World Cup Preview

Jun 10, 2014

The 2014 World Cup gets underway on Thursday, when host country Brazil takes on Croatia. Then 63 more soccer games will be played until one of the 32 teams is crowned winner on July 13.

Bill Littlefield, the host of NPR’s Only A Game, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson and Meghna Chakrabarti to talk about the teams and the players, who are carrying with them the hopes of entire countries.


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HOBSON: So the drums are pounding. That's a bit of the song "We Are One" expected to be heard a lot as the 2014 World gets underway in Brazil. Thirty-two teams vying for the bragging rights to be the planet's best. The Cup starts Thursday when the host country Brazil takes on Croatia. And then 63 more games will be played until a champion is crowned on July 13.


And so far, all you may have heard about this World Cup is all the problems that Brazil is having.


CHAKRABARTI: Getting stadiums ready and dealing with protesters who say it's a waste of the billions of dollars in a country with so many impoverished. But for a few minutes at least, we're going to talk mostly about the actual sport being played and the men who play it and the teams they make up, carrying with them, in some cases literally, the hopes of entire nations. And joining us is the biggest soccer fan we can find in the building. He even calls it football. (Laughing) We'll make him say goal a little later on. Bill Littlefield is the host of NPR's Only A Game. Hey there, Bill.

BILL LITTLEFIELD, BYLINE: Hello, Meghna. And it is a low bar.

CHAKRABARTI: (Laughing) In this building, yes.

LITTLEFIELD: (Laughing) In this building.

CHAKRABARTI: So let's start off with the basics. Thirty-two teams in all divided into eight groups, and some of those groups are particularly tough to get out of, lest we say, deadly to get out of.

HOBSON: Well, Bill, you may be getting a call from the World Cup. They finally brought you on to play this year.

LITTLEFIELD: Yes, that was an all...

CHAKRABARTI: Let's call Dempsey. That's Clint Dempsey with your opening game tickets. What are you looking for in the early...

LITTLEFIELD: My apologies.

CHAKRABARTI: That's right - in the early stages of the competition?

LITTLEFIELD: Well, I think there are a lot of interesting things to look at. People who have particular sympathy for the U.S. team have characterized their group as the group of death, which is customary. One group is so designated each time. It isn't. According to ESPN - and I'm inclined to agree with their ratings - the U.S. group is only the third toughest.

The really - the toughest group is Group D, which is Uruguay, England, Italy and Costa Rica. But the U.S. will not have an easy shot. I will be paying attention when they play Ghana because if they can't beat Ghana, they're going to have a real tough time getting out of that group with Portugal and Germany to follow.

I will certainly be watching Group D because England is in it, and there is a real chance England won't get out of it. Gary Lineker, great English soccer player of the past, once said football is a simple game - 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and at the end the Germans win. He said that, of course, in '90 after England had lost in the semifinal to Germany on penalties. But it's always a great emotional thing to see whether England can manage to get anywhere in the World Cup.

And I think the other group that's very interesting to me is Group B because it contains both Spain and the Netherlands. Those were the two teams in the final four years ago. The Netherlands's strategy was to go out and do everything but hit the Spanish players with bats because they decided, apparently, they couldn't keep up with them and that was the only way they would have a chance. Happily, Spain won. And so heart won out over thuggery.

CHAKRABARTI: Blinding them with the horn wasn't enough.

LITTLEFIELD: No, it wasn't.

HOBSON: Well, we asked some soccer fans from around the country for their views on the games - who they're going to be watching. Sam Cogenhouer (ph) from Chicago had no problem picking a winner.

SAM COGENHOER: People are saying Germany or Spain all the time. But I think I'm kind of seeing Brazil going all the way this time.

HOBSON: Bill, who do you see in the final four?

LITTLEFIELD: Well, I can understand that pick because the home side frequently has been demonstrated to have a terrific advantage, and Brazil of course is the home of the most beautiful soccer in the world. I would love to see Argentina in the finals or at least in the final four because watching Lio Messi play is a complete delight. And the longer I get to watch him play the better, as far as I'm concerned.

And I would love to see Spain back in the finals. People have been saying about how Spain's day may have come and gone, and so many of the players from Barcelona - Barcelona wasn't so dominant as they had been this year as they had been in the past. But I would love to see Spain in the finals again.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Bill, you mentioned Messi there. And even though it's a team sport and the players are representing the nations, they're always individual standout players. There's also Portugal's wingman Christiana Rinaldo.

