In a world, where every four years, 32 nations gather to determine a champion, only one team can hoist the World Cup trophy. [Cue the massive explosions.]
With apologies to "Iron Man 2," "Twilight" and whatever other blockbusters are headed to theaters this summer, none of them can compare to the most dramatic event of 2010: The World Cup.
The World Cup, in addition to being the only truly world championship outside of the Olympic Games, is the only tournament capable of providing the full range of human emotion:Anger, awe, boredom, depression, disgust, embarrassment, euphoria, frustration, guilt, misery, pride, rage and surprise
. The best screenwriters couldn't script some of those things.
To get you ready for the drama that will start unfolding on June 11 in South Africa, The Star and The Full 90 will introduce you to the teams, the key performers, what to look for and what to expect in this year's Cup.
The Group of Death's dark horse...
SerbiaGroup D THE BASICS
• Nickname: Beli Orlovi (White Eagles)
• Colors: Red, white and blue
• FIFA Ranking: 16
• How They Got Here: Qualified first in a European group featuring France, Romania and Austria.
• World Cup Pedigree:
1st World Cup as just Serbia; 1 World Cup ('06) as Serbia Montenegro; 8 World Cups ('30, '50, '54, '58, '62, '74, '82, '90) as part of Yugoslavia.THE PLOT
Will a team, playing for itself and by itself for the first time in its history, recapture the national pride it lost in their last World Cup? And can a solid performance on the world's biggest stage help Serbia recover from a past marred by violence and ultra-nationalism.*Many people smarter than I have argued that soccer and the national psyche are intertwined. In Serbia, violence and horror is part of their past. Austrian poet Peter Handke described Serbia as "Europe's most forlorn country." It was the first nation put on trial for genocide after the war in the '90s and it has a deep underlying ultra-nationalist rage that destroyed much of the country's soccer infrastructure. Hooliganism and nationalism have historically gone hand-in-hand in Serbia. THE DIRECTOR
Antic is the only man to coach Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. He prefers to play attractive, attacking football. Unfortunately, that's not quite the team he has at this World Cup. (Though, if the 62-year-old sticks around for four more years, look out. This is a young team with a lot of inexperienced attackers.)LEADING MAN
It's not often that a central defender is the team's best player. Well, it happens, but it's not usually a very good sign. But that's where Serbia is as a footballing nation right now. Vidic is a glowering mountain of a defender for Manchester United. His form as been spotty this year, but most defenders throughout the world would give up their left arm to have one of Vidic's bad days.SUPPORTING CAST
Dejan Stankovic (midfielder, Internazionale) is a defensive midfielder who likes to take long-range shots; Milos Krasic (midfielder, CSKA Moscow) is a talented winger who accounted for 13 goals last year for Moscow; Vladimir Stojkovic (goalkeeper, Wigan) is the one weak spot on the team, as he was only the third-choice 'keeper for a poor EPL team; Branislav Ivanovic
(defender, Chelsea) was one of the finest defenders in England this year for the Premiership champion, will play out wide with Vidic and Neven Subotic in the lineup.LIKELY BREAKOUT STAR
Expect to hear a lot (and, we're talking Brett Favre-ian levels since ESPN is the World Cup broadcaster) about the 21-year-old. Why? Well, he was eligible for the United States for starters, having lived in this country with his Serbian parents. He was part of the U.S. U-20 setup before switching his allegiances to Serbia in 2009. He's a fan-favorite with Borussia Dortmund in Germany and is being touted as one of the brightest young defenders on the planet. Imagine a defensive pairing in this Cup of Oguchi Onyewu and Neven Subotic? (Now, stop imaging it and just be thankful Onyewu didn't decide to play for Nigeria.)THE LIKELY VILLAIN
For obvious reasons.PRODUCTION NOTES
The team will likely employ a traditional 4-4-2, relying on their very strong (possibly the best in the tournament) back four to keep the pressure off a shaky goalkeeper. Goals will come, but not in buckets.WHAT THEY'LL WEAR
IT'S SORTA LIKE...
"Nightmare on Elm Street"
Rising from the ashes of a horrible event (Freddie getting burned alive, Serbia failing to win a game in '06), a frightening (it's not just their imposing-looking players, Serbia had 10 yellow cards and 1 red in '06) menace is unleashed on the world.TRAILER
DO WHAT YOU WILL WITH THIS...
According to the Guardian, Serbia has 36,697 tractors (wow, that's exact) per million people.CRITICAL BLURBS
Touted as the dark horse in 2006, the team fell apart when Montenegro decided to leave the union after the World Cup. The team were in shambles and went out in disgrace. ... The strongest back four of any team in this group, as possibly of any team in the tournament. Vidic, Subotic and Ivanovic are all world class. ... Every game they play will be a physical affair, the game with Australia might break red-card records. ... Goals might be a little easier to come by than other defense-first teams in the Cup, as this team has some quietly talented (and young) attackers (Zoran Tosic, Miralem Sulejmani, Zdravko Kuzmanovic). ... Known by some as "The Brazil of the Balkans." ... Best-case scenario? Second-place in the group, winnable matchup against England, another winnable game against Mexico and then completely over-matched by Brazil in the semis. ... Realistic prediction?
Surprising the world with a victory over Germany, then struggling to keep up with the more athletic and fit Ghana and Australia.POSSIBLE HOLLYWOOD MOMENT
Stranger things have happened than Serbia finishing second (doable) and the United States winning their group (possible, maybe not reasonable). But not many things would be stranger than a player raised and reared on soccer in a soccer-weak nation (who could have really, really, really used him) scoring against that nation in a World Cup game. Subotic would become public enemy No. 1 amongst American soccer fans, no?
Group A: South Africa, Uruguay, Mexico, France
Group B: South Korea, Greece, Nigeria, Argentina
Group C: Algeria, Slovenia, USA, England
Group D: Serbia, Australia, Ghana, Germany
Group E: Japan, Cameroon, Denmark, Netherlands
Group F: New Zealand, Slovakia, Paraguay, Italy
Group G: North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal, Brazil
Honduras, Chile, Switzerland, Spain
Sources: World Cup 2010 (by Steven D. Stark and Harrison Stark); ESPN and Soccernet.com; FIFA; CIA Factbook