It’s been a great few weeks of international soccer, and we now arrive at the apex. For one last time, Alex & -J. reflect upon World Cup 2014, and make their inexpert-but-enthusiastic predictions for the final couple of games.
2014 Reflections & Discoveries
-J.: As we approach the final two games, I’m both ready for it to end, but also a bit sad to see the end arrive. I’m looking forward to devoting my full attention to being disappointed by the Chicago Fire and demoralized by the Milwaukee Brewers. I’m waiting to see what happens in Brazil — culturally and politically — now that the financially crippling World Cup did not result in a 6th title for host Brazil. They laid out so much money and sacrificed so much of the common good for FIFA twice (Confederations Cup last year, World Cup this year), and are doing the same for the IOC (Summer Olympics in 2016). I’m going to enjoy the ability to pretend that Sepp fucking Blatter does not exist on a regular basis.
But I will miss the fans and the coverage of this tournament. Chicago went outlaw wild for Team USA and the World Cup. I loved the ESPN coverage, which is no small feat for a network I tend to give the side-eye. The nightly analysis from former World Cup stars like Michael Ballack, and from the few American international vets like Alexi Lalas, was entertaining and illuminating. When the analysis would break up for the “last call” style of reflection, it was a perfect way to end the day. Hell, I could watch Lalas and Ballack go back & forth, even if Alexi needs to let others get a few more words in.
Speaking of things I could watch, this World Cup saw the ascendance of the Men In Blazers, who I KNOW Alex is going to mention…
Alex: Ah, the Men in Blazers. Those gods among mortals. They really were my very favorite part of the World Cup, even more than the sometimes-thrilling, but often-dull game action. Their mix of wit, weirdness, and insight was a constant delight and I’m thrilled that it’s won them a new fanbase. They made GFOPS out of millions and I bet they will become one of the most prominent faces of soccer in the States moving forward. Plus, I get to crow that I loved them before the tournament even started. That is some hipster cred that I am more than proud to claim. ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup has been excellent beyond the walls of Bob Ley’s Panic Room, actually. Like you said, the studio analysts were entertaining without pulling focus too much, and the in-game announcers seemed good to my non-expert ears as well. At the very least, Ian Darke has thoroughly solidified himself as the voice of the USMNT.
My favorite coverage from ESPN, though, was the series of essays and videos produced by Wright Thompson. He’s a Senior Writer for ESPN and got the plum assignment to fly all over Latin America and document what the World Cup means to the nearly 600 million people who call that quarter of the globe home. I’ve previously linked to his pre-tournament masterpiece about the 1978 World Cup held in Argentina while that country’s military dictatorship conducted a campaign of terror against its own citizens. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. He watched the U.S. play Portugal with the former First Lady of Venezuela. Visited with the widow of an American who disappeared in Chile during Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973. Visited a beloved dive bar in Costa Rica as that country stormed to the Quarter-Finals for the first time ever. Explored the still-recovering Medellin 20 years after the death of the two Escobars who defined that city’s rise to prominence in soccer and drug trafficking. Talked with the editor of the late Gabriel García Márquez while his native country of Colombia and his adopted home of Mexico both made stunning runs into the knockout rounds. It was all phenomenal. I cannot recommend it enough. The man deserves a Pulitzer.
3rd Place Game: Brazil vs. the Netherlands
a.k.a., the Most Depressing Game of the World Cup
-J.: Who the fuck knows how this one will turn out. Remember that psych study which concluded that, in the Olympics, bronze medalists tend to be happier with their result than silver medalists? It does not apply to World Cup tournaments. Making the Finals is an achievement. Winning 3rd place is about being the less demoralized team that barely missed the Finals.
On one side, we have the still Neymar-less Brazil. Sure, they get Thiago Silva back, and sure they’re still the host country. But they were utterly humiliated in one of the worst games in the history of A Seleção. On the other side, the Netherlands beat down the reigning World Cup champs, squeaked by CONCACAF Thunder with some last-second luck in ref calls & penalty kicks. They prevented the world’s best player from defeating them… only to lose on PKs. Oh, and their coach has spent more than a decade as a vocal critic of the 3rd place game.
There’s my decision. Neither team wants to play this game, but at least Brazil seems to want to save face. The Dutch coach wants to go home, and probably won’t play his usual starters. Who do you think is the less demoralized team here, Alex?
Alex: I expect a pillow fight. Like you said, the Dutch will probably barely be awake for this game. Their manager wants to be in England and their players have come up just short of a long-awaited World Cup championship yet again. But, how can you pick Brazil to win after watching that? As I acknowledged 20 minutes into the match, my prediction that Brazil would rally around their lost leaders was wrong. I did not expect to be quite so wrong though. The game against Germany was an absolute slaughter. The announcers sounded like they were calling The Battle of the Somme. It was so ugly that I have a hard time seeing that team, at least as currently constituted and led, play well together ever again. Brazil will want the win more, but I don’t think they have the ability to achieve it at this point. The Oranje get a 3rd place finish to go with their runner-up status from South Africa. Brazil gets a national embarrassment that will motivate them for generations.
Final: Germany vs. Argentina
Messi versus die Mannschaft
-J.: I actually have less analysis for the Finals than I do for the Who Cares About 3rd Place game. Argentina has Messi, arguably the world’s best player, and heir apparent to Maradona. But Argentina is also without spark plug Ángel di María — unless unproven medical science can grant his body a mutant healing power akin to the Wolverine’s. Argentina may also be without key defender Javier Mascherano, who suffered not one but two injuries in the semi-final against the Netherlands. Everybody saw the head injury that sparked worries of a concussion, but Mascherano also apparently tore his anus on a critical tackle against Arjen Robben.
Germany, meanwhile, has one of the game’s best goalies, the most prolific scorer in World Cup history, and a team that has looked dominant (outside a couple uncharacteristic halves against strong African teams). Sure, Mesut Özil has played little better than a replacement player, but that’s the only glaring issue with the German team. Despite Argentina’s fervent desire to win on their continent, I’m picking Germany here. I’ve picked them every game without hesitation, so why not once more? Alex?
Alex: I am on just the opposite ship! Since the knockout rounds began I have only picked Germany to beat Algeria. So, of course, they convincingly beat France and then completely eviscerated Brazil. If I’m going to look that much a fool, then I might as well go down with the ship. Argentina for the victory! Yes, Die Mannschaft has played the most impressive football of any team in this tournament, but I just think there’s a magic and/or menace for European teams in Latin America that will bring the World Cup trophy back to Buenos Aires. (By the way, how impressive does the U.S. holding Germany to just one goal and nearly tying them look in hindsight? If they get Argentina’s group and knockout draws it’s not improbable to imagine them going to the Semi-Finals.)
Is Germany better overall? Certainly. Have they played more impressively? Um, just ask Brazil. But the tournament comes down to just one game and improbable things happen in sports. Indeed, Germany’s 7-1 in on Tuesday is the single most improbable result in World Cup history. Turnabout is fair play, says I, and I will stick to my skepticism about Germany winning it all. Brazil’s nightmare week will reach its climax. Argentina wins, with Messi having a hand in a magnificent goal to help clinch it.
See everyone in Russia in four years for more!