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.
Today, Germany plays the United States. If Germany wins, I’ll be happy for my friend and colleague Daniel, the Israeli sociologist from Cologne with the Belgian mother, a world-class scholar who knows absolutely nothing—nothing!—about pop culture but likes the Fussbol tabloids he reads online as lowbrow as humanly possible. I’ll be happy for Raoul, the New Yorker with a map of Germany on his face and in his last name, his old-school green Mannschaft shirt standing out among a sea of USA fans in some Upper West Side bar. And if the U.S. wins, I’ll be happy for Clay and another Daniel and Clay’s son, Gus. If Ghana wins I’ll be happy for Africa and the black-starred strands of DNA that sing their dirges and daydreams of diaspora, as there’s every chance in the world that what we now call Ghana is where my lifeline began. And if Portugal pulls off what looks this morning like the impossible, I’ll remind myself that Lisbon is one of my favorite cities. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.
Yesterday, Nigeria lost to Argentina and qualified for the next round. Switzerland routed Honduras (why so rough-and-tumble, Honduras?) and qualified for the next round. Things happen in a World Cup that complicate the simple binary of wins and losses, of catastrophe and triumph. But after today’s results, the only way to move on in this World Cup will be to win, be it in regular time, extra time, or penalties. You win and move on. Or you lose and move on. Either way, we’re moving. I’m moving toward your joy.
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.