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fever pitch

ABC calls Rio "city of dreams." I met many in Rio whose "dream" was not to be forcibly removed from their home for the World Cup. … I met a lot of people there who dreamed of being able to gather peaceably in protest without being gassed.

-- Dave Zirin, Twitter

One thing I know for sure about being a fan is this: it is not a vicarious pleasure, despite all appearances to the contrary, and those who say that they would rather do than watch are missing the point.... When there is some kind of triumph, the pleasure does not radiate from the players outwards until it reaches the likes of us at the back of the terraces in a pale and diminished form; our fun is not a watery version of the team's fun ... The joy we feel on occasions like this is not a celebration of others' good fortune, but a celebration of our own; and when there is a disastrous defeat the sorrow that engulfs us is, in effect, self-pity, and anyone who wishes to understand how football is consumed must realise this above all things.

--Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch


It was a fitting final for a very good World Cup. Despite the long goal drought, the match was always interesting. Germany dominated possession … you could say they dominated the match, but it wasn’t like that, because the best chances fell to Argentina. Hard to explain, for the Germans got off their share of shots, a good portion of them on target, and Romero didn’t have a great game in goal for the Argentines … not bad, not good, just average. But I can’t think of a single German shot that made me jump out of my seat until the winner. Meanwhile, Argentina took turns missing fairly easy chances: Higuaín, Messi, Palacio. For me, the key stat was this: while Argentina only had 36% of possession, their 10 shots were equal to Germany’s total. But 9 of Argentina’s shots were off target, and one was blocked. Not a single shot on target.

The goal was a beauty, Schürrle with a great assist and Götze putting it away. I was rooting for Argentina, but the end was fitting. Germany was the best team in the tournament.

I admit I was a bit pissed off at what I saw as Neuer’s too-dangerous destruction of Higuaín on that one ball, but in the end, it didn’t matter.

One thing to note: Messi had a decent game, and he had a good World Cup. People wanted him to have an earth-shattering tournament, wanted him to overwhelm the Germans in the final, and that didn’t happen. He wasn’t as good as we’ve seen him in the past. So people will try to tell you he was poor in the final, poor in the Cup. They are full of shit. He was not the best player in this World Cup, but he was good. If you are looking for a goat, look somewhere else. I’m not sure I would have given him the Golden Ball, and I know he would give it back in a second for a World Cup win. But the award is a nice recognition, and James Rodríguez has a long career ahead of him.

For those of you who popped in, as you always do every four years, I hope you enjoyed the tournament, and I hope you take in a match or two between now and 2018. For those of you who only surfaced to be haters, go fuck yourself.

For the rest of us, who will be watching soccer again very soon: James Rodríguez is 23 years old.

As is custom here, I’ll have one last post to close off the World Cup blog for another four years.

the last day

If I’m this tired after a month of watching the World Cup, I can only imagine how Lionel Messi feels.

Even for a seasoned sports fan, the World Cup can be a bit much if you let it overwhelm you. By “overwhelm”, I mean “trying to watch every match, even when two are going on at the same time, even when it’s the 3rd-place game that no one cares about”. A part of me is ready to return to reality.

But there is something comforting about just taking a month off. For one thing, you realize it is a privilege to be able to do it at all. Without the sweet tolerance of family and friends, it’s not easy, not even possible, to indulge in the World Cup, unless you are willing to cut yourself entirely from everything that isn’t the tournament.

Part of the comfort comes from being able to use the World Cup as an excuse. Once every four years, I put everything else aside, begging off of everything from family commitments to Saturday morning breakfasts at the Homemade Café. That ends with the final match. As well it should.

I’m not going to link to anyone … if you haven’t figured out by now where to go for tactical analysis and social commentary, one last batch of links won’t help. I very much liked the group phase, and while the matches in the knockout phase have not always edified, things were usually interesting, and the good feelings from the early weeks spilled over, so that I rarely fell into the grouchiness that has cursed past World Cups for me.

Germany has come together at the right time, they have great teamwork (which isn’t easy to pull off on national teams, which don’t spend a lot of time together), they have many wonderful players … they are favorites in every way, except perhaps for the historical view that says European teams don’t win in South America. But if host Brazil can lose successive matches to European teams by an aggregate score of 10-1, it might be time to put that historical view aside. I’ll be rooting for Argentina … it’s funny, you can often ascertain my rooting interest by simply looking to see which network I am watching. I’ll be with Univision, because I’m rooting for the Spanish-speaking team. I want Messi to have one last great match … he has had a very good tournament, despite what the naysayers believe, but he can shut them all up with a big performance in the final. But Messi is tired. I know it sounds like a lame excuse … the German players have to suffer through the ridiculous schedule of modern soccer, and they still seem fresh. Still, if Messi seems a bit sluggish, remember that he played 46 games for Barcelona last season, that he has made nine appearances for Argentina in 2014 alone, that he played for 120 minutes just four days ago. Not an excuse, just a statement of fact.

