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.
So the U.S. is outmanned player-for-player, but if they get their tactics right, they may—like Algeria, Russia, and South Korea—have a chance. Now the team waits with bated breath on the fitness of their best center forward, Jozy Altidore, not because he scores goals—he scored only one in thirty games this season for English Premier League side Sunderland—but because he can shield the ball with his big frame, allowing the other U.S. players to move up the field into better positions after one of them has coaxed the ball down a channel for Altidore, an ever willing runner, to chase. It’s not Route 1 stuff, but it’s not quite Route 2.0. The U.S. game is more crayon than calligraphy, but their fans beam like proud parents—they’ll stick anything on the fridge.
And this should come as no surprise. Football in the U.S. is played by a shockingly high number of children, and a shockingly high number of children subsequently drop the game. This is because of the structure of football—it’s the ultimate sport for kids. To play, you only need a round or rounded thing. In the U.S., the sport is designed for parents, specifically for their appeasement. It gathers children together and has them run around for long periods of time in which the parent-cum-spectator can be manically interested or utterly disinterested. The only important thing is that the child runs around—if the child wins, so much the better, and if the child is truly good, his running around should be pursued further. Is the support the U.S. team receives really any different? Is our great national interest in the game a fad, or is it here to stay? Are we watching a culture grow up before our eyes? Who knows?
What I do know is that I was in Brooklyn yesterday, walking around in the heat on empty streets, and I found only one place showing the France-Nigeria match. Today, when the U.S. is slated to play, the same exact swath of the borough, and all the bars in it, will be absolutely packed. On the big screen, the Belgians will build play through their wingers. The U.S. will defend in numbers and look for the opportune quick break. Someone will turn the volume up on the game and the volume down on the music. Regardless, the song I’ll be playing on repeat in my mind is Nina Simone’s take on the Belgian songwriter Jacque Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas”: Don’t leave me, don’t leave me. I don’t want this World Cup to end.
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.