World Cup Preview: Group A

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IT’S HERE. IT’S FINALLY HERE. The World Cup starts today, and boy am I jazzed, you guys. It feels like Christmas morning, if Christmas was celebrated in secret and you got fired if your boss caught you opening your presents. This is the first World Cup during which I’ve been gainfully employed, and lemme tell you something you already know- it’s awful. In 2010, I was more or less unemployed, unless you count daily trips to CoinStar as a profession, and yet I had the time of my life. Being unemployed during the World Cup is like having your home destroyed by a tornado, then finding an original draft of the Magna Carta buried in the wreckage. I’ve spent the last four years trying to scheme up a way to quit my job just before the start of this World Cup, but alas, it’s gonna be a month of long lunches, “car trouble” and stern talking-to’s from my boss. One of my coworkers shattered two bones in his leg playing basketball last week and now he’s basically immobile for the next four months. SO LUCKY. Why didn’t I think of that?
Over the next few days, I’ll be rolling out a preview of each group in the World Cup, starting with Group A today. Occasionally amusing, seldom insightful and always long-winded, it’ll be as if Bob Costas is personally guiding you through Brazil, only with more dick jokes. This was originally going to be an e-book, which I started working on about 8 months ago, but shockingly, I was unable to write, design and learn what the fuck an e-book is while also working 80 hours a week and hooking on the side to cover my rent, so instead you get this preview. As a result, the team entries are wildly inconsistent in length and content and it might, at times, read like a random and hastily assembled collection of scraps pasted together like a ransom note, or a Brazilian soccer stadium. Anyway, I’ll post previews for each group over the next few days, then hopefully put out a semi-daily recap/preview throughout the entire World Cup. LET’S DO THIS.

Group A

Brazil


Brazil
Official FIFA slogan: “Brace yourselves! The 6th is coming!”
Alternative slogan: “Bless this mess, and pardon our protests.”
Population: 198 million
National anthem: Hino Nacional Brasileiro
National anthem of elevators: The Girl from Ipanema
Scarcest natural resource: Surnames
Best use of unnatural resources: Transforming a raw sewage dump into an Olympic watersports venue with literally no effort!
Worst national disaster: The final scene of Fast Five
Foremost domestic hacking group: Mononymous
Team nickname: Seleção Canarinho (Canary Selection), but they simply go by Seleção, because we all know that “canary” requires far too much effort for Brazilians.

In case you haven’t noticed, Brazilians are into the whole brevity thing. For a nation with shockingly high unemployment, Brazilians really seem to be in a rush to shorten words and get on with it. Brazilians took a page from the XFL playbook by adopting nicknames as early as the 19th century, and its now a defining cultural tradition.

There are great ones, like Hulk, Pato, Pitbull (DALLE), Kaka, Fred, Didi, Dunga, Vava and Cafu.

There are animal-inspired ones: Pato (duck) Pavao (Peacock), Cegonha (Stork), Ratinho (Little Rat/Mouse), Aranha (Spider) or Jorge Prea (Guinea Pig).

And there are terrible ones: Cocada (Coconut candy), Eduardo Arroz (Rice), Triguinho (Wheat), Ademir Sopa (Soup), Balao (Balloon), Tesourinha (Little Treasure), Alfinete (Pin) or Valdir Papel (Paper). That’s gotta do wonders for confidence when your teammates are named “Hulk” and “Pitbull” and you’re Paper- “PAPER IS AN INTEGRAL PART OF THE WORKPLACE, GUYS.”

I know I’d try to get an awesome nickname like “Grizzly Bear” or “Electric Guitar” or “EXPLOSION”, but inevitably end up being dubbed “Coffee Table” or “Friendly Rock” or “Chipwich.” Actually, I’d settle for Chipwich. Chipwiches are great.

Odds of collapse at World Cup:

  • Team- 45% chance.
  • Infrastructure- 72% chance.
  • Social order- 97% chance.

Outlook: Brazil has undergone something of a transformation in recent years, shifting their tactics and personnel from their traditional, flashy Joga Bonito, to a defensive-minded, counterattacking team that more closely resembles the Italians’ Catenaccio. Now, they’ve blended the old and new into a marauding combination of strength, speed and terrifying defense. This isn’t the most talented Brazilian team compared with the nation’s historical peers, and yet it’s still one of the three or four most stacked rosters in the tournament. Players such as Thiago Silva, Oscar, and Paulinho will form the backbone of the starting XI, but the success or failure of the team will – rightly or wrongly – be credited to Neymar. The 22-year-old has been considered the next great Brazilian goal scorer for the better part of a decade, and while he’s an outright star, he has yet to live up to the unreasonably high expectations that follow him. Neymar had mixed results playing for Barcelona this year, plagued at times by off-field controversy and on-field dissonance and an uneasy partnership with teammate/rival Messi. Neymar is expected to lead Brazil to the title in front of the home fans, and quite simply, nothing less will do. They’ll roll through a relatively easy group A, but a potential round of 16 faceoff with Spain, Chile or the Netherlands could be the defining moment for the Selecao as a whole and Neymar in particular.

