I never wrapped up the World Cup, and though this one will not fade from memory soon- there’d been late drama and close games every day, few favorites (even France) ever seemed safe, and few minnows hopeless. Really, one of them made the Final! I’m loathe to waste my previously recorded thoughts. So I separated this excerpt from my latest book blurbs- also rapidly losing their topicality, and here it is:
At some point just past the Group Stage, without any sort of announcement or clear dividing line, we enter the part of the World Cup where people are consumed by it. Entire countries basically shut down or go through daily routine in a dream-like state. Were there people still drinking and celebrating in England and Croatia, days after they progressed to the Semis?
Yes, I’m certain there were. Soon enough, tension and anxiety sets in, though, as thoughts turn to the next round. Caution also sets in, coaches and players begin to feel the weight of national expectation, the nervy zeitgeist, the paralyzing realization that just two games remain.
There was a point where most of the final eight would have returned to a hero’s welcome, but we irrevocably pass the just-happy-to-be-here phase, to where the differences between 3rd place and 1st are magnified.England and Belgium found that out, and at some point, so too, will Croatia.
England was actually in control of most of their quarterfinal, though it remained at that always neurotic 2-0 scoreline, where just one goal can change the entire complexion and momentum of the match. Rather than make the classic mistake and sit back to defend, thus inviting doom, they continued to press for the third, and clinching goal. They didn’t get it, but Sweden, overmatched and game, kept it entertaining. Against Croatia in the Semis, though, England never really got onto the front foot.
Croatia v Russia was a barnburner, something we’d now come to expect from this WC, already being called the greatest ever, an incomplete judgement that Fox naturally jumped on for promotional purposes. I was not arguing the idea, though I like to see the Final before I make historical pronouncements. Now I have, and France’s talent speaks for itself, though Croatia, pretty much doomed after the 67th minute, never lost their fighting spirit. Dignitaries handing out medals in a downpour might’ve made even a nil-nil with PKs seem pretty legendary.
All of it mostly lost on oblivious, exceptionalist, USA of course. If tiny Belgium or Croatia can potentially win it, then it must not be a real sport. I was downtown one night over the holiday, and the overweight thousands were choking the streets for a Rockies game. I haven’t checked, but usually the Rockies are firmly embedded in last place by Independence Day.
I’m not putting down real fans. Nothing brings out the dunce confederacy for any event on the Fourth like hot dogs and fireworks. But it’s odd how this country celebrates -and overpays- forbloated spectacle, (military parade, anyone?) while the rest of the world anxiously awaits the results of a real sports and culture drama. When people are shocked by the US’ slow slide into neo-facism, I wonder why they don’t just open their eyes and look around them.
I’ll catch up on my reading list next. It’s mostly books on art, and comics. I’m glad to say that procrastination this time does not stem from the wretched ‘too busy’ excuse, but the relatively human ‘lazy summer days’ rubric, and I wish everyone the same.
The Summer Art Market was one of my better ones in terms of sales, and also one of the hotter ones. After this cool spring it was not that surprising, but it didn’t melt the crowd- I had sales in almost every two hour block of the weekend, which also keeps the time moving. Thank you to everyone who came by and helped me celebrate a positive year!
I had fun with the posters featuring my artwork, giving them away with sales and to my friends. Beginning with my “Best Of Show” award at 2017’s show (which landed me on the poster), I had a fun year; appearing in Westword, showing in the State Capitol, participating in MoPrint.
So after a very busy Winter/Spring, it’s a month to enjoy some relaxation, and the World Cup.
The World Cup is living proof of American exceptionalism. It’s by far the greatest sporting event in the world, but especially with the USA having crashed out, it gets little real attention here, not that attention span is something Americans excel at in sports viewing. Some overweight fool somewhere is on his couch, trying to convince himself- with ESPN’s help- that the four hour baseball game he’s watching has more significance than, say, Portugal v Spain, a gripping early clash of titans in the Group Stage.
