Austin Vs. Seattle: Talent, Innovation, And Place

June 30, 2014

By: John Karras, Consultant, TIP Strategies & Jeff Marcell, Senior Partner, TIP Strategies

The View from the Austonian by Todd Dwyer Via Flickr

Seattle Space Needle by David Lee Via Flickr

Now that TIP Strategies has a permanent presence in both Austin, Texas and Seattle, Washington we’ve been having fun comparing and contrasting the two regions. One feature the two share: momentous growth. According to two recent articles, Austin’s metro area is the “fastest growing large metro area” and the City of Seattle is the “fastest growing large city.” This growth is a direct result of another commonality between Austin and Seattle, a cool factor that generates a gravitational pull of people, investment, and attention.
Speaking of cool, Seattle was recently named America’s Most Hipster City by “Thrillist” …Austin came in at #3. And between the two cities, you have a long list of internationally recognized events and festivals: South by Southwest, the Austin City Limits Music Festival, the Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix, Bumbershoot, the Seattle International Film Festival, Seafair, and many others. If you want to define cool, you can’t get closer than Austin and Seattle. The evidence is substantial:

While the competition for cool is a fun conversation, we at TIP Strategies do take successful economies very seriously. There is much more than the entertaining buzz of oddball rankings that drives the success of these regions. Our firm has identified the formula to economic success as Talent, Innovation, and Place. Austin and Seattle have tapped into this formula and are benefiting from job growth and investment because they deliver on these critical components of a successful economy.
The regions are similar in a number of important ways:

  • The Austin and Seattle metros are national leaders in population growth as evidenced by the latest Census data.
  • Both cities also lead the nation in job growth. In fact, the U.S. News & World Report recently included Austin and Seattle in its list of “The 10 Best Cities to Find Jobs” (Austin is #5, Seattle is #6).
  • The Austin and Seattle regions contain the most significant concentrations of high-tech companies in the country outside of Silicon Valley and Boston, thanks to headquarters and major facilities of tech companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Dell, Apple, Samsung, and many others.
  • Both cities have high levels of educational attainment (44.8% of Austin residents age 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree and 56.5% of Seattle residents age 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to a U.S. average of 28.5%).

But each region meets the Talent, Innovation, and Place formula in its own unique way. Let’s briefly explore how the regional economies of Seattle and Austin are leading the pack:
Austin and Seattle are both magnets for talented professionals and entrepreneurs. The talent pool in each metro area is the basic building block of each region’s economy. Of course, the cool factor in both cities helps to attract talent from across the country. But each city also has a strong pool of locally grown talent thanks in large part to the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Washington, two of the top public universities in the world. As economic development professionals, we understand that access to talent is the number one issue for both companies and communities. Here’s how Austin and Seattle compare in the competition for talent:

  • A recent study by the Milken Institute ranked the Austin and Seattle metro areas as two of the “Top 10 Best-Performing Cities” (Austin is #1, Seattle is #6). The study analyzed the 200 largest metro areas based on job, wage, and technology growth.

There’s a special kind of energy in Austin and Seattle that you just don’t feel in most cities. Both places are hotbeds of creativity and innovation. This is partly due to the influx of people moving to these cities each day, but it’s also due to the level of growth taking place in locally based start-ups and small businesses. Austin and Seattle are among an elite group of cities that are on the cutting edge of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Here are a few examples of how the economies of Austin and Seattle are driving innovation:

The level of growth (population, jobs, investment) taking place in the regional economies of Austin and Seattle is strong evidence of each metro area’s quality of place. You can experience this first-hand simply by seeing the amount of construction cranes towering over each city’s urban core. Yet even if you’ve never visited either city, chances are you have a good impression of them. Each city has its own unique brand, but they are both vibrant cities with strong identities.
If a quick look at the population and job growth data (or construction cranes) isn’t enough to convince you that Austin and Seattle are two of the most appealing places in the U.S., here are a few more examples that might do the trick:

  • Jones Lang Lasalle recently named Austin and Seattle among the “World’s 20 Most Dynamic Cities” as part of its proprietary City Momentum Index (Austin is #7, Seattle is #18).
  • Austin and Seattle both rank highly on the “City Energy Efficiency Scorecard” LINK from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (Austin is #6, Seattle is #5).

