THE UNLIKELY FAN, VOLUME VI - ANOTHER ROUND
Well the second round is underway, and with it has come considerable relief. After a staggeringly low-scoring first set of matches, for which several credible reasons accumulated to share the blame, it would now seem that the players have adjusted. After three games (I write you between the Nigeria-Greece match and the France-Mexico match), the second round has brought us eleven goals, a hearty 3.67 goals-per-game.
Let's hope it keeps up. It's certainly a great start, and helps to remind all that the World Cup rarely finishes where it starts. There is plenty of excitement yet to come.
Tomorrow we get USA-Slovenia, and on that topic I have only a few things to say.
For one, nobody should get too excited about the US going in as a favorite. Slovenia is a solid team, aware and unashamed of their shortcomings. Also, since the Dragons already have three points in the bag, they have plenty of reason to stay patient and play for the draw if no counter-attacking opportunities arise. These guys are pros. They will play like it.
I would expect Bob Bradley to have the US play in much the same way, which could lead to a pretty boring match, unfortunately. The thing is though that the US has something Slovenia does not: speed. No one on Slovenia's back line will be able to get near Robbie Findley, and he will need to take advantage of any chances he gets (not necessarily his strong suit). The best thing that could happen for the game as a spectacle is an early US goal, forcing Slovenia to open up and leaving potential gaps for the Americans to exploit. But that early goal will not come easily.
Here's one more reason not to get to start pulling a WInston Wolf special just yet: US has a horrible record against Eastern European teams in the World Cup.
1990 - USA v. Czechoslovakia, 5-1 loss
1994 - USA v. Romania, 1-0 loss
1998 - USA v. Yugoslavia, 1-0 loss
2002 - USA v. Poland, 3-1 loss
2006 - USA v. Czech Republic, 3-0 loss
That's 5 played, 0 won, 5 lost, 0 drawn, 13 goals allowed, 2 scored, for a goal difference of -11. So let's not get cocky with Slovenia just because they're smaller than New Jersey and wear silly shirts. Having said that, (and damn you to hell Larry David for making me hate myself every time I use that phrase) this seems like a great opportunity for the US to end that curious run. Besides which- and much more importantly of course- a win puts them in very near distance of the knockout rounds, with only Algeria left to play.
As for the English, they have only their own panic to worry about. It's simply not that big a deal to start out with a draw. As long as they can keep it together mentally, they'll be fine. Of course, the return of their starting defensive midfielder Gareth Barry won't hurt either. Nor will playing Algeria.
I was happy to hear so many American friends and media respond to the England game, seen by many across the world as at least a mild upset, with an even keel. It was treated with such understatement that I mistook the national attitude for progress. In fact, it wasn’t progress at all, it was a quiet grumble brought on by the same old chorus: ties suck.
Ah, yes. That. Look, I totally sympathize with the dissatisfaction American sports fans feel from a draw. There’s the famous line “a tie is like kissing your sister,” a phrase that works best if you either a) have no sister and are thus guessing, or b) have a sister who is in a coma.
But the the thing is, I'd forgotten that ties were even an issue. Ties can, in fact, be part of a very satisfying sporting experience.
With the England match, I was of course hoping for a win, but I was happy with the US performace overall, encouraged to see what they might do against Slovenia and Algeria. The draw part? Immaterial. A win would have been great, but it just didn't happen. There's a lot of tournament left to be played, and if the US had lost, there might have been considerably less so.
My fellow Americans, I am a lover of democracy, of the people having their voice heard. In this respect, I must bow to the vote that the world has taken- they aren’t bothered by draws. We are the crackpots in this analogy, the LaRouchies of world sport, crackpot zealots who just don't seem to get the hint.
Which isn’t to say I love draws, I just don’t know that I’m on board with the American obsession to stamp them out, both in general and in soccer specifically.