One for the ages? Hard to say, as there were many mistakes. Ronaldo jobs Nacho for a PK early, then Spain works their way- patiently with characteristic precision passing, back into it for a number of chances before equalizing on a brilliant Costa run.
Patience is required to enjoy Soccer. More than any sport, it takes place in real time- it’s not bloated with commercials, fantasy league statistics, and long-winded analyses. One must actively read the ebbs and flows of momentum on the field, rather than passively await a scoring highlight or statistical benchmark, as in American sports.
Now Ronaldo sneaks a counterattack goal past DeGea to bookmark the first half. Again, a mistake by Spain. But Spain is patient and works a brilliant set piece goal from Costa. Then Nacho gets redemption with a brilliant, trailing whiplash shot off both posts.
Spain has clearly been the better team, yet they made two major mistakes at the beginning and end of the primer tiempo. They must close this out efficiently, or their WC will be in question from the get go. The Group Stage seems to offer multiple chances to get into a rthym, but for favored teams like Spain, it can be unforgiving.
Another mistake, and Ronaldo lasers the equalizer. What a game! If the rest of the WC is as good as its start, perhaps Ronaldo- and even Putin- can be excused for taking his shirt off.
The intensity ramps up with Peru v Denmark(0-1): the most intense 90+ minutes of football seen so far; end to end for most of the second half. The cruelty and drama of the stereotypically reviled one-nil: Peru will play entertainingly for all three matches, but will be eliminated after the second.“Insufficient guile” is Derek Rae’s assessment of a Peruvian FK late in their game v France. They couldn’t turn their exciting play into goals. That sums up their tournament.
Mexico make no mistakes. Their tactics are excellent against the World Champions. The first half they show a fairly high press with very concise long balls over the top to keep Germany out of rhythm. They stay wide and keep up a nice tempo- short, short, long; basically playing Germany’s slow midfield press against themselves, lengthening the field, where Germany loves to shorten it. The goal is a brilliant bit of cutback and a seeing eye shot by Lozano.
They bunker a bit in the segunda tiempo, with Germany slowly shortening the field, and Mexico with just enough counter to relieve pressure, though they misfire on all. GK Memo Ochoa is there for the inevitable final siege. Mexico puts themselves in good position to go through, if they can maintain their aggressive tempo.
This plays out in the second round of games, where the stakes are suddenly higher, and teams walk a fine line. Mexico v Korea (2-1) and Germany v Sweden (2-1), a late thriller with one of this tournament’s many extra timegame winners= one of the more thrilling days of the Cup, and it carries over into Sunday with Japan v Senegal (2-2), and Poland v Columbia (0-3) which actually puts Senegal in a bad place in the final match day. This, too, would prove significant. Monday, the first day of the third round, is also dramatic with Spain coming back (2-2) and Portugal being hauled back (1-1) intense, complex, Video Assistant Referee-flavored battles that decide knockout round pairings.
France v Denmark (0-0), not so much. The commentators are fond of saying “This game needs a goal”. Sometimes that’s all it needs, but here it’s a stultifying bird-in-the-hand type game between two teams who already have what they want, and little to gain in future pairings, unlike Mexico, who have a real incentive to avoid Brazil in the next round. So we get the only nil-nil of the Cup so far, as the crowd whistles, but it’s plenty enough to perpetuate the soccer stereotypes, I’m sure.
Now, today, it’s the last day of Group Stage -always bittersweet. I’m on the couch, well-coffee’d and watching an intriguing start for Columbia v Senegal, two dangerous teams. Senegal does take their usual aggressive attitude toward attack, but after half time, Columbia’s quality and resilience begin to turn the tide. Final score- yes, 1-0. Senegal is out of the knockouts on a tie breaker. I had already watched a complete collapse by Mexico (not to mention Germany) on replay last night. But Mexico ends up on the right side of the math, and goes on, at least as far as Brazil.
