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Venkataraman: Wondering about the World Cup

In a few short months, the World Cup (of soccer, not poker) will begin in Brazil. Fans of the beautiful game, of beautiful women and of Brazilian kickboxing will venture forth into the wild, making the trip to South America’s largest nation to catch one of the biggest sporting spectacles on the planet.

In contention for the trophy are the typical heavyweights: Germany, Spain, Argentina, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands and, of course, the host nation itself. Waiting in the wings are the dark horses: Belgium, Colombia, Uruguay, Russia, the Ivory Coast, Ghana and many others. In a third category, as perpetual underperformers, are England and France, two nations who find new and amusing ways to debase themselves with each World Cup. And finally, there are the unknowns, teams who could exit with nary a whimper or storm their way into the knockout stages.

Somewhere near the top of that latter list lies the United States. Drawn into this year’s “Group of Death” alongside Germany, Portugal and Ghana, the U.S. men’s national soccer team (obnoxiously abbreviated as USMNT) faces an uphill battle from the outset, as it will have to eliminate one of the favorites just to advance past the group stages of the tournament. As a soccer fan, the prospect of watching some of these games is tantalizing. As a USMNT supporter, I’m already terrified.

My terror isn’t without good reason; Germany fields one of the strongest squads in recent memory—an elite mix of veterans and newcomers featuring centerback Mats Hummels, leftback and captain Philipp Lahm, midfielders Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Mario Gotze and Bastian Schweinsteiger, also including strikers Thomas Muller and legend Miroslav Klose. You could not construct a more complete or balanced team in your imagination. The only thing that gives me confidence? We beat Germany’s third-string squad in a friendly match last summer—albeit just barely.

On second thought, my confidence is gone.

Portugal has a player named Cristiano Ronaldo on its team. You may have heard of him, as he is one of the finest athletes and footballers (soccer-ers doesn’t have the same ring to it) on the planet. The phrase “he can put the team on his back” applies to very few players, but Ronaldo is one of them; I already have nightmares about his uniquely violent running form and his heroics to get Portugal to qualify for the World Cup.

As if those two teams weren’t enough, we also have to contend with Ghana, a team that has had our number in recent years. In 2010, we lost to Ghana in extra time in the round of 16. In 2006, they sent us home with a loss in the group stages. Although I cannot name a single player that might be on their squad come summertime, Ghana still frightens me on a deeply psychological level. The Black Stars are in my head.

This World Cup comes at a pivotal time for soccer in the United States. Under the leadership of commissioner Greg Garber, Major League Soccer has steadily grown in popularity and is now looking at further expansion into other cities. A whole generation of younger kids is becoming indoctrinated into the global phenomenon known as soccer, through (of all things) the insanely addictive and competitive FIFA video game.

Club and youth soccer continue to become popular outlets of athletic talent, as the injury prospects of football, the boredom of baseball and the steep equipment requirements of hockey scare some folks away. And, most importantly, there is a very strong positive vibe around the men’s national team. With legendary player Jurgen Klinsmann at the helm and a strong few years of results against CONCACAF competition, it really does feel like there is a chance for some magic to occur this year.

Naysayers will gripe that many of our strongest players are being summarily pushed out of European leagues back to the MLS; stars like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley have returned to the North American continent in search of playing time that they couldn’t find in England and Italy, respectively. The pessimists will also argue (with good reason) that we haven’t played anyone of consequence yet, that our talent pool is subpar or that being drawn into the “Group of Death” nullifies all chances of advancing far into the tournament.

They may in fact be right. However, there is a reason the games (sorry, matches) are played on the field and not on paper. Who knows? Maybe this is the year that the United States makes some serious noise at the World Cup, although I wouldn’t bet on it.

What would I bet on? That England isn’t winning this year (or any year). You can take that to the bank.

Visions of footballers dance in Vignesh Venkataraman’s head as he anticipates the World Cup this summer. Let Vignesh know your thoughts on who should be dreamed about and easily forgotten at viggy@stanford.edu.