Halfway Through, Which Is Your World Cup Team?

After weeks of up to four World Cup matches a day, the players and fans are catching their breath before the quarterfinals begin on Friday. Mark Starr, a columnist for GlobalPost, brings us up to date on who's still standing and what the big upsets have been so far.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

After weeks of as many as four matches a day, the World Cup takes a quick breather before the quarterfinals kick off on Friday. So while we're not glued to our TV sets, we'll take this opportunity to check in with World Cup guru Mark Starr, a columnist for the international news site GlobalPost. He wrote the "Insider's Guide to the World Cup" at globalpost.com. You can find a link to that on our website.

If you've been watching, what's your favorite World Cup moment? And who do you root for once your team heads home? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mark Starr joins us now from a studio in Boston. Nice to have you back.

Mr. MARK STARR (Columnist, GlobalPost; Author, "The GlobalPost Insider's Guide to World Cup 2010"): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And 16 teams are still standing. Any tremendous surprises amongst them?

Mr. STARR: I think eight teams are still standing.

CONAN: Oh, excuse me. I can't add.

Mr. STARR: Yeah, well, I have that problem, too. There are definitely some surprises. I don't think anybody expected Uruguay to be there, and I don't think folks were expecting Ghana to be there. And since they're playing each other, one of them is going to the semifinals. And if it were the African team, that would be a first in history and an epic moment for Africa.

CONAN: And in terms of who do you root for when your team goes home, you get the idea that everybody in Africa is rooting for Ghana.

Mr. STARR: I think there are a lot of reasons to root for Ghana, to root for history. They play an attractive style. I think a lot of people are also rooting for Spain because Spain plays the most beautiful version of soccer that exists. They play what Brazil used to. They pass the ball, they control it. They're aesthetically gorgeous, and I think you want that rather than the thuggery.

CONAN: Yet, in its most recent game against Chile, Brazil certainly, well, scored, 3-0 in soccer, that's a rout.

Mr. STARR: Absolutely. Brazil is a great team and they can score, but they do not just move the ball. They are very rough. They learned a lot. Their coach played in Italy, and Italy defends like no other team. And he took that lesson home. And they are a very physical, ferocious team. And I think that makes them perhaps the best team in the tournament. But it's not always as pleasing to watch.

CONAN: Netherlands and Germany are still in the tournament but, well, Italy, you mentioned, and France - well, particularly France going home in disgrace, I think, is fair to say.

Mr. STARR: I saw it today, the Nigerian president has suspended the Nigerian national team for two years because of what he said was their bad play. And I was thinking, if Sarkozy did that, France wouldn't play till the next century.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: This was a team that ended up in mutiny by the time it got home.

Mr. STARR: Absolutely. The World Cup exposes - you know, France was a flawed team coming in. They made it only by the breadth - hair's breadth of a controversial - not even a controversial, a terribly bad call that cost Ireland, a deliberate handball. And they didn't belong there and they didn't perform like they expected they belong there.

CONAN: The one European team that seems to have performed as advertised: Germany.

Mr. STARR: Germany plays a very beautiful game of soccer, and so do the Dutch. The Dutch are going up against Brazil, which has knocked them out of a couple recent World Cups. The Dutch have never won a World Cup. They've got a terrific team. They've been in two finals. For them, this could be the once in a lifetime.

There are several great teams that have never won the World Cup. It's only been won by seven nations. Surprisingly, Uruguay is one of them. But neither Spain nor Netherlands has ever won a World Cup.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Karen(ph). My husband and I cheer for Germany after the U.S. goes out of the World Cup. His mom emigrated from Germany, so he was raised with a lot of German pride. People usually think we're just cheering for them because they're doing so well, so we often have to explain. Go Germany.

This from Bryan(ph) in Manhattan. All my three teams, all three have gone down. I looked at whos left and decided I'll pull for teams who speak romance languages, even as a second language. I think I'm covered.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STARR: Well, I think we talked about this last time, Neal. You don't have to root for somebody. You're always using a German word: Schadenfreude. You can always root against somebody.

