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Posts Tagged ‘USA’

Variation on a Theme of Jacques Brel

July 1, 2014 | by

usa belgium

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.

Flying_soccer_kick

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

Brasil_2014_Football_Flag_and_Trophy

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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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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Kissing and Biting

June 20, 2014 | by

Italy puckers up; unhinged American exuberance; infamous teeth.

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Luis Suárez in 2011. Photo: Jacoplane, via Flickr

Italy’s Mario Balotelli, he of the “why always me?” undershirt, wants a kiss from the “the UK queen”—yes, that one—if he secures a victory against Costa Rica. The domino effect of that result would go like this: Italy will go on to beat Uruguay while England crushes Costa Rica by some outlandish score and, miracle of miracles, England qualifies for the next round on goal difference. From my brooding vantage—looking out at the low dark clouds gathered over the sceptred isle this morning—a little royal peck on the cheek doesn’t seem too much to ask for Mario’s compliance. He should go for more—but maybe not from the queen.

All sports aficionados are historiographers. Fans of, say, the Chicago Cubs or the Boston Red Sox before 2004 “remember” failures and disappointments that occurred decades before they were born. Sports talk and commentary worldwide is a litany of reference and record: great names from the past, statistics, moments of triumph and disaster. No game is an island.

Does this explain why the USA’s supporters in Brazil seem to have reached a level of euphoria unmatched by the fans of any other country? I mean, they’re really going bonkers over there, and there’s something entirely unhinged about it. What the crowd is unhinged from, of course, is the past, the dead Wrigley Field weight of history that tells you, “Don’t even think about it.” Read More »

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