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FIFA World Cup 2014 kicks off

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Australia's 2006 World Cup hero and greatest ever goal scorer, Tim Cahill. (Image via FFA)

With the FIFA World Cup began last night in Brazil, resident soccer reporter Lachlan Barker gives the full picture of the mega-event, along with some cautious predictions.

Okay, so the FIFA World Cup is upon us with one game completed (host Brazil with a slightly controversial win 1-0 against Croatia last night) and so it's time to update our politically-focussed readership about this event.

I will refer to the sport itself in this article as 'soccer', as here in Australia there are four main football codes, and while the game is known as 'football' around the world, it only confuses things here. Incidentally, soccer is a contraction of the name Association Football, which is its formal name.

The World Cup held its inaugural showdown in 1930 in Uruguay. The home side won the event and so hold a remarkable place in soccer history.

Considering that the next world cup of the footballing codes was the Rugby Union World Cup, which was first held in 1987, the soccer World Cup was a truly ground breaking event and well ahead of the curve in the sporting arena.

Soccer is, indeed, the world game with over 200 nations seeking to qualify as one of the 32 eligible for the final showdown. Tennis has the best claim to being world number two sport, with 130 nations entering the Davis Cup last year.

However, the viewing figures for this event are in the fractions compared with viewers for a soccer World Cup final, and all up 3.2 billion people watched at least one minute of the entire 64 matches at the 2010 World Cup. The average official rating was 188.4 million for each match.

The 2011 Davis Cup final had an audience of 6.2 million in the nation that won it, Spain.

The largest American event, the Superbowl gained 111.5 million viewers in 2014.

Curiously – and here's one for those who hate sport – the largest single viewership event ever was for the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games, which had 593 million viewers. Since that ceremony was more to do with dance, music and creativity than sport, it’s an interesting observation.

I can already hear thousands of female partners pointing this out to couch-encrusted husbands as they turn to SBS for the World Cup. A joke that many at SBS use is that SBS doesn't stand for Special Broadcasting Service, but: Soccer, Bloody, Soccer!

So to the tournament itself.

Only eight nations out of the 150 who play have won the Soccer World Cup, and until 1998 when France won at home, the number was a miserly six.

From Europe, they are Germany (including West Germany, as they were until 1990), Italy, France, Spain and England. From South America — Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.

The host nation traditionally does well, with seven of the eight winners – Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, England and France – winning at home.

Spain didn't when they hosted the tournament in 1982, gaining their win in South Africa in 2010.

But even the continent in which the finals were held is a factor.

Until 1994, when the World Cup was held in the USA, only mighty Brazil had won the tournament outside their own continent, defeating Sweden in Sweden in 1958. Incidentally, Brazil won in 1994 as well, and in 2002, in South Korea and Japan, extending their record as the only nation to win outside their home continent. It was only with Spain's victory in 2010 in South Africa that another nation was added to the list of 'winning away from their own continent'.

And, of course, gamblers please note, still no European team has won in South America, so Brazil are raging hot faves to be holding up the Cup on Sunday 13 July (Monday morning, Australian time) at the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro.

Throughout the history of the tournament there have been odd results, as one would expect.

Among the best known was the defeat of Italy by North Korea in 1966. So disgusted were the Italian fans by this disaster they pelted the returning Italian team with rotting fruit as they disembarked at Milan.

Lesser known was in 1950 when the (then) lowly USA defeated England 1-0.

So unbelievable was this result that, when the score came into London via the wire services, wire editors thought it was a misprint, with a 1 being left off the England score, so that it should have read 10-1. But no, after much frantic international dialling, it was revealed to be true.

Cameroon came of age in 1990, defeating the current holders, Argentina, 1-0.

This marked the rise of the Africans in soccer and, when followed by the USA performing creditably in 1994, meant that now at least four continents were part of the World Cup.

Then Asia also began to play a part at this time with South Korea showing genuine competitiveness. So now with five continents on the go, six if you include Australia, soccer was genuinely the World Game.

Of the World Cup goals that were memorable, there are genuinely too many to include here, but here is a sample.

