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A Game (of Thrones) for the World Cup

by: Jarone Ashkenazi

The first game of the World Cup kicks off at 1:00 pm PT as the whole world - well not every single person but almost everyone - anxiously waits for host country Brazil to take on the Croatians. Will recent turmoil in Brazil (political protests, airport staff strikes and much more) derail the Brazilians dream run to hold the Cup? Or will the Selecao rise above the chaos and win its sixth trophy?

For those who are not sports or soccer fans, HBO's Game of Thrones has captivated audiences around the world since its first episode "Winter is Coming" on April 11, 2011. After an epic and gory episode last Sunday, this upcoming Sunday will mark the final episode of Season 4. Will Tyrion die after his champion was brutally squashed? (Here is a link to watch the dual between The Mountain and Prince Oberyn Martell). What is going to happen to Jon Snow when he goes north of the wall to meet Mance Rayder?

Given the two big events this week, I thought to combine the two and pick from the main characters of Season 4 and pick the best Starting XI under soccer's 4-2-3-1 format.

For those not familiar with the 4-2-3-1 format: there are 4 defenders, 2 defensive midfielders, 3 attacking midfielders and 1 forward (and obviously a goalie as well). The 2 defensive midfielders in front of the 4 defenders (2 full-backs and 2 central defenders) give support to the defense, while one player is more defensive minded helping breaking up opposition attacks and the other is more of a play maker and link between the defense and the offense. The 3 attacking midfielders provide most of the creativity for the team. The central creative force is the man in the middle playing off of the main striker. And last but not least, there is the striker who needs to be a clinical finisher.

Goalie qualities: good hands, last line of defense, commands his penalty box

Goalie: Tywin Lannister - Tywin is Hand of the King, second in command, and patriarch of the Lannister family, the most powerful family in Game of Thrones. He has ultimate control over the Realm and no one dares to cross his (goal)line. Tywin was picked as my goalkeeper because any team would want him as the last line of defense to repel any attackers.

Central Defender qualities: strength, concentration, repel opposition attacks, tall

Left-Center Defender: Brienne of Tarth - Brienne is tall, strong, loyal and unyielding fighter that lives her life serving others. Brienne began as a knight in Renly Baratheon's Rainbow Guard and then pledged an oath to Catelyn Stark to deliver Jamie Lannister to Kings Landing in exchange for her daughters. Brienne was chosen as my left-center defender as she is a strong, tall, confident and un-afraid.

Right-Center Defender: The Hound (Sandor Clegane) - The Hound is a huge, strong, loyal and armor wearing warrior. Sandor first served as King Joffrey's bodyguard, then was named to the Kingsguard, and now travels with Arya Stark in order to trade her for a hefty reward. The Hound is my other center-back (paired next to Arya) as he is a menace to anyone that comes his way and is loyal to whomever he defends.

Full-back qualities: defend oppositions wingers, strong tackler, pace, power, good crosser

Right Full-back: Grey Worm - Grey Worm is a young, skilled, ruthless, quick soldier and captain of the Unsullied. He is one of Daenerys' personal protectors that often leads stealthy attacks. Grey Worm is my right full-back as he is a quick, smart and doesn't back down from any opposition and will support Daenerys in all of her attacks.

Left Full-back: Arya Stark - Arya is a left-handed, fiery, quick young girl who is interested in fighting and exploring. Thanks to half-brother Jon Snow, her sword 'Needle' proves to help her in defending her life and in killing those on her list she says ritually before sleeping. Arya is my right full-back paired next to The Hound (as they have built a strong bond in Season 4) as she is a ruthless young, fast Water Dancer that is keen to go on the attack.

Defensive Midfielder qualities: tackling, distribution, control under pressure, makes his mark felt on the game, good decision maker

Left-Defensive Midfielder: Ramsay Bolton - Ramsay is a cruel, wild and savage man who takes delight in torturing others. He is the bastard son to Roose Bolton who tortures Theon Greyjoy and turns him into a puppet named Reek; Ramsay eventually earns his fathers' respect and family name by taking Moat Cailin. Ramsay is my defensive-minded defensive midfielder as he will do all the dirty work without needing a pat on the back.

