By Michael Davies
Special to Page 2

The subwooferized roar of the Manchester crowd blares from the Bose surround sound.

England are dominating Hungary on the 60-inch Panavision plasma. It's a friendly, it's meaningless, but it's live, international football.

Cruyff, Pele, Rivelino and Winston Churchill gaze down from photographs on wood-paneled walls.

The shelves creak under the weight of the finest sports book collection in any private residence below 14th street.

I recline on the L of an ultra-suede sofa, a bottle of Stella from the private bar behind me, still so chilled it's barely sticking, just enough, but not too much, to my parched, 80-degree-day-in-New York City lips.

It is half-past four in the afternoon on a weekday; I'm home early from work and in my favorite place on Earth. My man cave. I should capitalize that. My Man Cave.

Tonight my four best friends in the city will head over for a tripleheader of Man Cave fun -- poker, darts and the NBA playoffs. Washed down by beer. My wife and 17 daughters (I think that's how many I counted) will be asleep, or out, or so far upstairs I won't remember them.

It takes a lot to tear me away from my Man Cave. The greatest cave any man could wish for. The kind of cave all men yearn for. And deserve. It's totally primeval. Or primordial. Or just primal.

But in just eight days' time, I will leave for another World Cup. To cover it again for this Web site as poorly, as unjournalistically, as biasedly (in favor of England and the U.S.) as I did in 2002 (check the archives). This time I will be making three separate trips to Germany, so I'll get to experience a good part of the tournament right here in New York City, in my Man Cave, at local bars, and at work.

I pledge to write stylier this time, to get my facts straightier and to occasionally acknowledge the football and not just the beer, the nightlife and my inability to remember to put on deodorant. But my point of view will remain the same. It's for the fan who wishes he was there -- compared to the majority of the mainstream soccer writers who act like they wish they weren't.

Peter Crouch
Action Images/Wireimage.com
Our columnist has been dreaming a little too much lately of Peter Crouch and England.

Peter Crouch, England's radio antenna of a center forward, scores a cracking goal -- controls, turns, fires, into the corner from just inside the penalty area. He then celebrates by dancing the robot. Badly. It is inexplicable, odd, random, a bit sad. It is why I still kiss football. Which brings me to my World Cup preview.

The Inaccurate Preview Bit
This season, in the NBA regular season, the Orlando Magic beat Cleveland, San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix, Miami and Detroit. They finished the season in the NBA lottery. Those six teams they beat were arguably the six top teams in the NBA. These were single games, I hear you say, and what on earth does this have to do with the World Cup? Well, the World Cup does not feature a single best-of-five or best-of-seven series. It is not played over an 82-game season. It's a collection of one-off games. Under intense pressure. Thirty-one of the teams are playing on the road. Upsets can and will happen. And, moreover, anyone who can tell you what's going to happen in a World Cup, who will win, who won't, with certainty, has not experienced enough sport to understand its randomness.

No, the Orlando Magic, or their World Cup equivalent -- let's say Serbia-Montenegro in honor of Darko -- are highly, highly unlikely to win the World Cup. And yes, I know. Either Brazil or Germany have contested every World Cup final, barring one, since 1950. England only won once in the last 40 years. Holland hasn't won at all.

But history is not the predictor in sports. If it were, the Boston Red Sox would not have won the World Series.

Soccer is the most random of big league pro sports. Yes, the team who controls midfield, keeps possession, spends the most time in the opponent's half and takes the most shots tends to win. But sometimes it doesn't. And all you need in a single-elimination tournament is a "sometimes" -- throw in the elusiveness of goals, a poor refereeing decision that goes against you, a wonder strike from midfield, a key injury, a penalty shootout -- and it's anybody's tournament. OK, maybe not Angola's, or Trinidad and Tobago's or Costa Rica's or Iran's -- but a lot of teams could win. At Euro 2004, a smaller version of the World Cup featuring only the elite teams of Europe, it was not Italy or Germany or England or France or Holland or even Russia or the home nation of Portugal who lifted the trophy. It was Greece. That was like the Charlotte Bobcats winning the NBA championship.

With all that said, here's what I think could happen, but which almost certainly won't.

Group A
Costa Rica
Ecuador
Germany
Poland

David Hasselhoff
Gaye Gerard/Wireimage.com
In order to rest its regulars, David Hasselhoff will be suiting up for Germany in pool play.

As I wrote on this page just after the draw, Germany could play David Hasselhoff and Andrea Merkel up front and still win this group in a stroll. Poland should be favorites for second in their neighbor's backyard. But they lost to Colombia in a friendly and seem to be lacking pace and confidence. Costa Rica and Ecuador have to fancy their chances.

Group B
England
Paraguay
Sweden
Trinidad and Tobago

England will take seven points from three games and top the group. Sweden will finish second. England will beat Trinidad by so many that they'll have to give back Tobago at halftime.

Group C
Argentina
Ivory Coast
Netherlands
Serbia-Montenegro

Fascinating group -- not a bad team in it. But I can't bet against Argentina pipping Holland to top the group.

Group D
Angola
Iran
Mexico
Portugal

Portugal over Mexico in the softest group in the tournament. Don't forget to catch Angola vs. Iran on ESPN4.

Group E
Czech Republic
Ghana
Italy
United States

Honestly, a month ago, I was grim about the USA's chances of advancement and their warm-up games have been far from convincing. But I just feel like they're going to piss off the rest of the world and make it through. The Czech Republic have injury problems and Dave O'Brien and Marcelo Balboa could hardly control their excitement about that during the Latvia friendly over the weekend. Italy No. 1, USA No. 2.

Group F
Australia
Brazil
Croatia
Japan

Brazil are by a head, and shoulders, and half a torso, the best team in the tournament. Unless someone plays out of their skins against them (which they could) or Brazil play horribly or get injuries (which they could), they will make it to the final. Japan to finish second. Biggest question: Who will wear yellow shirts when Brazil plays Australia in Munich on June 18?

Group G
France
South Korea
Switzerland
Togo

France are my dark horses for the whole thing. Regular readers will know how much it pains me to write that. Switzerland are also better than most people know. Don't forget to catch South Korea vs. Togo on ESPN5.

Group H
Saudi Arabia
Spain
Tunisia
Ukraine

Ukraine are another dark horse, as are Spain. And Seabiscuit. I know how badly Spain seem to have done in the past in major tournaments, but I still like their chances. And paella.

Last 16
Germany beats Sweden
England beats Poland
Argentina beats Mexico
Netherlands beats Portugal
Italy beats Japan
Brazil beats the U.S.
France beats Ukraine
Spain beats Switzerland

Quarterfinals
Argentina beats Germany
France beats Italy
England beats Netherlands
Brazil beats Spain

Semifinals
France beats Argentina
Brazil beats England

Final
Brazil beats France

And the only thing I guarantee is that almost none of this will happen.

Michael Davies is a British-born television producer whose forthcoming projects for ESPN include The World Series Of Darts and the documentary film "Once In A Lifetime" about the New York Cosmos, which airs on ESPN in October after being released theatrically by Miramax in July.




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