Now, there is bacon in the skillet and I’m awaiting the kick off for Belgium v England. Both teams also already through, but the well regarded, high-scoring Red Devils and the underrated Three Lions have a lot to prove with top of the group at stake, and I’m not expecting nil-nil. Commentators are the erudite Derek Rae, and former WC player Ally Wagner, who retains her field-level feel for tactics, and is thus far unsullied by pundit-speak. Fox has had an up and down WC so far. Rob Stone is a football lightweight, Lalas apparently the designated loudmouth, with Terry Bradshaw the model. Rae and Wagner are firmly in the “ups”.
We’ll see what kind of match we get. Group Stage has been surprising and very evenly matched. Even the bigboys- Brazil, France, Spain, have struggled to find rythym, and some- like Germany and Argentina have not found it at all, or rarely. There’s been a lot of late drama, and half my bracket is in shambles. My predicted finalists, Spain and Brazil are still alive, though.
Baseball and NFL are for bean-counters. Baseball flatters itself that its cheap stats make any of its long slogging progress toward September and October meaningful. When the brain rattling violence on the claustrophobic gridiron is done, the last team to do an end zone dance will be declared “World Champion”, having never ventured out of the astro-turf infested suburbs, none of their “highlights” having aroused any interest in the world. To Americans, soccer’s a game that doesn’t “count”, but in 2026, The USA will find out that no travel ban will keep it out.
My own experience with other Americans, especially those of my generation, who created the hype machine that is the Super Bowl, and are often heard extolling the copious commercials- is a frustration. Even friends who profess a positive attitude toward the game, when they can be coaxed out to the park, seem to see the jockeying in the midfield as some sort of pause in the action, rather than integral to it. They treat it as an opportunity to drift into triviality, as if it was a commercial break in NFL, or the interminable tics and twitches between pitches in baseball. Soccer, where one pass can define an entire game, measures itself on a continuum of emotion, it’s a game defined by persistence of the heart. It provides few defined periods, incremental territorial gains or mandated possessions. Politically, culturally, and especially in sports, Americans have little patience for the grey areas of life. They are considered “boring”.
Soccer is poetry in motion, possibility centered squarely in the moment. It’s the game that breathes and sings. A team (and nation) in the 80th minute of a 1-nil match are only seconds from a blowout disgrace, a life-saving draw, or a glorious fight back triumph. It is always up to the players. Each one on the expansive field has the power to change the result. Even for Ronaldo, it takes a career for any impressive numbers to be tallied up, but his greatness is visible on the grass long before then.
It’s on to the Knockout Round, where, sorry, bean-counters, the tension ramps up and the goals are fewer. (Update: often fewer. Not on the first day, though.)
Greatness and glory poised on a knife’s edge. The whole world is watching, not counting. To the world, it’s only the game that counts and thus it’s the only game that matters.
I’m working on new work for the Summer Art Market, June 9th and 10th. I’ll finish in studio in a couple of weeks, then shift to framing and prepping for it. A couple of days after the show the World Cup starts. In theory, I’ll have lots of money from the show, and I’ll spend many afternoons in downtown bars, starting my day with eggs and beer and football. That’s the theory.
The USA isn’t in the Finals this year. Since making a relatively strong run in Brazil 2014, they’d sputtered under two coaches, Juergen Klinsman and Bruce Arena, before an unlikely but mostly well deserved combination of results eliminated them on the last day of qualification. The team had a certain amount of talent, but never any real consistency in play.
There was a real howl from the fans, many of whom were 20-somethings who’d bought their first USA shirts in June, 2014. It’s heartening to see such a failure evoke an indignant reaction to those of us who remember decades when not reaching the World Cup Finals meant…crickets. But youth is not given to reflection, and many of the reactions were simplistic and not very well informed:
The US should NEVER fail to qualify, they howled, ignoring the fact that some far more consistent performers, e.g. Italy, Netherlands, Chile, had failed to qualify, and the quality of play in the US’ confederation has been rapidly improving. Getting into the World Cup is hard, no matter who you are.