Right-Defensive Midfielder: Littlefinger (Petyr Baelish) - Littlefinger is a smart, power-hungry, controlling and ambitious man who came from nothing and is now a extremely powerful character. Recently, Littlefinger killed his wife Lysa Arryn and starts falling for Sansa Stark constantly trying to amass power. Littlefinger is my attacking-minded defensive-midfielder as he always is in control of the Game of Thrones and is decisive and tactical with his advances. 

Attacking Midfielder qualities: play-makers, speed, good decision maker, attacking instinct

Left-Attacking Midfielder: Jamie Lannister - Jaime is an arrogant, cunning, born warrior who chooses to follow a course of action always to its conclusion. Jamie is the eldest Lannister, member of the Kingsgaurd and currently lost his right hand while he was being returned to Kings Landing by Brienne. Jamie is my attacking left midfielder as he is now left-handed and always is up for attacking.

Center-Attacking Midfielder: Tyrion Lannister - Tyrion is a smart, shrewd, cunning, calculated and brave little man (he is a dwarf). Tyrion became Hand of the King in his father's absence - and did a really good job controlling the Realm - but now is convicted of killing his nephew King Joffrey. Tyrion is my center-attacking midfielder due to his smarts, decision making and surprising bravery.

Right-Attacking Midfielder: Daenerys Targaryen - Daenerys is a young, beautiful, independent, and just leader. After being in exile she rose to be Khal Drogo's wife and now she is leader of the Unsullied, Queen of the Andals and has three dragons. Daenerys is my right-attacking midfielder as she is backed up by Grey Worm on the right-wing and is a helpful, caring and assist-minded leader who can summon her three dragons to help attack.

Striker qualities: strong, physical, killer instinct, finisher

Striker: Jon Snow - Jon is a strong, brave, quick-thinking, resourceful, perceptive leader who is a gifted swordsman. Jon is the bastard son to now deceased Lord Eddard Stark, who was sent to the Nights Watch. After a foray north of the wall, Jon returned and became leader defending currently against Mance Rayder's advances. Jon is my striker as he is strong, possesses leadership qualities and is a born finisher.

Well that is my starting XI for the Game of Thrones roster....just a little bit more than an hour left until kickoff!

World Cup Group of Death (by rankings).....and predictions

by: Jarone Ashkenazi

As FIFA just released the new rankings table this morning, I thought to look at each group and see which group is statistically the Group of Death. I also am highlighting in yellow, the two countries I predict will advance from each group (you will notice that I have picked the top 2 ranked teams from each group to advance, as I don't see any real surprises happening out of the group stage). Group B was the only decision that was a little difficult as I was close to picking Netherlands to advance, but they always seem to falter and underachieve in the World Cup.

Group A

Country FIFA Ranking 
Brazil 3
Croatia 18
Mexico 20
Cameroon 56
Group avg. 24.25

Group B

Country FIFA Ranking 
Spain 1
Netherlands 15
Chile 14
Australia 62 
Group avg. 23

Group C

Country FIFA Ranking 
Colombia 8
Greece 12
Cote d'Ivoire 23
Japan 46
Group avg. 22.25

Group D

Country FIFA Ranking 
Uruguay 7
Costa Rica 28
England 10
Italy 9
Group avg. 13.5

Group E

Country FIFA Ranking 
Switzerland 6
Ecuador 26
France 17
Honduras 33
Group avg. 20.5

Group F

Country FIFA Ranking 
Argentina 5
Bosnia and Herzegovina 21
Iran 43
Nigeria 44
Group avg. 28.25

Group G

Country FIFA Ranking 
Germany 2
Portugal 4
USA 13
Ghana 37
Group avg. 14

Group H

Country FIFA Ranking 
Belgium 11
Algeria 22
Russia 19
Korea Republic 57
Group avg. 27.25

Much has been made about the USA drawing the Group of Death with Portugal and Germany, but it is actually Group D with Uruguay, Costa Rica, England and Italy that have the lowest total average (13.5). USA's Group G is marginally behind Group D's average with a total average of 14.

