Grant Wahl has covered every World Cup since 1998, and it remains his favorite sporting event. It’s better than the NCAA Tournament, and it’s better than the Olympics – in his mind, anyway.
“The entire planet (is) focusing on one thing – unlike the Olympics where you have so many different sports going on at the same time,” the Sports Illustrated soccer writer said on Ferrall on the Bench. “Everyone’s watching the same game at the World Cup. That’s what all the eyeballs are on. You never know what’s going to happen. There’s a lot of great storylines, a lot of things you don’t expect, and it’s a really cool event to be on the ground for.”
The host country, Brazil, is the favorite to win the tournament.
“Well, they’re the host team, they’re the favorite entering this tournament, and they’ve won more World Cups than any other country,” Wahl said. “Basically, all this goes back to the Confederation’s Cup last year in Brazil, where Brazil spanked Spain 3-0 in the final.”
Spain won the 2010 World Cup and remains, at worst, one of the top three teams in the world.
“It’s a pretty small sample size to base a whole tournament favorite on,” Wahl said of Brazil’s 3-0 win, “but that’s what has people thinking Brazil’s going to win this tournament.”
Oddsmakers see Brazil facing Argentina in the final. So does Wahl.
“That’s my prediction,” he said. “Argentina has Lionel Messi, the best player in the world over the last five years. But he’s never done it at the World Cup level.”
Messi, 26, has just one goal in two World Cups, and Argentina was eliminated in the quarterfinals both times.
“If he’s going to be a legitimate contender for greatest player in the history of the game, he needs to win a World Cup,” Wahl said. “His best chance is this one. Argentina got a great draw.”
The Argentinians were matched with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria and Iran. They could also avoid Brazil and Germany in the knockout rounds.
Germany is predicted to win Group G, while Portugal is expected to finish second – assuming that Cristiano Ronaldo actually plays. The Real Madrid star is dealing with tendinosis in his left knee.
“I think he’ll be ready once the games that matter start in Brazil,” Wahl said. “It sounds like Portugal is keeping him under wraps a little bit for these pre-World Cup friendlies. It sounds like he’s dealing with the affects of a long season. Real Madrid won the Champion’s League. (Ronaldo) had small injuries during the year but showed up for big games.”
“I think Germany is the favorite in the group, but it’s going to be a dog fight for that second position.”
Wahl does not expect the United States to advance.
“The cold hard fact on paper is the U.S. drew a really difficult group here,” Wahl said. “Four years ago, the U.S. drew an easy group. This isn’t like the NCAA Tournament where they balance out the brackets perfectly. You can get in a really hard group or a really easy one. The U.S. drew a hard one. I don’t think the U.S. advances. I am not picking them to advance. I have Germany and Portugal doing that.”
Wahl believes the U.S. has a 35-40 percent chance of surviving group play.
“At their best, I think the U.S. can play toe-to-toe with any team in the world – not the same level of talent, but usually the U.S. is better than the sum of its parts,” Wahl said. “I don’t think Jurgen Klinsmann did any favors for his team by cutting Landon Donovan. I don’t see the U.S. as being a team that is so overflowing with talent that they can afford to cut the talented players.”