The World Cup has moved into the knock-out stages and, even in the rare low-scoring match, the drama of this great tournament has continued to rise. First, Brazil tried valiantly but failed to miss quite as many penalties as Chile in the botched penalty exhibition at the end of their match. Next, Mexico outpaced all comers in the sweepstakes for atrocious refereeing: opening with two goals incorrectly ruled out against Cameroon; then going home thanks to a highly dubious spasm from Arjen Robben. (Surely in the 94th minute of a match, the likelihood of a foul in the box is inversely proportional to the degree of writhing.) Between those games, James Rodríguez scored perhaps the best individual and best team goals of the tournament in Colombia’s comfortable win over a toothless Uruguay.
On Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. team will join the fun with a contest against Belgium for the final slot in the quarterfinals. Belgium’s proven tactic in global competition has been to clog up the opposition with buckets of moules frites, waffles, and chocolate bonbons, all washed down with lashings of mayonnaise and Trappist ale. Apparently, the only thing more sclerotic than the food in Brussels is the European Union’s bureaucracy.
Of course, a quick skim of the country’s very small map reveals a more ominous tradition. Belgium is where empires go to suffer famous losses: Ypres, Passchendaele, Waterloo. And the little general guiding Belgium’s attacking firepower is the portentously named Eden Hazard.
But Americans should take comfort from one other famous Belgian military landmark: Bastogne. And perhaps some of the intimidation of the Red Devils may crumble when one recollects that the country’s leading action figures are the Smurfs.
The third and final U.S. outing of the group stage, against the Germans last week, may prove a useful battle plan. (Minus the part about giving up a goal). If the U.S. players can use their athleticism and goalkeeping to frustrate les Diables Rouges with a stout defense, outstanding U.S. fitness and resilience may allow them to launch penetrating attacks late in the game. Strong European teams like the Netherlands and Germany have at times wilted in the Brazilian heat, while the U.S.A. forged their team through several toasty Latin American qualifying fixtures. And after their swim in the cauldron of Manaus, the Americans may think every other venue feels air-conditioned.
With the powerful Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi storming about the field, the Belgians won’t be mistaken for Smurfs, but America will also have Jozy Altidore back from injury to help in a physical contest. Let’s hope that the Walloons will need their friend Hercule Poirot after the match to solve The Mystery of the U.S. Victory.