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Win, Lose, or Draw

June 23, 2014 | by

What next for Team USA?

Jermaine Jones in 2013. Photo: Erik Drost, via Wikimedia Commons

Jermaine Jones in 2013. Photo: Erik Drost, via Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Wilson, from London:

Twenty years ago, I was in Giants Stadium watching the 1994 World Cup quarterfinal between Germany and Bulgaria. A group of cheerful German supporters unfurled a large banner that read, IT’S NOT A TRICK … IT’S GERMANY!!! This intriguing and challenging work of art (text, textile, mixed media, probably influenced by Joseph Beuys) baffled me for many years, right up until last night, when Jermaine Jones—the USA’s German-born, all-action midfielder—curled a superb “take that, Lionel Messi!” right-foot shot from the edge of the area into the far corner of Portugal’s net. Wowsers, I thought. It wasn’t a trick … it was Germany.

Last week, on Sports Illustrated’s Planet Futbol site, Grant Wahl reflected on the high number of dual nationality German American players on the U.S. team—there are five, and it’s common “to hear [them] speaking to each other in German.” Wahl speculated that if, in 1981, the year Jermaine Jones was born, the U.S. had had as many American servicemen in Brazil as in Germany (there were 222 and 248,000, respectively) we might have a really spectacular team by now. Improving your team by selectively locating your armed-forces bases: it’s an interesting Freakonomics- or Gladwell-type theory, but it might need some tweaking in light of the results so far at this year’s tournament. America’s long engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, I suspect, will produce negligible returns on the soccer field. These countries aren’t soccer powers, and we probably won’t hear anyone shouting across the field in Pashto, Dari, or Mesopotamian Arabic at the next World Cup. Certain teams, however, are clearly on the way up, and I’m thinking now that a base or two in Costa Rica, Algeria, Iran, and Mexico—where there are, at present, none at all—wouldn’t hurt. On the other hand, we might as well close those in Portugal, Australia, England, and Greece.

But what a game the USA played against Portugal yesterday. Tim Howard made one of the best saves of the tournament, and Clint Dempsey, with his badge-of-honor broken nose and black eye, chested in a goal that, until the very last kick of the game, looked to be sending the USA into the round of sixteen. Instead, defensive lapses—which appeared the result of miscommunication at the back; can the rest of the team please get on board with the German?—led to Ronaldo, who hadn’t really been much of a factor for the previous ninety-four minutes, sending in a perfect cross for Varela to head home and equalize.

So the U.S. must gather itself for one last go-round with—who else?—Germany. A draw is a likely result—a draw of the sort sometimes subtly engineered by teams for whom it’s mutually beneficial, as it would be in this case. Read More »

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Sketches of Spain; England Acquits Itself Well

June 16, 2014 | by

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A still from video of Italy’s victory over England.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips, from New York:

Thursday has turned to Monday. The World Cup has blossomed. The opening game seemed intent on mocking any potential pleasure or faith you may have had in this tournament—but now it’s become so good, so quickly, that some people are already calling it the best World Cup they’ve ever seen. Eleven games thus far and not a single draw; the matches have been, for the most part, tightly contested. The Swiss threw in a last-gasp winner against an extremely naïve Ecuador; teams have sought to be positive, to attack, sometimes without thinking before rushing forward. But enough of that, Jonathan will no doubt be writing about England; his memoir is called Kick and Run, after all.

Almost all the big players have played up to their lofty status. Almost.

Spain, as you likely know by now, was atomized by the Netherlands to the tune of 5-1. The score flattered Spain: Holland could have, and really should have, scored a few more. To put into proper context, remember: Spain is the two-time defending European Champion and allowed a total of two goals (two!) in the last World Cup, which they also won, beating a Holland team so intimidated that instead of playing the osmotic football for which they’re famed, they played like the Steven Segal All-Stars, bastardizing themselves among the long line of great and balletic Dutch teams.

Four years later, the main actors were the same (including these two), but Holland was deadly and Spain soporific. What changed? Read More »

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Kickoff

June 12, 2014 | by

The World Cup begins now. Jonathan Wilson and Rowan Ricardo Phillips will write dispatches for The Daily; here, they introduce themselves and the games.

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Jonathan Wilson, from London:

“All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking.” That’s Robert Hass, in the opening of his great poem “Meditation at Lagunitas.” The lines resonate: earlier this week, before departing for the World Cup in Brazil, the U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who is German, asserted, “We cannot win the World Cup,” and it didn’t go down well. At least one pundit suggested that he should “get out of America.”

In soccer-saturated London, where I arrived last week, Klinsmann’s remarks might have elicited a more sympathetic response. England hasn’t won the World Cup since 1966, and this year’s team is generally considered transitional, unformed, untested. However, with the kind of twisted logic that applies to soccer supporters worldwide, the dominant “not a hope” take on England’s chances has subtly transformed in recent days to a “well, there are no expectations, so the pressure’s off, so in fact that could translate into improved performance, so hmm, well maybe, just maybe…”

England’s manager, Roy Hodgson—who’s a bit grumpy, has interesting hair, is undoubtedly the most literary figure England has ever employed (The Guardian reported that he read Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH on the flight to Rio), and likes to rib the press about their obsessions with certain players and the hysterical pressure they exert on him to play them—recently succumbed to the dangerous new optimism. He announced that England was indeed capable of winning. Even so, (almost) all the new thinking is still about loss, and in this it resembles the thinking of populations in participating countries worldwide, unless you happen to be from Brazil or Argentina, or maybe Germany— although not so much now that their star midfielder, Marco Reus, has torn his ankle ligaments and is out for the duration.

This isn’t to say that Brazil or Argentina must triumph, although no team from outside South America has ever won the World Cup when it has been played there, but simply that when it comes to international soccer, American over-optimism is rarely in evidence except for, as you might expect, in the minds and hearts of Americans. Nobody, of course, who knows anything at all about soccer, thinks that the U.S. can win the World Cup, and to compound matters the team is in a group of death with Ghana, Portugal, and Germany. In the furor over Klinsmann’s remarks and his subsequent refusal to back down, I was reminded of the time that Ronald Reagan came on TV after he’d traded arms for hostages and announced that even though it looked like he’d done exactly that, in his heart he knew that he hadn’t. American hearts can be frequently, powerfully, and touchingly resistant to reality. Read More »

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