02 July 2014

WC Diary 7: One Day America Will Win the World Cup

Ah, so. The Americans have finally discovered what we who have played the beautiful game have known all along. That if you watch a game beyond simply waiting for one team to score, football can grip you and hold on tight. And it is football, by the way, the only variant among many that call themselves by the same name that is primarily played with the feet; and use of the hand is actually penalised. This is just me, but I still get annoyed when somebody calls the game soccer.

An article I found through Twitter said that, among other nationalities represented in the World Cup, the USA were most everyone’s second team. Ditto people like us Filipinos who are not even represented; albeit the colonial roots are probably still well-entrenched and difficult to completely outgrow.

Not hard to see why everyone else likes the Americans. Their consular officers apart, the Americans are naturally a flamboyant and gregarious people. At the World Cup, fans of other teams have enjoyed the company of American supporters, who have flown into the World Cup in their thousands.

Besides, the World Cup is one occasion where the Americans cannot be accused of arrogance because, to put things plain and simply, they have nothing to be arrogant about. The nukes, the carriers, the drones – they count for nothing in the World Cup. There, they go to war eleven versus eleven. Mano-o-mano.


In a visit to the Bay Area back in 2000, while in a discussion about the game with some American college students, we all agreed that it was a matter of time before the USA won the World Cup. I still think that, by the way; just never thought so with the current team.
Sentimentality apart, the USA did not exactly set the World Cup alight with their football. While they pipped Ghana, 2-1, in their opening match, they were actually outplayed for long stretches by the Africans. They probably peaked in that 2-all draw with the Portuguese, not because they were winning until the death but more because they showed they actually had something to offer going forward.

And although they took Belgium to extra time in the Round of 16, the fact that Tim Howard was Man-of-the-Match spoke volumes and showed which way traffic was mostly headed. No, the Americans outdid themselves to even get this far; and due in no small measure, perhaps, to the Portuguese having had an indifferent tournament.

In a visit to the Bay Area back in 2000, while in a discussion about the game with some American college students, we all agreed that it was a matter of time before the USA won the World Cup. I still think that, by the way; just never thought so with the current team.

All World Cup champion teams – at least, of the modern era – have possessed at least one truly world-class inspirational player. The USA probably have one in Tim Howard, but at the wrong end of the pitch. They have to produce a Lionel Messi or a Neymar, the sort who can instil fear in the opposition by reputation alone.

They will have to support him with players who are comfortable on the ball rather than ones who treat it like a hot potato, as some of the current team do. While the match against Belgium ended in a narrow defeat, for most of the second half the Belgians played at an altogether different level from the Americans both individually and as a team.

No, the Americans are not ready yet. One day in the future, definitely! Hopefully, the record television audience for the United States’ World Cup games can be translated into active involvement and participation in the game by those who followed the fortunes of their national team in Brazil.

The Round of 16

Understandably, the Round of 16 produced matches that were less gung-ho than most of the group stages; but these matches were no less fascinating to watch. For one thing, since all the also-rans had been sent home, the defences of the remaining teams were better. For another, there was so much at stake with no margin for error now that the tournament has entered the knockout stages.

While most of the Round of 16 matches were cagier than most of the group matches, they were also of higher quality and more tactical in nature. Five of the eight matches went into extra time. Of these, two went all the way to the dreaded penalty shootout.

Even Los Ticos, who ran like there was no tomorrow during the group stage, were cagey in their Round of 16 against the Greeks. This match in my opinion was the dullest of the entire lot. While it was romantic for the Central Americans to finally win through to the quarterfinals for the first time in the nation’s history, the match was yawn-inducing for long stretches.

As the commentator felt impelled to comment, if there were any Dutch scouts watching, none of them would be ‘quaking in their boots.’ While I will not go as far as saying that Los Ticos will be a walk-through for the Dutch to the semi-finals, the latter will have to be at their poorest to actually contrive to lose to the Central Americans.

Speaking of the Dutch, they were losing their own Round of 16 match to Mexico until the endgame, when they turned it around with late goals by Wesley Sneijder and Klaas Jan Huntelaar. The match will long be remembered for Arjen Robben’s Olympic gold medal winning dives; but all pretenders be forewarned about the luck and resilience that the Dutch have enjoyed this tournament. These are of the sort that win World Cups.

The Germans were criticised by their own press after their labour against the Algerians; but I always saw this forthcoming. The Algerians may not be the World Cup’s most attractive team; but they were robust and well-organised in the group stage. It was always a certainty that they would make life difficult for the Germans in the Round of 16.

I thought the Germans played reasonably well, by the way; if without the oomph of their 2010 campaign. That said, Per Mertesacker had a point when he told one journalist that it is better to play ugly but make progress than be pretty and be knocked out. Alarmingly, though, the Germans have not played like potential champions after their 4-nil romp over the Portuguese.

I will confess that I thought that the Swiss would be overrun by Argentina. The Swiss looked attractive going forward in the group stage; but also looked vulnerable at the back. This was something that the French ruthlessly exposed. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to see them defend like a well-oiled machine against Argentina; and they might well have won if they had taken the chances they created in the first half.

Meanwhile, the Argentineans still have not gotten out of first gear. I am becoming ambivalent about this. On the one hand, they will find comfort in knowing that they can still step up a gear leading to the quarterfinals and beyond. On the other hand, do they have it in them to actually do so?

The Road to the Maracana

Even now that the cast for the quarterfinals has been completed, it is still reasonably difficult to foretell the would-be champions; or, at least, from among the traditional favourites, anyway. Not that this has been bad for the World Cup. On the contrary, the egalitarianism in terms of football quality has only added to the excitement of the competitions.

It is worth noting, however, that of the quarterfinal cast of eight nations, half belongs to the elite group of nations who have already won the World Cup. Brazil (5), Germany (3), Argentina (2) and France (1) are joined by the Netherlands, Colombia, Belgium and Costa Rica.

Three of the four former World Champions are bracketed with each other, however, with the quarterfinal fixtures being Brazil-Colombia and France-Germany. This means that, in this bracket, there is a 75% chance that a former champion will reach the Maracana for the final later in the month; and a mere 25% chance for a country that has never won the World Cup to do the same.

However, those who have seen Colombia will also know that, while they do not have the pedigree, they do have plenty of ability. They have a frugal backline and counterattack with real panache. In James Rodriguez, they also have this World Cup’s emerging superstar. His volleyed goal against Uruguay in the Round of 16, when he collected the ball on his chest before swivelling for the shot, was simply delicious!

If I were Brazil, I would be quaking in my boots.

The situation is reversed with the opposite bracket, where three of the four quarterfinal teams have never won the World Cup. Only Argentina have; but they have not played like champions-elect in any of their four games so far.

It is reasonably safe to say that Costa Rica have gone far enough in the tournament, thank you very much, and that the Dutch ought to be too strong for them in the quarterfinals. However, Argentina versus the Belgians is a little more difficult to predict. My heart says Belgium but my brain says Argentina.

I am not willing to rule out Brazil because they are, after all, playing at home where the home crowd can be their twelfth man. However, they have not been entirely convincing and I personally do not wish for them to win because they have won so many World Cups already.

Were it up to me, I would rather that two nations who have never won the World Cup meet at the Maracana for the final. Colombia versus the Netherlands sounds really tasty!

Acknowledgment: Top photo from the FIFA World Cup Facebook page.

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