Remember the stink they made a few years ago when the baseball All-Star Game, through a perfect storm of unique events, had to end in a draw? An absolute shitstorm was plopped all across Bud Selig’s windshield that week, with such ferocity and vigor that he had to change the rules to the event itself, ensuring that the managers would take this meaningless and time-consuming midseason exhibition seriously enough that there would no further risk of it ever, EVER, ending without a winner. Now, the All-Star Game's winning league gets home-field advantage for it's represenative in the World Sries. Just so we’re clear- that’s the All-Star game we’re talking about, which now as a direct affect on the most important tournament in baseball, just because there was one time when that much-maligned, little-viewed, fully-outdated exhibition game ended in a draw.
Gonna go ahead and say that’s an overreacton.
Why do I, who was raised on a steady diet of proper, tie-hating American sports, no longer bristle at the occasion? There’s a very simple reason: I’ve just accepted them. It’s as simple as that. Soccer is a different game and it has draws. Done. Move on to next one.
Mind you, the wheels have been greased some by seeing, even attending, some soccer draws that have been absolutely stirring. I say that while fully accepting that the USA-England match was not such an event. But nonetheless, the late equalizer is a uniquely dramatic thing. Having experienced them, you just eventually accept that they’re worth the cost- the occasionally shitty draw.
And before we go running off about hating draws, as a people, can we think for a second about why they exist? I don’t mean the short-term thing of protecting the athletes, though this one is huge- it’s an endurance sport, after all. It’s not one of our sports that’s made up of constant rest occasionally interrupted by bursts of action. We can’t just subject them to thirty more minutes of running every time we have a stalemate.
But there’s a bigger reason, as I see it. Let’s look at the soccer’s primary competitive structure: the league.
Soccer’s league play is different from American sports’ manner in three primary ways- the lack of a post-season, the acceptance of ties and the balance (fairness, even) of the schedule. They all go together, as it turns out.
Everywhere in the world where soccer is played- even in the US- the season schedule is the same. You play against every team in your league twice- once at home and once away. Three points for a win, one point for a draw. Most points at the end of the schedule wins. Done. No playoffs (this is where soccer in the US diverges, of course). No hope of getting hot for a month or two at the end in some tacked-on post-season tournament. Just reward for having done the day-in, day-out work better than anyone else, each of whom had the exact same circumstances as you. It’s the fairest way of deciding a champion there is.
I think it’s important to think of draws within that context. The schedule gets made. For each of the matches on that schedule, you get ninety minutes to get a result. If you can’t get a win after ninety minutes, too bad. Game over. See you next week. If you don’t like draws, then you should have scored more.
Dunno. Seems fair to me, at the very least. Not substantially better or worse, just different, and logically consistent. Got no problem with that. In fact, it makes me wonder if overtime and extra innings and the like are a needless contrivance, engineering a winner when perhaps no one deserves to be one. Are the people who demand that there always be a victor the same people who hate fifth-grade graduations? Because I'm starting to think the purveyors of these philosophies have more in common than we've realized. And really, powers that be, let me know which part of the equation it is you really find essential to competition: the champion or the loser?
Either way, if you still find draws completely unacceptable and anathema to our great nation's way of life, keep in mind that we only even have the possibility of draws in the group stage. Once we get to the knockout rounds on June 26th, the ties go out and the stakes go up. Give that one a shot. See how it fits.
Again, I get it: watching a win is fundamentally better sports-as-theatre than a tie. But I do not agree that a sport which allows the declaration of a stalemate is intrinsically worse. It's just different.
It's not as though you can have a tie for a championship. They only allow draws in the battles; someone always wins the war.
So let's move on to a quick word about the only thing more annoying than draws... the dreaded vuvuzelas.
There seems to be a majority of folks in the world who do not care for them. There are a few journalists- most of them being scribes who are actually attending matches live, the lucky bastards- who say that they’re not so bad, and that those of us who dislike the plastic horns are killjoys.
I beg to differ.