Croatia

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Official FIFA slogan: “With fire in our hearts, for Croatia all as one!”
Alternative slogan: “We may not play good defense, but we’ll pull up from three all day, son.”
Primary international exports: Peja Stojakovic and Toni Kukoc
Most famous world traveler: Marco Polo
Strangest source of national pride: Cravat Day! Celebrated on October 18, Cravat Day commemorates the invention of the necktie in Croatia in the 17th century. This best, and perhaps saddest, aspect of Cravat Day is that it’s not even a tradition. It started in 2003 when they wrapped a GIANT tie around the Roman arena in Pula, and Croatian Parliament unanimously declared it a national holiday in 2008. Croatian Parliament: “We literally have nothing better to do than celebrate neckties!”

Most famous world traveler: Marco POLO
Fun fact about Croatia: “Croatia,” in Croatian, is spelled “HRVATSKA”. God, other cultures are so weird, right guys?
Horrifying fact about Croatia: They’re the only country whose currency is based upon the slaughter of adorable animals. So this is unfortunate. Their monetary unit is the Kuna, which is Croatian for Marten -this adorable creature. So that’s kinda cute, right — that they’ve got this little guy as their financial mascot? Wrong. It’s called the Kuna, because Kuna used to be captured and killed for their skin, which was used as a unit of trade. Croatians are MONSTERS.
Most famous world traveler: Marco POLO
National backhanded compliment: Croatia’s the only nation from the former Yugoslavia who went on to do anything good. Bascially Croatia is to Yugoslavia what Idris Elba is to The Wire or Puff Daddy is to Bad Boy (miss you, Craig Mack!).

Worst way to celebrate World Cup qualification: Nazi-inspired chanting.
How they learned this lesson: The hard way. After defeating Iceland in a playoff to clinch World Cup qualification, starting centerback Josip Šimunić saluted the home fans with a chant that is associated with a fascist, Nazi-inspired movement. He was suspended 10 games, and will miss the World Cup as a result. Šimunić (and others) argued the chant was simply a source of national pride, but, you know- when there’s uncertainty as to whether or not your actions are inspired by Nazis, you’re probably in the wrong. That’s the kind of thing you have to be pretty certain about.

If you’re looking for a dark horse team to root for, you could do a lot worse than Croatia. For one, they’re Mexico’s chief competition for the second spot in this group, and it’s always fun to root against Mexico. Second, their jerseys are awesome. I realize that I might be the only person outside of Croatia who thinks this, but it’s a fact. The checkerboard pattern owns and if you disagree you’re wrong. I am a respected authority in the world of fashion. Third, and most important, they’re a legitimate candidate to become the Cinderella of this tournament.

There are just 4 million people in Croatia, and yet they came within a hair of winning the whole damn World Cup in 1998, losing to eventual champions France, 2-1, in the semifinal. Since then, things have been bleak, but the Croats(?) boast world-class talent in Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modrić, Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandžukić and Sevilla Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitić, plus talent from Europe’s top leagues throughout the roster, and could be primed for a deep run if they’re able to get their level of play to match their level of talent. If you’re looking for a reason to root against them, see that whole Nazi-inspired chant thing.

According to a Croatian tourism site, a friendly and very common greeting among the Croats is Bog!, both for Hi! and Bye! So bog to you, my friends. Bog to everyone.

 

Mexico

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Official FIFA slogan: “Always united, always Aztecas.”
Alternative slogan: [Alternative slogan changed 10 times in the lead up to the World Cup and ultimately left blank.]
Captain: Rafa Marquez, the ill-tempered, steady presence for three World Cups is less of a man, more of a soccer-playing Treebeard. At 35, he’s known around the locker room for his constant chatter about Saved By The Bell, NYPD Blue and other cultural references lost on his far younger teammates. As team captain, Marquez controls the locker room iPod, which he has subsequently replaced with a cassette deck that only plays Nirvana’s In Utero, the only cassette Marquez could find in 2014. But it’s not about music for Rafa, who leads his younger peers by example: picking them up promptly at 8:15am on game day in his Subaru Outback, then loading everyone back into his sensibly priced, 33mpg hatchback after wins to take the team out for pancakes, though he still longs for his youth when thick, frosty malts at the the five and dime were the traditional spoils of victory. Things were simpler then for Rafa. He knows his current teammates call him a dinosaur when they’re out at the nightclubs long past his nightly bedtime of 8:30pm. He wasn’t always this way. There was a time when he too would had a taste for the the gin joints, where he’d stay up half the night playing parlor games, telling war stories and drinking Old Fashioneds — simply called Fashioneds at the time — before making it home just in time to break out his decoder ring and listen to the latest installment of The Shadow. Rafa wants to tell Chicharito and his youthful compatriots about those days, about all he’s seen, and all he’s learned. But how does one breach the indelible line of paternal authority? How does a father every truly know his sons; or better yet- they him? How indeed?

Best Slayer inspired fashion statement: The lightning bolts on their jerseys, which would be badass if everyone on the team was fucking six. For goddsakes Mexico, show some self-restraint for once.

