Win, Lose, or Draw


World Cup 2014

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.

There are, per Wikipedia, fifty million Americans who were either born in Germany or are of German descent, which makes it the largest “ancestry group” in the nation. My guess is that a number of them swelled the outdoor crowd in Chicago yesterday evening, watching the big screen and going wild. Even more will come out on Thursday. Soccer, baby, the eagle has landed. It’s not a trick … it’s the USA.

* * *

Rowan Ricardo Phillips, from New York:

The only more pernicious chimera than the myth of consistency is that of constant improvement. I may not write as well tomorrow as I write today, nor am I better person for every mistake I make. I cheer myself, then, with the simple belief that feeling shame for my failures and regret for my missed opportunities is a waste of time. Every day is a commitment to that day, every syllable uttered or written down is a link to a greater chain—but it’s still just a link, and links by necessity have gaping holes in them.

These beliefs can make me a lousy person to watch a football game with. I wince at missed passes and good runs into space that the player on the ball doesn’t see; I barely flinch when goals are scored, almost scored, or acrobatically denied. Goals are the outcome of hundreds of little and forgotten movements and mistakes. Results are the cover art of the narrative. But who knows what the narrative really is? When he was coaching Real Zaragoza in 1979, the Serbian Vujadin Boškov, who passed away this year, described in his challenged Spanish the game as a tautology, a simple and yet vexed chain of truths: “Fútbol e fútbol, e gol e gol.” It’s become a truism in Spain about the game. Why do unpredictable, maddening things happen in the game? Because football is football, the goal is the goal.

The great support that the U.S. has received since Monday’s 2-1 victory over Ghana was solely the fruit of their goals. The team was in shambles—stretched thin at the back, disconnected in the midfield, incoherent up front, and incapable of stringing together a simple chain of passes. It was the worst performance by a game-winning World Cup team that I can remember seeing. And yet they won. That they ended up scoring on a corner kick—fumbled to them by the Ghanaian defender Jonathan, a very good player who tried to usher out a heavy U.S. pass, only to have the ball bounce up and off his leg at the last instant—was beside the point. They had won, and they had finally, in their third consecutive attempt at a World Cup, beaten the Black Stars of Ghana. The rest is silence.

Winning, the thinking goes, invites confidence. And it did: last night, the United States team that played Portugal was completely unrecognizable from the team that had played Ghana just a few days ago. They were compact, clear in their ideas both with and without the ball. They looked for offensive advantages and, when their passing didn’t let them down, they played for those advantages, creating pressure instead of absorbing it. They trusted their heads to sort out problems that mere lung-busting effort could never solve. It was, considering the context, the best U.S. performance I’ve seen since the 2002 World Cup.

And yet they drew.

Certainly they will try, but in this tournament they will never play better. The U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley has been taking a tremendous amount of heat for losing that final possession, which led, mere seconds later, to Silvestre Varela’s emphatic diving header, a goal Eusébio himself, the black panther of football, would have been proud of. Bradley has been just about the worst player in the tournament thus far: he’s unable to pass either perceptively or safely, and despite his shaved head and permanent scowl—the typical accoutrements of a hardman in football—he’s been a veritable turnstile on defense. But, to his credit, Bradley tried to play the ball. He wasn’t looking to boot it into the soupy air above the Arena Amazônia, as far away as possible from him or any other player. He tried to control the ball. He wanted the responsibility of the moment, he wanted—like we all do when we play and dream of playing in the World Cup—the ball at his feet. It didn’t work out. Football is football.

Now the United States is set to face Germany. The general sense seems to be that if the team can play as they did against Portugal, they can do so against Germany. The Ghana performance seems to have been deleted from the memory banks of American fans. But Germany is an entirely different order of problem than Portugal. They have significantly better players, and their style of play will ask questions of the U.S. game plan that Portugal’s did not. Germany will press the U.S. everywhere on the field, forcing them to make assured controls and to pass the ball with quick and assertive precision. In short, what Germany does incredibly well without the ball is exactly what the U.S. does incredibly poorly with the ball.

There was immediate talk, as Jonathan mentions above, about the possibility of the two teams conspiring for a draw so that they both qualify for the next round. A draw, after all, is all that would take. This has happened once before with Germany, in the 1982 World Cup, when West Germany and Austria made a pact to coast through an easy game so both would advance in the tournament. But the world has changed since then: West Germany doesn’t exist, and this German team may have more ties to Ghana than to the U.S. There’s one Boateng brother on the German team, for example, and another on the Ghanaian team. Besides that, the Polish German striker, Miroslav Klöse, is one goal away from becoming the all-time leader in goals scored in a World Cup.

No matter what happens against Germany, I trust the draw against Portugal will, in the long run, bring more joy in its remembrance than the win against Ghana. Call me crazy, but you don’t play to win the game—you play to play the game.

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.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s second book of poems, Heaven, will be published next year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award.