I hope for Argentina to win 2-1 in regular time, I think they’ll be lucky to be even with the Germans after regulation, think the Germans will win if it goes extra time, although if it goes to penalties, all bets are off. I think Germany will win in 90 minutes, maybe 3-1. And while I’m rooting for Argentina, I’ll be almost as happy if Germany wins in style. As usual, I’m just hoping for a good match.


I thought perhaps Brazil would begin their rehabilitation by coming on strong in this one, but they seemed dispirited throughout. Match meant nothing, and still Brazil couldn’t score. Nice to see Van Gaal giving Worm an appearance, and it was good to see Kuyt’s last international match. The referee sucked. Beyond that, there is no reason for this post except for historical purposes.


Michael Cox, “Germany defence and Argentina midfield key to World Cup final chances” and “Two pressing approaches in the final”.

Sean T. Mitchell, “The Politics of Violence and Brazil’s World Cup”.

Jeff Carlisle, “History beckons Argentina’s golden generation”.

Brian Phillips, “Man vs. Machine”.

Dave Zirin, “Brazilians Are Using Social Media in the Fight to Save Their Favelas”.

Zico, “Brazil capitulated to the first strong team they encountered. I’m livid”.

has the world cup been that good?

This is the question Nick Hornby is asking, and since Hornby is something of a patron saint around here (I quote him in the final post of each World Cup), I thought to talk about his question for a bit.

Honestly, I’ve been asking myself the same question. No question the group stage was very good, as good as it gets in many ways. But the knockout phase hasn’t been up to its predecessor. And, as Hornby writes, “World Cups have to stand and fall on their knockout games, and the business end of this one -- with the exception of one extraordinary, earth-shaking match -- has been average and occasionally deeply depressing.” (The identity of that one earth-shaker may surprise you.)

What are his complaints about the knockout matches? Well, for one thing, he’s not very fond of the Dutch team that he found “dismal, cynical, life-sapping”. Then there was the lack of upsets in the Round of 16: “[I]n every single match in the round of 16, the favourites beat the underdogs narrowly without ever playing very well.” Nor was he impressed by the quarter-finals. I called France-Germany “a bit of a snoozer,” liked Argentina-Belgium largely because it lacked the ugly violence of Brazil-Colombia, and the less said about the Dutch, the better.

There was that Brazil-Colombia match. As I said at the time, “This match had everything, including stuff I don’t like to see.” Sadly, the latter was evident throughout.

Hornby also found the refereeing to be “robotic”:

Officials had clearly been given three instructions and they made a great show of obeying all of them. The first was to make sure that all players knew where to place their hands when standing in the wall -- big deal -- and the second was to separate wrestling opponents before a corner was taken, without ever doing anything to stop the grappling when the ball was in play. The third was to keep their cards in their pocket during the first half.

It was the last of the three, of course, that has caused so much controversy, culminating in Brazil-Colombia, where the fouls piled up but the cards stayed in the pocket.

And what was the one Round of 16 match Hornby liked? Belgium-USA, which he called “probably the best World Cup match of the 21st century”. That might be going a bit far. But the second half and extra time made for a wildly entertaining blog post, if nothing else (and if I do say so myself), wherein I just posted the text-message updates I was sending to my son.

Yet, Belgium-USA won’t be remembered in the future, except by Tim Howard fans. The most memorable match of the knockout phase was Brazil-Germany. Hornby again:

[T]he tournament has thrown up one of the most extraordinary 30 minutes that football fans -- sports fans -- have ever seen. Unlike anything comparable, however -- maybe Bob Beamon's jump in '68, or Cassius Clay beating Sonny Liston -- it wasn't uncomplicated fun. I know a couple of people who couldn't bear to watch, and left the room because they were squirming too much. The Brazil vs. Germany game was much more like a fox hunt -- the part where the fox gets ripped to pieces, not the reportedly jolly chasing part.

(He also said “Thank heavens, then, for Germany, as nobody has said very often. They have kept the cheating to a minimum, they have tried to score goals in every game and they have played with panache, even though they are apparently doomed to be described, at least in England, as ‘ruthless’ and ‘efficient’ until the end of time.” Which certainly relates to my earlier post about national stereotypes, and how hard it is to change them.)

