BOSTON — Almost exactly four years ago in Leipzig, Germany, American hopes for success in the 2006 World Cup died — six months before the first ball was kicked.
The occasion was the World Cup draw, the anxiously awaited playing assignments for the tournament’s 32 teams. And while the United States didn’t draw into the toughest of the eight groups — the group that is always dubbed “the group of death” — it landed in a group that promised near-certain death for the Yanks.
And despite one particularly game effort against Italy, a tie that was the only blemish on the record of the eventual World Cup champions, the U.S. team fulfilled expectations, exiting Germany after the first round.
But hope springs eternal among soccer diehards here. So after another long qualifying slog — 12 games over 16 months with a record of 8 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses — that saw the U.S. once again finish ahead of Mexico atop the region’s standings, American fans have been anxiously awaiting today’s World Cup 2010 draw in Cape Town to see if the soccer fates would be kinder this time around.
And they most certainly were. The U.S. had hoped to be drawn into the group with South Africa, an automatic seed as host nation despite being the lowest ranking team (86th in the world) in the entire tournament. Once that coveted spot went to America’s archrival, Mexico, the Americans had as much luck as any fan could have reasonably dreamed of. It avoided the world’s two best teams, Brazil and Spain, as well as two perennial superpowers, Italy and Germany, against which the Americans have always struggled.
Instead, the U.S. landed in England’s group. And while nobody would consider that a soft landing, England at number 9 is — with the exception of South Africa — the lowest-ranked seed, and the U.S. actually has the experience of defeating England a few times along the way. Though those results may seem like ancient history, they could lessen the intimidation factor. (ESPN, the World Cup broadcaster, is also a huge winner here, especially if MLS star David Beckham makes the England squad.)
England was certainly impressive as it steamed through qualification with nine straight wins before a final, meaningless loss in Ukraine. But it is a team that seems perpetually burdened by past disappointments and failures. It has won only one World Cup title, the one it hosted way back in 1966, and hasn’t escaped the quarterfinals in either of the past two World Cups.
The England-USA group (group C in the charts and your hearts), was then filled out by two teams regarded as perhaps the weakest to qualify from their respective continents: Slovenia and Algeria. Neither has ever made it out of the first round of the World Cup. Slovenia, ranked 33rd, is the smallest country in the competition, though it pulled off perhaps the biggest upset, beating Russia in the playoffs to claim the 2010 berth. Algeria, ranked 28th in the world, is not considered African soccer royalty, like Cameroon or Ivory Coast, and is playing in its first World Cup since 1986.
All this really means is that the U.S. has a genuine chance to reach the knockout stage of the competition. Still, despite the Americans’ extraordinary victory over Spain this past summer, it is useful to remember that the team’s world ranking, 14th, is inflated by wins over weak neighbors. American fans like to point to their team’s extraordinary run in the 2002 World Cup when the U.S. outplayed Germany in a 1-0 quarterfinal loss. They are less inclined to remember that it took a South Korea goal in the final minutes of its match against Portugal to allow the U.S. to advance past the opening group stage in the first place.
Still, for the U.S. there is now hope where last time there was only despair. Here are some other highlights of the 2010 draw:
Anticipation: If the tournament played out exactly as expected — and it never does — these would be the quarterfinal matchups: France-England and Netherlands-Brazil in one half of the draw; and Argentina-Germany and Italy-Spain in the other half. Thus the possibility of a Brazil-Spain final, certainly the most coveted from an aesthetic point of view, is alive and kicking.
South Africa: Cup excitement is certainly boosted when the home team advances to the knockout stages. In the past, even the three hosts that had no great claim to soccer standing — the United States in 1994 and Japan and Korea in 2002 — advanced past the first round. The soccer world abounds with conspiracy theorists and many were convinced that FIFA would conspire to assure South Africa the same happy fate. Instead, South Africa was more than a little unlucky, landing two teams, Mexico and France, which were top seeds at the previous World Cup.
France: Despite FIFA’s insistence that it changed the seeding procedures simply to reflect current world rankings rather than past World Cup success, it sure looked like the change was aimed at punishing France for its scandalous path to South Africa. If that was FIFA’s intent, it failed miserably. France made out like Br'er Rabbit, getting thrown in South Africa’s group and, in effect, winding up the true seed in that foursome. France may not be quite as lucky when it comes to its star striker Thierry Henry, who faces a suspension for his deliberate handball that gained France qualification.
Group of Death: No single group drew four powerful teams. But you might think George W. Bush orchestrated North Korea’s draw. Call it the axis of death with #84 North Korea facing three formidable opponents, world #2 Brazil, #5 Portugal and #16 Ivory Coast. North Korea hasn't been to the World Cup since 1966. If Dear Leader Kim Jong II decides to keep his lads home, would anybody there know the difference?
Kickoff: South Africa will open the World Cup June 11 in Johannesburg against Mexico. The next day, the U.S. plays England in Rustenburg, then June 18 against Slovenia in Johannesburg and, finally, June 23 against Algeria in Tshwane/Pretoria. The order of the games, in theory strongest to weakest, seems desirable, if only because that was the case in 2002 when the team stunned Portugal in the opener. If the U.S. is fortunate enough to emerge from Group C, it will meet a team from a strong group headed by Germany, with Australia, Serbia and Ghana. The final is scheduled for July 11 in Johannesburg.