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Hooray for Losers

July 2, 2014 | by

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Tim Howard in the rain, 2013. Photo: Steindy, via Wikimedia Commons.

Americans are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do it. For the longest time, second place in any competition, domestic or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions. (Third was not even worth acknowledging.) While other countries celebrated their silver or bronze medals with parties and parades, American commentators thrust microphones into the faces of the “losers” and asked, sotto voce and with unconcealed disappointment, “What happened?” or “What went wrong?”

But this time around, American irreality, with its dangerous admixture of heady confidence—recall that Times poll, which revealed that a majority of fans in only three countries believed their nation would win the World Cup: Brazil, Argentina, and … the USA?—and its obliviousness of “failures,” has not translated into terminal disenchantment with the U.S. team. Okay, they lost to Belgium, the smallest country (in terms of land mass) in the competition, but the goalkeeper, Tim Howard, put on one of the greatest displays in the history of international football. The team fought until the very end, scored a fine goal, and almost forced the game to penalties. Americans may have thought—absurdly? endearingly?—that their team was going to win the whole shebang, but when it didn’t, they were content to take their place among the multitude of also-rans.

This is extraordinarily good news, psychologically, philosophically, and maybe even in terms of foreign policy. In a way, it made the front page of most papers this morning. Few journalists reporting on the game, or on President Obama’s supportive tweets, failed to observe the good-spirited way in which the team’s fans, both locally and abroad, took the loss. If the U.S. can come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t have to be No. 1 in everything, who knows how far this new humility will take it?

Of course, the loss was made easier to swallow by Howard, who broke the record for saves in a single World Cup match—and they were quality saves, to boot. Howard was by turns brave, acrobatic, positionally astute, commanding, and almost invincible. In Howard, Americans discovered a true hero … and he was a loser.

So now that Belgium, in the powerful form of Romelu Lukaku, has turned out the light, is another big switch soon to be flipped? Last night ESPN culled the highest overnight TV rating ever for a World Cup game. There were 25,000 at Soldier Field in Chicago, outdoor screens and crowds all across the country, riveted attention in offices, packed bars. Is the nation so fickle that France vs. Germany and Brazil vs. Colombia will now hold no interest?

All the signs point in the other direction—and FIFA is already mooting the possibility of the U.S. hosting the World Cup in 2026, smack in the middle of Chelsea Clinton’s second term.

Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is the author of eight books, including Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. He lives in Massachusetts.

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Variation on a Theme of Jacques Brel

July 1, 2014 | by

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The United States plays Belgium today in the round of sixteen, with the winner moving on to the quarterfinals of this 2014 World Cup. It’s an accomplishment the U.S. has only managed once before, in 2002, by beating Mexico, before losing a tightly contested match to Germany, the eventual tournament runners-up. Belgium has gone further—they arrived as far as the semifinals in 1986 before succumbing to two Diego Maradona goals and then losing to France 4-2 in extra time in the consolatory third-place game. That was an extraordinary Belgian side: Enzo Scifo, Eric Gerets, Jean-Marie Pfaff in goal, Jan Ceulemans. Since then, Belgium has fared no better in the World Cup than the U.S. has—three exits at this very same round of sixteen, one exit at the group stage, and, in 2006 and 2010, a failure even to qualify for the tournament. The U.S. hasn’t missed a World Cup since, coincidentally, 1986.

During those bleak years of nonqualification, something was quietly cooking in Belgium: a second golden generation of topflight players that would be the envy of any nation. Now they have arrived. They may lack a little something special in their midfield, but that’s a mere quibble. They are not only an embarrassingly deep side—they’re also the third youngest squad in the tournament, and the youngest still standing. There would be no shame in the U.S. losing to a side as good as Belgium, especially not at such rarefied heights; by the time of kickoff today, there will be only nine teams left.

Yet there’s a beautiful, mind-bending quality to the self-belief of this U.S. team, no matter how many passes they misplace. You can’t blame them for thinking Belgium is there for the taking. As good as the Belgium roster may be, they haven’t been very good in the tournament thus far, having squeaked out very late wins in all three of their matches without showing much cohesion in the process. They play in the formation of choice these days, 4-3-3, but as I said above, they lack fluidity and hierarchy in the middle three; their wide defenders are central defenders by trade and don’t provide much elaboration on offense. These constant headaches have obliged their best attacking player, Eden Hazard, to drop deep and look for the ball, causing a bottleneck in the middle of the field. Pure, outrageous talent has gotten them through. Their coach has said that all of this is intentional, that they’ve paced themselves in the heat, have sought to avoid doing anything rash, and have then, at the end of the game, put their foot on the accelerator. He’ll be in New York selling the bridges along the East River at the end of July. Read More »

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Be Afraid

June 30, 2014 | by

The political fear of soccer; how to shame a pathological diver.

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Rama V, via Flickr.

As Americans continue to watch the World Cup in their accumulating millions, the denizens of the political right are running scared. Ann Coulter, whose bark is worse than Suárez’s bite—and whose delusions match José Mujica’s, the President of Uruguay, who referred to FIFA’s punishment of his country’s star as a “fascist ban”—weighed in a few days ago with a column listing the myriad ways in which soccer is un-American. It would be hard to find someone who knows less about soccer than Ann Coulter, but as Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel would say, that’s nit-picking, isn’t it? So: soccer doesn’t reward “individual achievement.” It’s “foreign,” meaning French people, liberals, and fans of HBO’s Girls like it. And, perhaps worst of all, it’s wussy: the “prospect of personal humiliation or major injury” essential to receiving the Coulter seal of approval as a real sport, like hockey or American football, is apparently missing in soccer.

