Day 20: USA vs. Belgium
Filled with foreboding from the previous bore of a game, the US played to general expectations. I.e., they played uninspired football that hardly looked to create any chances at all against a widely favored Belgian side. Yes, it appeared that the US was happy with its place in the story. For their part, Belgium were quite happy to bring their role of favorite to life. For the majority of the match the USA were seemingly limp and ineffectual despite the seemingly heroic toiling of American goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Now just hold on a minute. *Record scratch*
I’ve often pondered on the concept of the narrative. People love narratives. I love narratives. But how often do narratives correspond with actual bona fide truth? Perhaps the most common example of sports narratives: a typical complaint among fans of a seemingly underperforming team is that their team or players therein are playing without confidence (of which, as an Atlanta sports fan, I’ve heard way too much ). But, could it be that they are just playing badly? No one plays 100% perfectly 100% of the time. Or maybe they are actually just bad? Then again, if an athlete is not playing very well, why would they have confidence? What is confidence anyway?? While this rabbit hole of thought may seem a bit chicken-and-eggy, it is important to separate narrative from fact because if we don’t look at one thing through a clear prism, then that carries over into possibly more important areas of life.
The two unfolding narratives of this particular game:
1) The USA played a dull game of football.
2) Tim Howard put in a legendary performance.
But couldn’t it be argued that the USA only appeared to play poorly relative to their competition because they were actually worse than their competition? Eh, it really seemed like the US didn’t try that hard to do anything out of the boring ordinary. But I’m certainly not a soccer expert. Maybe Belgium was good at shutting down potentially creative movements from the US before they could fully develop?
And couldn’t it be argued that Tim Howard only appeared to stop Belgium’s shots so well because they were actually easily stoppable? Tim Howard, in spite of our defense, did make a lot of saves, earning the nickname the Secretary of Defense. And that’s just fun. I am not saying I will not call him that, because I will. Narratives are fun.
But that is precisely one reason why you should be weary about falling in the narrative trap. People love seeing patterns or familiarities in everyday life. It’s very similar to the happy condition of pareidolia and why we anthropomorphize animals. While there’s nothing wrong with those things, I find it troubling that people do not generally acknowledge the power of the narrative to take over the real story. Narrative can obfuscate truth and that is never a good thing.
Narrative or not, the US put in a decent performance at the 2014 World Cup and our future is looking brighter than ever. Unfortunately, with the next couple World Cups set to take place in horribly sketchy geopolitical locales, I don’t know if I will be able to get excited over them. This problem may very well work itself out in the end because I believe between now and 2026 (my goodness, I will be old by then) the US Men’s National Team will be very, very good.
Day 15: USA vs. Germany
The USA’s previous last second draw to Portugal meant that going into the final Group G game the USA was in Weird Purgatory. The US did not control their own destiny (safely assuming the US was never going to beat Germany); rather, their destiny depended on the results of the concurrent Ghana vs. Portugal game as well. However, the scales did tip in the USA’s favor, as they could proceed to the knockout round even with a loss. For Portugal or Ghana to advance over the US, they needed not only to win, but to win by a certain amount of goals determined by however many goals the US lost by. But even then, in the case of equal goal differentials there were further tiebreakers. I thought Ghana and Portugal were always going to be on the same level and the game would always have goals due the necessity for attacking football from both teams. Thusly, in my zeal for overthinking, I cheered outright when Portugal, who would need more goals than Ghana would need, captured the first (own) goal of their game. Everyone else at the bar carried on indifferently, focusing on the USA game, as if I were taking crazy pills.
As for the US-Germany game, while my compatriots were just hoping for the US to advance, I was hoping the US would come out and at least try to play a little sneaky creative/aggressive soccer. My thinking was, for the US did to move on later in the knockout round, they should at least try to set the stage and give themselves (and their fans) something to believe in: swagger, as it were. But the US and Germany were content to play boringly conservative (am I being redundant?) football to the tune of a 1-0 win for Germany (later events would show just how conservative 1 goal is for Germany). The singular defining moment for me was defender DaMarcus Beasley going for a run with the ball out wide with seemingly a chance to beat the German defense. Yet he pulled up, I imagine, for fear of allowing Germany to counterattack an exposed American defense. Regardless, the result was enough to see us through to the knockout round. While many US soccer fans were delighted with the result, the lackluster performance stirred feelings of foreboding unease for our chances against upper tier teams such as Belgium.
Day 13: Italy vs. Uruguay
And now, an interlude brought you to by aspiring vampire Luis Suarez and his honorable attempt at the old stealthy sandwich move on Italian Giorgio Chiellini’s tender shoulder.
Luis Suarez is a simple man
He dives, and bites, and roars (for PKs)
He plays as well as any can
And most of all he scores
Day 11: USA vs. Portugal
In the hours preceding this game, I was playing soccer with some folks from my intramural team mostly consisting of internationals. One guy asked, “who here thinks that Portugal is going to crush the USA?” Most everyone raised their hands, but I thought that was a preposterous idea. Not only is Portugal generally a one person team and not only has Portugal not shown itself to be a footballing power, but there is no way Portugal is considerably better than Ghana. Portugal and Ghana are both decently solid teams with a handful of players playing in the most prestigious of leagues. But the USA already showed the ability handle Ghana.