TIP Strategies is linked to each of these metropolitan economies like no other economic strategy firm. Our approach is grounded in understanding these economies, taking what we know to be their successful components, and applying and leveraging these lessons for the benefit of the communities we work with across the country. Being connected to and engaged in the two capitals of Talent, Innovation, and Place is our strategic advantage.
While our staff will continue to have fun debating which TIP location is cooler, we will always place serious emphasis on the lessons we can take from each of these metropolitan economies, lessons we can bring to our clients to help them build their own unique brands through Talent, Innovation, and place.

How To Spark Downtown Development

By: Marc Stiles
Via: Puget Sound Business Journal

The performing arts center in downtown Federal Way will have views of Mount Rainier. The City Council voted on June 3 to move ahead with the $32 million project. Illustration by Stephanie Bower

The city of Federal Way [Washington] last week made a $32 million gamble by deciding to move ahead with construction of a performing arts and conference center. In economic development circles, this is known as a “catalyst project.”
With construction of the new facility at the northeast corner of South 316th Street and 20th Avenue South, city leaders hope it will jump start redevelopment of the city center — a long-time goal.
The Business Journal spoke with Jeff Marcell, a new senior partner at economic development company TIP Strategies and former executive of the EDC of Seattle and King County, about such projects, and what makes some successful.
What’s a good example of a catalyst project actually turning a languishing area in to a vibrant one?
One of the most recognized ones is Kent Station in Kent. The city purchased a chemical plant in the middle of its urban core and redeveloped the site with guidance from the private sector. They took advantage of surrounding public sector investments like a new King County Justice Center and Sound Transit’s commuter rail station to fuel traffic to the development and later added facilities for Central Washington University and Green River Community College that brought even more activity to the development.
How can cities ensure projects actually achieve their goals?
Identify clear goals, including job creation, tax revenue generation and changing the preconceived mindset about a community. Cities also should conduct a comprehensive feasibility analysis, and they should lean on private sector expertise for guidance. It is vital to have broad and strong local leadership actively involved. Cost overruns and delays should be expected, and cities should be patient. It may take several years to see results.
And what should cities not do?
They should not review elaborate architectural drawings before conducting the feasibility analysis. Visual presentations generate emotional responses that are not conducive to more objective judgements. Cities also shouldn’t develop plans and move ahead without the opportunity for community buy-in.

What Are You Going To Do With That Degree?

June 26, 2014

By: Karen Beard (Intro)
In recent years, the widespread availability of high speed internet access coupled with a proliferation of new technologies and the growth of transparency movements like the federal Open Government Initiative, have resulted in dramatic growth in data visualizations. In its broadest sense, the term applies to any pictorial representation of data including charts and infographics. But the true power of data visualization is best seen when the tools are applied to enormous data sets to reveal patterns that would otherwise be impossible to discern.
A new interactive data visualization from Ben Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University and core faculty at the NuLab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, is an example of this power. Schmidt’s flow diagram—presented under the heading “What are you going to do with that degree?”—visualizes employment and education data from the American Community Survey. The figure explores the relationships between college majors and professions.
In many cases, the data reflect the common wisdom that many people work in fields unrelated to their degree. For example, less than half of people employed as police officers have degrees in criminal justice. The visualization also highlights differences in employment outcomes between narrowly focused degrees and those that are more academic. As might be expected, career-specific degrees such as nursing and education, have more consistent outcomes while broader fields of study, like mathematics and communications, feed into a more disparate array of professions.
Additional data visualizations created by Mr. Schmidt can be found here.

Story Maps Illustrate Metro Area And County Population Change

June 11, 2014

Via: The Census Bureau
The Census Bureau [recently] released two interactive thematic maps on population change.
These ‘Story Maps’ provide insight on emerging trends in population change across the country,” said Jason Devine of the Census Bureau’s Population Division.

