by Dan Casey

With all the national pride on display, South Africa is certainly gonna be “where amazing happens” this summer. Having seen more and more comments on SLAMonline referencing the Champions League, the EPL and La Liga, it’s clear soccer’s gaining popularity in America. Perhaps this is because of the similarities between hoops and the world’s most popular sport. links between the NBA’s leading lights and those of the World Cup.

For instance, although 32 nations will compete in South AfrMichael Ballackica, the general consensus is that there’s only a few title contenders. One website had it narrowed down to Brazil, Spain, England, Italy and Germany.

Germany’s obvious basketball link would be Dirk Nowitzki, but in reality their fortunes couldn’t be more different. Dirk now has a reputation for consistently coming up short in the Playoffs, whereas the Germans are always feared because of their “tournament mentality,” even if their team doesn’t look so strong on paper. Missing their captain and star Michael Ballack might not hang over them in quite the same way as missing Yao or Chris Paul did for the Rockets and Hornets, but it likely puts them out of contention.

If you’re a fan of the Lakers, support Brazil. Both teams are perennial tournament favorites, and they both play in yellow, too! Kobe was even doing his thing, Brazil-style, on that crazy Nike ad. Unfortunately Brazil doesn’t have a star of the same magnitude as Kobe these days — midfielder Kaka is probably their best-known player, but had an indifferent season at Real Madrid. Ronaldinho was used on the aforementioned Nike advert, but he won’t even be in South Africa. Many complain that the current Brazilian coach, Dunga, has his team set up far more pragmatically than the previous Samba-style generations. But after they crashed out in 2006 with a team that was a collection of stars rather than a cohesively functioning unit (think 2004 Lakers), this team’s pragmatic approach should take them far in the tournament.

Meanwhile, Boston fans might want to take a look at Italy. Both teams have storied histories and a ton of titles won years back. Both teams rely on their high-caliber defense. Like the Celtics, Italy have enjoyed a recent return to the old glory days, winning the last world cup, albeit on penalties — boring. So if the Celtics go on to win the championship this season, you might want to put your money on Italy to follow suit. But you may forget to collect your winnings because you will be fast asleep on the floor.

Spain, then, would seem to fit the bill as an equivalent to the Orlando Magic, one of the few contenders for the title. Like Orlando, Spain has never won the title, although they are fresh from success at the 2008 European Championships, and they look strong in all areas. The Portland Trail Blazers might be a better comparison – Spain is worrying over injuries to a host of key players which are threatening to derail their hopes. Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas are all carrying injuries, and all could be ranked amoWayne Rooneyng the world’s top 20 players.

England’s inclusion in my initial list probably surprised/outraged some European readers who don’t see England quite at the top table, though in star Wayne Rooney, they have a player capable of taking his team all the way single-handedly (think LeBron or Dwyane Wade). England is more of a Utah Jazz-style team – well-coached (by Italian Fabio Capello), good players, they know their system, always competitive but rarely in the final four of the tournament.

Argentinian readers would by now surely be questioning Rooney’s mention coming ahead of Leo Messi, Barcelona’s fantastic young star who could similarly draw Bron/Wade comparisons. I just don’t see enough strength in his supporting cast, and Diego Maradona, one of the greatest players who ever lived, is sadly an awful coach and will drag this team down. That suitably qualifies Argentina for a Cleveland comparison, doesn’t it?

The Dutch team compares to Denver because of the quality of both teams and a Dutch propensity to have a troublemaker cause friction in the team. Portugal could compare to Phoenix because of fleet-footed Cristiano Ronaldo’s ability to run this team like Steve Nash and take it to contention. But Holland and Phoenix might be a better fit – nice orange uniforms, and everyone is kinda rooting for them because they generally play a nice style. And the Dutch have suffered some heartbreaking losses (World Cup Finals 1974 and 1978) to rival Phoenix’s recent close-but-not-close-enough runs.

But you probably know a bit about the big teams – what lesser-known nations are worth keeping an eye on? This being the first World CDidier Drogbaup held in Africa, all the African teams will be excited, with hosts South Africa (known as Bafana Bafana) out of their depth but with home advantage, anything could happen. Cameroon, Ghana, Algeria and Nigeria will all be confident of getting some good results.

The African continent’s biggest hope will be the Ivory Coast, a young team with a legitimate star who’s a scoring machine (Didier Drogba). Like the OKC Thunder, the Ivory Coast is a team which everyone will be rooting for. Unfortunately, they drew drew the Brazil (compare to Lakers) in their qualifying section, as well as Portugal in a group which has become known as the Group of Death.

The fourth and final team in the Group of Death is North Korea – a team that thinks it’s better than it actually is. Run by an evil dictator, could North Korea compare any more appropriately than to the Clippers?

Other outsiders worth a look would be Chile, who has a young team with a reputation for running and attacking. Chile has to be your sort of team if you like the Warriors. Uruguay was winners of the tournament many years ago but have a more recent reputation (at least in the ‘80s/’90s) for thuggery, making Uruguay a team Knicks fans can appreciate. The Knicks haven’t had anyone as good as Uruguay striker Diego Forlan recently, though. Paraguay complete the South American contingent – I can’t provide a good NBA connection, but I had to include them because star striker Salvador Cabanas will miss the World Cup after being shot in the head and surviving!

No Mexican mention yet – sorry, I just don’t know the team well enough to make a good comparison. They have a favorable early draw, and their game with Argentina in their last tournament was one of the highlights (especially Maxi Rodriguez’s winner – apologies to Mexicans for reminding them!). Still, they are unlikely to get further than the quarter finals.

And what about Team America? Every tournament, hushed whispers wisely tell us, “Hey, you know what? This could be America’s time.” We’ve long been expecting the USA to make a significant leap in the world game, and some would argue the progression to last year’s Confederations Cup final was that significant leap, but they would be wrong – no one really cares about the Confederations Cup. On paper, the team still doesn’t look quite strong enough yet. Just know that, as an Englishman, I’m pretty confident ahead of the England/USA game on Saturday, June 12. That’s the second day of the tournament, and if England gives the US a thrashing, make sure to check this article again for a new team to support! (And if USA gives England a thrashing, know that I will certainly not be coming back on here the next day!)

In any case, enjoy the month of high-caliber soccer. It might not seem so far away now, but four years is a long time to wait for the next one.