Thursday, July 8, 2010

Various soccer-related thoughts

I watched the second half of the Germany/Spain semifinal with some ETH colleagues at Paddy Reilly's, where I'd also taken in both US games. I'd been absolutely confident that the Germans would win after watching them chew up England and spit out Argentina, especially since Spain looked good but nowhere near dominant in beating Portugal and Paraguay. And of course this didn't happen, because I'd made a foundational error. Just as they say in stock ads, past performance doesn't assure future results. It's easy and familiar to assume that a team will continue performing at the same level that they have in previous games, and that often happens, but here Germany somehow couldn't muster the magic it showed against Arg, Eng, and Aus, and Spain deserved their 1-0 win.

The loss humanized Germany for me, for a couple of of reasons. First off, it's easier to root for a team that's struggling. It's something about the underdog instinct that animates general support for longshot teams. When Germany steamrolled Arg last Saturday, they seemed almost predictable in their dominance, and it's hard to be too excited when a team you have no connection to gets yet another goal. But this time, Germany started out tentative, and never really got consistently into the game. It reminded me of the US against Ghana in the first half of the R16 game. We all kept wondering what on earth was holding them back, and why they looked so different on the day. It's all part of the vagaries that make soccer frustrating and compelling; if teams were consistent and predictable, it wouldn't be very interesting to watch.

Second reason I was pulling for Germany was that my Deutsch compatriots were really, really into the game. This was not in a swaggering-Bavarian "we're better than you, Deutschland-ueber-alles" sort of way, but in a sincerely pleading, pre-game-nerves sort of way that I could really relate to. They wouldn't even agree with me that Germany was favored heavily (a fact you could verify by looking at online betting sites, and boy am I glad I didn't wager anything), because they didn't want to get their hopes up. When Puyol scored in the second half, our table became funereal, and I found myself--probably for the first time--sincerely hoping Germany would score so my terribly terribly sad German friends would be less terribly terribly sad. But they didn't, and I sat with them for a long session of post-game commisserating. I wish there were a German version of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien." I don't think they're a people that can find glory in sadness, the way Latin folks do.

Finally, Bill Simmons has a typically great feature on the US Soccer team's run in the World Cup. It's worth reading, as most everything he writes is, but there's one line that stands out. He says (and I'm roughly paraphrasing), "Following the US in this World Cup was like pining for a girl all through college, finally hooking up with her one night, and then getting kicked out of school the next day."

Exactly right, because it illustrates the double body-blow of getting knocked out of the WC: a loss is always sad and disappointing, but a knockout loss is doubly so because it removes the context on which you've been depending for sports consciousness for weeks. I was looking forward to the WC for months, and when it finally came, it was an on going presence in my life. There were highs (Alg, obv., and also the comeback v. Slovenia), lows (first half against Slovenia), but there was always something. When the US lost to Ghana, though, the ride was over just like that. Normally the sports fan can say "we'll get 'em tomorrow," but when you're kicked out of the world cup, there's only a distant possibility of redemption, and not a whole lot else.

Image: crowd spills onto street in front of Paddy's during second half of Germany/Spain WC semifinal.