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Sports

May 15, 2014

A World Cup Questionnaire

Greg Lalas of MLSsoccer.com, Graham Parker of the Guardian and Grantland, and Alexander Abnos of SI and Howler answer all your soccer questions.

Michael Gluckstadt

The World Cup is nearly here, which means everyone is about to get a lot more knowledgeable about soccer. To get things started, Gelf's Varsity Letters event was devoted entirely to The Beautiful Game.

Alexander Abnos and Greg Lalas
"Before the internet, soccer fans were like fans of alt rock in the '80s. Then it was like Bleach just came out." — Greg Lalas

Alexander Abnos and Greg Lalas

On May 15 at The Gallery at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, the discussion featured Greg Lalas, a former player and current editor-in-chief of MLSsoccer.com; Graham Parker of The Guardian and Grantland; and Alexander Abnos, who writes for Sports Illustrated and Howler (a magazine that Gelf profiled in 2012).

You can listen to the full panel discussion and the Q and A that followed here:

Also, in the questionnaire below, Parker, Lalas, and Abnos tell you everything you need to know about this year's World Cup: who will win (Argentina), where to watch (Woodwork in Brooklyn), and what's at stake for the greatest players in the world (not too much, but also, everything).

Gelf Magazine: Name this year's semifinalists, finalists, winner:

Graham Parker: Semifinalists: Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Italy. Finalists: Germany (dun-dun-DER! Brazil stunned in semi), Argentina. Winner: Argentina.

Alexander Abnos: Semifinalists: Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Uruguay. Winner: Argentina



Greg Lalas: Semifinalists: Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Mexico. Finals: Germany, Argentina. Winner: Argentina.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of the US TV commentators?

Alexander Abnos: I believe most US commentators do a good job considering that they're likely coming from a background where they're doing sports with a completely different rhythm than soccer. That means that on the whole, most end up talking far more than necessary, which I can see the perks of, but don't necessarily like personally. My favorite American voice at the moment is John Strong—he, JP Dellecamera, and Phil Shoen are three guys I think really understand when to get involved in a talking point and when to sit back and let the game speak for itself. 


Greg Lalas: It's an impressive list. Ian Darke is an instant classic, if you will. But the analysts are even more impressive, and I don't say that only because one of them, Alexi Lalas, is my brother and the other Americans—Alejandro Moreno, Taylor Twellman, and Kasey Keller—are friends. Steve McManaman is always fun, if a little wacky, and Gilberto Silva is going to blow everyone's mind. He's a very thoughtful and intelligent man, who obviously knows the game and the host nation. I'm kind of curious about Ruud van Nistelrooy. Great player, but I've never heard him on air.

Gelf Magazine: Any favorite bars or other venues for watching matches?

Graham Parker: Woodwork in Brooklyn; my basement.

Alexander Abnos: I haven't really gone to too many bars lately since I'm usually working when there are games on. But I do really enjoy Woodwork in Prospect Heights—good food, cheap beer, cool clientele, and doesn't take itself too seriously, which is nice.

Greg Lalas: I like going to Woodwork in Brooklyn. Good beer, good people, and amazing mac-n-cheese. Zum Schneider in Alphabet City—does anyone call it Alphabet City anymore?—is perfect for beer, wurst, and der Mannschaft (Ed Note: try the Aventinus on tap). And if Colombia is playing, go to Jackson Heights. It's an amazing experience.

Gelf Magazine: When will the US win its first World Cup?

Graham Parker: Just far enough away to be realistic, just soon enough for me to see.

Alexander Abnos: This is the cliché-est of cliché answers, but it'll happen about 20 years after we're able to get our best natural athletes involved in and committed to the sport from an early age. That doesn't necessarily mean we won't win until we have a bunch of behemoth players, because I'm not just talking about physical size and strength. Chris Paul is a great example. I watch him play basketball and think that with his vision and general mentality he could be our Claude Makelele.

Greg Lalas: 2022.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of Jürgen Klinsmann's approach thus far?

Graham Parker: I think Klinsmann's approach to developing a young German team in 2006 only became clear in retrospect. Faced with a much larger logistical, let alone talent-based, challenge this time around, I think he's done a good job at stressing the standards he expects, bringing a wide range of players through the system to their personal-developmental benefit, and managing the dual tournament/developmental parts of his job with pragmatic enthusiasm—always with the World Cup cycle in mind.

Alexander Abnos: Which one? Just kidding, but only a little. Other people may see this as a negative, but I like how experimental he's been across the board, whether it comes to tactics or player selections. I like that he sees the United States as more than a bunch of guys with a lot of heart and that he's made a real effort at trying to find roles for all our best players in multiple systems. I do wonder when he's going to settle on a system, though, or if he even thinks it's necessary. 



