Painkillers, God, and America


World Cup 2014

According to the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, Americans consume 80 percent of the world’s painkillers—more than 110 tons of addictive opiates every year. As a writer in The Guardian put it, the U.S. must be a very painful place to live.

How much of that pain has been caused by soccer? Not much, at least not to begin with: an unlikely and magnificent 1-0 victory over England in World Cup 1950 (held then as now in Brazil) featured a bunch of part-timers putting the boot to the “Kings of Football.” It didn’t require so much as a baby aspirin. Since then, working on the “no pain no gain” principle so beloved of hackneyed American high-school football coaches, the U.S. has enjoyed a steady climb up the world rankings and some encouraging advances in international tournaments, including a World Cup quarter-final in 2002. Still, in the last sixty-four years, there have been more losses and draws—a draw in the U.S. means, as we all know, a loss—than wins. But not many Americans were following the team during all that. I imagine only a fraction of a ton of painkillers were consumed.

Now, though, after this week’s stirring 2-1 victory over Ghana, the 80-percenters are getting on-board big-time, and The New York Times is reporting that a majority of Americans are convinced, unlike their coach, that the USA can triumph in Brazil. The team is clearly riding for a fall, isn’t it? They play Portugal on Sunday. One would think it’s pass-the-Tylenol time.

But not so fast. The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of, and among these is that other central facet of American culture, God. Could He save the day? On Monday, a BBC TV commentator scolded the USA’s Clint Dempsey for not singing his national anthem when it was played. The English are not that much into God—a quarter of the population has “no religion,” and in the 2001 census 390,127 individuals listed themselves as “Jedi Knights”—which is probably why the commentator missed the fact that in all likelihood Dempsey was not dissing but praying. He certainly crossed himself at one point, but I can’t remember if this was post-anthem or right after the superb goal he scored thirty-two seconds into the game against Ghana.

God, of course, has shown more than a passing interest in the world of sports for some time now. Players often thank Him when things go well. He clearly likes winners. I have never seen a goalkeeper point skywards after a ball has rolled through his legs into the net.

So what’s it going to be, America: heavenly intervention or a handful of extra-strength brand name? Looking at the suspiciously over-exuberant support offered by the euphoric crowd of 20,000 USA supporters gathered in the Arena das Nunas last Monday, I think nothing more may be needed than whatever it was those people were on. Free pints of caipirinha for all, and bring on Portugal with its iconic star Cristiano Ronaldo. USA! USA!

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.