The US Soccer Association leadership is corrupt and only interested in selling rights fees, they wailed, ignoring the fact that the leadership has been actively campaigning against FIFA corruption for years now, and the rights fees they’re selling are World Cup rights fees, which went down in value by millions when the US did not qualify. There is corruption in football, yes, but applying a blanket stereotype to an organization working for reform is ignorant.
Other, even more preposterous pronouncements followed: The USA will never challenge for the World Cup unless a laundry list of “reforms” meant to mimic the structure of their favorite ‘proper’ football league, the British Premier League, were immediately instituted in our own domestic league, MLS, they screeched. These include promotion and relegation, and a 20-team ‘balanced schedule.’
This ignores the fact that though Major League Soccer, formed in 1996 as a condition of having the World Cup here in ’94, is making solid growth, with four well established major leagues ahead of it, it is unlikely to match the BPL’s position in Britain very soon. It’s likely that BPL is more popular in THIS country, in fact, if we are to judge by TV ratings and the expensive English kits collected by adoring twenty-somethings. Because of that, MLS has had to find its own formula.
MLS has stretched the level of corporatism already rampant in world football with a single entity league structure and salary caps. This has made investment in the still fragile league attractive to the types of oligarchs that tend to own big teams around the world, but those billionaires are unlikely to welcome relegation to a lower league, especially as infrastructure in the lower leagues remains spotty. And TV networks see no profit in imposing the 20-team footprint of a country of 50 million onto this vast land of 300 million. Euro-snobbery is when you unreflectively expect all leagues to operate exactly like the Premier League. This is textbook euro-snobbery.
Nonetheless, some reforms are definitely needed, particularly in youth development, which tends to serve suburban white kids while ignoring Hispanic and African kids. Soccer is now ranked number two (behind NFL) in popularity in certain prized demographic groups, and the fact that the new fans see it as something worth agitating about, however magical their thinking, is a great sign. Football, and the World Cup, are kind of about magical thinking, anyway. After the USA crashed out, many fatuously vowed to not watch the Cup this year, or to become permanent fans of other nations. Fat chance. But millennials are not the only football fans who lack logic.
A Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, editors: As in the 2006 World Cup. This is a book about how football affects entire nations in ways that defy common sense. I got this during the run up to the highly anticipated, but ultimately disappointing, USA run in the Germany World Cup. The US was ranked number five in the world that year, in complete defiance of common sense, as was proven on the pitch.
It was to go in the bag of culled books to take to the used book store for trade and for shelf space. But as sometimes happens, in scanning it, I got hooked again. Though it sounds outdated, the editors’ approach, much like Franklin Foer’s in How Soccer Explains the World, (highly recommended) is not to concentrate on what the world says about football, but on what football says about the countries who play it. In this case, many of the national teams are the same ones back for the current World Cup, and the observations here are still quite relevant to the cultural landscape, as football tends to be.
As great change and the frustrations of progressives shakes the country, we acknowledgethat American exceptionalism in sports and in other areas is a real obstacle to American progress, but even liberals might not realize how steeped in it we are. After all, even liberals wear shirts that proudly proclaim their home city’s league team “World Champions”, when the only teams they’ve beaten come from suburbs outside of Boston or Atlanta. The essays here form a travelogue of footballing nations and bring their own failures and triumphs, baked into their cultures, into relief. The millennials who howl do value the power of travel and football to bring nations together. They distrust the spread of global corporatism. Their complaints about Team USA are simplistic, but they are not xenophobic. In them, we hear hope for real change.
There is a weird sort of justice in football. Thomas Jones talks about the justice of Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal vs. England in Mexico ’86 (One of the first WC games I can remember watching on American TV) in the context of the fall of the Argentinian junta after the Falklands War of 1982. He is not the only one to mention that war, with the posturing of a conservative government in England that the dispossessed hooligans in England instinctively lashed out against.