The first map allows data users to explore the difference a decade has made in patterns of population change in metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas across the country. This is possible through swiping between two interactive maps – one covering the 2002-2003 period, the other 2012-2013.
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau

The second map permits users to determine the extent of population growth in each county between 2012 and 2013, and to quickly identify the primary source of that population change (such as natural increase or net migration).
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau

Economics Of The 2014 World Cup

June 9, 2014

By: Jon Roberts, Principal & Managing Director, TIP Strategies

"Outubro, 2012" by copagov via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [Arena Amazonia, Manaus]

There will be those who say the only thing more boring than soccer is the economics of soccer. I am not one of them. I do, however, have friends and acquaintances who are very much of that opinion. To disabuse them of their benighted view, I’d like to tie Brazil’s current political crisis to more general questions of economic development. What does it mean to spend many billions (yes, billions) of dollars supporting the construction of stadiums? What does it mean to provide subsidies to private corporations or to international governing bodies to host large sporting events? These questions are also ours here in the US. We publicly subsidize everything from the Super Bowl to minor league ball parks to NASCAR tracks. We do this in the belief that there will be a return on investment. Are we justified in this view?
If economic development issues are not complicated enough, I have also indulged my desire to weigh in on the World Cup itself, who will win, and why. Fans of the game can add one more voice to the countless prognosticators and pundits who think they know who will win the World Cup by reading my post on the matter here.
Beyond the spotlight a single World Cup provides lies the larger public policy question of whether massive subsidies for sports are necessary—or even desirable. This post uses the World Cup stage as an opportunity to talk about the economics of sports and the peculiarities of soccer generally.
Brazilians ask: Why did we decide to host this event?
The World Cup begins this week. Thirty-two nations are participating, and a total of sixty-four games will be played in 12 stadiums. Some of these facilities are brand new and purpose-built. All have been constructed or improved through public financing of the Brazilian government. The most remarkable of these is in Manaus, a city at the edge of the Amazon rain forest. There are no viable roads in. Construction materials were sent by barge. Visitors to the four matches will fly in, though there is a river boat option as well. Yes, four matches at a stadium designed for 42,000 fans. And after the matches are played? No one knows. There is no local team that can justify a stadium of this scale. More broadly, the cost is well over $3 billion for all of the stadiums.The entire budget deficit of the country could have been offset by that spending. And there is no discernible ROI for the stadium development. What’s more, soccer’s international governing body (FIFA) will take all of the gate receipts and broadcast rights—one hundred percent.
So with no direct ROI, what justifies that spending? The most common answer, one familiar to cities who have vied for the Olympics (or sports venues or events generally), is that they generate welcome publicity for the host community. Never mind that no credible study supports the perceived benefits. Wh, then, you may ask, do communities continue down that path? There are two answers to that question, neither of which is very encouraging. The first is that officials are corrupt. We have ample evidence of that. FIFA itself is rife with kick-backs and bribery. Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, is deeply complicit in “selling” the Cup to the highest bidder. The 2022 Cup is scheduled to be held in Qatar, which would force players into matches where the temperature can reach 140 degrees. Moving the Cup from the summer to the winter would disrupt the professional league matches, so that’s not a good idea. And did I mention that the next World Cup will be held in Russia?
There’s corruption, and then there’s a simple case of being misguided. In 2007, the former Minister of Sport, Orlando Silva, said that no public money would be required for the construction (and improvement) of stadiums for the 2014 World Cup. More recently, Silva’s replacement, Aldo Rebelo, dismissed the notion that the new stadiums would become white elephants. In fact, there is every reason to think that neither the new construction nor the improvements to existing stadiums will ever justify the expenditures. The experience after the World Cup in South Africa strongly suggests that not only is there no ROI, but that the host nation is saddled with additional debt. This was Greece’s experience after the Olympics, and almost certainly played a part in that nation’s debt crisis.
Brazil was the only nation to bid on the 2014 World Cup. Since then, support for the Cup among Brazilians has steadily declined—from over 70% to under 30%. It may sink even further. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, is a vocal defender of the Cup, but she is struggling with the strikes and protests that have engulfed the nation. Even high profile former soccer stars are questioning the expense. Street protests made the news early this year and can be expected to play to the international news media for the next several weeks. The complaint is that money spent on stadiums should have gone to the country’s “Third World” infrastructure. It’s an argument that deserves more than passing consideration.
