By Gerry Fall, Santa Barbara News-Press Sports Editor
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – It came as no surprise to anyone in a packed room at Dargan's Restaurant on Wednesday that Brazil was the clear-cut choice to win the World Cup.
What made it interesting and humorous at times was how four soccer experts settled on the host country and Argentina as the finalists for this year's tournament, which gets underway today. UCSB men's soccer coach Tim Vom Steeg, former Santa Barbara High standout player and coach Rudy Ybarra, Barclays Premier League player Gabriel Obertan and Real Sociedad goalkeeper coach Roberto Navajas made up a panel that broke down the eight groups.
Each talked about the strengths of the teams they picked to advance from group play, each spoke of the countries that might pull off an upset or two, but all had Brazil - which has won a record five World Cups - to make it a sixth on its home soil.
"They've got everything, they've got the whole package," said Obertan, a French-born forward who began his career in the Barclays Premier League with Manchester United in 2009 and currently plays for Newcastle United. "(Brazil) defends well, they've got great midfielders who are ready to work, and they've got good strikers, too. It's going to be a tough one (for all the other teams). They've also got their whole country behind them. I'll go for Brazil, all the way."
Navajas, regarded as one of the best goalkeeper coaches in the world with Real Sociedad -which plays in Spain's top professional league, La Liga - went with his heart by hoping Spain could pull off a stunner and win it all. But even he, in the end, had Brazil.
As for the U.S., which will compete in this year's so-called "Group of Death" with Ghana, Portugal and Germany, the panel was in agreement that Monday's opener against Ghana is a make-or-break game for the Americans.
"They have to beat Ghana and then they need to get a tie in one of their other two games," Vom Steeg said. "That's not inconceivable. They need four points, and that still doesn't guarantee them, but that's the math. The math is three against Ghana, one against Portugal or one against Germany."
Ybarra, one of the nation's top youth coaches who led the Santa Barbara Soccer Club to national titles in 2012 and 2013, said Mexico, despite all its troubles getting through qualifying, could be dangerous in the tournament.
"I think we're in for a very interesting World Cup," Ybarra said.
The tournament begins today with Brazil facing Croatia.