Tom Vanderbilt and Eric Schlosser write about exceptionalism in other white, progressive societies, Netherlands and Sweden, respectively. And Sayid Sayrafezadeh and Binyavanga Wainaina wrestle with the complexities and culture shock of leaving more anglicized societies to visit ancestral nations (Iran and Togo). Strong men, ayatollahs, and juntas use football no less than corporate oligarchs. Supporter culture often stands in opposition to these forces, and that’s why, in the world, football is the only game that matters.
Other favorites: Robert Coover in post-Franco Spain, watching the 1982 WC in an immigrant neighborhood, in the stadium of the OTHER Barcelona football club, and Wendell Steavensonon the political currents surrounding football in Tunisia under Ben Ali, later deposed in the Arab Spring, along with James Surowiecki, who writes about disillusionment in Poland after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Dave Eggers writes the USA segment (surplus to requirements this year!) with an exaggerated humor that manages to both highlight and embody American sports exceptionalism. Foer himself contributes an afterword on which political system is more likely to win the Cup. Fascist dictatorships and military juntas have gotten a large share, but social democracy is still the best system. Proto-fascist, post-truth oligarchies are not mentioned, and perhaps we can get a more winning approach at the voting booth soon; by relegating the oligarchs, and promoting someone less a buffoon. Here is the real corruption.
All of the essays are interesting, even the second time through; some barely touch on soccer at all. All in all, this is a hard book to put in the trade bag, and I would welcome something like this for each World Cup, but sales were probably never impressive. The millennials, who are way ahead of most Americans in their understanding of why the world is so passionate about ‘proper’ football, will change that, and sooner than we think.
As I write this, it is apparently both Fat Tuesday and Valentine’s Day eve. This is super apropos, since most of my valentines have ended in smoke and ash. I‘ll have many girlfriends ( and others) between the covers. Book covers. I’ll try not to get chocolate on the naughty bits.
A current home project is to clear shelf space. A way to do that is to read, or re-read, a bunch of things that have been on my list. Many of them can then be carted down to the bookstore for store credit. A never finished George Saunders collection; a Denis Johnson skyped from the advanced reading copies pile at work; another from the pile, a re-release of Fitzgerald’s bread-and-butter stories for Saturday Evening Post and other popular magazines; my David Foster Wallace Reader, and of course, my teetering stack of McSweeney’s Quarterlies and a related 2017 Non Required Reading Anthology. I’m thus surveying about 100 years of short stories, after exploring the history of American essays. No short jokes here.
Along with my brief return to Hemingway in the late Fall, I’m moving from the buoyant though disillusioned charm of Fitzgerald’s O.Henry-influenced magazine pieces, filled with the sort of froth and banter soon to become a staple of radio and Hollywood movies which later supplanted them, past the vacated emotional landscapes of Hemingway, to the dark obsessive humor of Wallace, Saunders and Johnson, and the casual magic realism of the not-quite quarterlies to which the short story has retreated (McSweeney’s, in case you are wondering, adds a bit of balance to this mostly male list with favorites like Judy Budnitz, Rebecca Curtis and Kelly Link).
Long story “short”, there are practical considerations, for this. It’s actually a very busy time for me, with the Month of Printmaking Colorado fast approaching, and many shows and events to supply or organize. Short stories and essays provide absorbing escape without the novelistic distraction of keeping a narrative thread alive in my head. And there’s the underlying shame of a large stack of books collected ‘for later’ and not read. It’s sort of like mental housecleaning: read some stories, then check them off your list, then take them to the book shop and trade them in for more. A ‘peace’ of paper, so to speak.
A sidelight: always on the lookout for linkages, I’ve discovered that short fiction and short non-fiction have a semi secret meeting place: the ‘letters’ section of McSweeney’s, where odd bits and half-ideas ‘come through the letter box thick and fast’.