One of the most spectacular was scored by a Russian player Aleinikoff in Mexico in 1986 against Hungary, which the Russians won 6-0. The matches in Mexico were played at altitude, with considerable effects on the travel of the ball. Aleinikoff's goal – the Russians' second – is a contender for the fastest a soccer ball ever travelled to score.

The other goal that has probably escaped into the general consciousness is the infamous "hand-of-god" goal by tortured Argentinean genius Diego Maradona.

As you can see in the picture, Maradona used his hand illegally to bat the ball over the head of England goalkeeper Peter Shilton. The goal stood, and the England supporters spent most of the day advising the referee where he could buy glasses.

However, what is less well known, and shows the fractured nature of Maradona's psyche, is that in the same game he scored, perfectly legally, possibly the greatest goal in World Cup history. He picked up the ball near the halfway line, then ran through the entire England team to score. Why, then, he later used his hand, is not certain.

But for non-soccer people probably the most famous event to ever come out of the World Cup is the 1994 shooting of the Colombian goalkeeper Andres Escobar. Escobar scored an own goal while playing for Colombia against the United States in the 1994 World Cup. Upon his return home, he was promptly shot and died of the gunshot wounds.

The legend was that he was shot for causing huge gambling losses for some major drug lords. However, though a good story, it is generally considered that Escobar's death was more due to general lawlessness in Colombia at the time rather than any payback for the goal.

And what of Australia?

Our first attempts to qualify were in 1966 and 1970, with no success.

But then, in 1974, Australia qualified under the leadership of the great Johnny Warren. Considering we didn't then qualify again until 2006, it puts in perspective how great this achievement was.

Johnny led his time of part-timers to West Germany and did well.

Australia didn't score a goal losing 3-0 to West Germany, 2-0 to East Germany and scored a solitary point in a nil-all draw with Chile. Yet considering West Germany won that tournament, it was still a brave performance from our lads.

To put that into context, Scotland, soccer-mad Scotland, exited the same tournament without losing a game, having three draws.

I would also like to add that I met Johnny Warren in later years as I covered soccer in and around Sydney. He was truly a lovely and intelligent man and a great thinker about the game. He is sorely missed.

He died of cancer, very sadly before he got to see Australia take the field in the 2006 World Cup. Our team out there in the World Cup was in part due to the great leadership for soccer in this country that he showed all his life, beginning in 1974. 

We then spent a lot of years playing odd home and away fixtures, usually against South American nations, to qualify for the World Cup.

Then came the day when Australia beat Uruguay in a penalty shootout to qualify for the 2006 world cup. John Aloisi scored that memorable goal and the excitement was off the chart.

What's more, one of the Uruguayans' reportedly riled the Australians no end by saying before the fixture that

"Uruguay have a god-given right to go to the World Cup."

And so we went to Germany in 2006 under the great manager Guus Hiddinck and did well, qualifying out of our group and losing to ever-so-mighty Italy in the first round of the knockout phase.

What's more, here is Australia, it is generally only considered we lost because one of the Italian players dived to get a penalty, which once converted won them the game.

You can decide if it was a dive:

In South Africa in 2010 we qualified again, but here our new manager, Pim Verbeek, seemed to lose his nerve, changed the players around out of position and we went down 4-0 to Germany in the first match.

At the world cup, if you lose your first game, particularly by more than one goal, it is usually all over.

And so to Brazil 2014.

Australia, due to its lowly ranking has been placed in what many call the Group of Death. We play Chile, Spain and The Netherlands. Spain is the current Cup holders, and they played Holland in the final, so that's one and two we've got to contend with.

Chile are ranked 13th in the world, and as the finals are in South America, with all the "home" advantages mentioned above, they could be the hardest team of all in our group.

So I predict this: Chile 4 - Australia 0, Spain 2 - Australia 0, and Australia 1 - Holland 1.

But then as we all famously know, an expert is just a has-been drip under pressure (ex, spurt) and I'm not even one of them.

Brazil, I believe, will win and will almost certainly play another South American team in the final, most likely Argentina. Portugal and Spain are the most likely to do anything from Europe, while Algeria carries most of Africa's hopes. Tireless, hardworking Japan fly the flag for Asia, while the USA and Mexico compete equally for the North American top spot.

So there you have it for the upcoming World Cup, tune in regularly over the next month as I write repeatedly of why I was wrong.

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