Best player: Carlos Vela.
Worst player to be your best player: Carlos Vela. Vela is a tantalizingly talented forward/winger who put up 16 goals and 12 assists in 37 games in La Liga this season. He also happens to hate playing for Mexico and has refused call-ups to the team for the better part of three years. Worst for Mexico is Vela has always left the door open to a return, even saying he’d welcome a call-up last September before ultimately no-showing. Vela’s presence – or absence – has loomed over every coaching change and every national team failure since his departure, and there have been many. Vela was the leader of what was supposed to be a golden generation for Mexico, with Chicharito, Giovanni Dos Santos and Andres Guardado among others, but then one day Vela went out to get cigarettes and never came back, and his team he left behind is still waiting for him to go home.

The Obligatory Bill-Simmonsian Verbose, Contrived Pop Culture Metaphor: With universally lauded peaks interspersed between alternatively ugly and embarrassing moments of infamy, Mexico is the Nicolas Cage of the World Cup. One minute, they’re winning gold- an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, an Olympic medal for beating Brazil in the 2012 London finals. The next, they’re losing to Panama twice during World Cup qualification or making Ghost Rider and Ghost Rider 2. Just when you give up hope, they’ll show their trademark brilliance by going 6-0 in the second round of qualifying or making Con-Air, then they’re selling off castles and making Season of the Witch, or earning just 11 out of 30 possible points in the final round of qualification and finishing fourth out of six teams. Mexico ultimately advanced thanks to a well-documented bailout from the U.S.A., followed by a cakewalk playoff matchup against the Orcs of New Zealand.
For every Lord of War, there’s a Wicker Man, and so Mexico is just as likely to beat Croatia and Cameroon and advance to the knockout round in Brazil as it is to lose all three group games in horrifying fashion. Fans of El Tri are praying for The Rock, but they could instead be forced to watch Drive Angry, and nobody wants to see Drive Angry.

The Mexican National Team’s No Good Very Bad Coaching Staff: Since 2008, El Tri have been coached by nine different managers. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s roughly one every eight months, which is a bit above average. For comparison, nine US Men’s National Team coaches ago, the year was 1983, Dr. J had just won an NBA title, Apple was releasing its first computer, and Clint Dempsey was just a glint in the eye of the demigod who bore him.
It gets better. From September 7, 2013 to October 18, 2013, Mexico employed four different head coaches. First, after giving coach Jose Manuel de la Torre a unanimous vote of confidence days earlier, the Mexican soccer federation fired him following their next game,a 2-1 loss to Honduras, and hired De La Torre’s assistant coach, Luis Fernando Tena to replace him. Four days later, Tena managed his first game, lost 2-0 to the United States, and was promptly fired. He was replaced by Victor Manuel Vucetich, who won his first game, drew his second and watched the third from his couch because — you guessed it — he was fired, but not before Vucetich told the Mexican media, “I am … King Midas, but not God. That’s why it has come to this.” …THE ARISTOCRATS!
Ultimately they hired Miguel Herrara to take over the team, but by the time you read this, there’s a good chance that the Mexican soccer federation has fired Herrera and replaced him with a honeydew with glasses drawn on it.

 

Cameroon

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Official slogan: “A lion remains a lion.”
Alternative slogan: “A leopard can’t change its spots,” “A zebra can’t change its stripes,” or any number of animal sayings that already exist and make more sense than “A lion remains a lion.”
Fun Fact: Not only is Cameroon one of the colors in the Crayola Big Box, it is also a country that exists.

Far and away the most successful African nation in World Cup history, Cameroon has fallen dramatically from their vaunted status. Their stars are aged, their coaching tactics are a mess, and the team has been plagued by controversy and embarrassment in recent years. Their qualifying campaign was more performance art than soccer artistry. Observe:

  • Cameroon failed to qualify for the African Cup of Nations in both 2012 and 2013, and missed the latter tournament after losing a play-in game against Cape Verde. Cape Verde is an archipelago with a population of 500,000 that had never before qualified for any major tournament. You never want to lose to an archipelago.
  • They probably wouldn’t have qualified for the World Cup if it hadn’t been revealed that Togo used an ineligible player in a 2-0 victory over Cameroon during a key qualifier. I don’t know what an “ineligible player” is, but I can only assume that Togo fielded several orangutans standing atop each other’s shoulders and wearing a trenchcoat.
  • Cameroon’s president of football operations is currently in prison for using state-allocated team funds for personal use, and FIFA – the gold standard of justice and honesty – suspended the team from international competition last year.
  • Eto’o is a legend for Cameroon, and he’s awesome, but he’s also old, quite old. The guy played in the 1998 World Cup and he’s either 33 or 40 years old depending on whom you ask.
  • Eto’o claimed in January of this year that he was the victim of team-wide “plot not to pass to me.”
  • Their goalkeeper, Charles Itandje, was forced out of Liverpool after being caught on camera laughing throughout a memorial service for the Hillsborough Disaster.
  • Cameroon’s World Cup campaign got off to a resounding start when the entire team refused to board its plane to Brazil due to a dispute over wages.

So yeah. Things are not going well for Cameroon, but their uniforms are DOPE so I’m rooting for them.