Italy Finds A Way;
Paraguay, Slovakia Vie
For Second Place ... Maybe?
By MIKE MARSHALL
One Great Season
Before any teams are reviewed, I think a good place to start is with two terms that, should you not be familiar with this game, will go a long way in potentially helping you to better appreciate the most popular sporting event on the planet – unlucky and good idea.
For example, if a player shoots on goal and just misses, but the effort was there, you might hear someone say "unlucky." It's not baseball where a player would be given an error for his effort. As for "good idea," should a player pick out one of his teammates making a great run, and the ball is played a bit heavy, then "good idea" would be an in-order comment.
BIO: Meet Mike Marshall
This isn't American football, where nearly all of the actions on the field are scripted. International football is a fluid game; think improvised dance meets Martial Arts. Three subs, no time outs and no chance to run over and get some oxygen after sprinting forward to attempt a goal, then shagging back to cover your own defensive position.
Lastly, I'll be mentioning rankings, but only because people seem to think they hold some sway over how a team might perform. Personally, I think they're absolute bullshit (NCAA Division I, pick a sport), but you are, of course, entitled to your own opinion. Nicknames on the other hand can be quite fun.
Nickname: Azzurri (Short for Squadra Azzurra, or Blue Team)
OK, so Italy won the last World Cup and will be defending their title. Sure, they tend to put together good tournament sides, having won this contest a near-record four times, and were runners-up twice. However, given the age of the team, Coach Marcello Lippi's men may have trouble should they make into the latter rounds. So what do they have going for them, you ask?
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For starters, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Gianluigi Buffon. In support of him are three immensely experienced players to ensure the legendary, Italian-Defense Bus keeps its parking space in front of the goal: Defenders Fabio Cannavarro and Gianluca Zambrotta, along with midfielder Gennaro Gattuso. Despite hammering some of my favorite players from time to time, Gattuso is to be well respected for his work ethic, an Italian Dirk Kuyt if you will (cheers, Dirk). Though you never know where the goals will originate, I'd say the player to watch up front is Antonio Di Natale. He was Serie A's leading scorer this past season, and moves well between the left wing and front of goal. On the subject of forwards, an "unlucky" goes out to Giuseppe Rossi, the young Italian-American. Many voices have been raised calling him a traitor because he chose to play for Italy over the United States. Go blow, you envious bastards. He moved back to Italy with his father before he was 17, and had always expressed a desire to play for the Azzurri. Can you believe it, some people actually prefer being members of other countries?
Players to Watch: Antonio Di Natale and Gennaro Gattuso
Nickname: All Whites
When I think of New Zealand, the first thing that comes to mind is their national rugby team, the "All Blacks", known not only for their prowess on the pitch, but also for their pre-match employment of the Haka. If you haven't seen or heard of the Haka, Google it; it's impressive. Second to mind are the varied and gorgeous landscapes, most recently captured in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings." Unfortunately, neither Gandolf the Gray, nor Gandolf the White will be available for the Kiwis, in this, their second dance at the finals.
COMING WEDNESDAY: Ben Jackey Breaks Down Group G
Unless you follow the English leagues at some level, or more specifically, follow New Zealand's National Team, you will likely not recognize any of the players on the All Whites roster. The one exception would be Andrew Boyens of the New York Red Bulls (Go Red Bulls!). A stalwart stopper at Blackburn in the Premiership, Ryan Nelsen's experience definitely will be in demand. At the goal-scoring end of the pitch will be another name player, Chris Killen, though currently at Middlesbrough in the Championship, he was most recently with Scottish powerhouse Celtic. Despite the aforementioned lads, coach Ricki Herbert will not have the depth in his team to do anything more than give a good showing. All the best to our Kiwi brethren.
Players to Watch: Ryan Nelsen, Chris Killen, and Andrew Red Bull Boyens
Nickname: La Albirroja, or White-Red
Paraguay come into the finals in good form, finishing third in the South American Zone behind Brazil and Chile. To be more specific, they were only one point behind Brazil, and ceded second place to Chile on goal difference. Well done, Paraguay. With an Argentine coach, Gerardo Martino, Paraguay will be deploying a solid midfield in the form of Cruz Azul's Christian Riveros and Libertad's Victor Caceres. In tandem with these likely to be European-bound players are a strike pair certainly worth mentioning, Nelson Valdez and Oscar Cardozo, of Borussia Dortmond and Benfica, respectively. As Paraguay defeated both Argentina and Brazil in their qualifying run-up (yes, under Maradona, Argentina have been quite the box-of-chocolates), I'm expecting them to tow that Italian bus to the side of the road and claim top of the group. You read it here.
Player to Watch: Nelson Valdez
Nickname: Bojovni Jondovci, The Fighting Jondas
Anyone remember Czechoslovakia? They finished as runners-up twice. However, as of December 31, 1992, one nation became two. With the former talent pool divided, the Slovak Football Association was founded in 1993. Since then the Czechs have historically done better in both European and world championships, but that gap appears to have been closed. In qualifying for their first ever final, Slovakia left behind the Czech Republic and Poland to take in the 2010 World Cup Finals as spectators at best. To quote Stanislav Sestak, a forward plying his trade at VfL Bochum, "We have nothing to lose. The fact we are participating is already a big achievement, so now we can play freely." Along with Sestak, midfielder Marek Hamsik of Napoli certainly will prove difficult to corral by any team thinking The Fighting Jondas are interested in an early flight home. Bringing up the back line is a stout Liverpool defender, Martin Skrtel. Based on this being Slovakia's first time at the big dance, and given their underdog status, like Paraguay, I wouldn't be surprised to see them surprise the Azzurri.
And about that nickname; what in the hell is a Jonda? My attempt to speak with coach Vladimir Weiss Sunday upon hearing about Skrtel's ankle proved fruitless, so I searched the World Wide Web. Marián 2 explains on Wikipedia that the name comes from the large number of Slovak immigrants who took the surname Jonda. These Slovak supporters reportedly were a rowdy bunch, and the name took -– to both fans and team. If anyone out there has a more substantiated source/definition, please send it my way.
Players to Watch: Stanislav Sestak, Marek Hamsik, Martin Skrtel
If you find yourself at a pub, and some people are intently watching this tournament, please wait until a pause in play, say half-time or the end of the game, to ask questions like:
+ How do you think the US will do?
+ Will (insert country name here) win the whole thing?
+ How many teams play in the World Cup?
+ How long does a match last?
Get the point?