Like I said, it has a lot to do with failure and ill fortune, and with dealing with failure and ill fortune. That this sport is the one that grips the world like no other says a great deal about us as a species.
I’m not even thinking about the colossal, world-historical failure of Brazil in its semifinal against Germany. Well, maybe I am, just a little. To have imploded like that, on home soil . . . ? A deep humiliation; not because they got slaughtered by a very, very good team – that happens in all sports, all the time (Broncos v. Seahawks, Heat v Spurs) – but because for a team of world-class players to allow its opponent to score 7 goals is a failure of collective will and determination, not skill. One thing we know about soccer is that if you are really determined to keep the other guy from scoring – if you just park the bus, as it were, in front of the goal and defend to the death – you can usually do so pretty successfully. It’s awfully hard to get that ball in the net, and with 11 people in front of you it gets even harder. Indeed, it’s a persistent criticism of the sport – stopping the other guy from scoring is a helluva lot easier than scoring yourself, and it can lead to a lot of boring 0-0 and 1-0 affairs. It just takes hard work and a disciplined defense – which, after around goal number 3, the Brazilians collectively abdicated. It was awful to watch.
No, I was actually thinking about the adventures of the US National Team, and how they illustrate soccer’s special relationship with failure and ill fortune. Imagine two typical US sports fans – Joe and Jane Sixpack – who, catching wind of all the excitement after the US-Portugal match, decide to tune in for the remaining US games in the Cup. Our new soccer fans watch over 200 minutes of soccer and see exactly one US goal, and two losses . . . Only one single moment, in almost 4 hours of soccer, of the unadulterated joy that only a goal can bring – and even that was tempered by the fact that it only brought us back to one goal down with around 13 minutes or so to play against Belgium.
And yet the general reaction seemed to be that we had an outstanding — possibly even a breakthrough — tournament! I would forgive the Sixpacks for being a little confused about it all. “This is fun? They keep on shooting and missing, and we keep on losing. But everyone seems to feel pretty much OK about that?”
Well, yes. The US team’s performance was terrific. In four games against four very, very good teams – each of which had not unreasonable expectations about going deep into the tournament, and one of whom may yet hoist the trophy – we held our own. We did not – though many opportunities presented themselves — allow what happened this past Tuesday to what was a very good team happen to us. We were in all of those games, and the reward for all of that incredible effort and hard work was that we were this close to making it through to the quarterfinals. [And by "this close" I mean within 5 yards, which is how far away Chris Wondolowski was from an open net with a sure winner at his feet in the 86th minute of the game against Belgium. The game is ours! And he clanks it wide!! Oh, Wondo!]
The fightback against Belgium (as was the earlier one against Portugal) was pretty special. Two goals down in extra time – I would venture to guess that no team has ever come back to win in a major tournament game after allowing two goals in extra time — and they kept their wits about them, they kept pressing forward, pulled a goal back, and damn near got the equalizer.
Failure, but with dignity and honor intact and even enhanced; it is, quite often, all you get in soccer (and in life), and you learn how to take something from it. The Thermopylae Effect. [And all the while, you can almost taste how incredible it would have been, and how happy you would have felt, had Wondolowski just put the damn ball into the net ...].
So on it (the tournament) goes. The brutality of many of the 2d round games and Brazil’s ignoble collapse have taken some of the sheen off of what was a glorious first round, but, still, the Final could be a pretty tasty affair. It matches the two best teams in the tournament (and that’s another pretty astonishing thing about soccer; although a little bad luck can clearly doom you in a sport with so little scoring – one incorrect offside call, one goalkeeper slip, one errant backpass or deflection, and the game is lost — the World Cup (and the European Championship as well) has a pretty phenomenal record of actually ending up with a pairing of the teams that deserve to be there). Alert readers will recall that I listed Germany and Argentina as two of the four teams that could possibly win the tournament, and also that my heart was with the Argentines. It still is – Argentina 3 Germany 1.