To Show and To Tell, Phillip Lopate: I’m dipping into this collection of essays on essays gradually, especially at times when my own writing is likely to happen. One I recently read is an opinion piece on why showing AND telling are important. Lopate is conversational and didactic, which makes a nice, if fairly conservative read on why students often indulge a current prejudice against objective explication (telling) in favor of narrative (showing) to their detriment. Examples given include George Elliot, who certainly uses the omniscient voice in TheMill on the Floss in effective and humorous way; and Virginia Woolf, whose essay on going to buy a pencil in LoPate’s excellent collection of great essays certainly leaves a very powerful impression.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other of Jazz Age Stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald: This obviously goes along with my Hemingway binge, and is certainly a target of opportunity, plucked from the advance reading pile, as it’s a newly issued compilation of two early Fitzgerald collections, rereleased to take advantage of a movie. Not sure I would have picked this up intentionally, but glad I did. I won’t read all of them, but I’ve read several, and they are clearly much more than ‘Lost Generation’ nostalgia. In fact, they seem to link the ironic innocence of O. Henry and Thurber with the offhand magic realism of the McSweeney’s ilk, making them pretty darn readable.
Tenth of December, George Saunders: I have not found anything yet to match the shattering, ‘funny-animal’ fantasia of “Fox 8”, but nor have I been disappointed by any of these.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Denis Johnson: Again, from the advance pile, but I’d already been hipped to it by critics. I told a young Johnson acolyte on the bus who saw me reading it, that he should check out Tom McGuane, and I do not so far regret the comparison, but there’s no doubt that the cool emotional reserve that McGuane inherited by way of Hemingway is now a distant echo in these tortured, obsessed, and very circular characters with their recidivist voices.
David Foster Wallace Reader: “My Appearance”, about a Late Night with Letterman Show gig, is the only actual short story I’ve read here, along with some chapters from Broom of the System, and of course a couple of the essays, including “Authority and American Usage”, my second time through this track-jumpingly uproarious grammar-Nazi screed-slash-footnote rondel. DFW transcends any Post Modernist labelling and is indispensable.
The Thinking Man’s Guide to the World Cup, edited by Sean Willsey : It’s from 2006, back when Americans were actually capable of thinking rationally about the World Cup, partially because there was no real expectation of competing for it. Now, the lack of progress toward that end, and the profusion of millennial fan boys who, being young, do not understand the simple, immutable, and somehow poetic truth that football IS life not despite, but BECAUSE of the fact that it is mostly about disappointment, makes me sometimes wish for the days when no one paid attention to it, though only a little bit.
This is a brilliant travelogue, in the form of essays about then-participating countries for people who DON’T think you get to call yourselves ‘World Champions’ when you haven’t actually played the World. At least Millennials, bless ‘em, are the first American generation that GETS that.
The one comics album that sticks out this time around is Anti-Gone, by Connor Willumsen: a brilliant bit of creepiness about a post-apocalyptic slacker and his disaffected girl friend, searching for ‘mindless pleasures’ in a world of casual fascism. It’s the sort of dystopian tale that would have seemed exotic before November 8, 2016.
I have some speculations on developing ideas in monotypes which I’ll post soon, in the spirit of Month of Printmaking, which actually runs a couple of months, through late April. So we lied. “Art is a lie that tells the truth,” said Picasso, and who am I to argue?
The US Men’s National Team training camp in Princeton has not provided a lot of news. This is frustrating to fans combing the internets for indications of Coach Bob Bradley’s intentions to fill the many question marks in his line up, and Soccer in the US could probably benefit from a small window of media attention that it gets around the World Cup every four years. But it’s probably a good thing for the team who are burdened with a double set of expectations.
The expectations for the US team tend to be framed in the context of a mainstream media that goes into full butt-covering mode after years of explaining away editorial prejudice by calling soccer “boring”, “unathletic” or even, in the famous words of one gridiron shill, “a commie, pansy sport.”
Informed readers will notice quite a bit of fantastical evaluations of the team from writers who are accustomed to American sports leagues, where a common occurence is a fairly lightly-regarded team getting on a five game hot streak and going to the Super Bowl. This is the same fantasy world where a team from the East can beat a team from the Midwest, and be declared “World Champion”, though neither of them has actually played the world.
