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Brazil's Team Favored To Win Problem-Ridden World Cup


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene.


UNIDENTIFIED FANS: (Spanish spoken) Mexico. Mexico. Mexico.

GREENE: Yes, excited fans of the Mexican national men's soccer team - they're getting an early start to the World Cup festivities. Mexico does not play until tomorrow. Today, it's all about Brazil, the country hosting the tournament. They're kicking things off with a match against Croatia. Now, this day could not arrive soon enough for fans and organizers who hope attention on the actual games will help overcome the many logistical problems and angry protests that have dogged the preparations here for years now. NPR's Tom Goldman is in place in Sao Paulo and joins us on the line. Tom, good morning.


GREENE: So let's talk about actual soccer instead of all the preparations for this big event - Brazil on the field. How important is it for them to get things started with a win?

GOLDMAN: Oh, I would say very important to get things cracking here. You know, we've heard a lot about the protests that you mentioned - the complaints that FIFA, soccer's international governing body, has sucked billions of dollars out of Brazil to put on this lavish thing - money, of course, that could be used to tackle important social issues. But aside from the demonstrations which get the attention, I talked to a native of Sao Paulo who said in a country so passionate about its soccer, there just hasn't been the wide spread excitement one would expect. So there is hope that will change today, especially if Brazil wins.

GREENE: And they're favored to win not just this match, but a lot of people say the tournament, as well, which would make a lot of Brazilians very, very happy.

GOLDMAN: (Laughing) Yes, both today and at the end of this thing. First this game - history is on Brazil's side. No host nation has ever lost its first match in a World Cup. It's a long shot for Croatia, especially since it's missing star forward Mario Mandzukic. He got a red card in qualifying and serves his punishment today. Now, as far as Brazil in the overall tournament - yes, big favorites - overwhelming expectations for Brazil. And Brazil has the man expected to be the transcendent star of this tournament, dribbling and scoring sensation, Neymar. He's 22 years old. He suffered an ankle injury just on Monday that caused the entire country to suck in its breath.


GOLDMAN: He appears OK. But he has tons of help. It's a very highly talented Brazilian team. And an interesting point, David - our image of Brazilian soccer is of players to juking and samba-ing their way to glorious goals. But defense is considered the strength of this team with such players as Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Dani Alves.

GREENE: All right, so we'll look for some low-scoring affairs. Well, the United States gets going on Monday in the first of their three games in this round robin group stage. They have three other teams in their group - three tough teams, and they'll begin with Ghana. I mean, is it important when you have sort of this mini season of three games to get that first win in the opening game?

GOLDMAN: Oh, any would say it's hugely important. Players like to say everyone starts the tournament with zero points, and you want to strike quickly and get the three points for a win or at least a point for a tie. Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl did some stats digging and found some interesting numbers to back up the importance of game one theory. Now, starting in 1998, when the World Cup group to its current 32 teams with the top two teams in each group advancing, only nine percent of the teams that lost their first World Cup game got out of their group and into the knockout stage. Those who tied that first game - a little more than half went on. And those who won - nearly 90 percent advanced. So, David, you can see why U.S. Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been saying since the schedule was releases, all the focus is on Ghana.

GREENE: Yeah, those numbers sound like they can tell you a lot. Any teams - players you're watching?

GOLDMAN: Oh, well, tons of them out there, you know. All due respect to Neymar - and he could change this by tournament end - soccer smart people will, you know, still consider the battle for best in the world between Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Lionel Messi of Argentina. Many call Messi one of the best of all time. Now, Ronoldo has been dealing with an ailing knee, but he appears fit. That's bad news for U.S. fans because Portugal is in the same group. Teams to watch - you know, you've got your usual suspects -world number one ranked Spain, which is the defending World Cup champion - than Argentina and Germany. And some possible sleepers - Greece, England. Remember those names. And David, there's growing optimism about the good old US of A, although Jurgen Klinsmann still says the U.S. can't win the cup. They're just not there yet.

GREENE: You know, I heard you were thinking that Greece might look good here - 200-1 odds a colleague told me. But you're on record, Tom. So watch out for Greece.

GOLDMAN: (Laughing) I am.

GREENE: NPR's Tom Goldman in Sao Paulo for the start World Cup today. Tom, thanks.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.