It only happens once every four years and it's bigger than the Olympics - it's the World Cup, the global celebration of the beautiful game, where bloody, brutal civil wars (literally) come to an end behind the glorious game. Except for the United States and a handful of other countries, football (as it's known pretty much everywhere else in the world) is the universal language that connects the wealthy with the destitute, connects people without regard to gender, skin color, or ethnicity - look no further than Die Mannschaft, Germany's national team, which once only permitted players of "true Aryan" ethnicity to wear the colors of Deutschland, but now embraces Germans of all ethnic backgrounds, from Sami Khedira (Arabic-German) to Mesut Ozil (Turkish-German) to Jerome Boateng (Ghanaian-German).
But while the beautiful game is one of the fastest growing games here in America, it still lags behind the NFL, MLB, the NBA, and NHL in popularity. While that's sure to change, since many of you are unfamiliar with the beautiful game, let's familiarize ourselves with the participants. To make this easier for our non-soccer following fans, for each nation, I'll give you the more familiar college football equivalent, beginning with Groups A through D, and finishing up tomorrow with Groups E through H. And if you couldn't guess from the photo above, there's at least one team that matches up pretty well as international football's version of our very own Bruins. Let's get started:
Brazil - The Seleção come into this tournament as one of the favorites, not only because of the talent in the squad (which is only average when compared to great Brazilian sides of the past), but because they're playing at home - every stadium, every match, every time the men in yellow, green, and blue appear, they will be riding a huge wave of support from the rabid, football-loving crowds. They are the soccer equivalent of the Alabama Crimson Tide: they have more titles than anyone else, they have a tradition that stretches back generations, their fans are borderline fanatical, and they have a class uniform set-up that has stayed consistent for generations.
Cameroon - The Indomitable Lions might have the coolest nickname in all of world football, but that's about it. The Cameroonians are the Clemson Tigers of soccer: like Clemson, who has won a lot of conference titles (18 in total), Cameroon has won the African Cup of Nations four times, but has only gotten out of the group state at the World Cup once (in 1990). They're a good team, but until they stop beating up just the guys in their own neighborhood, they'll never make the jump to elite status.
Croatia - The men in the beautiful checkerboard uniforms are one of the better teams in every tournament they enter, but they never seem to be able to win a big prize, with their best major tournament finish being third in the 1998 World Cup in France and a fifth place finish in Euro 2008. But they're a tough opponent and have some top-class players in their ranks (Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic). They're good but not elite, which in many ways make them the soccer version of the Baylor Bears. An occasional star suits up for them (for example, RG3 is Baylor's Modric) and they're a very good team, but they're never the favorites.
Mexico - Our rivals to the south were used to dominating CONCACAF until the United States finally got itself going following the 1994 World Cup. The Mexicans have traditionally been a very good team, albeit it one that has underachieved at times and struggled of late. In many ways, they are the Penn State Nittany Lions - they have a solid history (winning the Confederations Cup in 1999, the Gold Cup in 1965, 1971, 1977, 1993, 1996, 1998, 2003, 2009, and 2011) but also are associated with some fans that, how do you say this nicely, lack anything resembling class (Mexico's fans have chanted "Osama, Osama!" when playing the Americans in the past, while Penn State fans have been called delusional in their defense of Paterno). Of course, like Penn State being hit with a huge ban in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, Mexico got banned from the 1990 World Cup for, well, cheating and lying about the eligibility of players.
Spain - While the exclusion of the in-form Jesus Navas from Manchester City and Isco from Real Madrid are curious (especially in light of the inclusion of lackluster striker Fernando Torres of Chelsea), La Furia Roja are the current standard-bearers for world football, having won the last three major tournaments they've played in - Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, and Euro 2012. The core squad that Spain put together in those three tournaments might be the greatest team to ever play the game (it'd be even betting if you could pit that team against Brazil's 1962 World Cup squad or the Brazilians' 1970 World Cup team). But you also get the sense that an era is passing and this might be Spain's last hurrah, with Xabi Alonso, Xavi, David Villa, Andres Iniesta, and San Iker all on the wrong side of 30. Before this incredible run, Spain was always a very good team, with one last major trophy in their past (Euro 1964), and always in the top tier of football. In that sense, they are the equivalent of the Florida Gators - like the Alligator Army under Urban Meyer, Spain under Vincente del Bosque are in a golden era, and like the Gators in 2009, it might be coming to an end.
