Kissing and Biting


World Cup 2014

Italy puckers up; unhinged American exuberance; infamous teeth.

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.”

As Henry James, author of “The Jolly Corner,” which I’m guessing is a soccer story, once wrote: “It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.” The USA soccer team has no tradition that anyone really recalls. Its forays into world soccer are each time fresh and new, although, given the way that interest in the game is mushrooming across the fifty states, this may well be the last year we’ll be able to say that.

If only that were the case in England, where the postmortem on yesterday’s disastrous game with Uruguay is haunted by the ghost of losses past. “Same old England …” is the Big Match Verdict of the daily tabloid the Sun. Same old Luis Suárez, too, unfortunately: the Liverpool and Uruguay striker, who had keyhole surgery on his knee only four weeks ago, returned to torment his opponents with one deft, superb header and the punishing winner after a terrible mistake by England’s captain Steven Gerard: a brutal, ferocious right foot shot past Joe Hart, bulging the net.

In England, nobody seems quite ready to let go of the facts that Suárez (1) has a large and distinctive set of teeth and (2) used them to bite the PSV Eindhoven midfielder Otman Bakkal back in 2010 and the Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovich just over a year ago. Today’s newspaper headlines include OUR WORST BITEMARE and IT HAD TO BE CHEW. Even the upmarket lefty Guardian, usually so sensitive to the lives of others, led its front page with ALL BITE ON THE NIGHT: SUÁREZ SENDS ENGLAND TOWARDS WORLD CUP EXIT.

But what a glorious World Cup this is turning out to be: out of thirty-two teams, only Iran, Nigeria, Japan, and Greece have found ways to bore everyone to death. Meanwhile there are wonderful upstarts: the frequently slighted CONCAAF teams, Mexico, USA, and Costa Rica; Chile playing with speed, skill and passion; an ever-improving Croatia; and now Uruguay, back in the ascendancy. Three of these countries—you can figure out which—have populations of less than five million. But maybe that’s an advantage. Neither China nor India came close to making it through to Brazil.

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.