No sooner had we enjoyed the frisson of loosing the dogs of football in Brazil than several of them have had to pack their Louis Vuittons again. Although we’re still quite a ways from crowning a winner, this stage of the tournament is one of my favorites, rich as it is with sports-page poignancy (valiant Tim Cahill saying goodbye with this stonker), Schadenfreude (though, alas, never for the Germans), and dyspeptic recrimination (like the early betting on new managers).
So far, the carnage has been most gruesome amongst the imperial powers our country defeated in the Early American Invitationals: Spain and England. The Spaniards, who had won their last three major tournaments (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012) didn’t just fail to win this one: They hemorrhaged goals; scored only once, off a marginal penalty; and joined their former sovereign in general abdication. Then our Special Relations grabbed their earliest opportunity to botch another attempt at global relevance. England opened — and effectively closed — their campaign with a pair of 2-1 losses, first to Italy and then to Uruguay. So let’s recriminate.
Recriminating against the players and managers is easy, so let’s focus instead upon the recriminators in some second-order recrimination.
For the Spanish, the main theme has been to accuse manager Vicente del Bosque of not appreciating that his players were too fat and happy to compete for another trophy. Presumably, he should have chucked out the most successful corps of soccer players in history before they lost anything important. If he had been truly prescient, del Bosque would have done that two years ago . . . oh, wait, they won the European Championship in 2012, so that was too early. But it was obvious by now. Now, when his starters were just rampaging through the Champions League with Barcelona, Atlético, and Real against the best players at the World Cup.
With a team of such proven winners, the optimal number of losses is surely not zero — changing things before a loss will always leave one to wonder how many more victories might have gone uncollected. As it happened, the most woeful decision del Bosque did make was a rare change in personnel, when he planted Diego Costa up front as an extra corner flag.
Back on the sceptered isle, the scepters are out for manager Roy Hodgson. Apparently, his tactics — or perhaps it was his strategy — were all wrong. Had Wayne Rooney weighed a few Mars bars less and squeezed his header under the bar or had Steven Gerrard not been so polite as to assist his club teammate, Luis Suarez, on Uruguay’s second goal, then presumably Hodgson’s scheme would have been all right. Such are the arbitrary moments of managerial omnipotence that separate mediocrity from genius.
The devastating critique of choice for English recriminators is to accuse their targets of naïvete. This most French of epithets simultaneously reduces the target to a simpleton and imbues the accuser with worldly sophistication, all while being too vague and inapposite to rebut. So, e.g.: “England’s defending was naïve.” What exactly does that mean? That the English defenders were too trusting of the Italian and Uruguayan offers of rides and candy. No, that’s not it. That the English weren’t effective at stopping Italians and Uruguayans from scoring. Yes, that’s it. Of course, that’s not naïvete, that’s just poor defending. We’re talking about soccer games, not grad school cocktail parties.
To pour Campari into the wounds, the vice-president of the Italian senate taunted the English with an unprintable alliteration involving “pretentious,” which he printed via Twitter. Perhaps the English can enjoy their off-season at Wimbledon with a bowl of strawberries topped with a civil action against the Italian member for public insult.
After America’s opening win against Ghana, they can’t be sent home by any result in their coming match against the last tottering imperial power of this hemisphere, Portugal. A win will almost certainly send America through to the knock-out stage and a draw will still preserve possibilities. Even a loss will not necessarily terminate their campaign, which makes this game an ideal one in which to join the bandwagon: lots of possible upside, not a lot of downside. Though, of course, no one would want to face the Mannschaft needing to win.
If America, alack, does not qualify, we can still enjoy the next stage of the tournament: the celebration of Cinderellas. And rather than clambering up on the Bundeswagon, I’d prefer to say, “¡Vamos los Ticos!”