Redcoats Seek Yankee Revenge at World Cup

    Dear God,

    I am sorry to say this, but you’re trapped. FIFA’s got you — like a poor sod being subjected to a Kiefer Sutherland interrogation in a wet, underground, undisclosed location. Even you, with all your magical mystique, can’t weasel out of this one without spitting out at least some revealing secrets. That whole “Those lowly humans couldn’t possibly know what I’m thinking” act? It’s up.

    On June 12, 2010, when Group C of the 2010 FIFA World Cup kicks off at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa, before a scrutinizing world audience, you will have two options to choose from: save the queen or bless America. BOOM! Bet you didn’t see that one coming!

    But in all seriousness — lame historical references aside — the world will be keenly watching Group C when the United Kingdom, in all its regal glory, faces the U.S., its defiant former colony. It’s the kind of mouth-watering, politically charged showdown that only the World Cup can facilitate.

    Considering that America leads the world in tickets purchased per country, and that Britain takes a close third (according to FIFA sales data from last February), packs of fans from both countries will descend upon Rustenburg to cheer on their teams in a football-pitch reenactment of the Revolutionary War. And, just like the first time around, the British are the heavy favorite. If the Americans are to upset the Three Lions, it will take a Yankee performance of epic, odds-defying proportions. Before you overzealous American patriots let your delusions go any further, let me serve you a harsh does of reality: The British will finish atop Group C.

    The Three Lions enter this year’s World Cup highly motivated. Their shocking failure to qualify for the 2008 European Championships was a deep embarrassment for the country — especially since the British press had hyped the team as one of the more talented crops of players England has ever featured. However, the hiring of legendary Italian tactician Fabio Capello has promptly turned their fortunes around, distancing the painful memories of 2008.

    Capello — known as a strict, paternalistic, authoritative figure — immediately instilled a sense of discipline into a team that, though loaded with world-class talent, lacked cohesion, consistency and a winning mentality. In 2009, England breezed through European qualifications, exacting revenge against Croatia, who ended their Euro 2008 qualification campaign a year earlier.

    With a roster littered in talismanic superstars — midfielders Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard and forward Wayne Rooney, to name a few — England stands as one of my top three favorites to win the entire tournament. However, an unimpressive selection of goalkeepers, injuries to key role players, locker-room stability and a horrific history in penalty shoot-outs stand to derail their World Cup campaign. Nonetheless, the English are heavy favorites for the semifinals; at the very least.

    The Bald Eagles, led by head coach Bob Bradley, will likely finish as runners-up to Capello’s men —enough to qualify for the round of sixteen. I have always been highly critical of U.S. soccer — maybe overly critical. In past years, I might have even picked Slovenia or Algeria to advance. I’ve never understood how our country, capable of producing internationally acclaimed talents in seemingly all sports but soccer, has historically faltered to field a team whose technical ability matches its athleticism, and constantly lost to teams with less physically imposing, more gifted players. For this reason, I never thought of Landon Donovan as anything more than a mediocre player, hyped simply because he was American.

    However, over the last year, I have been forced to eat my words. Donovan’s impressive performance in England playing for local Liverpool-based club Everton FC with and against the world’s best talents has dispelled all the previous criticisms — of his arrogance, overstated abilities and cowardice for not testing himself in the high-level European leagues —I had levied against him. Donovan and Clint Dempsey, who plays for London-based club Fulham, have both established themselves as useful, quality players at the highest level. Moreover, the increasing influx of talented Americans into the various European leagues has had noticeable effects on the entire national team: players now compete with the belief that they can hold their own with the best of the best.

    Perhaps no better an illustration of the U.S. transformation was its improbable run to the 2009 Confederations Cup Final, during which it beat a competent Egyptian team, scored a historic upset over current No. 1 in the world Spain and barely lost 3-2 to eventual champs Brazil after taking a shocking 2-0 lead in the final.

    While recent American achievements have certainly raised expectations, they may set the team up to flop, should they fail to scale such unexpected heights again.

    While the England and the U.S. are the clear headliners of this group, and deservedly so, both teams would be foolish to pay as little attention to Slovenia and Algeria as I have in this column. Led by Dutch master tactician Guus Hiddink, a coach whose credentials are unquestionably masterful, the Slovenians beat out a talented, heavily favored Russian team (who had made the semifinals of the European Championships under Hiddink’s guidance only one year prior). Algeria also qualified by scoring a surprise upset against an able-bodied Egyptian team, which had just won the African Cup of Nations. While both teams boast fewer quality players than the English or Americans, every four years, the World Cup stage proves heart can trump talent — and if the unpredictable does occur, it wouldn’t be the first time people would be justified in calling the Brits and their rebellious offspring arrogant.

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