Sweet Sixteen

So what's an elite international team?  Would you know one when you saw one?  And how many are there?

I apologize in advance to the Tweeter I'm ripping off, but I read after today's games that we should expect the United States to make it to the second round from here on in.  That seemed reasonable.  But how many teams actually do that?


If you go back to 1998 - the year the tournament expanded to 32 teams - you will discover that all of three teams in the world have qualified to the Round of 16 in the last five tournaments.  Can you guess who they are?

Probably so, provided you're a Mexico fan.  Brazil, Germany, and Mexico are the only teams to qualify for the second round in the last five tournaments.  Actually, Mexico has a streak going back to 1994, Brazil hasn't been kept from the second round since 1966 (when the second round was the quarterfinals), and Germany had to be occupied in order to miss the 1950 tournament. 

Perhaps you have trouble picturing Mexico as one of the three elite teams in the world - something about quarterfinals, and ever making them, maybe - but if the mark of a quality international team is consistent accomplishment in tournaments, you must include them.

"Hey," you might say, or "Wait," or "Hold on, "or "Hold the phone," or hell, I don't know how you talk - any team can have a bad first round, or a bad qualifying campaign.  Mexico, for example.

Okay.  The teams that have made the second round in four out of the last five tournaments?  Holland, Argentina and England. 

I'll bet you're thinking if we lower the bar to three out of the last five tournaments, we get a lot more teams.  And I guess you do get more.  Here are the teams who have qualified for the second round just over half the time since 1998:  France, Italy, Spain, Paraguay, Chile, and Guess Who Else.  Go on, guess. 

Since 1998 - and that's including a year that most American fans would be delighted to forget - the United States has been one of the top twelve teams in the world.  If you're not happy with that, that might not be the United States national team's problem.

Or you might judge by other standards, such as World Cup quarterfinals appearances.  But that's an extremely high standard, as you might have guessed.  We have one since 1998 and maybe one pending; since 1998 Brazil, Germany and Argentina are the only teams with more than two, with Holland and France potentially joining them this year.  Obviously Spain, Italy and England will not.

Or you might judge the strength of a national team program by how well their players perform in the world's most prestigious club leagues.  Which is cool and all, but that's not what this particular tournament is about.  And it also raises the question of which are the world's most prestigious club leagues.  Depending on what happens this next week, you might have to consider a couple of CONCACAF leagues in that definition.

The main takeaway I think we all have after the first round is, well, just how  freaking weird this tournament has been.  The stadiums weren't finished, the tournament has been violently protested by the most soccer-crazy nation on earth, the weather and the travel have been horrible, underdogs have been winning all over the place, the most heavily guarded and security-mad tournament of the post-democratic era was overrun by Chile fans, and I think I read something about Luis Suarez.  Oh, and the entire nation of Mexico went nuts over a scoreless draw, and a bunch of their countrymen and fellow travellers were busted by the LAPD for, well, pretty much being soccer fans.  Or being Mexican.  Or for overturning cars - hey, they weren't all innocent.

Meanwhile, the United States has caught World Cup fever to the extent that everyone has an opinion on benching Michael Bradley all of a sudden.  This is actually the least surprising development - the national team has been an accepted part of the American sports culture since 2002, and has only gotten more popular.  Each US game has been more popular than the last, and these next two Benelux v. NAFTA showdowns will bring most of this continent to a screeching halt.  If one of both of the North American teams win, then the sky's the limit.

Or we can join together and cheer on Costa Rica in the quarterfinals.  Come on, no one beats Italy and Uruguay to turn around and lose to freaking Greece.  Do they? 

If they do, it wouldn't even stand out in this Cup.  Here's something to freeze your blood, sports fan - we've already out-bizarred the Zidane headbutt and the Hand of God, and the memorable parts of this tournament are yet to come.  The nation making the biggest mark on the World Cup this year?  Bat Country.