The world's greatest and most anticipated athletic competition opens again in just one week when 2014 World Cup host Brazil faces Croatia on Thursday, June 12 (4 p.m., ESPN). The American squad opens against Ghana on Monday, June 16 (6 p.m., ESPN). To get you ready, we spoke with Al DiFranco, passionate soccer writer and the marketing chair for the Cleveland chapter of American Outlaws fan group, about our chances this time around and how casual fans can get connected to the die-hards for some beer, camaraderie, patriotism, and World Cup soccer on big screen TVs.
To me, the World Cup is significantly more exciting than any of the Olympics, Super Bowls, all of that. How do you rank the World Cup month in importance?
When you talk about world sports, it's the most important one. Soccer is the No. 1 sport in the world, and the No. 1 sport in most countries outside of the U.S., and it's the world's game. To have a competition where there's no doubt the best players from each country playing, there's nothing else like it.
How do you assess our chances this year against Ghana, Portugal and Germany? That's a very tough group.
It is what they call the "Group of Death," there's something nerve wracking about it, but we've got a chance. Germany is going to be difficult, but we play them at the end and they may already clinch their spot in the Sweet 16 by the time we play them which may help a little bit. Ghana, our first match, is really a must-win. And then we play Portugal, which has the best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, and they're going to be solely focused on him and I think Michael Bradley will pretty much be his shadow for that entire match. I feel good about that. I have them finishing second in the group and advancing — that may be more of my heart than my mind saying that — but I think they've got a shot.
The thing I'm worried about is going back to the 1990 World Cup, we've alternated between letdowns and great results. In 2010, we did pretty well, in the group stage, at least. I hope we're not due for a letdown this time around.
I agree with you, I think that's a possibility. But they did win the group in World Cup qualifying this time — they had never done that before. While our group isn't the most difficult qualifying group, the fact that we took care of Mexico is something to be proud of, and I think Jurgen Klinsmann comes in with as much credibility as anyone before. And whether you agree with the decisions he's making or not, he's making decisions for the best of the future and present of the team.
Well, now that we’re on that subject, how do you feel about Jurgen Klinsmann leaving Landon Donovan off the team? I’m so conflicted by it; he’s been the heart of American soccer since the 2002 World Cup when he was 20 and everybody remembers that last-minute goal he scored against Algeria in 2010 to clinch the spot in the next round.
When the Outlaws watched the Azerbaijan match, we talked about that a lot as a group and the word I used was ‘conflicted’ as well. For me, I’m always going to appreciate what he’s done -- I have a jersey of his -- I’m always going to appreciate what he did for U.S. soccer. That goal against Algeria will never be forgotten among soccer fans. I mean, he was on all the late night shows after it happened. Other than the 1950 goal against England, it’s probably the biggest goal in U.S. soccer history and it’ll always be one of my top highlights. I still get goosebumps watching the video on Youtube where they show the bars across the world as they react to it. But, I think Klinsmann realized Donovan is not a wing player anymore and can’t keep up with the speed of the guys from Ghana and Portugal, so they moved him to a forward spot. Once you move him to a forward spot, he’s not going to take the spot of Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey. And then with those younger players like Johannsson in there that are probably going to be building for four years from now. I think it was a combination of him not being the best sub off the bench for that quick goal strike that you need from a forward, and also planning for the future, looking toward 2018.
Other than the established guys — like Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley — who's the one American player people should pay attention to?
Given the group we're in, I really think the big, big key is probably going to be Geoff Cameron. That's because center midfield is always going to be critical on defense, Cameron's got the size to score a goal on a set-piece, but it'll be so important for him to stop a guy like Cristiano Ronaldo when he undoubtedly gets a little bit behind Michael Bradley at some point. Cameron's the best defender the U.S. really has: He's playing in the English Premier League, doing well, one of Stoke City's best players, he's probably one of the top 10 to 15 defenders in the EPL right now.
So you're in the Cleveland chapter of the American Outlaws; what's that like?
For Cleveland folks, it's kind of the equivalent of the Browns Backers, but for U.S. soccer. There's well over 100 chapters in the United States, and the Cleveland chapter was one of the first 30 and it's growing quite a bit. We get anywhere from 25 to 75 people watching the matches coming out for games over at Merry Arts in Lakewood, which is such a cool bar to watch a match; it's really branded itself as a soccer bar in the Cleveland area. It's just a fun group of people that watch matches together, drink some adult beverages, and have a good time. We do chants during the matches, we're doing a March Madness-style bracket challenge for the World Cup, that kind of stuff. And I think with soccer, especially the World Cup, a lot of it is about patriotism — a lot of these people love cheering for an American team full of guys who are representing our country on the world's biggest stage.
We've also done a couple trips: We went down to see the U.S.-Mexico match in Columbus, and the match against Jamaica the year before. But after the World Cup is over, we're going more into that idea of traveling with the team, here and there, once or twice a year, road trips.
Tell me more about these watch parties at Merry Arts. Why should people who may not be more than just casual fans come watch with you guys?
It’s a energy. There’s something about watching a match where people are chanting, having a good time. And we hand out chant sheets so people don’t feel like they’re left out, so people understand what we’re talking about. But it’s also just a celebration: why do you go to a bar? You go to a bar to have fun, talk to people, have a couple of drinks, and hang out. For us, it’s doing that and cheering on our team. We pump the sound in so you can hear the match, and people just get into it.
Do you have a secondary team in the World Cup? I’m assuming your last name is Italian, are you an Italy fan?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. That’s where I started fully enjoying soccer. Growing up, it was the one sport my dad was really into, and we had one of those little satellites that would get one channel. The one channel was called RAI (from Italy) and I remember watching Serie A matches on Sunday with my dad -- he never watched a lot of sports, very different from me -- and the one sport he liked to watch was soccer. It was a way I could connect with him, because he worked all the time, and the one day he was usually home was Sunday and he was always watching matches and I could enjoy it with him. I always followed Italy. But in 1994 when the U.S. hosted the World Cup, I was in high school at the time and I kind of flipped. I remember watching the U.S. beat Colombia, and something just kind of switched in me. I hope Italy wins, and it doesn’t affect the U.S., I want Italy to win, but when it’s all said and done, I want the U.S. to win the whole frickin’ thing.
Who's actually going to win the World Cup this year?
I'm going Brazil. It's hard for me to see anyone beating Brazil in Brazil. I picked Brazil over Argentina in the final, which if you think about it, would be absolutely amazing with that environment. Belgium is my darkhorse — I don't know how much of a darkhorse that is anymore because it seems like everyone's jumping on the bandwagon with them. They have a good balance of really young talent up front and an amazing back line. I could see them winning, but I feel like the guys up front will need another Cup.
Okay, your final pitch to Scene readers who don't give a shit about soccer:
If you haven't given soccer a real chance, if you heard this, that and the other, it's just a really exciting sport to watch. Some of the best matches are truly those 0-0 or 1-1 draws that may not seem on paper to be exciting, but once you sit down and watch it, it's great. And it's a two-hour match no matter what, basically. But I just encourage people to come out and have some fun with us. Just give it a chance, it's a great game that's just going to continue growing in this country.
Join Al DiFranco and the rest of the American Outlaws at Merry Arts Pub & Grill in Lakewood throughout the 2014 World Cup. USA group stage games: June 16 vs Ghana (6 p.m., ESPN), June 22 vs Portugal (6 p.m., ESPN), June 26 vs Germany (noon, ESPN).