What Will Happen: A World Cup preview that even we can’t quite believe

Illustration by Michael Mankowski

by Dennie Wendt

 

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World Cups are like elections, but more important: They’re emotionally exhausting, wildly unpredictable, and the winner gets to set the agenda until the next one comes around. Like elections, World Cups used to be fairly predictable. But that was before Russia got involved.

Seriously—predict a Russian World Cup? Prognosticate upon a tournament in a country that just proved itself willing and able to manipulate election outcomes wherever it cares to, run by an outfit with FIFA’s hard-earned reputation?

Doesn’t even sound possible—and it certainly doesn’t sound like a good idea. But that is why I’m here. I think I can prove that this may be about as predictable as World Cups get. Bear with me as I discuss the dynamics of each group, their inevitable winner and losers, and arrive at a final that I would bet my house on.*

 

Group A: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay

The chances of Russia not winning this group are approximately the same as Hillary Clinton becoming president of the United States, and many of the same forces are involved. Egypt is a fashionable choice to advance because of a nice young man who makes Liverpudlians happy, but most of his teammates are either domestic or from the likes of Wigan, Villa and LAFC—Uruguay won’t let that happen.

1. Russia, 2. Uruguay

 

Group B: Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Spain

This may be an American perspective, but if you win a World Series or a Super Bowl, you are either beloved or respected—but when Portugal proved itself 2016 European champions the world pretty much rolled its eyes. Draws with Iceland, Hungary, Austria, Poland…and your best player is so pretty? You want us to love you? Please. Expect more of the same. The obvious two will advance and no one will love Portugal, but there will be one bicycle kick somewhere along the line, and an announcer will say, “You don’t want to love him, but…—”

1. Spain, 2. Portugal

 

Group C: Australia, Denmark, France, Peru

In the good name of Teofilo Cubillas and o’s with lines through them, this is møre like it. Not an uninteresting game in the mix, though the Socceroos do bear a passing resemblance to the Washington Generals in this mix (right down to the colors). The football will be delightful, France had better be careful, Denmark may be the best team to get knocked out in the group stage, and Peru deserves passage on their strength of that bright red sash.

1. Peru (yes, Peru), 2. France

 

Group D: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria

The Croatia-Nigeria match will look like an NASL game from 1979, and I mean that as the highest of compliments. Might be the coolest World Cup jersey combo since every game Zaire played in 1974. Iceland is pretty much the ABBA of international soccer: Scandinavians who have no business being as cool as they are. And of course, Argentina. Solid group. Croatia gets the #2 nod because Russians love vacationing there.

1. Argentina, 2. Croatia

 

Group E: Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland

Costa Rica was a penalty shootout from a semi-final appearance at the last World Cup (they tied a Holland team that beat Spain 5-1!)—and yet people will pick Serbia (who should play brilliant football in the tradition of the Yugoslav teams of the ’80s and ’90s but won’t) or Switzerland (who should be a tasty mix of French, German and Italian influences but aren’t) ahead of them. I am not one of those people.

1. Costa Rica, 2. Brazil (they take Costa Rica lightly, can’t score on Serbia and are bored by Switzerland)

 

Group F: Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden

Last week Zlatan played on artificial turf in a former minor-league baseball stadium in Portland, Oregon while Sweden prepared for an Ibra-less World Cup. It’s a strange game. His former teammates have gotten as far as they can without him.

1. Germany (no reason to explain this choice), 2. Mexico (it’s time)

 

Group G: Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia

England is like the Cowboys and the Knicks—always picked as possible winners because of things that happened long, long ago and because network anchors know their names. I’ve detected a little less England optimism this time, and yet—dare I say it—the draw gives them a fair shot at the quarterfinals. I know. Now I’m that guy.

1. Belgium, 2. England

 

Group H: Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal

Speaking of the the NBA, when the Milwaukee Bucks play the Indiana Pacers, that’s good basketball. You can expect quality performances from solid dudes. But the arena probably doesn’t sell out, and if it’s on TV the ratings would approximate a summertime repeat of “NCIS.” Group H is like that: A good group, but see who you can get to join you for a beer watching Poland-Senegal.

1. Colombia (in fairness, they’re maybe more like the Rockets—a truly great team, but maybe not quite there yet), 2. Poland

 

What does it all mean? It means this is going to happen:

Russia-Portugal

There will be a penalty you just cannot believe. You will watch it over and over again, but nothing will make you understand it. The camera will show Ronaldo in tears, and you’ll actually feel for him (you will, you really will), then pan up to Putin in a luxury box, who will be trying to conceal a smile. Ask yourself if you’d really be surprised.

 

Peru-Croatia

In 1978, Argentina scored a notorious 6-0 victory over Peru when they needed to beat Peru by at least four. The match remains a stain on that World Cup—there are even rumors that Henry Kissinger was involved, and you never want that. This is the match that tips this tournament’s hand: Peru rolls over, a giant oil tanker docks in Rijeka in the dead of night, and Russia makes plans for the semis.

 

Costa Rica-Mexico

I like this Mexican team.

 

Belgium-Poland

I took a few online quizzes for Americans trying to pick a team to root for in the absence of a U.S. team. Over and over again, they served up Belgium, and not one of them asked if I preferred teams wearing argyle, which I do.

 

Spain-Uruguay, Argentina-France, Germany-Brazil, Colombia-England

This four-game package could be sold on pay-per-few for enough money to retire the debt of every country on the planet, put a family of four on Mars within the year and fix the Knicks’ problems once and for all. (One of those things could not happen.) It is virtually impossible to pick the winners of these games, but I’ll give it a shot: Spain passes the ball around until Uruguay’s attention span wears off; Argentina and France are exactly as good as each other—I don’t like picking penalties but this one has that feeling and if that happens I worry for the Flea; I can’t even believe Germany and Brazil could meet in this round, and I also can’t believe 1) Brazil won’t exact revenge, and 2) Angela Merkel isn’t going to pay for that time she rolled her eyes at Putin in 2017; and I just have a strange feeling England’s going to beat Colombia.

 

In the quarterfinals, Russia obviously beats Croatia and Mexico upsets Belgium (don’t watch the Russia-Croatia game but don’t miss Mexico-Belgium); Pogba has his day against Spain and Brazil ends England’s fun.

 

And so we have our semi-finals:

Mexico-Russia

What will the announcers say when Mexico builds a wall to keep the Russians out? It will not matter, because the wall will have a hole in it. I don’t know how or why—no one will ever really know how or why—but it will, and that will be that. Cue shot of dark-souled man in a dark suit in a darkly lit press box wearing a dark, dark smile. Kissinger may be lingering in the background.

 

Brazil-France

The Brazilians repeat history (kind of) by re-asserting their dominance in a far-off place for the delight of northern Europeans after humiliating themselves at home just a few years ago (I know the math doesn’t quite match—’50-’58, ’14-’18—but I think the point stands).

 

And that means:
Russia-Brazil, and at that point, anything can happen…

 

Anyway, that’s how I think it’s going to go. Enjoy the tournament, everyone. If you’re a true soccer fan, you’ve been through enough pain to deserve it.

* NFW. Germany’s probably going to win, but that would’ve been a short column.