It is entirely possible the relationship between major governing bodies (FIFA, the IOC, and even the NFL, with its non-profit status) and host cities and nations will have to change. If countries and cities quit bidding on events, or subsidizing stadiums, sports won’t go away. TV coverage won’t stop, and there will still be breath-taking moments for fans across the country and around the world.
Why the US should care about the Cup
Around the globe, nations are waiting for the first game between Brazil and Croatia with bated breath. But Americans will, as they always do, wonder what all the fuss is about. There are obvious reasons for this: we already have a game called football and it’s, well…different. Beyond that, we have a national team that rarely wins and pretty much struggles against all opponents.
Soccer is a game we don’t understand and we play poorly, but there are other reasons to be skeptical of the hoopla. In addition to the massive capital outlay to host the event, this World Cup carries a load of scandals that rival the Lance Armstrong era in cycling. Are the stadiums actually prepared for the tens of thousands of fans who will occupy them? Are the police ready for the tens of thousands of citizens who will occupy the streets? And that’s not all. Accusations of match-fixing associated with illegal international betting are hitting the presses, just as teams are leaving for Brazil. Then there is the systemic corruption of the sport’s governing body, FIFA.
How, you may wonder, can we be enthusiastic about a quadrennial event the host nation no longer cares to have, is tainted by match fixing, and is overseen by an organization that no fan of the game will defend? And oh yes, an underperforming national team, sub-par officiating, and players that may fall over and writhe in agony when an opponent so much as breathes on them?
Despite all this, soccer’s influence in the US continues to grow. Close to a million Americans may now watch a high-profile English Premiership match. Hundreds of thousands more carefully track the fortune of national teams from Germany, Italy, Nigeria, and, of course, Mexico. Soccer is rapidly becoming our “fourth” sport, ahead of hockey, and it is beginning to rival baseball in popularity. It’s no great stretch to imagine soccer joining basketball and football as one of the big three by the time of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (or the US, if the scandal that accompanied the selection of Qatar results in a change of venue). In short, soccer is big in this country, and the World Cup will command attention for three glorious weeks. Despite the riots in the streets of Rio and Sao Paulo, despite the bad officiating and the prima donna antics of some players, despite all this, the tournament will captivate a global audience of which the US, for better and worse, will be a part.
What soccer has, and what constitutes a huge part of its appeal, is the flow of the game. In the US, one could argue that sports have lost that beauty. Our major sports are so over-managed that actual playing time is an absurdly small percentage of the coverage. I timed the fourth quarter of the recent Super Bowl from when the ball was snapped to when the play was blown dead. There were less than eight minutes of action in a quarter of play that seemed to go for an eternity. Basketball has begun to follow a similar pattern, with an increasing number of mind-numbing time outs. And baseball, well let’s not even go there. In American sports, players don’t so much play the game as follow the instructions of the coaches. In soccer, there are no time outs. You play for 45 minutes, then you take a break, then you play for another 45 minutes. There are only a total of three substitutions allowed. If you required more than that, due to injury, you would have to play a man down. All this and the players run an average of six miles during the match, often at sprint speeds. Flow is everything—or the ability to disrupt the flow. (Watch Italy.) But in any case, decisions are made and executed by the players rather than managed by the front office’s or television’s demands.
The US can learn to love soccer because it is a beautiful game. People can love it even if their interest in sports isn’t all that great in the first place. Why? Because the passion that drives the 32 nations who participate is unlike that of any other sport, or any other event. While we do watch the Olympics, the intensity has never equaled that of soccer. US sports certainly generate enthusiasm, but soccer more closely resembles collegiate athletics than it does our professional sports. There is also the separate question of how insular our big sports are. Yes, baseball is international, but we continue to host the “World” series even though we won’t allow other countries to participate (excepting Canada). American football is little more than a curiosity outside of North America. Basketball is the notable exception, but it pales in comparison with soccer.
Soccer is wonderful for the non-sports enthusiast, if for no other reason than it provides an alternative to Ambrose Bierce’s chillingly funny adage: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” Soccer, it turns out, can also teach Americans about geography. We can learn to appreciate that Bosnia and Herzegovina is a single small country in what was the former Yugoslavia (and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire), that many great Belgian players have more than a passing affinity for the Congo, and that England is, well, just England and that Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own soccer teams (none of which qualified for this Cup).
What does this all mean for economic development?
There are lessons to be learned from Brazil’s misadventures with the World Cup. Yes, we want the Cup to be a success, but if we fail to understand the consequences of bad decisions, we will certainly repeat them ourselves:

  • Do not assume that public subsidies for facilities will yield measurable benefits.
  • Question assumptions about the promotional value of sports generally.
  • Acknowledge that governing organizations (such as FIFA and the NFL) are profit driven even if they are “non-profit.” Their profits are simply allocated differently
  • When working with private developers, ensure that the stadiums are integrated into the fabric of the community (Portland’s Providence Park soccer stadium).
  • Promote and support sports that the community can participate in, not just as spectators but as participants and investors (youth organizations, for example).
  • Stand firm in the face of pressure from professional teams who will claim to “put you on the map.” You are already on the map. Your economic development success will not be the result of sports franchises. Here in Austin we have no professional sports teams (and did I mention that we lead the nation in job growth)?

The World Cup is a unique event. Its viewership (and the passion it generates) is second to none. Being the host nation, however, is not a reason to cave to the demands of an overreaching governing body, and to ignore the greater needs of the country. If we think our sport is so great, we’ll find a way to support it without bankrupting a country.

The 2014 World Cup: The Lessons Of Geography And History

By: Jon Roberts, Principal & Managing Director, TIP Strategies

"P1110941" by José Maria Silveira Neto Via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a separate post, I shared some thoughts about the economics of sports and the peculiarities of soccer generally. Fans of the game, and those who know me personally, will quickly see through my ruse in writing on the subject: “You’re don’t really care about public policy, you just want to talk about the World Cup.” Not true! (Ok, well, a little bit true.)
But this post is just that: a post about the World Cup. It is my thoughts on who will win and why. For you sports fans that still don’t get soccer and why a scoreless draw can be exciting, maybe this post can help provide some context. Or not. For those of you who care to learn your geography through other means than sports, or who don’t care about sports at all, well, you may just want to sit this one out.
Who will win the Cup: In which a statistical perspective sheds light on what it takes to be the best in the world
Let’s talk about tennis for a minute. The data are revealing. If you have not already won a Grand Slam event, the odds are stacked against you. In other words, winners keep winning. Expressed differently, there are far fewer winners of a single slam than there are winners of multiple slams. It’s hard to win, but much easier, statistically, to keep winning. This turns out to be just as relevant to football. (We’ll quit calling it soccer now that only the purists are reading this blog.)
The World Cup began in 1930. There have been 19 tournaments since then, with the matches in Brazil this summer marking the 20th anniversary. Only eight nations have won the trophy in over 80 years. Of those eight, five are multiple winners. France and England each won just once, and it was when they were the tournament host. Hosting a tournament confers a clear advantage for the home team. Spain is the only other single winner; they are also the defending champions. In all, 76 nations have been represented in the tournament, which now hosts 32 teams.
So with these facts safely tucked away, let’s ask the question a different way. Who among the teams going to Brazil really believes they can win? Not, can play well. Not, will match up against other teams or can advance out of their group. No, who among the teams has a conviction that they can win? The answer to that question will narrow the field, and will do so in ways that aren’t reflected by the nominal team rankings.

  1. The host country almost always believes it can win. It believes this with some justification. Nearly a third of winning nations (6 in all) did so when they hosted the tournament. More recently, as FIFA (football’s governing body) sought to make the sport more global, the tournament was hosted in countries without a rich footballing tradition: the US, South Korea/Japan, and South Africa. Those nations may have fantasized about a win, but they never believed they would raise the trophy.
  2. Previous winners have an edge.
  3. Defending champions believe they can repeat. Italy and Brazil have won back-to-back championships, and while it is not a common event, the belief is there.

Ignoring everything else for now (injuries, susceptibility to tropical heat, player selection) and based on these statistics alone, listed below is who is likely to advance:

  • Brazil
  • Spain
  • Germany
  • Italy

To these we can add Argentina. And Uruguay (as a dark horse). These choices will come as no surprise to fans of the game, but the underlying reasons are what’s important.
Of these six teams, only two teams have an unshakeable belief in victory: Brazil and Germany. Once the rosters are set and we take a fresh look at the groups, we’ll see what progress we can expect from our two frontrunners and the remaining two to four contenders. Comments made to the media last month by England’s team captain, Gerrard, illustrate what it means not to have this belief: “It would be very stupid and naïve of me to stand here and say we’re going to win it.”
Against this background, we can think about who is selected for the national teams. For Klinsmann to leave Donovan off the US team was an odd and potentially devastating choice. Contrast it to Joachim Löw’s decision to include Miroslav Klose. At age 35, he is far from his prime, and while he was good at Lazio (in Italy where he plays professionally), there were other choices for the German national team. Klose’s motivation is to set a World Cup goal scoring record—and that was enough for Löw. He wanted someone who believed both in his own goal-scoring prowess and the team’s success. The same can be said for the inclusion of Pirlo (age 35) on the Italian squad and for Xavier Hernandez (age 34) on the Spanish team. Coaches who believe their team can win will find players who share that conviction. Donovan did (or at least he believed that the US would find a way to win any given game). It is far from clear that Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore, for example, believes it.
The Groups: Why the luck of the draw matters so much
The contestants are drawn into eight groups of four teams each. Three points are accorded for a win, one for a draw, and none for a loss. The top two teams of each group advance to the “knock-out round.” For the remaining 16 teams, a loss means they are out of the tournament.
Even the casual observer will quickly see why the group in which the team plays, and the subsequent pairings, are so important. An unlucky draw, one in which two or three of one’s opponents are highly rated, can effectively mean the tournament is over before it begins. This is the case for the United States. The opposite can also be true, where a single strong team is likely to dominate the group. This is the case for Brazil. Further, the subsequent pairings pit the number one team in Group A against the runner-up of Group B, and so on. This can create significant incentive to win the group in order to avoid a particular opponent.
Here are the groups and my prediction for who will emerge from them. Am I confident in these choices? Absolutely! Dart-throwing monkeys and soothsaying octopi notwithstanding, I expect to be 100 percent accurate, because pundits always are.
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Brazil wins the group. And second place goes to…? Croatia. Why Croatia? Luka Modric, who plays for the championship-winning club Real Madrid, is a big part of the answer. The other part is that Mexico has suffered recent injuries and lacks the confidence to win two matches (after the presumed loss to Brazil). Their best hope is to advance on goal differential over Croatia (one win, one draw, and one loss). Cameroon is not to be taken likely. Veterans like Samuel Eto’o (Chelsea) and Alex Song (Barcelona) will give any team problems. The depth, however, is not there. And while I have no African teams advancing out of group play, Cameroon may be the exception.
Group B: Spain, Holland, Chile, Australia
This is a very tough group. You have last year’s finalists (Spain and Holland), and a deeply talented Chilean squad. Australia would be fortunate to garner a single point. There is also the added burden of knowing that the team that finishes second in this group will almost certainly face Brazil in the first pairing of the knock-out round. In other words, this group is a toss-up. Based on the assumptions at the beginning of this blog, I’ll pick Spain to win. Second place to Chile, but this is a guess at best. Having watched both teams only a handful of times, it’s clear that each has real firepower.
There is a separate game fans like to play. It’s called “Who is the best footballing nation never to have won the Cup?” Spain led that competition for decades, finally breaking the curse four years ago. The title is now held by Holland, a great footballing power and runners-up in 1974 (to Germany), 1978 (to Argentina), and 2010 (to Spain). They’ve led the way in the concept of “total football” that ushered in a new attacking philosophy. If they were unable to advance out of their group – a real possibility – it would be a colossal blow. The $800 ticket to watch Holland and Chile play on June 23rd in Sao Paulo may well be worth the money. It will be the final group game. Expect the loser to be out of the tournament, crushing the hopes of a nation.
Group C: Columbia, Ivory Coast, Greece, Japan
If there’s a group of death, why can’t there be a marshmallow group? That’s not fair, though none of these nations has made a deep run in any World Cup. Columbia has played some impressive football in qualifying, and there are top-notch players for the Ivory Coast (Drogba and Gervinho ) and for Japan (Kagawa and Honda). My picks? Columbia to win the group, with Ivory Coast and Japan vying for the coveted second spot. Japan will surprise everyone and finish second.
Group D: England, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Italy
