The World Cup kicks off on Thursday, when the host nation and five-time champions Brazil take on Croatia. Perhaps you haven't spent the last month wondering why Felipe Scolari didn't bring Miranda and Felipe Luis into the Selecao or whether Luca Modric and Ivan Rakitic can boss the midfield for their country the way they did for Real Madrid and Sevilla this season.
Don't sweat those minor little details. Just being a conversant college football fan will make it a snap to jump into the biggest sporting event in the world.
As an initial matter, there are three general aspects of the World Cup that will make immediate sense to college football fans.
First, college football, more than any other American sport, is marked by white-hot passion. It's the sport that causes earthquakes and induces elderly head coaches to run out of gas rather than spend a nickel in an arch-rival's state. So watching a sporting event that will cause whole countries to shut down when matches are being played or grown men to shout about cosmic kites ought to come naturally. And who are LSU fans to ignore an event in which a witch doctor has already claimed a prominent role?
Second, college football fans should be used to the famous Spanish phrase that soccer is "played by geniuses and run by idiots." The World Cup will kick off right as the NCAA proffers increasingly implausible rationales for denying players the right to receive compensation for their image rights. It will also kick off in the aftermath of the disclosure of yet more evidence that the 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar after a process marked by outright bribery.
World Cup 2014
Do you find it icky that your favorite sport is run by the clownish Mark Emmert? Then welcome to the world of FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Here's just a snippet from the "Controversies" section of Blatter's Wikipedia page:
Blatter has attracted criticism from the media, senior football figures and players, due to controversial statements. These include the claim that Latin American countries would 'applaud' John Terry for having an extramarital affair, and that on-field racism could be corrected with a 'handshake', among others. He also drew criticism at the 2014 FIFA World Cup seeding, when he interrupted a "one minute silence" for former South-African president Nelson Mandela, who died the day before, after eleven seconds. Michael van Praag, the chairman of the Royal Dutch Football Association, called his behavior "preposterous" and expressed the hope Blatter would not be reelected in 2015.
Or, if you prefer, just enjoy John Oliver brilliantly eviscerating FIFA (and, by extension, just about every sporting association):
If you're proficient at applauding the guys in uniform and ignoring the guys in suits, then the World Cup is for you.
Third, college football and the World Cup both come with now-or-never imperatives. College football players get three to five years to make an impact. It thus becomes natural for fans to get antsy for their teams to win when they have a particularly noteworthy talent. Think about South Carolina fans knowing that they would only get three years of Jadaveon Clowney and hoping that he could get them the school's first SEC title.
The World Cup comes along once every four years, so fans know that their best players are only going to get one or two shots in their primes to win the Jules Rimet Trophy. The two best players in the world -- Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo -- are 26 and 29, respectively. They will almost certainly still be playing in Russia in 2018, but they will be on the downward slopes of their careers by that point. If Ronaldo is going to win Portugal's first World Cup, then now is the time. Likewise, if Messi is going to emulate Diego Maradona not just by mimicking Maradona's most famous goal, but by winning a world title for Argentina, then now is the time.
So what else do you need to know about the World Cup this summer? Here are a few story lines to follow:
1. Spain's quest for immortality.
Prior to 2008, Spain were seen as one of the great underachievers of international soccer. While the country's two elite club sides, Barcelona and Real Madrid, piled up titles, the national team had a single major trophy: the 1964 European Championship.
Now, the current iteration of La Furia Roja have staked their claim as one of the great international teams of all time by becoming the first team to win three straight world or continental titles. Add another World Cup to the list and the debate ends. Spain don't have the flair of Brazil '70, but they'll have a better trophy cabinet.
College football equivalent: Alabama, which went from a decade of underachievement to a chance at three straight national titles. Add in criticisms of Spain's style, a boring suffocation of opponents, and you have a match.
2. The pressure on Brazil.
Brazilians view the World Cup as their birthright. The country has won the Tournament five times, more than any other nation. So take a soccer-mad country with an expectation of success and put the biggest tournament in the sport in their home country. Then add to the expectations Brazil's emphatic victory in the Confederations Cup last summer, culminating in a thrashing of Spain.
And finally, throw in the ghosts of a national trauma. Brazil are hosting for the first time since 1950, a tournament that ended with a shock defeat to Uruguay in the de facto final that: (1) created a new noun in the soccer vocabulary; (2) induced several people to end their lives; and (3) caused Brazil to change jersey colors.
College football equivalent: 1993 Florida State. The best team in the country, playing with the pressure that their legendary coach had never won a national title and haunted by the specter of three heartbreaking losses to Miami in 1987, 1991, and 1992. They played the 1993 national title game in their home state and barely escaped with a win in a game that both ended Bobby Bowden's title search and provided a harbinger of the coming Nebraska dynasty.
3. The young Belgians.
The top five favorites for the World Cup are five-time champion Brazil, two-time champion Argentina, three-time champion Germany, defending champion Spain ... and Belgium, a team from a small country that have never made a World Cup final.
Belgium bring to Brazil an undisputed golden generation of players, one that is the product of a systematic approach to developing players in a certain way. Belgium are used to being the unfancied stepsons of their Low Country neighbors to the north, hoping to grind out defensive results while the Netherlands attract fans around the world because of their attractive way of playing. Now, the orange-clad Dutch are the ones who will be playing a defensive formation while Belgium will be fancied to dazzle their way past opponents.
College football equivalent: Texas A&M. Remember when Texas A&M was plodding through years of mediocrity? Remember when they were so far behind their orange-clad rivals that comparisons were pointless?
Now, smart management by Kevin Sumlin has the Aggies as the hot program in the state and the piles of young high school stars recruited by Sumlin, all with a specific style in mind, point to a bright future.
