Now that the valiant U.S. team has come home for the beatification of our goalkeeper as the Blessed Tim, Savior of Salvador, 23.4 million Americans will be looking for a new country to adopt for the rest of the World Cup. Eight teams remain alive, nicely balanced with four apiece from the perennial powers of Europe and Latin America.
Before we canvass those options, let’s spare a thought for the teams in the ash heap.
First — or, rather, dead last — were the Asian countries (Iran, Korea, and Japan), who achieved the flaccid trifecta of losing each of their respective groups, and slunk home either in silent anonymity or bizarre ignominy. The Koreans were evidently pelted with toffees upon their return to Seoul, an insult right up there with shoe-chucking and thumb-biting in impotent ridicule.
Next were the African countries, divided between those who gave a chivalrous account of themselves and those who demanded a banausic accounting from others. The gallants included Nigeria and Algeria, some of whose players battled through Ramadan restrictions on food — and water! — to fight shattering contests against France and Germany in the Round of 16. The covetous included Cameroon and Ghana, whose players demanded cash on the barrel – well, private jet actually — and then, with the cartoonish villainy of Snidely Whiplash, kissed their fat stacks. To be fair, such demands might be a natural response to rampant graft in their local FIFA fiefdoms. Still, it’s hard to countenance public displays of unsanitary snogging with filthy lucre.
Of the tournament’s surviving quarterfinalists, four are from the Old World and comprise those good chums, France and Germany, and their miniature doppelgängers, Belgium and the Netherlands. This quartet would form an almost perfectly reciprocal blob of contiguity along the North Sea but for the Dutch and French failure to share a border. That failure is not, of course, for want of German effort. U.S. fans can either indulge their preference for Latin versus Teutonic sensibilities, and adjust for size, or dismiss the lot as a large, indigestible bolus of eurotofu.
In which case, we have the New World foursome, which includes futbol’s superpowers, Brazil and Argentina, who have combined to win the World Cup seven times, and the Cafeteros of Colombia and Ticos of Costa Rica, who have combined to win it precisely never. Success is always a powerful if not exactly principled basis for supporting a team — just ask all those new fans of Manchester City, a team unspeakably dire for all but three of the past thirty years — and the World Cup is very stingy with winners. Only eight countries have ever won it all. If that criterion seems too naked, one can always follow Pope Alexander VI’s lead and divide the continent with the Treaty of Tordesillas to pick between Portuguese or Spanish options.
Maybe it will help to examine the four quarterfinal matches.
France vs. Germany
For those new to the game, this match-up begs for analysis beribboned with martial allusions to the Franco-Prussian War and its two blockbuster sequels of French ineptitude. But for fans of the World Cup, there is only one precedent squarely on point with this contest: the 1982 semifinal in Spain. In that game, the German goalkeeper, Harald Schumacher, committed the World Cup’s most notorious footballing atrocity on French defender, Patrick Battiston. The foul is such an unmitigated war crime that one simply has to watch it — three or four times — to believe it. To believe that Schumacher really did deal with Battiston’s breakaway by coming out of the box and delivering a Ronnie Lott special to Battiston’s head. To believe the sport of pantywaists could leave a guy on the ground with two missing teeth, three broken ribs, and a passel of cracked vertebrae. To believe that the referee awarded no penalty, no card, and not even a foul. Classic footage of the event will highlight Schumacher’s battle with ennui as he waits to take the resulting goal kick while medics triage the unconscious Battiston. The French won’t need to remember Verdun to get up for this match, just a few minutes on YouTube. And, see supra Schumacher and Franco-Prussian War, the Germans always seem to be up for putting the boot in.
Brazil vs. Colombia
On paper, one might fear that a match of this quality has come too early in the tournament when one of two great teams might precipitously have to go home. But, off paper, where Brazil has to bestir itself to kick a ball around, one can relax by bearing in mind that Brazil aren’t a great team . . . and won’t actually have to go anywhere. While Colombia, in fact, have been among the most impressive teams at this tournament, Brazil have done nothing to honor their legacy. They pawed at Mexico for a nil-all draw. They were bereft of ideas after twenty minutes in their one-all draw with Chile. Without Neymar — and three Chilean penalty misses — Brazil would long ago have exeunted, chased by bears. If recent form holds, Colombia will bury Brazil, and James Rodríguez will be the one sambaing on their grave.
Argentina vs. Belgium
Like Brazil, Argentina have underwhelmed at this tournament. Without Messi and his goals, the albiceleste would have tied Bosnia 1-1, tied Iran 0-0, lost to Nigeria 1-2, and tied Switzerland 0-0. Appalling. Their attacking trio of Messi, di Maria, and Higuain should have been gorging themselves on goals against that buffet of mediocrity. Belgium has also failed to shine as brightly as some expected, though they have improved notably as a team. Indeed, they might have been truly dazzling in their last game by bagging a huge score . . . but for one man. A man with no hair, a beard, and a very particular set of skills, skills that make him a nightmare for people like the Belgians. And since Argentina doesn’t have the privilege of starting that man in goal, Belgium could very well take this game without undue discomfort.
Netherlands vs. Costa Rica
Ever since they bogarted the Spice Islands in 1800, the Dutch have demonstrated remarkable aggression and appetite for such a small country. Despite fewer than 17 million inhabitants and an irrepressible mania for speed-skating, hallucinogenics, and bicycles, they are perennial contenders at major soccer tournaments. Clearly, they are the best team never to have won the World Cup — and this could very well be their year if Robin and Robben deliver like they did against Spain. Mexico may well have been their hardest opposition until the final. Costa Rica has been incredibly impressive, capitalizing on a keeper almost as good as Tim Howard and a relentless stamina for harrying the opposition. But it’s very hard to see how Costa Rica can win this match, just like it was when they beat Italy and Uruguay.
The quarterfinals begin on the Fourth of July — celebrate America’s independence from this tournament by choosing a new team to support for the next ten days.