Tuesday February 9th, 2016 7:43PM

Opinion: World Cup kickoff to banish soccer's worries -- for now

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
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Accusations of corruption and bribery, infrastructure worries, mass protests...<br /> <br /> Welcome to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, where the build-up has included more acrimony and concern than a bad reality TV series.<br /> <br /> Yet in a couple of days, many of those issues will -- however temporarily -- evaporate into the balmy Sao Paulo air. That's the strength of this once-every-four-years tournament.<br /> <br /> Make no mistake, the questions that have dogged world soccer's governing body (FIFA) over the past few months and years will not disappear (including accusations of strong-arming the current host-nation into bending many of its own laws and safety regulations). They will simply be overwhelmed by the play on the field. And when you consider just how outrageous some of FIFA's decision-making seems, that's quite a feat.<br /> <br /> Millions, perhaps even billions, of people will tune in to the tournament and -- outside of those fans in Brazil witnessing some of the issues firsthand -- most will forget all about the acrimony currently encircling the body that is putting on the very event they are watching.<br /> <br /> That's what happens when you have a sport that is almost religious in the feelings it engenders in its fans. And that's not wholly set aside for world soccer -- ask SEC football fans how they feel about their own conference leadership at times and the proposed changes in store for its own league in the coming years (loss of rivalry games, increased ticket prices, more and more home games against patsy opponents)... And then ask them if they would dare turn down their season tickets or the channel on fall Saturdays. The answer would likely be eerily similar to those of world soccer supporters.<br /> <br /> Plenty of those kind of fanatics are right here in our backyard. Indeed, the passion for soccer and national pride will be on display in homes and sports bars throughout northeast Georgia and on many a television and in a few select stores.<br /> <br /> No, soccer's popularity has not reached the fever pitch here in the US as in most of the rest of the world -- I just returned from two weeks in England during which you could not escape the World Cup marketing build-up -- but with each passing cup we take another step toward the grand party.<br /> <br /> (<b>NOTE:</b> for those of you that know little about soccer but will be taking a gander at the tournament, be sure to <a href="">check out Sports Illustrated's "World Cup Guide for People Who Don't Watch Soccer"</a>.) <br /> <br /> And what a party this particular tournament promises to be.<br /> <br /> Unlike plenty of tournaments past there is no clear favorite, rather a number of a capable teams with capacity to dominate and awe -- including hosts Brazil, next-door neighbor and arch-rival Argentina and defending champion Spain. There are also teams such as Germany and France with the ability to clinch the title -- and surprise no one in the process.<br /> <br /> Perhaps the biggest reason for anticipation for this tournament, however, is that the global game has reached a level of parity never before seen. In fact there could be upsets galore this time around. <br /> <br /> That's not to say that Brazil will toil to reach the final, but teams such as Croatia -- the hosts first opponent to kick off the tournament on Thursday -- have learned how to make things tougher on skilled opponents and keep themselves in contention. Is Brazil more talented than Croatia? Without a doubt. But skill alone does not win matches, and opponents will do their best to make sure that superior teams keep their focus for all 90 minutes.<br /> <br /> There are very few secrets in the game anymore, as many of the world's best players already know each other from various club competitions and while tactics can vary widely from team to team, there won't likely be any major surprises in how teams play this tournament. <br /> <br /> That familiarity could breed a topsy-turvy tournament, one that could see any number of teams make deep runs.<br /> <br /> In fact at this point it could all simply come down to who gets hot at the right time.<br /> <br /> That includes our own squad. Yes, the US is generally thought to be an also-ran this time around -- due to a relatively inexperienced team and a three-game group slate that includes Germany, as well as a strong Portugal and bogey team Ghana (which has knocked the US out of the last two World Cups). But count out Uncle Sam's Army at your own peril. <br /> <br /> There is plenty of athleticism within the team, and while the unit is not brimming with world class players, there are a couple on hand in midfielder Michael Bradley and goalkeeper Tim Howard -- and (when he's in the mood) striker Clint Dempsey -- surrounded by capable and willing role-players. Are they world beaters? Doubtful, But are they capable of putting something special together? Certainly.<br /> <br /> And that's what a number of the peripheral fans in this country yearn for: a game, result or player that they can get behind and root for. And should the US discover some magic on the field then, just maybe, the World Cup fever already ravaging other nations will take full root here.<br /> <br /> With the way this tournament is shaping up, this may just be the time for it to happen.<br /> <br /> FIFA will be pulling for it to happen with every nation, and maybe help everyone forget about the organization running the Cup for a while.
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