Peter Beinart, writing in the Atlantic, has an interesting take on Coulter’s silliness: She’s right to be scared of the World Cup. Why? Because its burgeoning devotees look a lot like the people who elected Obama—first generation immigrants and their children, Hispanics, young people, and, yeah, liberals, who like soccer because they get to play with rest of the world instead of apart from it. Ann the Fan prefers it when Americans aren’t contaminated this way; better just to have a little local competition and call it the World Series.

Fans of Team USA have bought more tickets than any group outside the host country to this year’s tournament. And there they are in the stands, whooping it up, win or lose—reveling, it seems, in being part of a truly international party. Will the enthusiasm last? The test will come, possibly as early as tomorrow, if the U.S. loses. Will the nation switch off? I don’t think so. Read More »

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W.T.Ph

June 27, 2014 | by

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VectorOpenStock, via Wikimedia Commons.

And so the first round of the World Cup comes to an end with a bang from Thomas Müller, and—pace Ronaldo, who put on a fine late show—various degrees of whimper from the departing nations Portugal, Russia, South Korea, and Ghana.

At last, those of us who have followed Rihanna on Twitter for the last two weeks have found certain of her exigent questions answered: for example, to June 19’s “ENGLAND whatchu gon do?!!” we can now confidently say, “Nothing.” Other tweets of hers have been by turn prophetic, emphatic, and envy-inducing: “Uruguay defense is almost disrespectful,” also from June 19, uncannily anticipated Luis Suárez achieving full disrespectful status five days later. “W.T.Ph,” more exclamation than question, has been and will continue to be applied usefully throughout this free-ranging, attacking, and mesmerizing tournament. “Goal keepers getting phucking sleepy” has its own kind of lullaby poetry; and who wouldn’t want to be Germany’s Miroslav Klose, the coholder of the record for most goals scored in World Cup tournaments, who’s now, more urgently, an object of Rihanna’s undistilled affection? “My nigga Klose,” she tweeted on June 21. Lionel Messi, eat your heart out.

Coming up, eight games in four days. Brazil vs. Chile looks like a good one, while Uruguay, hobbled by a dementia of denial to which both team and country appear to have succumbed, probably won’t do much against Colombia. Mexico has played well, but we can expect the Dutch, with Van Persie and Robben, to outclass them. France should beat Nigeria, and most people who are not Greek will be rooting for Costa Rica to triumph over Greece. Germany vs. Algeria is a grudge match: at 1982’s World Cup, in Spain, Germany and Austria contrived a result that would see both teams go through at Algeria’s expense, a shameful performance that has not been forgotten in North Africa. Lionel Messi, whom Nigeria’s coach Stephen Keshi claims is from Jupiter (confirmation awaited from Tom Cruise) will beat Switzerland. And last of all, there’s what might be, in competitive terms, the cream of the crop: Belgium vs. USA. How far can this mercurial USA team go? Or rather: USA, whatchu gon do?

Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is the author of eight books, including Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. He lives in Massachusetts.

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Still Moving

June 26, 2014 | by

14322646340_be2eedbebb_k Gabriel Smith

Photo: Gabriel Smith, via Flickr.

My friend Jacob tends to be right about things. He has great taste in music; I find myself nodding my head at him whenever politics comes up; and when he laid out, like tarot cards, his hopes for this World Cup—as nearly all of my friends did before the start of the tournament—I couldn’t help but think that his predictions would work for me, too. We’ll have our parting of the ways soon enough: the Netherlands plays Mexico in a few days. The truth is, if Mexico wins, I’ll be happy for him. And I like to think that if the Netherlands wins, he’ll be happy for me, too.

Empathy like that provides balance in the world of blinding madness that sports can be. It’s a particular type of immigrant upbringing, perhaps, that gives you an agnostic indifference to overdetermined allegiances—a hope that, regardless of what happens, there’s beauty that comes from it, and an instructive joy to share and pass on.

So: I watch Bosnia for my friends Sasa and Veba, because Bosnia reminded me so much of them—committed, creative, pensive, puckish. Colombia for my aunt Claudia and her mother, Nelly. For Alejandra, and Beti and Marlon, Japan, because they always, and almost always impractically, propose to play beautifully, thinking this time they’ll get it right. Algeria for Camus’s ghost and for their players born in France, who heard the call to come back. Nigeria because Rashidi Yekini’s goal at USA ’94, Nigeria’s first ever in a World Cup, touched me in some still inchoate way—and because few things in the world are better than a happy Teju Cole. Italy—despite the neutral hardwired animosity—for how Andrea Pirlo ambles on the field, far off from everyone’s pace, seemingly alone, surrounded not by defenders but rather by his own genius. Costa Rica for sixty-five and a half years with no armed forces. Argentina for Messi—if only for Messi. Read More »

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Reality Bites

June 25, 2014 | by

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One of the many memes to reemerge after Luis Suárez’s latest biting incident.

When Zinedine Zidane head-butted Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final between France and Italy, he more or less blew any chance France had of winning the game. Materazzi is believed to have made some provocative suggestions about Zidane’s sister, and what’s winning the World Cup next to defending one’s sister’s reputation?

Luis Suárez’s action yesterday—he left an impression of his teeth in Giorgio Chiellini’s left shoulder—will, after his inevitable ban, have the same effect of terminally harming his country’s chances of victory. But unfortunately for him, Suárez doesn’t have a chivalric excuse.

Human beings frequently act against their own self-interest. Think of the highly successful British pop group KLF, two of whose members, self-described as the K Foundation, withdrew a million pounds of their own money from the bank back in 1994 and ceremonially burned it. It seemed like a good guerrilla art–type idea at the time, and then later it didn’t. But, like Zidane, K Foundation had a reason for acting as they did, more obscure but no less real. Read More »

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