Huh, we’re hosting. I really thought we were gonna blow it.
By the way, this solves literally every problem soccer has in America and boosts the pro game for at least another ten years. At least. I mean, even a complete MLS implosion after a World Cup boost isn’t going to kick in until 2028. That’ll be CM Punk’s third term.
But first! What will probably be the last digestible, sensible World Cup of our lifetimes! As I write this, Russia just beat Saudi Arabia so badly that Human Rights Watch has to add another subchapter. Well, there goes my bracket!
Well, my champion might be out already, but that doesn’t mean I can’t walk you through the Boulevard of Broken Dreams that is my prediction list.
GROUPS A AND B
The key player here in Vladimir Putin. By now you may have noticed that Group A is, well, a bit easy. Absolutely nothing against Egypt, since if this World Cup were being held anywhere else I’d pick Uruguay and Egypt to advance. But you’d never get this cuddly, squishy-soft group anywhere else, would you.
Then you look over at Group B. Again…nothing against Morocco, who’s had a below-average week World Cup-wise already. Nor Iran, who taught me respect in 1998. Well, respect mixed with hate. Yes, Iran taught me to hate. And I hate to this day.
Where was I. Oh, right. Portugal and Spain, duh. And either one of those is going to be a nightmare for Russia. “Heh heh heh! Here you go, President Putin…a nice easy group for you. HA HA HA HA!”
Possible. Or, is the fix in for a huge payday as Russia upsets one of the tournament’s better teams? Oh, look! Here’s Spain with a built-in excuse to hit the skids! Putin smiles and bows, the Russian mob makes a mint, the world smiles at Sergio Ramos losing, and Real Madrid gets their players back early.
Group A: Russia, Uruguay, Egypt, Saudi Arabia
Group B: Portugal, Spain, Iran, Morocco
Round of 16: Russia over Spain, Portugal over Uruguay
GROUPS C AND D
Lots of likeable, lovable teams and stories here. I’m going to be dull and oblong and pick the obvious two to top the group, but what of our Cinderellae? Croatia is a very, very popular darkhorse pick right now, so I’m going to hop on board the bandwagon and pretend I’m being chancy. I think Peru is the second best in Group C, but I’m going with Australia because the A-League doesn’t have promotion and relegation.
Do you realize not a single “Which World Cup team should you support?” had that as a question? Not one. Mind-boggling.
In the round of 16, I’m going with France. I think they’re better than Croatia, revenge factor for 1998 aside. Also, the farther France goes, the more we get to say “The US tied the World Cup winner!” or finalist or whatever. The World Cup is all about picking teams based on the most petty of reasons.
Remember the last time France took on Russia at home! Went pretty badly! Napoleonic Wars joke. You’re hearing Tchaikovsky in your head as we speak. No, seriously, Putin can’t afford that many upsets. France to the semifinals.
The reason I picked Portugal to win Group B, and to beat Portugal, is because I wanted to set up a quarterfinal match with Argentina. Messi v. Ronaldo, in the World Cup. If Putin couldn’t arrange that, then why did he even bid on the World Cup in the first place?
I think Argentina wins, which will reduce the comparison of perhaps the greatest simultaneous careers, both players with hundreds of hours of highlights to choose from, to one match that will probably be decided by a blown offside call or uncalled takedown in the box.
Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
Group D: Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria, Iceland
Round of 16: France over Croatia, Argentina over Australia
Quarterfinals: France over Russia, Argentina over Portugal
GROUPS E AND F
Look, I know what they were trying to do. But what if. What if the next great CONCACAF showdown, due to one tiny little upset, happens in the Round of 16 again? Costa Rica and Mexico should be the Final! Yes, according to how it should shake out, Costa Rica and Mexico won’t meet until the Final. But what if you have that colossal matchup four rounds early?
Oh, same with the Germany-Brazil 7-1 rematch game, I guess.
Actually, you know what? CONCACAF POWER! Let’s keep Brazil and Germany apart the hard way! It turns out the US was holding back CONCACAF all this time! Costa Rica won its group last time out, you know, and that group was tougher than this. Mexico is okay, obviously I’m not sold on their coaching. But I can see Germany getting the early wake-up call that makes people think they’re doomed, then going on a deep and frustrating run (Argentina 1990, Spain 2010).
One of the things that annoys me about World Cup predictions is the temptation to pick the last winner to repeat. There hasn’t been a repeat winner since 1962, for heaven’s sake. I know Germany is great. I know picking them to lose to France in the semifinal will be a reasonably safe bet. But it’s CONCACAF time, baby.
But not that much CONCACAF time. Sorry, Mexico. Look, I want to Dos Santos brothers to have an all-time classic tournament – probably more than you do. But, big-time South American team in the Round of 16. I don’t make the rules.
GROUP E: Costa Rica, Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland
GROUP F: Mexico, Germany, Sweden, South Korea
Round of 16: Costa Rica over Germany, Brazil over Mexico
GROUPS G AND H
Is Panama over England even an upset? Oh, it is? I should analyze based on talent instead of trying to snark my way through this? And this should really be England’s tournament anyway, were it not for people like Chuck Blazer, so I should show justice if not respect?
Why am I doing this. There’s no percentage in picking England to do anything, not at all. I’d much rather have Panama. I’m throwing away maybe years of “MLS is better than the Premiership” comedy. Damn you, World Cup. You’re a cruel mistress.
Also, when in doubt? Alphabetical order.
Group G: Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia
Group H: Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal
Round of 16: Belgium over Japan, Colombia over England
Quarterfinals: Belgium over Costa Rica; Brazil over Colombia
I am NOT kidding about alphabetical order, by the way. I nearly did the whole tournament that way. Australia wrecks the plausibility curve, though. It’s Argentina over Belgium without them, and that’s a pretty intelligent-sounding bet.
But Narrative gives the sport its power. It surrounds us, penetrates us and keeps the galaxy together, has other plans. I genuinely like France to go to the Final, US face-saving or no. And I think Messi picks up a knock proving himself against Ronaldo, so one of the greatest South American showdowns of all time turns into a disappointing scrimmage.
So who will win?
Twenty years ago, my favorite team ever beat everyone else’s favorite team ever, decisively. I loved 1998 France, and still do. Zidane was the best player of his time, better than Ronaldo, thank you, and that game proved it.
And so for the rest of our lives it was all about a Nike conspiracy to force a poisoned Ronaldo on to the field. That had to be why Brazil lost. Not because Leonardo couldn’t cover Zidane. Not because Liliam Thuram could cover Ronaldo. Oh, no. Brazil lost, and everyone had to explain why.
Well, this time, it’s on neutral ground. The 1998 captain, Didier Deschamps, is now guiding this generation. Twenty years of sour grapes, disrespect, and second-guessing – twenty seconds of grassy knolls and secret contracts and God knows what else – all of that gets its reckoning.
Only Brazil wins, so we get 1998 conspiracies until the end of time. Narrative shall not be denied.
Putin and Moscow don’t deserve a classic, but I’m afraid that’s what they’ll get. At least we get to watch. Call it 2-1 in extra time.