So, on to my goofy template for deciding if a match was good. (Reminder: The margin of victory is one goal, or the match is a draw, and at least one of the teams must score multiple goals.) Here are the matches that have made it so far:

  • England 1-2 Italy and Ivory Coast 2-1 Japan on June 14. The first was a decent match, the second not so much. Who would have guessed that none of these four teams would get past the group stage?
  • Switzerland 2-1 Ecuador and Argentina 2-1 Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 15. The first had a thrilling finish, the second had Messi Magic.
  • Ghana 1-2 United States on June 16. It had its moments, and it was the only win the U.S. managed during the tournament. John Brooks.
  • Belgium 2-1 Algeria on June 17. OK, nothing more.
  • Australia 2-3 Netherlands on June 18. Back when Holland was still scoring goals.
  • Colombia 2-1 Ivory Coast and Uruguay 2-1 England on June 19. Colombia was one of the most entertaining teams in the tournament, while we saw Suárez before the fall.
  • Honduras 1-2 Ecuador on June 20. Good match between two well-matched teams (i.e. they were both about the same level of bad).
  • Germany 2-2 Ghana on June 21. A terrific second half.
  • United States 2-2 Portugal on June 22. Inspired the following tweet: “Best. World. Cup. Ever.”
  • Greece 2-1 Ivory Coast on June 24. The Ivory Coast didn’t get past the group stage, but every one of their matches made this list. This was part of a thrilling last-day-of-group-matches.
  • Nigeria 2-3 Argentina on June 25. Lots of AZO! AZO! AZO! in this one.
  • Portugal 2-1 Ghana on June 26. Ghana is another team that went home after the group stage but made the list in all three games. Cristiano Ronaldo went home, too.
  • Netherlands 2-1 Mexico on June 29. The last time the Dutch would score.
  • Germany 2-1 Algeria on June 30. Luis Omar Tapia vs. Schweinsteiger.
  • Belgium 2-1 United States on July 1. Give the Americans credit, three of their four matches made the list.
  • Brazil 2-1 Colombia on July 4. The match that gives the lie to any notion that my little template has actual meaning.

So that’s it … 62 matches, 19 template matches. 15 out of 48 group stage matches, 4 out of 14 knockout matches so far.

national stereotypes

I’ve been thinking of writing a post like this pretty much since the tournament began, and now there’s something to inspire me to get it out there. People at Cambridge UP have sorted through an enormous database of online writing in English about the World Cup, and narrowed it all down to a chart that shows the three most often used words to describe each country’s team. Here they are:

Algeria: determined, pride, together

Argentina: confident, flair, unconvincing

Australia: positive, effort, spirited

Belgium: flair, dark horse, talent

Bosnia and Herzegovina: injustice, defensive, forceful

Brazil: emotional, popular, desperate

Cameroon: hapless, battle, chaotic

Chile: attacking, tactical, thrilling

Colombia: unpredictable, exciting, attacking

Costa Rica: dynamic, pace, battle

Croatia: dangerous, tactical, competitive

Ecuador: inconsistent, strong, potential

England: exciting, inexperienced, disappointing

France: organized, defensive, exciting

Germany: powerful, focused, committed

Ghana: money, strike, powerful

Greece: defensive, cautious, stubborn

Honduras: physical, spirit, robust

Iran: defend, hope, drought

Italy: slow, vulnerable, pessimism

Ivory Coast: pace, physical, struggle

Japan: possession, disappointing, frustrated

Mexico: determined, tactical, talented

Netherlands: rampaging, strategy, stunning

Nigeria: inexperienced, speed, tough

Portugal: frustration, ego, disappointing

Russia: drab, error, mediocre

South Korea: woeful, failure, embarrassing

Spain: defensive, poor, humiliation

Switzerland: pace, difficult, talented

United States: determined, heroic, courageous

Uruguay: bite, disgrace, do-or-die

I wrote one of my longer posts for this year’s Cup on my relationship to Greece. As you can see, much of the English-speaking world has a rather pointed view of the Greeks: “defensive, cautious, stubborn”. This image grew out of Euro 2004, which Greece won using what some saw as negative tactics. I think they have grown out of this a bit … a bit … but the perception of them hasn’t really changed in ten years. Meanwhile, there’s the Netherlands (“rampaging, strategy, stunning”), connected to a stereotype that began at least 40 years ago in the Total Football days. They scored 10 goals in the group stage and demolished defending champs Spain (which turned out to be less of an accomplishment than it seemed at the time). But their play in the knockout phase has been closer to the stereotypical Greek performance than to the Dutch. They didn’t manage to score against Mexico until the 88th minute, and then played two consecutive scoreless draws, a total of 240 minutes without a goal. Yet people still see the Orange and think of Johan Cruyff. Go back to Euro 2012: they scored two goals in three matches and were eliminated in the group stage. Or the 2010 World Cup, where they were shutout in one of the most dreadful finals ever.

That’s the thing about stereotypes. There is usually some good reason for their invention, but they become solidified even as their targets change. We end up thinking of people or groups or nations based on ideas that were formed long ago, and become blind to what is actually happening in front of our eyes.