Countdown is now at 6 days, 9 hours, 53 minutes and 45 seconds!!

World Cup headlines

by: Jarone Ashkenazi

The countdown to the 2014 FIFA World Cup is now at 19 days 3 hours and 32 minutes and 12 seconds and the cross-continental competition awaits its biggest stage. 

Over the past several months, headlines - both good and bad - about the World Cup in Brazil have dominated the media, from sports to business to lifestyle publications. Brazil is getting ready for the world's biggest party, but will be a celebratory one?

There has been much cause for concern stemming from the safety of stadium's construction workers - the eighth World Cup construction worker was killed in an accident on May 8 - to the worry over public safety as the impending riots have cast a shadow over the World Cup. Furthermore, over the past week FIFA has demanded another test game at Arena Corinthians - the site for the World Cup's first match - as the stadium didn't meet the FIFA's seating requirement. Lastly, it is less than three weeks until the competition beings and three of the 12 stadiums have yet to be completed and are still awaiting final safety checks!

Along with the delays and concerns in Brazil, I wanted to highlight key World Cup news across the globe. 

As the growth of soccer continues to grow in the USA, ESPN has recently debuted Inside US Soccer: March to Brazil, giving fans inside access to the teams preparation for the 2014 World Cup. From training ground routines, to coach and player insights and news about the team's preliminary 30-man and then final 23-man roster. Just yesterday, Coach Jurgen Klinsmann announced the final 23-man roster, and to much surprise Landon Donovan has been left off the squad. Klinsmann has left off arguably the best US soccer player of all time and decided to go with a younger team, most notably 18 year-old Julian Green who has yet to play a competitive top flight professional game (despite one USA cameo which he was non-existent and picked up an injury).

Now to some injury news. 

Uruguayan striker Luis Suazrez is coming off his strongest season with his club Liverpool, catapulting them to second in the league one slip (sorry Gerrard had to throw you under the bus here) away from capturing their first BPL title since the 1989-90 season. Suarez topped the league with 31 goals (tying the league record) and was second in the league with 12 assists which resulted in him receiving multiple English awards - PFA Players' Player of the Year award recipient, FWA Footballer of the Year recipient, Barclays Player of the Season award recipient and Premier League Golden Boot award recipient. Suarez recently underwent surgery on his left knee after injuring his meniscus in training in Montevideo on May 21. If Uruguay have dreams of advancing out of the group stage - their group consists of Costa Rica, Italy and England - and possibly repeating history and shocking hosts Brazil in the finals much like they did in 1950, they need to get their best player back quickly.

Much like Suarez, Radamel Falcao is his countries best attacking player. The Colombian striker who scored nine goals in 13 matches, led his team to finish second behind Argentina in the South American World Cup qualifying group. Falcao damage his ACL during Monaco's Coupe de France tie against Monts Or Azergues on January 22 and went under the knife soon after. It was originally thought that he was traveling to Bogota to announce that he would not be going to Brazil, having failed to fully recover from knee ligament surgery, but his inclusion on Colombia's 30-man squad said otherwise. The final decision on whether or not he will go to the finals, will be made by June 2, the date when the team's coach Jose Pekerman has to name his 23-man squad.

Now to the absurd news.

SB Nation posted an article about the absurd and strange demands of World Cup teams. Some of the funny demands included Japan's demand that every room must have a jacuzzi tub and Switzerland's demand that a beach studio must be built for the team to conduct TV interviews from.

And does 40 days of abstinence make soccer players play better on the pitch? That's what Miguel 'El Piojo' Herrara, Mexico's fourth soccer coach in the last year, thinks will give his team an edge in Brazil

The World Cup countdown clock now reads 19 days 2 hours and 52 minutes and 42 seconds and I couldn't be more excited!