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Posts Tagged ‘losing’

Hooray for Losers

July 2, 2014 | by

Austria_vs._USA_2013-11-19_(073)

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.

20 COMMENTS

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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England’s Loss to Germany

June 29, 2010 | by

England's performance was in a different league of awfulness from the regular awfulness that had been seen in earlier games. Before, the problem had been one of not seeming to care; the players behaving as though they deserved to win by virtue of the size of their wages. This time they definitely cared, they were fired up, ready to go and then when they got there, they were just awful.

My brother, an avid Arsenal fan sent me a text during the game: “Hopefully Manchester United will trade their Wayne Rooney for this bloke with the same name.” And my friend Andy Martin sent me an e-mail that read: “When Capello brought that loser Heskey on as some kind of supersub, I took the dog for a walk—we might as well commit ritual hara-kiri right there.”

It’s an odd marriage, the one between the Italian coach and the English team. It doesn’t seem to be working out for anyone. On the bench, Fabio Capello seems genuinely pained by the complete lack of basic technique shown by the English players. During the Slovenia game he was reduced to yelling, “Barry, the fucking ball, Barry.” He is also a fan of the ristrito: shutting his players up in the hotel during the tournament and enforcing naptime between lunch and supper. When John Terry led his insurrection, one of his complaints was that the players were desperate for a beer.

The greater complaint made by the players is that Capello persisted in playing 4-4-2. It's a system he's fond of using, but also one that nullified the talents of his three best players—Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard—by forcing them to play out of their best positions. Almost everyone else at the tournament is playing a 4-2-3-1 and all the England players play that formation for their club teams.

The truth is that 4-2-3-1 requires a great deal of positional discipline from the players, a talent England clearly does not possess. They roamed the field, chasing after the ball, and not holding any kind of shape until the Germans simply picked them off—waiting for the English to organize themselves into utter chaos and then exploiting the spaces that opened up. Germany couldn’t help but win.

In England, much has been made of Frank Lampard’s not-allowed goal. The ball clearly did cross the line and the game would have been tied going into the second half. Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German player and manager, argued that far from getting their heads down, the injustice should have riled up the English players. They should, he felt, have come out for the second half seething with rage and ready to show that nothing was going to stop them from getting their just rewards. Instead it looked as though they had found their villain and could now settle down into feeling hard done by.

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