Stark reality

Your indispensable World Cup update
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  June 14, 2010

Steven Stark is known to Phoenix readers for his "Presidential Tote Board" odds-making feature, but it turns out that he and his son, Harrison, are also soccer aficionados, having become fans of London side Fulham FC during stays in the British capital. And now, they're the authors of World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics, a book that lives up to its title. Since it came out back in February, however, there have been developments — mostly, injuries. Here, on the eve of the tournament (it begins this Friday, June 11), are some of Harrison's further thoughts.

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When and how did you and Steve become soccer fans? And how did you becone Fulham supporters?
When I was a lot younger, Steve and I would stay in London right near Craven Cottage, Fulham's stadium. Back then, Fulham were rubbish — they were in the Third Division, the fourth-highest league in the country — and so we would go see their matches for next to no money. The Cottage is a gorgeous stadium (we think the best in England!), and the Fulham fans were so nice, we just fell in love with the club. Obviously, things are a lot better for Fulham today: back then, if you'd told us we'd be in the Premier League and the Europa League final, we'd have thought you were nuts.

Michael Essien was your pre-tournament pick for MVP, but he's injured and will miss the entire World Cup. Where does that leave Ghana?
Essien's injury is a big blow for Ghana. He is — by miles — the best player on the squad, and the team will really struggle without him. The upside is that Ghana's strength is still in his position — central midfield — with Anthony Annan, Stephen Appiah, and Sulley Muntari offering a lot of stability. Still, none has his technical quality, and his absence will be as big a psychological blow as anything. We think Serbia are now favorites to take Ghana's place as the second advancing team in Group D (behind Germany).

That's not the end of Ghana's problems. German captain Michael Ballack will also miss the World Cup after being stomped on by Ghana's Kevin-Prince Boateng in the English FA Cup final last month. Germany and Ghana just happen to be in the same first-round group. Ballack's agent is claiming the foul wasn't an accident.
It was a bad challenge, but I really don't think it was that malicious, more just reckless. In terms of motivation, there's a chance it could spur Germany to play better, but, in all fairness, Kevin-Prince Boateng is unlikely to start. If there's a Boateng on the field at the starting whistle, it'll be Derek, of Spanish side Getafe.

How badly will Ballack's absence hurt Germany?
Not as much as Essien's hurts Ghana. Ballack adds a lot of stability to the squad, but in the last few weeks, Stuttgart's Sami Khedira has filled the gap really well. What's more, Germany have a surplus of extremely young talent in midfield — Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, and Marko Marin are all 21 or younger and can play Ballack's position — and so hopefully his absence will give the younger players a chance to really shine. Germany is still just as dangerous.

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