Greg Lalas: I once asked him if he'd be OK if the US did not qualify for the World Cup but played the "proactive" style he championed early on. He chuckled and said, "No." So, what I think, in the end, is that his approach has not been all that different from any other manager the US has had. Basically, early on, he talked about the changes that need to happen, about the value of playing in Europe—without ever really defining "Europe"—and the need to "find the US identity" and to play a "proactive" soccer. Then he realized that the player pool is what it is—talented, physical, and fit, but not loaded with world-class skills; a sum of its parts that is most effective playing a 4-4-2; reliant on an "American attitude" that says we can win anything—and he rode that through the successful qualifying. Ultimately, he knows now that all we fans/observers want are results. He might want to take the US to the next level or whatever, but I think he's realized that 1) the USMNT isn't as moribund as he originally thought, and 2) getting the US to the next level does not need a wholesale overhaul.

Gelf Magazine: Is interest in the US this year higher vs. 2010, 2006, 2002? How related is that to how the USMNT does?

Graham Parker: Of course there's more interest. It gets exponentially greater with each cycle, let alone with each year of blanket TV coverage of domestic leagues around the world. And it will spike, then diminish, though not to pre-tournament levels, regardless of how the US do. The sport still is gaining fans.

Alexander Abnos: Interest is absolutely higher now than it ever has been in the lead-in to these tournaments, but I think it will skyrocket if the US gets out of that group. It's said again and again, but it's true—Americans will get into anything as long as we win at it. There are obviously exceptions to that rule, but if we're talking on the most macro level, that's certainly the case. It will help that games will be on in something close to our time zone, too.

Greg Lalas: Higher, for sure. For the second question, it depends on what you're asking. If you're asking about Americans' interest in the World Cup, then the USMNT result is important but not paramount. If you're asking about interest in the USMNT, then yes, the result matters. It's important that all the soccer supporters feel like the US is getting better.

Gelf Magazine: With more international games televised in the US, have American fans' approach to the game changed?

Graham Parker: It's a glut. It was surreal scrolling through the channel guide last Sunday morning during the denouement to the Premier League. I think just as important has been Twitter, and the flattening of distances that goes on with fans participating in a global conversation during big international games. It's like developing language skills immersion-style.

Alexander Abnos: Absolutely—there's far less opposition to it now than before. It's much less of an outcast's sport. Even during my childhood in the '90s and up to the early '00s, if you were a really big soccer fan, you were weird. Now I don't really think that's the case anymore, and I think that's because Americans are seeing the game and becoming familiar with its major characters on a more regular basis. Right now I'd say there's much more of a healthy curiosity, whereas before there was far more outright denial.

Greg Lalas: Eh. Not sure. I just think that there are more and more Americans who grew up playing and following the game, so they understand it more. They understand the patterns of play on the field, the skills involved, and the overall structure (leagues, national teams, etc.). Knowledge makes everything more interesting, I guess.

Gelf Magazine: If you were a soccer fan who'd never attended a World Cup, would you recommend going this year, in 2018, or in 2022?

Graham Parker: As a three-dimensional person, given the favela clearances, human-rights abuses and oppressions of press freedom, as well as unnecessary stadium-worker deaths—to pick out three issues at random—there's an argument for skipping them all until 2026. Assuming soccer could magically exist in a bubble, or FIFA-world, I think any World Cup in Brazil is a pretty special moment.

Alexander Abnos: If you want to see the sport's marquee event played out in one of the most passionate hotbeds of the sport, then I'd have to say Brazil. If you want to see a crazy geopolitical/sociological experiment playing out in front of your very eyes on a daily basis, choose Qatar. I honestly think both those options sound exciting, but for very different reasons. 


Greg Lalas: It's Brazil. Duh!

Gelf Magazine: As more wealth goes into the club side of the sport, has the World Cup's importance declined? Will it in the future?

Graham Parker: I think the World Cup's event status will only increase, but as a footballing trendsetter it will decline—the more time goes on, the more the World Cup turns into a strange roving nation-state of its own. Like something written by Italo Calvino.

Alexander Abnos: I don't think it's declined now, and I think the only thing that will threaten it in the future is another international tournament that is somehow better organized or has more money behind it. More people around the world can see big-name club teams and follow the Champions League and things of that nature, but the World Cup still has that *it* factor. The vast majority of the soccer world completely stops for it, and that's not true for any other competition.

Greg Lalas: Nope. It's only ratcheted up. Because that wealth has just extended the game's reach and interest. And as everyone knows that the World Cup is the ultimate goal of everything, people are that much more interested in it.

Gelf Magazine: What would the score be if this year's World Cup champions played the winner of the Champions League (with overlapping players playing for their national team)? Could such a match ever be staged?

Graham Parker: It would be staged on a problematic premise—which is that the Champions League winners are the de facto world champions. I would like to see an increased significance placed on the Club World Cup before I'd like to see this game, to be honest.

