I’ve been enjoying listening to the partisan commentary on ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup. Former footballers Shaun Bartlett (South Africa), Ruud Gullit (Netherlands), Jürgen Klinsmann, (Germany), Alexei Lalas (USA), and Steve McManaman (England) offer useful insights into each of the games they’re covering, but when those games involve the countries from which they hail, they aren’t shy about using the words “we” and “us.” McManaman comes across as the most partisan and least journalistic of ESPN’s pundits, wearing his heart on his sleeve and clearly mortified by England’s performances in the first two games.
So I’m sure he loved ESPN’s intro to the USA-Algeria game, featuring President Bartlett — I mean, Martin Sheen — make a series of invidious comparisons between the situations of the USA and England going into their respective final matches of group play — all in good fun, of course.
“Now ask yourself,” Sheen intones, “whose boots would you rather be in”? Well, looking at the brackets, who in his or her right mind would choose England. The USA plays Ghana, looking for a little payback for the defeat they suffered in the final match of group play in 2006: Ghana won 2-1 on a disputed penalty, going to the round of 16 and sending the USA home. Current FIFA rankings: USA 14th, Ghana 32nd. If the USA defeats Ghana, they get the winner of Uruguay (16th) vs. South Korea (47).
England has it a wee bit tougher. They play Germany: it’s age and experience (England) vs. youthful exuberance (Germany). I told my wife that England has some scores to settle with Germany. England beat German in 1966 in the World Cup final in overtime, benefiting from the so-called “Ghost Goal” scored by Geoff Hurst, who would then net another before the end of the game to complete the only hat-trick in World Cup final history. It was England’s only World Cup win. Since then, the teams’ fortunes have gone in different directions. Germany has been a dominant force in international soccer, and England, well, has not. Injured Germany captain and former Chelsea player Michael Ballack writes in the Times, “It should be a fantastic game and great occasion, but the rivalry everyone talks about is more on your side than ours. For us the rivalry is only so-so.”
Not well-versed in World Cup history but well aware of the history of the twentieth century in Europe, my wife said: “The English are still bitter about the Blitz.” Sure enough, the World War II analogies are popping up in the media. The Sports Blog in the Guardian reported this quip from an English fan in an airport upon hearing the news of England’s second-place group finish: “”This World Cup is exactly like the second world war,” he guffawed. “The French surrender early, the US turn up late, and we’re left to deal with the bloody Germans.” And Simon Barnes, the chief sportswriter for the Times, began a recent opinion piece by writing, “I have to mention the war. There is no dodging it. This country was at war with Germany twice in the last century, and while it is terribly important to move on and to deal with the 21st century as it unfolds before us, there is no possibility of — or, for that matter, any use in — forgetting that it happened.” The point of his piece, however, is about the difference between war and sport:
Sport doesn’t create peace, but sport is an irrefragable symptom of peace. The history of sport gets mixed up with the history of history, and it can make for great sport. But even with a history of warfare, the very act of playing sport together is an expression of the exact opposite. Sport is peace. Minus the peacefulness, of course.
England, of course, is ranked 8th — two spots behind Germany at 6th. If they survive Sunday’s blitz, the English get the winner of Lionel Messi’s Argentina (ranked 7th but looking very dominant at the moment) vs. Mexico (17th). Chances are good they’re going to be seeing Messi if they make it to the quarterfinals. Personally, and I’m not just being partisan, I think the USA has a better chance of playing in the semifinals than England does.
Not that the rankings I’ve cited mean anything much at this World Cup. Italy was ranked 5th in the world; France was ranked 7th. These two teams — respectively the reigning World Cup champions and runners-up — not only failed to emerge from group play but finished at the bottom of their groups! Italy was ousted by 34-ranked Slovakia, and France lost its final game to host South Africa, which was ranked 83rd.
Frankly, the USA should forget all about the rankings, which make them the favored team in their bracket. Because they seem to play best when they’re under pressure, when they’re behind, when they’re the underdogs.
Hey, guys, how about a couple of early goals on Saturday? I think I speak for the nation when I say that we really aren’t up to another cliffhanger like Wednesday’s game!