Yikes. Three former Cup champions and the toughest of the Central American teams. But let’s just cut to the chase. Italy wins the group, followed by Uruguay. Why? Because Italy feasts on England and because Uruguay’s brilliant striker – Luis Suarez – will want to show up his Liverpool team mates on the England team (Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Sterling, Sturridge and Flanagan). Italy will best Uruguay because their stifling defensive tactics, honed over decades, have served them well. Only Brazil have hoisted the trophy more often.
Before leaving this group, let me confess my allegiance to the Liverpool Football Club (YNWA!). The Uruguay-England match-up will have special significance to all LFC fans, but the real hope is that none of the players suffer injuries.
Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
The composition of the groups is always devilish, but especially in this tournament. Group E should present the least obstacle to the advancement of the European teams. France to win, Switzerland to finish second. Honduras and Ecuador are unlikely Cup participants in the first place. Ecuador may have acquitted itself well in tough qualifying rounds, but they did so by winning at their high-altitude home stadium. Take them out of that rarified air and they struggle.
Group F: Argentina, Nigeria, Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina
An easy group for Argentina to win, with Bosnia-Herzegovina as runners-up. And meta-data aside, Argentina is a formidable team, deeply talented and brimming with optimism. Second place is less certain, though Bosnia-Herzegovina have more depth and more consistency than Nigeria. African teams, even with star players, tend to struggle at the World Cup. Iran, well, they may have a dedicated fan base, but a last place finish is likely. Back to worrying about sanctions and a weak currency.
Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
This is not the group of death. Germany to win, Portugal to finish second. Of course, all eyes (all US eyes, that is) will be on this group. The omission of Landon Donovan will be blamed for the US gaining only a single point in its three matches (drawing against Ghana), but the result would be the same even if the US could bring 44 players and had unlimited substitution. There is simply not enough talent for Klinsmann to draw upon. The inclusion of young German-American players may help for 2018, but will do nothing for this tournament. The faithful will be hoping for a win against Ghana on June 16th, followed by a stunning draw against Portugal in the rain forest of Manaus on the 22nd. Those hypothetical four points – along with a favorable goal differential – would then just be enough to edge Portugal for second (assuming everyone loses to Germany, and Ghana loses to everyone). Pure fantasy. Portugal have world class players (including the best on the planet, according to many fans, and not least to Ronaldo himself) and they show well at the World Cup. When they lose, it is often to eventual Cup winners (though as Andy Coe reminds me, Portugal lost to the US in the 2002 Cup). They are also in contention for the best team not to have won the tournament, along with Holland.
The US will go home and talk about rebuilding. There is a bridge I can sell you if you expected more, but the bridge would also need to be rebuilt. Our failing infrastructure goes beyond football.
Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, Korea
This group mirrors Group A: a single dominant team with a three-way fight for second. Yes, Belgium is that good. They finished top of their qualifying group in Europe and they have strong and experienced players. Two of the best keepers in the world, a great defense (led by Kompany) and Mirallas, Benteke, and Lukaku are part of a formidable squad. Their lack of World Cup accomplishments shouldn’t matter at this stage. It’s interesting to look ahead for Belgium if they won the group: a meeting with, most likely, Portugal. This is a stretch, but then I have high expectations of Belgium. They’re my European dark horse and a run to the quarter-finals would not surprise me. Belgium-Argentina? Definitely a possibility.
Second place is a race between Korea and Russia, and who wouldn’t want to see Korea advance (I mean, other than Putin). Korea do well at the World Cup generally, so they are my prediction.
Beyond the groups (but don’t call it the Sweet Sixteen)
Looking beyond the group stage is like predicting the weather: we’re often right about tomorrow and almost never about the week after next. Still, we can make some general observations. First, the top half of the draw (Groups A-D) is tougher than the bottom half. Five of the eight former Cup holders are in those groups, as well as perennial power Holland. The bottom half has Germany and Argentina, plus France. By the time the first knock-out games are decided, however, the dynamics change. Germany, for example, could face Brazil in the semis.
While Brazil has numerous advantages going in – not least of which are familiarity with the food and the climate and the rabid fan base – they will be looking at formidable competition as soon as group play ends. They may also be less cohesive than other teams. Talent yes. Magic? Not as certain. The second place team in Group B (Brazil’s opponent if they win their group) would probably be Spain, Holland, or Chile. All very tough. Next up might be Uruguay. In short, Brazil’s road to the final is treacherous. I’ll go predict a Germany-Brazil semi-final. To suggest that Germany could win that match may raise an eyebrow, but if all goes well for the Germans, they will emerge fresher than the Brazilians, who face tough matches against fellow South American teams. On the other side, Spain could face Argentina in the semis. So Brazil, Germany, Spain, and Argentina in the semis.
And the winner is? Well, if you give me the prerogative to revisit my predictions after the group stage, I’ll simply quote Gary Lineker, the English footballer and commentator: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”