying for the semifinals but the Netherlands and Cameroon seem too tough to topple even with Asia’s footballer of the year Yasuhito Endo, five-year Celtic veteran Shunsuke Nakamura and skipper Yuji Nakazawa.
Italian Fabio Capello is at the English helm with his $6.8 million salary on the line. Rooney will be at the forefront of the attack, his credentials bolstered by 25 goals in 60 international matches. A disciplinarian, Capello has ordered his celebrity English players to leave their wives, girlfriends and millionaire lifestyles behind because they’re at war in South Africa.
Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque’s lineup is star-studded with Liverpool’s Fernando Torres, Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas, Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and David Villa. Since 2006, Spain has lost only once in 45 outings and blanked Germany, 1-0, in the European finals two years ago. Leading the strike force are Villa, with 37 goals in 57 caps, and Torres who appears to be fit after undergoing surgery to remove torn cartilage in his right knee last April.
Then there is Brazil whose coach Dunga has left out stars like Ronaldinho, Alexandre Pato and Adriano from the roster to assemble a blue-collar, no-frills team. Brazil learned a bitter lesson in 2006 when France kicked out the flashy and showboating crowd favorites in the quarterfinals. Dunga, captain of Brazil’s World Cup championship team in 1994, will lean on his experience and the gamesmanship of Maicon, Kaka, Robinho, Gilberto Silva, Julio Cesar and Luis Fabiano in the crusade for a sixth title.
Also tipped to figure prominently in the race are Argentina, Portugal and Serbia. Argentine legend Diego Maradona is now calling the shots for the national team whose stars include FIFA Player of the Year Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Diego Milito. Portugal’s problem is it will likely encounter Spain in the crossover round of 16 but Ronaldo, the world’s highest-paid footballer, is unfazed. Serbia is a darkhorse bet to make it to the semifinals with 6-7 striker Nikola Zigic, 19, Neven Subotic, 21, Dejan Stankovic and Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic showing the way.