When the first Brazuca (that’s the official Adidas World Cup ball) is kicked on June 12, the whole globe will be watching. A whopping 3.2 billion people tuned into the 2010 World Cup, and Brazil’s football finals have all the makings of a massively entertaining event. If you haven’t been paying attention to all the drama in the run up to this year’s tourney, shame on you. Now, read on for a need-to-know guide that will have you talking the talk in no time.
The Group of Death The World Cup finals start with 32 qualifying teams from different geographic regions that are drawn into eight groups. The teams in each group face off against each other once, and the two with the best records advance to the knockout rounds.
The U.S. was unfortunately drawn into the strongest overall group, Group G, the “Group of Death.” The favorites to move forward are Germany, a popular pick to win it all, and Portugal, which can ride the unstoppable Cristiano Ronaldo. Joining the U.S. as an underdog to advance from Group G is Ghana, the team that eliminated the Yanks from the last two World Cups.
JÜrgen Klinsmann After failing twice to recruit the former German striker and national team coach, the U.S. Soccer Federation finally signed Klinsmann as head coach in 2011. They gave him unprecedented control, and he’s ultimately responsible for creating a better development system for U.S. Soccer, as well as finding success at the World Cup.
Klinsmann recruited several dual nationals this year, and, from top to bottom, this is probably the most talented U.S. squad in history. Controversially, Klinsmann did not include Landon Donovan, the most prolific American goal scorer ever, on his final roster for Brazil, and criticism will come quickly if the team stumbles out of the gate in its first, and crucial, match against Ghana on June 16. But, Klinsmann is signed through the 2018 World Cup, and could be prepping a young core for the future.
The Weight of a Nation Lionel Messi is one the greatest soccer players of his generation, a brutally graceful forward who has won the Ballon d’Or, given to the world’s best player, four out of the last five years. And yet, Messi has always been better for club than country, and to satisfy Argentine fans he will have to carry the team deep into the tournament after a sub-par season with Barcelona.
While Argentina is one of the favorites to make it to the semi-finals, and boasts a lethal front four, the defense is shaky. Messi left Argentina as a teen to join Barcelona, and success in Brazil could go a long way with Albiceleste fans who question if he is Argentine enough.
No Place like Home? The World Cup host nation has won the tournament six times, and with Brazil, a five-time winner and the betting favorite, the home team is under immense pressure to make it seven. Also hanging over the team is the nation’s last appearance as World Cup host in 1950, when Brazil lost in the finals on a late-game goal.
Barcelona’s 22-year-old star Neymar (just Neymar) could easily be the tournament’s top scorer, but this Brazilian squad is more reliant on a strong defense than previous incarnations.
Brazil’s soccer federation will also hope that local unrest surrounding the tournament will not become a distraction. There have been many protests against the World Cup and the money spent on stadium and transportation projects.
Bad publicity For FIFA, the governing body for international soccer, the last month has been full of bad news: a match-fixing scandal in the games leading up to the South African World Cup in 2010, reports of horrific working conditions for and numerous deaths among immigrant laborers building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and allegations that FIFA officials accepted payoffs in exchange for supporting that Middle Eastern country’s bid to host the tournament.