WASHINGTON – This would be the logical time for George W. Bush to invade another country or two, since the soldiers monitoring the early-warning systems of most potential invadees will be glued to their television sets instead of their radar screens. I wouldn’t try Iran, though. The Iranians got creamed in their World Cup tournament opener, losing 3-1 to Mexico on Sunday, and likely are in an extremely foul mood.
Here we go again. Every four years, virtually the whole world takes a month off to focus on nothing but soccer. And every four years, a few apostate nations that are otherwise sporting titans – the United States and Cuba are the two that spring to mind, an Odd Couple if ever there was one – struggle to understand all the commotion.
For years now, the U.S. team has actually been one of the best in the world. Sometime soon the United States will actually win the World Cup, and the conventional wisdom is that Middle America will then become as soccer-crazed as, say, Middle Azerbaijan. I’m skeptical, though. Even though a huge generation, the “boomer echo” cohort, is reaching adulthood after being raised on soccer, the short-pants kind of football remains a minor sport here, at least at the professional level. We like soccer but don’t consider it a matter of life or death the way the rest of humanity does. The World Cup trophy would be just a gaudy knickknack to display on an out-of-the-way shelf, maybe in the guest bedroom.
Besides, winning isn’t always the point, as events in Somalia attest.
Last week, an Islamist militia took control of Mogadishu by routing a bunch of warlords who had been supported by the Bush administration. Normally this would have led to a pan-European chorus of “Who lost Somalia?” but the choir was preoccupied with debating whether the glamorous David Beckham really has the toughness to lead the England team to its best World Cup showing in years.
Back on the Horn of Africa, the Islamic Courts militia was doing fine in consolidating power until the weekend, when it made the mistake of deciding that the World Cup was somehow Western and immoral, and cut off electricity to keep would-be fans in Mogadishu from watching it. Now, Somalia doesn’t have a team in the tournament – Somalia doesn’t even have a functioning government. But still the ban generated seething anger, according to wire service reports, and made war-weary Somalis rethink their embrace of newfound Islamist-style stability.
Then again, sometimes winning is most definitely the point. In the 1994 World Cup, Andres Escobar of Colombia scored an “own goal” – accidentally putting the ball into his own net – in a match against the U.S. team, handing the yanquis an undeserved victory. A few days after Escobar got home, he was gunned down in the parking lot of a Medellin nightclub by an irate fan.
In this country, the World Cup is just entertainment. Here’s how to be entertained:
Ignore any and all bloviation from the commentariat about how each team’s style of play somehow embodies that nation’s essential character. The Germans used to be stereotyped as stolid and precise, but in their opener last Friday they played run-and-gun as if on a sandlot; the free-spirited Italians, on the other hand, today usually hunker down behind solid defense. The forces of globalization have worked their magic on soccer theory and technique, and these days the way each team plays is tailored to the specific talents of the players.
Do not ignore, however, all bloviation – or at least my bloviation – about the Brazilians, who are the New York Yankees of world soccer, except that they’re universally loved instead of hated. Brazil, defending champion and five-time Cup winner, is simply better than the other teams, but that doesn’t have anything to do with national character or spirit. It has to do with knowledge and numbers. If you have a country of 188 million people in which all the best athletes learn soccer from the best players and coaches in the world, you get the best team. They are a joy to watch.
Appreciate, and root for, the dark-horse team from a small country that somehow makes it through the first round against all odds. There’s always one. Adopt that team, cheer it on, watch all its matches. And die a little death, along with the folks at home, when it loses in the quarters or the semis to Brazil.
Finally, keep a weather eye on the White House and U.S. troop movements. The tournament doesn’t end until mid-July.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to email@example.com.