I knew the USA could win or at least scratch out a draw, even after “hitting the self-destruct button” just five minutes in, as the commentator so vividly put it. I had the same peaceful feeling of belief when Ghana tied the US at 1 apiece. However, when the US went up 2-1, I admit I could scarcely believe it! What a feeling to be soaring so high! Of course, eventually the US would prove to falter at the last tick of the second hand, allowing the 2-2 equalizer. Mild devastation, if such a thing can be said to exist, coursed through my blood and diffused through my bones. Fortunately, further reflection is a useful tool in most situations. With such a tool in hand, it was nothing to remember that this result is perfectly acceptable, even if it costs us USA fans pent up stress levels for the last group stage game.
Day 7: Netherlands vs. Australia
Never leaving a game early is a proud tradition of mine passed down from my father. Even if it appears a particular game is decided early, you always get your money’s worth. After all you may just see something no one has seen before (although perhaps most true in for baseball). You may just see a miraculous comeback by your heroic hometown team. You may even see an awesome performance from forlorn supporters. But, I will grant there are some circumstances allowing for early departure. You are excused if it’s getting late, your team is getting whacked, and you’re not sure what time, if any, MARTA shuts down even if it’s obvious they will still need to transport fans back to their faraway places. Because that seems like a thing MARTA would do. You are also excused if you can only spend an allotted time due to real world work constraints. Unfortunately for me this last excuse had me miss out on arguably the most beautiful goal of the World Cup.
I wanted to catch some soccer in a proper environment (i.e. a big screen television), so I set off for the local pizzeria/bar.. Because this is a backlogged blog series, I do not recall all of the details, but I must have been watching the end of the game before. I know this because I thought I needed to leave soon, perhaps once the first goal is scored. Why? Because usually excitement in soccer is spread throughout the 90 or so minutes of play. Plus, that’s usually how the world works. I’m not sure how the world would cope if three major international events happened all at once, but I digress. And so, I left when Robben notched the first tally. I eventually got back to my desk at work and saw the score tied. I was happy for underdog Australia. I then saw the equalizer was scored only one minute after I left. And then I saw the replay of the breathtaking beauty that escaped my live eyes by the slimmest of margins. Oh woe upon me! Oh the heartbreak! I do not even remember Robben’s goal.
Day 5: USA vs. Ghana
I was keeping up with the scores from the early games at work when I learned of the unexpected and untimely death of baseball legend Tony Gwynn. This news hit me hard. As a huge baseball fan and a 90s kid, Gwynn was one of the first giants of the game (and by proxy, life) I had the privilege to watch. No one else in the game at the time or since has shown the prolonged excellence at the art of hitting a ball with a bat that Gwynn did. Many kids liked Ken Griffey because of his supposedly sweet swing that everyone always has to mention whenever his name comes up. But I always thought anyone could do that if they take an uppercut hack at every pitch. No one, since at least Ted Williams, could do what Gwynn did, but lots of people can hit home runs. Gwynn was a man with uncommon consistency, vision, and steadfastness in doing what he did well. The stories that have since come out about Gwynn’s humanity only serve to add on to what he accomplished in entertaining millions through baseball. Or maybe they are unsurprising given the values he displayed through baseball. Or perhaps it is the other way around…
It was strange to transition from the news to the US-Ghana game, but it had to be done. I took my seat at the sports bar expecting a typical American grind-it-out type of game. But no. In the very first minute, Clint Dempsey scored the most un-American goal I’ve ever seen and it was beautiful. Literally this was the opposite of Landon Donovan’s famous goal against Algeria in 2010. Dempsey slickly took the pass from Jermaine Jones with a little dipsy-doodle and then finessed his shot perfectly just out of the keeper’s reach and off the far post. American soccer players do not just waltz into games and take charge. I was hoping this new swagger represented a new way of United States soccer under coach Klinsmann. Unfortunately, the US remembered they were the US for the rest of the 389 minutes of regulation they played. Nonetheless, the US escaped with the victory by the hairs on their collective chinny chin chins. But I will give credit to Ghana for their own slick goal. Most people around me acted so devastated when Ghana scored that I don’t think they realize how nice it was. I don’t why. There was plenty of time left to score the game-winner, which John Brooks promptly did.
Day 2: Netherlands vs. Spain
Robin van Persie channeled his spirit animal, Sea World dolphin, to beautifully head in a goal and start the unexpected romp against defending champions Spain. (Is it too late to introduce #Spainked? Yes, yes it is.) A lot of people said that van Persie’s goal would be one of the best of the Cup, some even saying it will be the best. To these people I ask, “really?” It was just a header! Yes, it was nearly from the top of the box, but van Persie had so much space and a giant window for which to aim. When I first saw the play developing, I knew that the only way to ensure a point was to do exactly what he did. Most great plays are a result of a player’s creativity that nobody saw coming. But I will concede that van Persie perfectly utilized Newton’s three laws of motion to set forth a majestically soaring unstoppable arc of a shot. He envisioned what it was he needed to do, and he did it. To perfection. And isn’t that one of the beautiful feelings in the world when that happens?