If George Vecsey knows one thing, it's World Cups. The New York Times reporter and author of the new book Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer has been to – you guessed it – eight and witnessed firsthand the good and the bad of the world's most fiercely contested tournament. With Brazil preparing to open World Cup 2014 in just a few weeks, we asked Vecsey what we need to know before kick off.
This May Be the Most Political World Cup Ever
"I've covered the last eight World Cups," says Vecsey. "I've never seen such political overtones, such pointed identification of FIFA and football in general as the villain." That's because the average Brazilian feels as if he's being squeezed – whether that's through the increased bus fares being used to raise funds or by eminent domain, which has been used to clear neighborhoods for stadiums and roads. The people are not standing by; they're taking to the street and protesting, says Vecsey. "There will likely be a fog of tear gas that wafts over the stadiums."
The Home Team Won't Dominate
The home team historically has a slight advantage, winning six of the last 19 World Cups. But even thought Brazil claims both home turf and a tradition of excellence, don't count on the team to finish on top. "I think that the protests and political tensions could be demoralizing to the Brazilian team," says Vecsey. "If the players hear that the neighborhoods they grew up in are rioting and experiencing violence, it could weigh on them."
The Germans Are the Team to Watch
"Spain in going for its fourth straight major championship: two Euro championships plus the 2010 World Cup – if they do that it's a true tribute to Spain," says Vecsey. "But they've had the same team for the last six years – dog years in soccer. Will they be able to stay at the same level?" Germany, he points out, is in a different situation, stocked with younger players, several of whom are in their prime and have been making marked improvements over the last four years. "They're like the Yankees," says Vecsey. "They're well prepared, never bothered – they just go in there, do their job, and never have a bad year."
Brazil May Not Be Ready in Time
Vecsey isn’t talking about the Brazilian team, or the country’s protesting people; he's referring to the state of the Brazilian infrastructure. "There were problems in Sochi, but they were mostly cosmetic, in hotels and other non-essential places," he says. "In Brazil, reports say that sections of stadiums may not be done, or may not have power when the games start."
Team USA Is In a Tough Position
Before making it into the rounds, Team USA will have to survive the "Group of Death," which features perennial powerhouses Germany and Portugal and the always fierce Ghanaians. Unfortunately, that's not our boys' only problem. "We also have the worst travel schedule out of every other country," says Vecsey. "The US is traveling more miles, from stadium to stadium, across Brazil, which will likely affect their game.” In fact, Team USA will travel just shy of 9,000 miles throughout Brazil during the Group round.
The US Will Be the Best Place to Watch the Games
Thank our country's rich immigrant history for the fact that Americans will still be cheering long after their team is knocked out. "Places like the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark will be nuts when Portugal is playing," says Vecsey. "Or there's a large Bosnian community in St. Louis, especially because this year is Bosnia's first appearance in the cup." The US has become a soccer nation, he says. "And every four years we all root for our team, whoever that is." That will be particularly true this year because there is not a large time difference between the U.S. and Brazil, which means most games should be watchable.
There Are Really Only a Handful of Stars
Cristiano Ronaldo just won the FIFA Ballon D'Or, given to the best player in the European leagues. "He can get in the air, steal, dribble, shoot, and he's self centered," says Vecsey. "But there are a few other guys to watch." His favorites? Lionel Messi from Argentina and Neymar, from Brazil. "Both of these guys are elusive, opportunistic scorers that might be able to carry their teams." He also says that Luis Suarez from Uruguay – the best player in the English Premier League – is a man to watch, even though he's a bit of a head case. "I'm not sure he's strong enough to take them all the way," says Vecsy, "but he's a brilliant scorer."