>>LITTLEFIELD Yeah, and don't tell him it's a team sport.

CHAKRABARTI: (Laughing) Oh, yeah, exactly. Who else are you paying attention to in terms of real leaders on the pitch?

LITTLEFIELD: Well, you can't discount Clint Dempsey if you are a fan of soccer in the U.S. He was a little slow getting started when he came back from England this time around. But he's got a bunch of goals in MLS this year already, and he certainly has emerged as a leader on the American team. And I think...

CHAKRABARTI: He's team captain this year.

LITTLEFIELD: Yes. And particularly in the absence of Landon Donovan, who has the record for goals scored in the World Cup by an American - by a U.S. player, I should say. Dempsey is going to be somebody you're going to have to pay some attention to.

HOBSON: Team USA, as you said, Bill, is in Group G, which includes Ghana, Portugal and Germany. Here is what Chris Weaver (ph) from Kansas City had to say about that. And they're calling it the group of death.

CHRIS WEAVER: Yeah, the group of death. It's going to be tough. I'm thinking Germany is probably going to win it all, but definitely going to be a tough group. Yes.

LITTLEFIELD: Maybe it should be called the group of terminal illness rather than the group of death.


HOBSON: Why? Why?

LITTLEFIELD: Because there are two groups, as they say, that are a little bit stronger at least by my estimation. But anyway, he's right that it will be tough to get out. You know, Germany and Portugal are very strong teams. And Ghana is the team that beat the U.S. in the last two World Cups.

CHAKRABARTI: They had a great run a couple of cups ago.

LITTLEFIELD: Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, so I have a question for you about the German team because the U.S. coach actually was part of the German team when they won the World Cup, as you mentioned, back in 1990 beating England. So the current U.S. coach - and oh, here I go - Jurgen Klinsmann.

LITTLEFIELD: Very nicely done.

CHAKRABARTI: Very good. So he managed the team when it finished - when the U.S. finished third in the 2006 World Cup. We've got some tape here.


DAVE PAKE: I think the fact that he had his own experience playing in the World Cup and winning it, I think definitely brings that like, European knowledge and things like that. So I think the young guys will learn from that.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so I actually made an error there. That's soccer fan Dave Pake (ph) talking about the current U.S. coach.

LITTLEFIELD: And about Klinsmann's experience as a player and a coach in Germany. But, yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Exactly. But, I mean, what do you make of what Dave Pake says there? Do you think that the U.S. can sort of leverage these two things? Plus, it's previous experience, which it did fairly well for the U.S. in the last couple World Cups.

LITTLEFIELD: Yeah, the U.S. has at least qualified for the World Cup a string of times. They're quite impressive unless you look at Brazil, which has never failed to qualify for a World Cup. And they happen to be the home team.

The funny thing about soccer to me - and I'm hardly the kind of expert that grew up with a game because I didn't because I was born in this country. But the thing that's interesting to me is you can coach and coach and coach through the practices and through the workouts, even through the preliminary games. Once you put the players on the field, you can't really coach very much. They can't hear you.

They're out there in a very big field. You can scream and shout but the likelihood is they're not going to pay too much attention to you until halftime. So it really is on the players. And whatever Klinsmann, whatever mindset he's been able to instill in them before the World Cup begins, I think may be a factor. But once it starts, it's on the players. It's one of the things that's kind of attractive to me about the game.

HOBSON: Bill, while you and Meghna and super fans like you are preparing for the World Cup we should mention that the NBA finals is also going on. And we haven't even talked about Dwayne Wade in the flop. But we'll leave that for another conversation. OK, let's hear one thing that people will hear at the World Cup. Lest we forget here from 2010.


HOBSON: Yes, the vuvuzela. Is that how you say it?


HOBSON: Vuvuzela.


HOBSON: OK. Well, this year we're going to hear something different. It's called the cachirola.


HOBSON: A little less annoying I think. Are you looking forward to hearing that 24/7?

LITTLEFIELD: Well, since I'll be watching the tournament on television, the mute button is a very handy friend to have. But you're right. I found that a lot less upsetting than the vuvuzela.

HOBSON: Bill is host of NPR's Only A Game talking with us about the World Cup, which gets underway on Thursday in Brazil. Bill, thanks so much.

LITTLEFIELD: Thanks you, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Jeremy Hobson.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.