World Cup Countdown: The Teams to Watch

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These final days before the World Cup starts can be the most exciting time to be a soccer fan. Our World Cup blogger is using this period of anticipation to highlight the big stories worth watching at this year's tournament. Today, he discusses the most promising teams:

Among soccer connoisseurs, Mexico 1970 is spoken about with reverence. There were many fine teams—even England was good—fine players, great games (Italy-West Germany was known as "the game of the century"), and appreciative fans. But most of all, it was about the team, still considered the best ever: Brazil, with Pele, Carlos Alberto, Rivelino, Jairzihno, Tostao, et al. The Brazilians of 1982 came into that tournament as heirs apparent to the 1970 squad, but were shocked by Italy in an epic 3 to 2 loss.

This year, a team comes into the tournament that could match—or even top—the magisterial Brazilians of 1970. That team is Spain. The Spanish are famous for underachievement at World Cups. It's shocking when you think about it, but they only finished in the top four once, in 1950. But this team will go in as the favorite, which is almost always reserved for Brazil. Spain delighted purists with their impeccable display at the European Championships in 2008, the best performance since France of 1984.

Spain's style is based on an intricate, short passing, possession game, largely developed out of the FC Barcelona school, where so many of the national team players came up from and still play. It requires great skill with the ball, patience, an improvisational spirit, a tactical awareness, and a sense of whimsy.

But it will not be easy for Spain. (It rarely is in World Cups.) They will likely win their first-round group but will be tested by a delightfully precocious Chilean team and their eccentric Argentine coach; the practical and professional Swiss (there's some truth in stereotypes); and the ebullient if reckless Hondurans, who qualified under the duress of a military coup. (Now that country, and much of Central America, is dealing with aftermath of floods and mudslides.)

Beyond the first round, it gets even more difficult for Spain, as either Brazil (the second favorite), Portugal (their Iberian rival), or Ivory Coast (Africa's best team), await in the next round. Italy, tactical and counter-attack masters who balance style with substance and until two years ago had always given Spain fits, may be the quarterfinal opposition. Argentina possibly in the semi-final. If Spain do make the final, they'll have a days less rest. And by the seventh game in 30 days, that could make a difference.

Brazil, the usual favorite, does not come in with as staggering a line-up as they have in the past, like 1998 or 2006. Dunga, their pragmatic coach who captained the unspectacular 1994 team to victory in the U.S., has left many of the glamour players at home--which makes them scarier, of course.

But to pick Brazil, the five-time champion (or this year, Spain), is like picking the Yankees: anyone could do it and it doesn't show much imagination. And even if Dunga's Brazil play down joga bonito in favor of tactical tedium (a betrayal of the 1970 ethos), they still have holes, the same ones that upended them that fateful day in Barcelona in 82 or in the 98 Final in Paris: defense.

Their South American rival Argentina surpasses Brazil in dynamic creative talent, but their coach is, simply put, a maniac. Diego Maradona was the best player in Argentine—and many say world—history. Since his operatic playing days--single-handedly winning the World Cup in 1986, delighting the paradoxical underdog city of Naples—he became addicted to drugs, and suffered from obesity and various health problems. He went to Cuba for rehab and became fast friends with Fidel Castro and later and Hugo Chavez. What a life.

But as a coach, he's been a disaster. He has the best player in the world in Lionel Messi (more on him tomorrow), and has no idea how to best utilize him. Some say he's jealous that Messi will outshine him. Who knows what's in Maradona's head? This was the man who deliberately used his hand to punch the ball into the goal (the famous "hand of God") during the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal and actually got away with it. As if racked with Catholic guilt, he went on to score the greatest goal in the tournament's history just four minutes later.

So who will win? Only seven countries have (in the 18 tournaments since 1930). Let's call them the G7: Brazil (5); Italy (4); Germany (3); Argentina (2); Uruguay (2); England (1); France (1). Even the two finalists end up being predictable: In the last 40 years since 1970 (10 tournaments) only six teams have even made the final.

Italy are the defending champions—worthy ones, it should be said, despite the vitriol they sometimes have to endure—but this team is one in transition. Coach Marcello Lippi (no relation to Filippo) has chosen too many players past their prime, and has shown a reluctance in using younger talent, a problem in all facets of Italian society. If Italy wants to remain the dynamic, stylish soccer culture they've been, they'll have be more adaptable. Or maybe Lampedusa said it best in "The Leopard": "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

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Michael J. Agovino is author of The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family From the Utopian Outskirts of New York City (HarperCollins, 2008). He will be blogging for TheAtlantic.com during the World Cup.

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