4. Can an African team finish the drill?
No African team has made the semifinals of the World Cup, but they have been in position on numerous occasions to defeat world soccer royalty, only to lose late.
- In 1990, Cameroon, one of the only bright spots in a dour tournament, were seven minutes from beating England and moving to the semis before losing the lead and then the match in extra time.
- Four years later, Nigeria were minutes away from eliminating three-time champion and eventual finalist Italy in the round of 16 before Roberto Baggio hit a dramatic equalizer, and then Italy won in extra time on a debatable penalty.
- In 2002, it was Senegal's turn for a dramatic loss, as they allowed a golden goal by Turkey in extra time after controlling most of the match. Again, an African team came ever so close to the semifinals and couldn't quite push over the line.
- And most frustratingly, Ghana found themselves in a position in a 2010 quarterfinal where they simply needed to convert a penalty kick (typically, an 80 percent proposition) in the final seconds of extra time against Uruguay. Instead, Asamoah Gyan skied the kick over, Ghana lost in penalties, and missed out on the chance of making the semis in the first African World Cup.
College football equivalent: The George Welsh-era Virginia teams. The team that saw its one stay at No. 1 in 1990 end after blowing a two-touchdown lead at home to Georgia Tech. The team that, in one year, lost to Michigan on the last play of the game after blowing a 17-point fourth quarter lead, lost to Texas on a 50-yard field goal into a 20-mph wind, and blew a lead in the final minute at home to Virginia Tech, a game so frustrating that a Virginia coach tried to trip a Hokie defensive back as he headed towards the end zone with the clinching score. The team that blew 21-0 leads in the same season and city in 1998.
1994 World Cup
1994 World Cup
5. The inevitable England hype.
England are in the same position that Spain were in prior to 2008: a soccer-mad country with one of the best domestic leagues in earth, but only one major international trophy, that won on home soil in the mid-60s.
Unlike Spain, England are not sitting on a golden generation of players on the cusp of dominating the world. Also unlike Spain, many England fans have a massive sense of entitlement based on the claim that their country invented the modern game. (Think of a combination of Alabama fans' assumption of importance, but with Virginia Tech's trophy case.)
While expectations right now are for a trip to the round of 16 and possibly the quarterfinals (and that's from the sober, reasonable writers of The Guardian), just wait until England have one good result against Italy or Uruguay and the tabloids get going. Everyone in Blighty will forget anew that their country favor battlers who get stuck in as opposed to players who can, you know, control and pass the ball.
College football equivalent: The inevitable hype surrounding the one competent Big Ten team that emerges after September. The track record of, oh, the last 45 years should make people highly skeptical of any Big Ten team winning a national title, but those lessons are forgotten and then retaught as a rite of fall.
6. Benching established stars.
One of the hardest things for an international manager to do is replace older players who have been integral for their country for years, but whose best days are behind them. Four years ago, Italy manager Marcello Lippi stuck with the players who won the Azzurri the World Cup in 2006. The result was an embarrassing performance in South Africa in which Italy failed to win a match and were bounced out at the group stage.
This year, Spain face the same conundrum. Does Vicente Del Bosque replace one or more of Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, David Villa, and Fernando Torres, all of whom were instrumental in winning three major tournaments in a row, but all of whom are on the downward slopes of their careers and found themselves on the bench at times this year? In a group with the Netherlands and Chile, he doesn't have time to learn by trial and error. Likewise, Oscar Washington Tabarez has an aging Uruguay squad that might need freshening up, but he'll need cojones to bench the players who led the country to the 2010 semifinals.
And then there's Landon Donovan. Jurgen Klinsmann faced the aging star dilemma with his squad selection and opted to go with youth, but that decision could come back to haunt him - rightly or wrongly - if the National Team's stay in Brazil is short.
College football equivalent: The inevitable process of talented freshmen replacing more experienced starters. It happens at every major program, but a good example is Todd Boeckman, who was first team All-Big Ten and led Ohio State to the national title game in 2007, but was promptly supplanted in his senior season by true freshman Terrelle Pryor.
Brazil is a big country that runs on a north/south axis. This means that the climate varies significantly depending on where you find yourself. The biggest cities, Rio and Sao Paulo, are in the southern part of the country and will be in winter during the World Cup. However, FIFA, in its infinite wisdom, spread this tournament over 12 different cities. Three of the cities (Fortaleza, Natal, and Recife) are in the Northeast, and although they are on the ocean and therefore get cooling breezes, they're also close enough to the equator that they'll be hot. Manaus is buried in the Amazon and will be brutally hot.
Compounding the problem will be the fact that many matches will be played in the middle of the day, so they can be shown in prime time in Europe. The last time this happened, FIFA scheduled matches of the 1994 World Cup in the middle of the day in Orlando. One such match was Ireland versus Mexico in that tournament's group of death. The Irish responded about as you would expect.*
* I went to this match and enjoyed watching thousands of pasty Irish people sweltering on the metal bleachers of the Citrus Bowl. As best I could tell, their natural response to the situation was to unleash a fusillade of swear words at the Mexican players that 19-year-old me had never heard, but quickly filed away for future usage.
Some teams will avoid the hot sites and will instead play their matches in the cooler south. Other teams are not so lucky. The US, for example, will play two matches in the northeast and then a third in Manaus. Italy drew the worst possible schedule, as they open in Manaus against England and then play a pair of 1 p.m. matches in the northeast. It's as if the schedule were made by someone who hates Italian soccer with a passion.
College football equivalent: September non-conference games in which the weather is expected to play a major role. This issue is especially big when an up-tempo team plays a slower-paced team (for example, Arkansas vs. Auburn in Week 1).
Hey, college football fans who are also big soccer fans, help your brethren get into the World Cup in the comments below.