Netherlands - The Oranje are placed in a rather difficult group, forced to navigate past predominately the same Spanish side that dropped them in the 2010 final, a tricky Chile squad, and the plucky-but-easily-beatable Australians. Much like their college football equivalent, our very own UCLA Bruins, the Oranje have a long, proud history in the game, but like UCLA, has always come up just short of the promised land - both have yet to claim the big prize (unless you count UCLA's 1954 split (with Ohio State) title season). Both squads have some of the most recognizable, unique, good-looking uniforms in the game, and both have produced some of the best talents to play the respective games, yet you always feel like they're just on the outside looking in. Perhaps 2014 is the year that both Oranje and the Bruins change that for good.
Chile - La Roja are still looking for their first major tournament trophy, which isn't a surprise given they are in the same confederation as football superpowers Brazil and Argentina. The Chileans feature arguably the world's best box-to-box midfielder in Juventus' Arturo Vidal and exciting winger Alexis Sanchez of Barcelona, but that's about it. They'll have a big task getting past van Gaal's Oranje and the Spanish juggernaut, but they won't be an easy out. Being perennially in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbors, the Chileans are the soccer equivalent of the Wisconsin Badgers - while the Badgers are a very good program, and often in contention for the Big 10 title and a spot in the Rose Bowl, they've never won the big one, and they're often in the shadow of in-conference rivals Ohio State and Michigan. While Wisconsin will have a solid team this upcoming season, no one is expecting them to be serious national title contenders, just like no one is expecting a solid Chilean team to actually get past the Round of 16, if they even manage to escape their group.
Australia - The plucky Socceroos are the perfect example of how odd (and political) international soccer can be, with the Australians competing in the Asian Football Confederation (while teams that are technically in Asia, such as Turkey and Israel, compete in UEFA). The men from Down Under will be lucky to dig out a single point in an extremely difficult group, but at least they're in the World Cup. Like their college football counterpart, the Boise State Broncos, the Australians dominated an extremely weak confederation (the Oceania Football Confederation) for a long time (just as Boise State dominated the WAC) before leaving for the AFC in 2006 (like Boise State leaving originally for the Big East, then the Mountain West) in hope of competing for a guaranteed spot in the World Cup (sort of like Boise State originally seeking a BCS-automatic qualifier conference). And much like the Broncos, the Australians have had some success in their new home, although definitely not the level of success they enjoyed before the big switch. Finally, like their American football counterparts, the Australians occasionally make some noise (advancing to the Round of 16 in the 2006 World Cup) but are well outside the established elite.
Colombia - The country famous for coffee, cocaine, and Radamel Falcao make their first return to the World Cup since the 1998 edition in France. With only a single major tournament trophy in their cabinet (2001 Copa America), Colombian soccer is more widely known for the murder of defender Andres Escobar following his return to Colombia after his own goal against the United States sealed Colombia's elimination in 1994. In other words, they are much like their college football counterparts, the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Like the boys from Lubbock (first season in 1925), they have been around for a long time (since 1938), but have accomplished little in terms of title, but they hail from a region that is fanatical about their football (Texas and South America, respectively). And like the Red Raiders, Los Cafeteros are often in the shadow of their more illustrious regional neighbors.
Greece - With just a single major tournament trophy under their belts (the shocking Euro 2004 triumph), Greece come into this World Cup in arguably one of the weakest groups in the entire tournament, but still without any real shot at making it past the group stage. The Greeks are the sport's version of the Colorado Buffaloes. Both teams won huge one single time, in large part to some amazing luck (or in Colorado's case, blind incompetent referees). Much like the Buffs, Greece will need a miracle to have a shot at the title in 2014, with early elimination the likely outcome for both teams.
Ivory Coast - Led by Didier Drogba, the man whose talents on the pitch helped end a civil war, Les Éléphants are making their third consecutive World Cup appearance, having never qualified for one prior to 2006. Led by the two greatest players in their small nation's history, Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure, the men in green and orange have landed the perfect draw to finally break out of the group stage for the first time in history. Ivory Coast, like their college football counterparts, the North Carolina Tar Heels, are a Johnny-come-lately to success. Much like UNC, who is only now making a step toward being a legitimate big-time competitor under Larry Fedora (coming in at #16 in an ESPN spring ball top-25 ranking), the Ivorians might finally have the pieces to break through, although no one expects them to be a long-term consistently elite team.