CONAN: Well, who would - well, the one team we haven't mentioned so far is Argentina, with the once great and charismatic player Maradona now as its coach.

Mr. STARR: That might be the one I was thinking of. Maradona was great...

CONAN: I don't know why that came to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STARR: Was a great player. He's turn into a crude human being, and I'm not sure I want to see him - he said he'd dance naked through the streets to celebrate. It's not a picture I want to see.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. Wayne is on the line calling from Flagstaff.

WAYNE (Caller): Yes. Hello. This is Wayne. I have concentric layers of support that I have, so I was obviously rooting for the United States. And when they went out and Mexico was the closest country, I was rooting for Mexico. That only lasted for a day. But you know, now I'm rooting for the South American countries. And I guess if this were the Universe Cup, I would root for the Earthlings over the Martians.

CONAN: But then for the Martians over the Plutonians.

WAYNE: That's right. That's right.

CONAN: I see. So hemispheric pride in this case.

WAYNE: Yes. And I've been to those countries too. So I also find that if I've been to a foreign country that I have some familiarity with, I'm just really rooting for those people because I know who they are. And I think that's kind of a great lesson in just the value of travel itself. And the World Cup is really a nice thing for all of us here in United States to sort of be involved with.

CONAN: I haven't done the actual - I guess Brazil is closer to us than either Uruguay or Argentina.

WAYNE: If it were Brazil and Argentina, that would be a tough one for me. I used to be married to a Brazilian, but I have a sweet spot in my heart for Argentina as well. I can't lose on that one.

CONAN: Okay. Wayne...

Mr. STARR: This has really been a great tournament for South America. South America has really preempted Europe in this tournament. And that's been fun to see. The Europeans tend to be a little arrogant about their soccer, but they don't travel well.

WAYNE: I think all of us here in the Americas should be very proud of that, not just that we're United Statesians but, you know, South America is doing well. That means we're doing well.

CONAN: All right. Wayne, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

WAYNE: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And you mentioned Uruguay, a previous winner of the World Cup. Didn't they win the first World Cup?

Mr. STARR: They won the first and they won another one. Uruguay - one in Brazil of all places. Brazil has won more World Cups than anyone else, but they didn't win the World Cup that was first held in Brazil. Uruguay was an upset winner at that.

CONAN: Let's go next to Josh(ph), Josh with us from Conway in Arkansas.

JOSH (Caller): Hi. Yes

CONAN: Go ahead, Josh. You're on the air.

JOSH: Hi. I'm going to be rooting for Germany from now on. My grandmother emigrated from Germany in the 1960s. And during the last World Cup, with a lot of her relatives over here - and I had never -I've been to many sporting matches in the United States, all different kinds of sports, and never in my life have I ever seen any kind of fans like these German fans of German soccer. They're die-hard and it's like life and death to them. So I - they taught me how to appreciate soccer in a way I never had before. And they're something else.

CONAN: Well, I think there are a lot of die-hard fans in a lot of countries, Josh. But we'll accept your testimony about the Germans.

Mr. STARR: You know, with the Americans, one of the things we haven't talked about was how much fun it was to root for the Americans as an underdog. It's a slightly different feeling and it was very exciting.

CONAN: Yes. And one of the things that people will, of course, remember from the World Cup is, you mentioned in the preliminary, an atrocious missed call in the France-Ireland game. There have been some spectacularly bad calls in the World Cup.

Mr. STARR: Well, there always are. And the real cynical truth here is that FIFA, the organization that governs soccer, doesn't really care. They know, you know, you throw a perfect game, you talk about it for 24 hours. You have an umpire blow a call, you talk about it for weeks. And to get the frenzy in America on the talk radio cycle, the outrage, they think that's, you know, the version of just spell my name right, I don't care what you say about me. Controversy fuels it.

The most famous goal in the history of the World Cup is the Hand of God goal by Diego Maradona, which was an illegal goal. He scored the most spectacular goal in World Cup history in the same game, a legal goal, and nobody remembers that. But everybody knows about the Hand of God.

