When the final whistle blew after 120 minutes of yet another thrilling Champions League Final, the football world could finally give 100 percent of their attention to the upcoming World Cup in Brazil. The first kick is less than two weeks away and like World Cups in the past, it's already filled with intrigue. We shouldn't expect anything less. The only guarantee is anything is possible. There will be goals, there will be heartbreak, but only one winner.
I won't try to make any predictions, but what I will do is describe what it takes to have a successful World Cup.
A Win is a Win
You have to be willing to win ugly. A win is a win and you need at least one to progress out of the group stage -- and you have to keep winning to be crowned Champion. There are no points awarded for style. In 1998, when the French won on home soil, they started out brilliantly, with three wins for maximum of nine points (three points for a win) to win their group. In the knockout stage, it was an entirely different ballgame. They had to grind out victories against Paraguay (1-0), Italy (0-0, 0-0, 4-3), and Croatia (2-1). In the finals, however, they played masterfully against a heavily favored Brazil side, winning 3-0. Winning is all that matters.
No team wins a World Cup on skill alone -- except for maybe Brazil in 2002. In 2006, the Italians were on the brink of extra time against the Australians when Fabio Grosso went down -- softly I might add, replays show little to no contact -- after stepping over a challenge from an Aussie defender. The referee determined that was enough to award a penalty, which the Italians converted and moved on to the next round, eventually being crowned Champions. Or take the US squad in 1994. Who would have thought the US could have beaten Colombia? But a few lucky bounces -- and an unfortunate own goal -- and the US pulled off the unthinkable.
Nothing spells disaster like a team in turmoil. If the players don't get along with each other or if there's no respect for the coaches and managers, no team will have a chance to succeed. All I have to point to is the French debacle of 2010. The players refused to practice after one of their teammates had been, in their opinion, unfairly punished. Or, on the exact opposite of the spectrum, the Spanish side that won in South Africa. Much of that squad played in La Liga -- spending their club seasons intensely competing against each other. They overcame their club rivalries to be crowned World Cup Champions.
The outcome for the US in 2010 could have been much different had they not persevered through slow starts, bad officiating, and a grueling 90 minutes with Algeria. If you remember, their World Cup started with early goal to England -- Steven Gerrard's cool finish past Tim Howard. The US was able to get a goal back and settle for a point against England. In their next game against Slovenia, they had a winning goal disallowed after coming back from two goals down, because the referee -- who should remain nameless -- called a non-existent foul on an American player. In their final group game, on the brink of elimination, a quick counter attack found Landon Donovan pouncing on a loose ball in the Algerian goal mouth to give the US a dramatic 1-0 victory and the top spot in their Group. Unfortunately, the US were eliminated in the next round, but 2010 remains a success nonetheless.
No, I'm not talking about size -- although that helps. But I'm referring to playing with heart and conviction. There's no better example than Cameroon in 1990. The Indomitable Lions weren't given much of shot after being drawn in a group with reigning World Champions Argentina and European Championship runner-up Soviet Union. In their first match, they managed to shock the world by defeating Argentina 1-0 -- even ending the match with nine men. After making it to the Round of 16, they defeated Colombia. Unfortunately, England ended their run in the quarterfinals -- Cameroon had even led the game 2-1. Cameroon's success in the 1990 World Cup remains the litmus test for subsequent African sides competing in the World Cup.
Being realistic with your goals goes a long way both in life and sport. It'd be foolish for American fans to think the US should bring home the trophy -- I'd be ecstatic, but seriously, it's not going to happen. But teams like Spain or Brazil, wouldn't be wrong to think they have a legitimate shot at winning the whole thing. I'd be worried if the coach from either team suggested their goal was the Round of 16.
The most successful teams will be the ones that accomplish these steps -- although let's be honest, it won't be because they've read this piece.
So, sit back, relax -- no check that, sit on the edge of your sofa, bar stool, office swivel chair, or stand if necessary and cheer on your favorite national team. Starting June 12 anything is possible.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly scored USMNT's victory over Algeria in the 2010 World Cup.