I have a few problems with them, some of which aren’t particularly original. It’s not so much that they’re annoying to the viewer, not in the most literal sense of the word. It’s their overuse that I find annoying. There is simply no variety to it whatsoever. It’s a ceaseless, heartless drone, white noise that, unlike the traditional supporters’ singing that those of us in the tv audience are now left totally unable to hear, is in no way responsive to the match at hand. There are two settings on the vuvuzela- unspecific, and loudly unspecific.
Back to the lack of supporters’ singing- this is a major problem. It’s not just whether or not you think the vuvuzelas are good or bad- it’s the fact that the thing they are replacing is so glorious. Vuvuzelas cannot compare to the chanting of supporters, and frankly that chanting is always one of the best things about a World Cup in the first damn place anyway.
One of the main choruses the defenders of vuvuzelas make is that to take it away is strip the tournament of the authentic South African football experience. By that same logic, why are we stripping South Africa of the real World Cup experience, wherein the clash of cultures in the stands undulates with the ebb and flow of the match?
I’m not there. I don’t actually know what the vuvuzela is like in person. So I can’t say that it’s bad. But I’m pretty confident that hearing supporters is better.
And now, a potentially fruitful new feature for the tournament. Your first nominee for...
POSER OF THE MONTH
Keep in mind I won't be going after rookies with this feature, just the poeple who are trying to look like they're more into it than they really are (which is worse than not being into it at all, frankly).
This week's nominee is a guy who was at my buddy’s USA-England party. This guy, who we’ll call Lenny, is someone who I’ve known a little for a long time. He works with my buddy who threw the party, so they’re tight.
The party was filled with new soccer fans, so there were few who were wearing soccer jerseys (I was wearing USA 1950 World Cup retro thingy, which was both completely appropriate and egregiously silly-looking). Lenny wore his soccer shirt, though. His England shirt. Gerrard. From Euro 2004.
I didn’t notice it until late in the first half.
Me: Hey Lenny.
Him: Hey man, how are ya?
Me: What’s with the shirt?
Me: You’re wearing an England shirt. At the USA-England party.
Him: Oh. (Suddenly realizes sin, tries to cover.) Yeah. I’m totally cheering for USA though.
Me: Then why did you think this would be a good shirt to wear? As opposed to… any other shirt you own?
Him: I mean, it's just… I like England too, I watch a lot of EPL games.
Me: (already walking away) Yeah, so do a lot of us.
Him: Totally cheering for the US, brah.
I avoided him for the remainder of the party.
I mean, I don't get the logic of this at all. Was he trying to show everyone what a huge World Cup fan he is by wearing his one soccer shirt? Not thinking for a moment what shirt it is?
Bush league, Absolutely bush league.
On the flip side, a more positive feature...
NICEST WORLD CUP MOMENT OF THE WEEK
One thing I’d completely forgotten about before the tournament was that the World Cup brings you nice little social moments. I’ve had a couple already. One was fleeting; as I was about to walk up the stairs and out of a Manhattan subway station Friday afternoon, after the South Africa-Mexico opener, I passed a woman wearing a Bafana Bafana jersey. I stopped to tap her on the shoulder and tell her “Congrats on the result.” She turned as if she was just flat-out surprised to hear such a thing. Then smiled a big, beaming, you-just-made-my-day smile.
But that wasn’t the nicest moment I’ve had. That came at the aforementioned USA-England party in Los Angeles. As people filed out, Everyone’s Buddy Darren came over to say goodbye, and then, as though having the thought for the first time ever, said: “This was cool. It’s nice when we all get together for a sports party and we’re all cheering the same, y’know? It’s different. I mean it's not like a Super Bowl party or whatever... We’re all just… we’re all on the same side." A broad, easy smile swept across his face. "That’s pretty cool.”
Yeah it is, Darren. Yeah it is. Pass it on.
- Brendan Hunt
twitter.com/theunlikelyfan, © Brendan Hunt, 2010