CONAN: Yet there is at least suggestion that they might consider video replay for - just in terms of goal or no goal.

Mr. STARR: I would bet they do no incorporate video replay. They may incorporate an extra official near the net to make that judgment. It's kind of hard to understand how people in the third deck can see things that officials on the field can't. You know, France was there on the same kind of terrible call in the World Cup in the first place. There are repeated bad calls.

And you might have noted that the announcers on ESPN - we got to give them credit, they've been wonderful - pointed out when the English goal was disallowed they said Germans have been angry for 44 years about a goal that they didn't think England should've scored that defeated them in the 1966 World Cup. And FIFA likes that, you know?

CONAN: Let's get another caller in, Andrea - Andrea with us from Eugene, Oregon.

ANDREA (Caller): Good afternoon. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

ANDREA: So, yeah, it's kind of a conundrum when you're talking about who to support in the World Cup. I went to the World Cup supporting, of course, the U.S. and Mexico because I'm ethnically Mexican, and Serbia, which is the country of my husband. But of course all three have failed me. So now where do I turn? Well, I'm a huge football fan, and my biggest favorite team is Liverpool. So of course I'm rooting for Spain because one of the stars is Fernando Torres.

CONAN: From Liverpool, who plays for Liverpool in the English Premier League.

ANDREA: Yes, in the primary league.

CONAN: So I wonder, Mark Starr, for a lot of Americans, this is -they're not going to be able to track a lot of players like that.

Mr. STARR: Well, probably not. But, you know, I think there are a lot of reasons to root for Spain. They play the game the way it ideally should be played. And it is gorgeous to watch. And I hate to disappoint the lady from Eugene, but I think Torres may be out of the starting lineup because he's been the weak link so far coming back from injury. He doesn't look fully recovered, and they replaced him in their game yesterday. And they were a much better team without him on the field. So I hope she'll keep rooting for Spain anyway.

CONAN: Andrea, will you still root for Spain?

ANDREA: Of course I'll be still rooting for Spain. Torres is not the only player. And I think they will be giving him another chance. At least, if not in the starting lineup, they're going to put him on as a replacement. Because no matter what, he still is a strong player and he is coming back from an injury.

CONAN: All right. Andrea...

ANDREA: He's got the track record.

CONAN: ...thanks very much for your call. And I'm sure Spain and Liverpool thank you for your loyalty.

ANDREA: Thank you.

Mr. STARR: Is it time, Neal, to point out that when we last talked, you asked me for a final four?

CONAN: Not quite. Not quite yet...

Mr. STARR: Okay.

CONAN: Not quite yet time. We are talking, though, with Mark Starr, a columnist for the international news site GlobalPost, about - he wrote "The Insider's Guide to the World Cup" at globalpost.com.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Mohammed(ph), Mohammed with us from Traverse City in Michigan.

MOHAMMED (Caller): Yeah, hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

MOHAMMAD: Actually, I was rooting for Algeria, I mean the North African country of Algeria because it's the country of my birth. But right now I'm definitely supporting Ghana. It's the only standing African nation now. So - and another thing too is that the media has not given so much credit to the Algerian team for coming back to the World Cup after 24 years of absence, so that's definitely something that we'd look into.

CONAN: We've had some emailers who are on your side. Dave in Columbia, Maryland: Even though the odds are against them, I would like Ghana to win. There are few teams left in the tournament that have not won a cup, and Ghana is one of them.

And this from Sadu(ph) in Cincinnati, who writes: I'm originally from the West African country of Mauritania. I've been a loyal fan of team USA since their return to the big stage in 1990. Now that they're out, though, I'm rooting for Ghana, the only African team left in the tournament.

And Mohammed, there's a lot of people on your side, I think.

MOHAMMED: I'm glad to hear that. Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

As - there are really two different questions, Mark Starr. Who do you handicap in terms of who do you think is going to win? We did note that you had four teams that you picked for the finalists. The four teams you picked: Spain, Brazil, Netherlands and Germany - all four still in.

