(This was written on Saturday night, November 26. Tonight’s results might paint a different canvas, but I am not very good at the prediction business. This is about what has happened so far.)
Well, towards the end of week one we’ve seen enough to be proven wrong and sometimes right. And we’ve had enough time in America to be punished by the Fox Network panelists. They are a sarcastic writer’s dream come true. It might be too early to say who’s going where, but there are some signals.
Let’s start with Iran. They lost 6-2 to England and then beat Wales 2-0. The Iranian team kicked off by refusing to sing their national anthem in solidarity with the protests back home. With demonstrators and even certain Iranian celebrities being chucked into the hellhole Evin Prison in Teheran, and with tough jail sentences and even death sentences being meted out, this says something. Iran is not a shabby football squad. FIFA ranks them as 20th in the world. Some have suggested that they refused to play England hard in the opener to shun accolades for the religious Iranian regime. Maybe so, maybe not so, but their original act of defiance (the anthem business) was pure gutsy. These players have to return back to their country, they have families there. Remember how the SS dealt with that. Their Portuguese manager, Carlos Quieroz, has had it with the sanctimonious (mostly Brit) reporters. His position has been along the lines of why don’t these correspondents talk about what the UK did in Afghanistan, if they want to pursue their political hygiene. I understand his stance, he wants his team to be able to play like everybody else does. If war crimes are a yardstick, then the US and England would have to play amongst themselves only, probably in some muddy field in rural Wisconsin.
Then the Welsh crashed out against Iran, who played that match like they meant to be there. The Welsh goalie, Wayne Hennessey, managed to poleaxe an Iranian player in the waning minutes and then his team gave up two goals in extra time https://www.youtube.com/shorts/jGOnEHOGdQQ. Bang goes the strange language side. And Wales has some great veterans (Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey), so they are not a pushover. The point is that Iran held them goalless for most of the game and then took advantage of the Welsh booboozela. In this competition, Iran needs to be taken seriously. They play the US next.
And then there is the U.S. presence. They are a likeable team, Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, Yunis Musah, Timothy Weah, etc. They are also the youngest side in the tournament, a big plus in my books. They ran out of gas against Wales in the second half, but they managed a goalless draw against powerful England, a game they played very well. So far to their credit, they have held their own. In another time perhaps I might wish them the best. The problem is all of the surrounding tub-thumping and other assorted nonsense and hypocrisy that come with being a US national entity on a world stage. The homegrown commentary doesn’t help. They’re only a football team for chrissake, not a Special Forces Unit or an Amphibious Assault Task Force, and this isn’t Omaha Beach. I am sure that every competing nation in the World Cup has its own variety of patriotic schlock (“shlag” for the Germans). But it is different when this comes from the richest country in the world, a country not ashamed to militarily occupy others nor to wave the lethal big stick, a country whose fan base is substantially more privileged than those who live further south or are locked-out immigrants here from there. Little effort is made to distinguish the aspirations of the US soccer squad from those of the US as a superpower and self-appointed world enforcer. A much greater effort is made to combine them. The homeland audience does not seem very interested in discerning any distinction. Latching onto the football underdog label doesn’t quite cut it here, but merely amps up the opportunities for more exaggerated doublespeak. This intertwined posture makes it harder to feel joy or sorrow for the US team and their legions of supporters here when things do or don’t go their own way. That’s a pity.
The biggest upset…obviously Saudi Arabia beating Argentina, although Argentina took care of Mexico this afternoon, sigh! In Brooklyn, I have too many Mexican friends, hardly any Argentinian ones, and a general animus towards favorites. And then Germany lost to Japan. When Germany is a goal up, they usually act like a deluxe Mercedes Benz, you barely feel the bump. But this was a bumpy road for them. Ghana gave Portugal a bit of a run, and we were all lucky to see the bombastic Ronaldo giving it to the Portuguese goalie after he almost blew it in the final minute. Thank god for superstars. Meanwhile boring but good teams seem to be carrying on (Poland). Watching Poland play football reminds me of watching Ivan Lendl play tennis, it’s robotic. Spain and France look formidable, so do the Dutch and Belgians. Brazil is playing sexy. It is still a crapshoot, early days.
Lest we forget, we are the audience for our panel of television experts. This is hard to take. The most flaming punisher of the lot is Alexi Lalas. He played for the 1994 US World Cup team and he looked like a Grateful Dead follower back then. But like many hippies, Alexi Lalas has become an irritating reactionary. On Thanksgiving Thursday, he chewed on a turkey drumstick, yelling about freedom and America, and even his colleagues seemed a wee bit uncomfortable. When discussing the standings, he emphasized that Spain scored seven goals against Costa Rica, as if anybody could score seven goals against a lowly team like Costa Rica. His stuff is flat out ugly. Clint Dempsey, the former striker for the US, is far more tolerable. Maybe he is Alexi Lalas’s front guy. What a horrible job.
And to make things more indigenous and worse, Fox has chosen a non-soccer athlete, the ex-US football player Chad OchoCinco to be the outside buffoon. From about the 90s onwards, special attention was given to NFL wide receivers, many of whom were a bit crazy and had even wider egos. Chad Johnson played wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2000s. He was one of those guys who changed his name, not like Muhammed Ali, but just for showbiz reasons. So he became Chad OchoCinco (#85). Pfft! Later, Chad did try his hand at professional US soccer, but that didn’t go very far. The producers think it is important to have a non-football (soccer) player waltzing around the games giving us his take on the events. Think of whom they could have chosen, a real veteran, not #85! They might as well have asked you or me, and I guarantee we would be better at it. I must confess, I did change my name to the Left Hook, so I am not entirely innocent, but I was never a competent NFL wide receiver or the boxing champion of the world. Maybe Alexi Lalas and Chad OchoCinco can become the Laurel and Hardy of this World Cup, courtesy of Fox Sports. They’re both looking like prize candidates so far.
The opening rounds of the football World Cup are the best, when all of the qualifying teams get to play, not necessarily against each other due to the groupings and the draw. The knockout stages will come at the end of next week, and that’s when the heavyweights go at it. Hard Crackers will be there, along with Alexi Lalas and Chad OchoCinco. You will be glad you got us instead. More is to come.