So I always thought of the Germans as a boring, steadfast team that knew how to grind out one-goal victories. But in the 2006 World Cup, which they hosted, they scored four in their first match, and rolled along until the semi-finals, establishing a new look and feel for their play. People have noticed, but even there, the stereotype only changes in small stages … a team that has been enjoyable for many years has become “powerful, focused, committed” … adjectives you apply not to a team that inspires flights of fancy, but to a solid team that gets the job done, which is barely a change in stereotype at all.

The chart tells us who was seen as “tactical” (Chile, Croatia, Mexico), “exciting” (Colombia, England?, France), or “disappointing” (England, Japan, Portugal). The USA was “heroic” and “courageous”, attributes assigned to no other team. The final pits the powerful, focused, and committed Germans against confident Argentina, full of flair yet somehow unconvincing.

Finally, there are teams about which nothing good can be said. Cameroon battles, Iran has hope, even Uruguay has a do-or-die attitude. But what about Italy (“slow, vulnerable, pessimism”), Russia (“drab, error, mediocre”), South Korea (“woeful, failure, embarrassing”), and Spain (“defensive, poor, humiliation”)? Next to those nations, the determined, heroic, courageous United States looks pretty good. Stereotypically speaking, of course.

(It would be interesting to see the same study done with other languages, like Portuguese or Spanish.)


Be careful what you wish for.

More than one fan probably hoped, after Germany’s demolition of Brazil, that today’s match would be more competitive. And it was. They also played 120 minutes without scoring.

It was rough that Ron Vlaar missed that first penalty, as he was the best player out there for the 120. No one made more tackles. He intercepted six passes. He made eleven clearances. He blocked a shot. He forced an offside. He completed 92% of his 71 passes.

The closest thing to Vlaar was his teammate on defense, Stefan de Vrij.

Messi had a fine game … I’m sure some will complain, but he was by far the best dribbler out there, he took his penalty, it wasn’t his fault the best players on the field were the Dutch defenders. He never found a way to show off a magic moment, so he was below expectations, but there isn’t a team in the world that wouldn’t take what Messi did today.

Props also to Mascherano. The injury experts on Twitter were pissed he didn’t leave the game after what clearly looked like a concussion, and they are right if that was the case. If he played that well without knowing where he was, he’s a great player. Well, he’s a great player, anyway.

And another shoutout to Dirk Kuyt, who was the best Dutchman who wasn’t a defender. He had a great game, and I was so glad when he made his penalty … I didn’t want the match to end on a Kuyt miss.

aliens land, chaos ensues

I was listening to the BBC podcast “Five Live Football Daily”, and the closest thing I can compare it to would be a science-fiction movie, something like War of the Worlds, where an alien spaceship has landed on Earth, and no one knows what to make of it. So the news networks will call in experts, and Dr. So-and-So will offer an opinion, and General This-and-That will counter with a military opinion, and they’ll take a call from a viewer who just wants to know what that shiny thing is on top of the space ship. Everyone will have an opinion, and the discussion will go around and around, but it won’t really go anywhere, because no one, not the newscaster, not the scientist, not the general, not the person on the street, no one knows what the hell they are looking at. Because they’ve never before seen an alien spaceship on Earth.

That’s what the podcast was like. The host said whoa, what happened? And the pundit said whoa, I don’t know, and another pundit said I don’t know, either, but I’ve never seen anything like it. And then the host invited a couple of reporters from the stadium to give an up-close analysis, and those reporters said whoa, I don’t know, but I’ve never seen anything like it.

That’s what Brazil 1-7 Germany was like: an alien spaceship had landed on Earth, and no one knew how to react.

And this:


What the fuck was that?

What, you came here for analysis? I’ve only skimmed the surface, but common threads include “they missed Thiago Silva more than they missed Neymar”, “their defense sucked”, and “Germany is really good”.

Oddly, this was the first match of the entire tournament that I watched outside of my house. A friend from Germany is visiting, so we ended up at a paella place in Oakland, along with a couple of dozen other people. It was odd following the crowd’s responses … at one point, I realized we were laughing at Brazil … Brazil! … and later that we were feeling sorry for Brazil … Brazil!

Modern world note: what really struck me while watching a match with other people was that for the first time I wasn’t experiencing a match through the prism of Twitter.

At least I got paella.

Jonathan Wilson said something very important:

At the anthems, in a moment of telenovela mawkishness, David Luiz and Julio Cesar, ­apparently struggling to quench the tears, held up a number 10 Neymar shirt. There was no minute’s silence to mark the passing of either Alfredo Di ­Stefano or the two people killed in Belo Horizonte last week by the collapse of an overpass built as part of a World Cup ­infrastructure project. Nothing, it seems, could be allowed to distract this Brazil from its ­sentimental solipsism. Nothing, that is, apart from the ruthlessness of a Germany team that couldn’t believe its luck.

And finally, J.R. got into the act: