This will be my first official World Cup blog post, but if you've been following my Twitter feed (or "tweed," I guess), you'll notice that I've been thoroughly obsessed with the Greatest Sporting Event on the Planet.
A lot of my American friends ask me, "why do you like soccer so much?" First, it's football. But I'll ignore that for now. I'm a fan of the Beautiful Game because of its ability to unite races, nations and peoples. I'm amazed by the stories of football on Robben Island in South Africa, where the first constitution was written during the apartheid era. Or the end of a civil war by a football star. Or the ability of Jews and Palestinians to put down their weapons of war for a street match in Gaza Strip.
Football truly does unite the world, like no other sport can. Don't get me wrong; I love American football, and March Madness is my favorite time of year (minus the quadrennial World Cup). But the only thing truly comparable to the Beautiful Game is the Olympic spirit: sports that transcend a game.
Now that we're down to the Knockout Stages, here are my predictions for the Final 16, all the way through to the semifinals. Leave a comment if you agree or disgree, and enjoy.
Quadrant 1: Uruguay-South Korea, USA-Ghana.
Analysis: it's sad to the see the never-say-die American side put up against the last remaining home continent player, but don't discount what the Africans have done for the World Cup so far. South Africa has been a fabulous host, and while Cameroon and Cote d'Ivoire didn't live up to unreasonable expectations, they provided somem great moments. Plus, one of the biggest breakout stars of the tournament was Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama; I hope the Premiership picks him up, because I would love to continue watching him play club football.
The Asian federation has surprised many with its aggressive, speedy play, but not as much as CONMEBOL; all five South American teams are in the second round, a feat never achieved.
The USA is the highest-ranked team in this quadrant (No. 16), but they won't look the favorites on Saturday, when all of Africa unites behind Ghana. That should give the Black Stars a little something extra. Still, as long as Tim Howard and Jay DeMerit continue to dominate the defensive third, it'd be hard not to pick the Stars and Stripes.
ROUND 2: Uruguay 1, South Korea 0; USA 2, Ghana 1.
QUARTERFINAL: Uruguay 2, USA 1
Quadrant 2: The Netherlands-Slovakia; Brazil-Chile
ANALYSIS: The Dutch have taken the status as possible World Cup dark horse, and risen to potential second-tier favorite behind Brazil, and (lowered expectations) Spain.
I don't see Les Oranje having much trouble with the Slovaks, a team that is playing in its first World Cup ever -- a feat that sounds impressive, until you remember they were Czechoslovakia until, what, three weeks ago?
Chile has been the class of the tournament, blitzing past Honduras and Switzerland, and putting a potential-deciding goal up against Spain with only 10 men in the group stage final. If they were facing anyone else, I'd call them Quarterfinal Darkhorses.
ROUND 2: NED 2, Slovakia 0; Brazil 3, Chile 0
QUARTERFINAL: Brazil 2, NED 1
Quadrant 3: Argentina-Mexico; Germany-England
ANALYSIS: As a friend of mine recently Facebook'd, The 2010 World Cup is looking more like World War II, with USA and England playing nice, France's offensive efforts looking futile, Italy's demotion from power to pest, and the Germans duking it out with the British.
England didn't think it would find itself doing anything but winning its EASY group, but here it is, with an offensive snafu and a goalkeeping slip-up costing it the top spot and guaranteeing it a second-round match with perennial European power Germany. Up to this point, it seems like it would be no contest. But the English are finally finding their form (although the chokeship of Wayne Rooney continues), and Germany's Bastian Schweinsteiger appearing to be out for the weekend's match. That's a crucial blow for the Panzer Division.
Mexico finally gets its chance to exact revenge on the Argentina side that eliminated it from the World Cup in 2006, a feat not lost on Rafael Marquez, who scored El Tri's first goal of the tournament. But when you have a team where Inter star Diego Milito is coming off the bench, and a side that breezed through qualification despite not receiving a goal from FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, Los Albicelestes seem to have destiny on their side.
ROUND 2: Germany 2, England 1; Argentina 3, Mexico 1
QUARTERFINAL: Argentina 2, Germany 1
Quadrant 4: Paraguay-Japan, Spain-Portugal
ANALYSIS: Another South American surprise comes up against the stalwart Blue Samurai that have produced yet another tournament star, Japanese and CSKA Moscow striker Keisuke Honda. Both sides should be happy to have made it this far, but one of them has to go through, and don't expect the offensive fireworks to end yet. This should be full of plenty of action in each team's attacking third; How much of that action will find the back of the net remains to be seen, though.
The entire Iberian Peninsula should be shut down for three hours while Spain and Portugal meet, in a match that was threatened after La Furia Roja's shocking loss to Switzerland. Still, Spain recovered, and the Portuguese, despite two thoroughly uneventful games with Cote d'Ivoire and Brazil, have survived to see another day. One thing is certain here: expect at least 14 "play-ons" for Cristiano Ronaldo, despite his best efforts.
I love Ronaldo. But seriously? Who would I pick?
ROUND 2: Japan 2, Paraguay 0; Spain 4, Portugal 1
QUARTERFINAL: Spain 2, Japan 0