Alexander Abnos: I don't think a match like that would ever happen, but if it did, I think the club team would win by a healthy margin—5-1 or 6-1, or something like that. International soccer is fun and can be of very high quality, but nothing can replace the weeks upon weeks of training and regular games that club teams do to develop chemistry and tactics. If you allowed the national team to train and play together for 6 months before the game, they might stand a chance.

Greg Lalas: The score? No idea. But the Champions League team would win. The club has a cohesion developed through day-to-day training over the course of years that a national team can simply never have.

Gelf Magazine: Which event do you enjoy more, the World Cup or the Euros?

Graham Parker: World Cup. Euros are fun, perhaps more intense competition per game, but come on, it's a World Cup.

Alexander Abnos: The World Cup. It's just way more of a culture clash, which is the whole cool thing about soccer to me. Everybody around the world does it, but it's really only during the World Cup that they all do it at the same time, against each other, at a high level.

Greg Lalas: World Cup. The non-European teams bring the kind of flair and intrigue that I like. Think about Suarez's handball in 2010. Would that ever happen at the Euro? Probably not. Not to mention what Brazil brings and the soap opera that Argentina has been the past two decades. Then there are the West African nations like Ivory Coast and Ghana, who could spring a surprise in any game.

Gelf Magazine: Does Lionel Messi need to win a World Cup to enter the sport's pantheon? What about Cristiano Ronaldo?

Graham Parker: They've both won Champions League titles in the most well-documented phase of the sport there's ever been. They'll be fine. Messi having Maradona '86 hanging over him means he has the bigger expectation/potential shortfall on him. Ronaldo doesn't have the same shadow (Eusebio was great, but never dragged a mediocre team to a world title like Maradona did) over him—if he were to win a World Cup with Portugal, that would be seen as a bigger achievement than Messi doing it with Argentina, and enough to see him surpass his rival.

Alexander Abnos: I think people will talk about Messi vs. Ronaldo 20 years from now like we talk about Pele vs. Maradona today (though admittedly Pele and Maradona didn't overlap like Messi and Ronaldo do). Point being: They're both already in the pantheon, and everyone will always have their personal preference. But whichever of him wins the World Cup first will put him up a level on the other (as unfair as that may be considering the historical strength of their national teams).

Greg Lalas: Messi, no. He's already there. He's that good. Ronaldo? Probably. Don't get me wrong. He's a brilliant player. But he's not a genius. I liken Messi and Ronaldo to Mozart and Salieri: One is an artist, the other an artisan.

Gelf Magazine: Who'll be the breakout star of the tournament?

Graham Parker: Part of the fun is not being surprised (since the days of players flying under the radar are mostly past), but of seeing young players confirming their promise on a world stage. I'm intrigued by how the young Belgian side does. For the US, I'd love to see Kyle Beckerman getting some minutes, not for being the greatest player by a distance, but for getting that kind of cult recognition certain players get in these big tournaments.

Alexander Abnos: If he finds a spot on the field, it'll be Mateo Kovačić from Croatia. That kid is for real.

Greg Lalas: No idea, to be honest, but I'll give you a couple of options: Ecuador's Felipe Caucedo, Honduras's Boniek Garcia, France's Matthieu Valbuena, and the US's Mix Diskerud.

Gelf Magazine: Which are the most compelling and most skippable first-round matches?

Graham Parker: I think Spain vs. Netherlands is a fascinating first-round game. All the games in Group G (USA group) and Group D (England, Italy, Urugay) look interesting. That said, big teams playing their first games in tournaments can be ultra-cautious or slow to start, so England vs. Italy might be a terrible game. And other games that look less appealing on paper can be some of the best games we see—I’ll have the popcorn out for Algeria vs. South Korea.

Alexander Abnos: Most compelling: Spain vs. Netherlands—the obvious choice. A rematch of the 2010 World Cup final in both teams' first game in 2014. Uruguay vs. England—AKA Luis Suarez vs. the best English defenders from the league he just torched for a full season.
Skippable (which will all probably end up being amazing matches now, because you really never can tell): South Korea vs. Algeria. Any game involving Australia. I love the Aussies, I really do. But they just got totally screwed in that group. I don't see any of those games being especially competitive (but would love to be proven wrong)

Greg Lalas: Most compelling: Spain-Chile, England-Italy, USA-Germany, Colombia-Ivory Coast.
Most skippable: Um…I can't think of any. I mean, come on: It's the fucking World Cup!

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Comments

- Sports
- posted on May 15, 14
jaccuser

I'm surprised by Argentina as a consensus pick. Aguero, Di Maria, Zabaleta and Messi are world class, sure, but then what? Garay and Fernandez at center back seems like trouble ( maybe Otamendi?). Who is at left back? Finally, half the guys that would slot in next to Mascherano in central mid-field are just coming back to fitness and that seems like it would be a problem against the better midfields.


Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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