When asked whether the U.S. can win the World Cup, many of the American players have been circumspect. Some dodge the question. U.S. star Landon Donovan even did his best not to emulate Joe Namath by dismissing the possibility of the U.S. lifting the cup. While this demonstrates that our players are relatively self-aware and grounded, there is an easy answer to the question of whether the U.S. can win the World Cup: YES.
Now, I don't think the U.S. will win the World Cup, and the 50 to 1 betting odds of the U.S. winning are about right (in 2002, we were 200 to 1). Only seven countries have won it, after all. But while the U.S. is not a likely contender, we should not go into this tournament with such a defeatist attitude. We can win this thing. This is the 30th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, and the similarities between the periods are striking -- a deep economic recession, a nation depressed in the wake of an ill-pursued war, and an oil crisis -- by that fact, we are destined to win this thing!
More seriously, while saying we can win might seem far-fetched, a victory might not be as miraculous as one would think. Here are some reasons for hope:
This is a tournament, not a league season, and crazy things can happen. Remember Butler got to the NCAA basketball finals this year -- they were a 40 to 1 shot. George Mason got to the final four a few years back as well. Okay, that's basketball, but in 2002 the Greeks won the European championships, which is overall a more competitive tournament than the World Cup. Denmark similarly won the Euros in 1992. In fact, the potential unpredictability of a World Cup is enhanced because the teams are made up of players that don't regularly play together. Some teams with great players just don't work well together, are unbalanced, or never quite gel. That said, some teams gel seamlessly and can get hot and go on a run. Throw in a few lucky bounces or refereeing decisions, and boom you're in reach of the Cup.
We have come close. ln 2002, the U.S. dominated Germany in the quarterfinals and were a handball away from the semifinals where they would have faced a South Korea team that they had already drawn with. It would have been quite conceivable that the U.S. could have beaten South Korea, finding themselves in the finals against Brazil -- we almost assuredly would have lost, but who knows what can happen in 90 minutes. Also, just last year the U.S. got to the finals in the Confederations' Cup, beat Spain and were 2-0 up on Brazil. The US can play with the worlds best and is capable of pulling off an upset.
It's not in Europe and it's cold. European teams tend to do badly when the tournament isn't close to them. In 2002, the big teams collapsed like flies, leading South Korea and Turkey to make the semifinals. In 2006, the European clubs did well. Additionally, it will be fairly cold, since it is winter in South Africa. This should cause some problems for, bizarrely, African teams, as well as South American sides. In other words, when the World Cup is played outside of Europe and South America, wacky things can happen.
The draw is relatively favorable. The top half of the World Cup draw -- groups A, B, C, D -- are weaker than the other four. The best teams in this half of the draw are Argentina, England, Germany, Serbia and France. Compare that to Brazil, Portugal, Holland, Spain and Italy. With the exception of Argentina, the U.S. matches up fairly well against the rest. Should the U.S. make it out of the group, it will likely play an injury-hampered Germany or Serbia. The U.S. would be expected to lose, but both those teams play a physical European style that the U.S. can match up to well. Now, if the U.S. gets past that game, things get interesting. If the U.S. were to avoid Argentina (by winning the group or Argentina falling apart under Diego Maradona), and should France collapse, the U.S. could quite reasonably face rival Mexico in the quarterfinals -- a game the US might be favored to win. The path to the semifinals could be through Serbia and Mexico. At that point, the U.S. is in the semifinals and who knows what can happen.
World football is more balanced. Yes only seven teams have won the World Cup, but much of this is due to the fact that world football for the 20th century was essentially dominated by Europe and a few South American countries. That is still the case, but talent is spreading more widely now, and the top leagues now feature players from all over the world -- Africa, Asia, and North America.
Finally, you got to believe you can. Do I think the US is going to? I wouldn't bet on it, but it is not so far-fetched that one shouldn't hold out hope.
As the World Cup goes on, the elite teams that remain tend to start clicking on all cylinders, which means that the U.S., even if they are playing out of their heads, are likely going to lose at some point. But just as hope springs eternal every February when pitchers and catchers report to spring training, in the week prior to the World Cup, hope should be springing in the U.S.
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