Mr. STARR: Yeah. Unfortunately, when you hit me with that question, I didn't have the brackets exactly in front of me. So Brazil is playing Netherlands. All four of them can't go to the semis. But the fact that they're alive - and I didn't pick England or Italy - I feel pretty good about that. I feel pretty good about Ghana, by the way. Ghana won the Under 20 World Cup last year. And they are going to be a power for years to come when that talent matures. They beat Brazil in the final.

CONAN: And they are up against Uruguay, as you mentioned. So they're -the two longest odds, you would think, to go to the final?

Mr. STARR: Absolutely. That's the underdog bracket to beat all underdog brackets. You know, this is kind of like March Madness. The first rounds are often more interesting than the later rounds, when all the usual suspects show up.

CONAN: So the...

Mr. STARR: But...

CONAN: The winner of the Brazil-Netherlands game would then seem to have the advantage going on to the final.

Mr. STARR: They will be a prohibitive favorite in the semifinal. But you know, Argentina has had to go through England, and then they might beat Germany, and they might have to play Spain. That would be quite a march.

CONAN: Well, they're up against Germany in the quarter final. And of course it's Paraguay and Spain - who do you think's going through?

Mr. STARR: Well, I think Spain will ultimately go through, but they're going to have a tortured game, very much like the game against Portugal. Paraguay defends relentlessly. They're willing to play 120 minutes and play for the shootout just like they did against Japan. And Spain's going to have to work and work and try to penetrate that defense because they are very tough, Paraguay.

CONAN: Here's another email. This from Susan in Florida: My allegiance went to Spain and Argentina. I would love to see either win - Argentina has fire, Spain has romance.

And Paul in Grand Rapids writes: My paternal grandfather immigrated to the United States from the Netherlands in the 1950s, so I tend to cheer on the Dutch when the U.S. gets eliminated. My grandfather's journey also gives me a great excuse to stand behind a strong and promising team.

Does the - we hear a lot about - in NCAA tournament and all those sorts of things about the chalk, the big favorites. Does that tend to prevail in the World Cup? The strongest teams generally go through?

Mr. STARR: Oh, absolutely. You know, you can get these underdogs -Algeria played way over their head, New Zealand played well over the head. But now, you know, you get down to the mighty teams, and it tends to be the same teams. And there are chances - Spain and Netherlands both have a chance to be a first-time winner, but there have only been seven teams - I repeat that - that have ever won the World Cup.

It's very hard, and when you have a team, as good as the Dutch have been for so many years, as good as Spain has been for so many years, that have never won - you know how difficult a task it is.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in - Phil with us from Barry in Vermont.

PHIL (Caller): Hi there, guys. Yeah, I'm rooting for Spain. Obviously I was for the United States when it all started. And - but my fallback position would be, obviously, the Spanish. My family comes from Spain, so I gotta I gotta go with Espana.

CONAN: Okay. A lot of Spain followers there in Vermont?

PHIL: Yeah. We come - there's quite a few Hispanic people here in Vermont, a lot of people from Spain here in Barry. They came over as immigrants. And I just want to talk about the refereeing because I'm also a referee, and not at the professional level, obviously, but the collegiate level. And...

CONAN: Whatever you're going to say, Phil, make it very quick.

PHIL: Okay. I just thought that the - obviously the one against England was atrocious. That was bad. The one there on Tevez, I thought that that was a tough one because both positions - both the officials were in the right position, one for outside and obviously the referee in the middle.

CONAN: All right.

PHIL: He couldn't see the line, so that was a tough call. But I definitely agree we need technology in the game.

CONAN: Hard to excuse the fact that the only people who don't know it was a goal were the officials after a replay.

Phil, thanks very much for the call. And Mark, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. STARR: Neal, it's an absolute pleasure.

CONAN: Mark Starr, a columnist for the international news site GlobalPost. He wrote "The Insider's Guide to the World Cup" at globalpost.com. He joined us from a studio in Boston. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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