This World Cup is a true world championship, with 200 plus teams starting out, and the last 32 contesting the Cup. Surprises do happen (especially in Mundiales where the host is not particularly strong), but only seven coutries have ever actually won. The wheels of change in International Football turn slowly.
For the players, the pressure to prove soccer is a sport worthy of this sudden media attention is conflated with the pressure to beat teams with far better development systems and experienced players. Those who follow the team know that the reality is that the team is young, and speedy (far from “unathletic”), but still lacks the vision and subtlety of touch required to consistently win at top levels. It will be a step up for them to just play consistent football versus heavyweights or even other pretenders from Europe and Africa, whom they’ve always struggled against. This year, they are placed in a group composed of just such teams, England, Slovenia and Algeria.
The first indication of how they’ll do comes Tuesday and Saturday, as they take on Czech Republic and Turkey, respectively. These are strong European squads which significantly, got beaten out of WC spots by other, stronger teams, such as England and Slovenia. The Tuesday game will precede the final roster cut-down, the Turkey game is the first tune up with the final squad.
The games don’t count in the standings but are significant for young athletes who must react to the pressure to win a roster spot, and the US team overall will no longer be able to avoid the spotlight.
Poor Mexico. So far from God, and so close to the United States. -Porfirio Diaz, Mexican Dictator.
I predicted as I took my place at the bar, that the USA would fall to the Dutch by either 2-0, or 2-1. The first would be the expected result, given the last game in Amsterdam and their history in Europe, the second more hopeful, reflecting their improvement against traditional powers as in the ’09 Confederations Cup victory v. Spain.
They lost 2-1. They looked much better than their last visit, when they were never really in the game, especially in midfield. This time the midfield was effective for long stretches, and the team was able to close the gap in the late going on a nice goal, and even threaten to tie. So there is hope. It’ll be a while before we see any more warm-ups though, so it’s all guess work from here. But the lead-up to the World Cup has begun, and it’s time to start doing what the Cup is great for- learning about other cultures (though soccer-haters and other xenophobes would not agree).
There is plenty of team-by-team analysis around, but I’m taking my cue from a very fun book from the 2006 Cup, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup” (edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. I searched for this year’s equivalent, but alas). It’s a very readable book that gathers natives and fans of each team to write something on that nation. Since there are 18 return teams this year, it’s still relevant.
Group “A” is a very interesting one with South Africa, the host; France, recent World Champs and hosts; and Uruguay, shockingly (for some) 2 time winners in 1930 and ’50. But for purposes of this brief peek, the headliner is arch-rival Mexico.
If Mexico is, as former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda says in his somewhat mournful piece on the homeland of “Los Tricolores”, the richest of the poor nations, at least in futbol, they’ve always been the poorest of the rich nations. They’ve hosted twice, and made memorable runs, not least at the 2006 Cup, where they were game before losing on a brilliant Argentina goal.
Now the northern giant threatens hegemony in this vital area, too. Worse, they do it in almost off-hand fashion, with the US’ string of victories in crucial matches, such as the 2002 quarterfinals, arousing no passion in the football-hating press and NFL-obsessed public. It seems unfair. Here is ESPN Sports Guy Bill Simmons’ impression of a USA v. Mexico match in infamous Azteca Stadium.
Football, in fact, is often not fair, though Mexico can still have the last laugh this year. Though the first game (the opener!) v. the hosts will be tough in terms of the crowd, South Africa really hasn’t been playing that well. Uruguay will be game, but their days of regular participation are long gone (their cups came during an economic and soccer heyday as host of a truncated field in the first event, and via an upset of Brazil before that nation’s era of domination began). France is also underachieving, notably needing a Thierry Henry handball v. minnows Ireland to even qualify.
Mexico is back in good form, so passion and pride may very well carry them farther than the young US team. Some would like nothing better than to see Los Tri fail, but once the US is out, I always root for them. It only seems fair.