A post on the 2014 World Cup draw, published in the New Yorker (6 December 2013)
Six months ahead of the first match of the 2014 World Cup—Croatia vs. Brazil, on June 12th in São Paulo—the shape of the tournament zoomed into view on Friday with the much-hyped televised draw that determines the fixtures of the contest’s opening-group stage. Fans around the world watched nervously, as if awaiting a verdict. Landing in an “easy” group offers the tantalizing prospect of a long World Cup run; a bad draw can puncture a team’s ambitions before the tournament has even begun. For a few unlucky countries, that sense of doom is already overwhelming.
FIFA, soccer’s incorrigible and gargantuan global governing body, designed the draw ceremony, in Bahia, as a massive media spectacle, with gleaming presenters and musical acts strutting on a stage better suited to the MTV Video Music Awards. The glitz belied the otherwise plodding mechanics of the event, which simply sorted the thirty-two qualifying teams into eight groups of four. Each team plays the other three in its group, and the top two of each foursome advance to the next round.
Soccer’s Anglosphere was dealt a particularly harsh hand. England, Australia, and the United States find themselves in very tough groups, pitted against the powerhouses Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Uruguay, and Germany. In England, home to a reliable quadrennial cycle of overinflated World Cup expectations, a deep fatalistic gloom set in minutes after the draw. Seventy per cent of Guardian readers in an online poll don’t expect England to advance beyond the group stage. As the ESPN journalist Iain Macintosh quipped, “Many of us are already drunk.”
Every World Cup draw produces one particularly competitive set of teams, invariably dubbed the “Group of Death” by soccer’s chattering classes. But this year, with one of the strongest fields in recent memory, the draw has put forth three possibly fatal groups. In Group B, Spain, the defending champions, will play both the Netherlands—a rematch of the last World Cup final—and a talented Chilean side; the Spanish are by no means guaranteed an easy path to the round of sixteen. Italy, the 2006 champions, will have to negotiate both England and the powerful Uruguayan squad in Group D. And the United States is stranded in Group G, with the brilliant Germans and a Portuguese team led by one of soccer’s superstars, the flamboyant Cristiano Ronaldo.
Elsewhere, observers will find no shortage of subplots, both national and personal. Can Belgium, blessed with an exceedingly skillful (and strikingly multicultural) generation of players, overcome their typical failures of mental strength to leave a mark on the international stage? Who will win the contest of the Boateng brothers? Jérôme, who plays for Germany, and Kevin-Prince, who chose to play for Ghana, face off in the first round. How will the Croatian citizen Eduardo da Silva fare against the country of his birth and upbringing, Brazil?
The hosts enter the tournament as one of its favorites: they will be aided, in their quest for a first World Cup triumph on home soil, by a manageable draw. The lottery has also been kind to Brazil’s neighbor and archrival, Argentina, who are expected to easily dispatch Iran (minnows), Bosnia-Herzegovina (débutantes), and Nigeria (uncertain quantities).
With the draw complete, pundits and commentators have begun to map out their predictions for the tournament’s early stages, and set up hypothetical brackets for the single-elimination round of sixteen that follows. The statistics swami Nate Silver, newly employed at ESPN, has already produced his own quantitative analysis, based on a “Soccer Power Index,” which he has used to plot each team’s probability of advancing. Unlike most American sports, soccer does not generate the voluminous pile of numbers, nor the habits of statistical analysis, native to baseball or football. Soccer fans, judging by early responses to Silver’s predictions, find it strange to see their fluid and mercurial game dissected with decimal precision.
Twenty-three of the world’s top twenty-five teams will travel to Brazil next year—a rarity, given the arduous routes to qualification in each continent, and the allocation of slots to traditionally weaker soccer regions like Asia. As a result, soccer fans are hopeful that next year’s competition will rival the 1986 tournament, held in Mexico, considered by rough consensus to have been the last truly great World Cup.
Not since 1994, when the World Cup was played in the United States, has the tournament been staged across such enormous distances. The twelve stadiums where games will be played are scattered throughout Brazil’s diverse climactic zones, in areas both rural and urban. Playing in steamy equatorial Bahia, for example, may pose challenges for European teams that the cooler air of Porto Alegre will not. In the lead-up to today’s draw, team managers fretted as much about the venues where their teams would play as they did about their prospective opponents.
A stray comment earlier this week from England’s coach, Roy Hodgson, who said he hoped not to play in the stifling tropical heat of Manaus—the Amazon jungle down that is by far the tournament’s most remote venue—has already set off controversy. The city’s mayor, Arthur Virgílio Neto, replied that he also wanted the English to stay away: “We hope to get a better team, and a coach who is more sensible and polite.” Neither man got his wish: England will play their first match of the World Cup against Italy in Manaus, where Neto has nevertheless promised to surprise Hodgson “with the hospitality of the Amazonian people.”