Japan - The Samurai Blue come to Brazil for their fifth consecutive World Cup appearance, after setting themselves up as the most dominant team in the AFC since 1992. In many ways, they are international football's version of the Oregon Ducks - a team without much history or pride until a catalyst for success during the 1990s. For the Ducks, it was the huge cash influx of Phil Knight and Nike; for the Japanese it was the establishment of the professional J. League in 1992. Since then, the Japanese have gone on to win the AFC Asian Cup in four of the six tournaments since, while simultaneously qualifying for every World Cup since 1998, twice making it out of the group stage. Much like the Ducks, Japan has dominated their own region, but failed to win the biggest prize - something both Oregon and Japan hope to change in 2014. And, just like their Oregon, Samurai Blue have worn some, well, interesting uniforms (bordering from the ugly to the unique to the not-sure-what-this-is-supposed-to-be to the this-is-painful-on-my-eyes).
Uruguay - For a small country, Homer Simpson's U-R-Gay produces a surprisingly high numbers of elite footballers and has had quite a solid record of success. Led by the strike duo of Liverpool's
Hannibal Lecter Luis Suarez and PSG's Edison Cavani, the Uruguyans are also buoyed by players who have tasted success at the top of the club world, with a defense including La Liga winners Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez of Atletico Madrid, as well as Serie A champion Martin Caceres of Juventus. In many ways, they are the soccer version of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and not just because both are majority Catholic. Like the men from South Bend, La Celeste dominated the international game in the earliest days, winning the inaugural World Cup in 1930, as well as the last one hosted by Brazil in 1950. Add in 11 South American championships and 4 Copa America trophies and it's an impressive haul. The Uruguayans are always near the top end of the football world, but like Notre Dame, suffered a few period of irrelevance and declining results. But, for both the Irish and La Celeste, it would seem that a return to the upper echelon is on the cards again. If you're looking to bet, put your money on these guys to escape this group with the Italians, especially over the guys who can't make penalty kicks England.
Costa Rica - If I had to guess, I'd say Ticos, the nickname for the Costa Rican national side, means "Michigan State Spartans" in Spanish, because that's who they emulate. Costa Rica is a very solid, but unspectacular side - they've had success in their own confederation, but like the Spartans, have yet to really take over as a top side. Sure, there are good years here or there, but for the most part, they live in the shadow of bigger squads.
England - There is probably no team in the entire world that draws more angst than the Three Lions. Despite being one of the nations that lays official claim to inventing the beautiful game, England's a team that holds cachet for its deeds in the past, certainly not for its failures in the present. In that sense, the English are international football's version of the West Point (Army) Black Knights. Rich in class, history, and tradition, both are institutions that embody a certain sense of civility, but both invoke irrelevance when it comes to football (be it the international type or the American game). In the early history of the game, both dominated, but as the landscape around the game changed, both the Three Lions and the Black Knights got left in the dust. In short, England is to Germany what Army is to Navy. And it's likely to stay that way . . . until England finally learns to score on penalty kicks.
Italy - There is probably no nation more corrupt when it comes to football than Italy (well, if you exclude Qatar). The nation that brings us countless gambling/cheating/sex/you-name-it scandals is also one of the most successful sides in world football, winning the World Cup four times (1934, 1938, 1982, and 2006), second only to the Brazilians. Infamous for their diving, the Italians are the soccer version of Oklahoma - they've always been at the top or near the top of the game, and in general, they're pretty good - but both teams aren't above cheating to help give themselves a boost. Whether it's Francesco Totti diving in the box (or Daniele de Rossi being tripped by a ghost if you prefer) or pretty much a large swath of the Barry Switzer era in Norman (there's a certain irony of your QB getting caught selling cocaine to an undercover FBI agent and then wearing a jumpsuit in your biggest rival's color - orange), these guys will do a little "extra" to give themselves an edge. But hey, they're still pretty damn good.
Alright folks, those are the first four groups of this year's World Cup in Brazil. Stay tuned for tomorrow's second part, where we'll walk through Groups E-H, including our very own "Group of Death" with our very own Yanks and who they compare to in the collegiate ranks. Fire away in the thread with your World Cup thoughts, who you think fits their purported college counterpart in Groups A-D (save the rest for tomorrow!), and/or generally talk smack about football teams you don't like.