Rich as an Argentine

Destiny is a dangerous phrase in sports. Many suspect they know it when they see it, most of them blinkered partisans who believe in what they know. It’s impossible to capture fully, scorned not without good reason by the quants who have distilled so many sports down to the barest essentials that can separate wins from losses. To call a squad a team of destiny is to make an irrational leap, to claim to see something others cannot, likely in athletes one has never met, seen only on a TV screen from half a world away. It is perhaps even more ludicrous for someone who is only a passing fan of a sport; someone who’s followed on and off over the years and has down the names of the main protagonists, but has no claim to deep expertise.

As this World Cup went on, however, it became clear that Argentina was one of those teams. It didn’t guarantee they would win the thing, but it did mean they would be there at the pivotal moment, would rise to the occasion, would push to the brink in ways others could never will themselves because they just felt it in their bones. It simply meant more in Argentina. They have known they have a window for a championship ever since Lionel Messi began showing the world what a different level of skill meant, and as the five-foot-seven magician from Rosario turned thirty-five, knew this would be his last chance. Their fans, after 36 long years of waiting, overflowed with raw emotion. Argentine tears flowed out at every goal (insert Evita joke here), and as they fought past the resilient Dutch in the quarterfinals, triumph felt more like relief, like completion of a solemn mission, than the mere victory enjoyed by other nations.

By that point, I was fully on board the bandwagon for the ride, using unspent work personal time to catch their remaining matches. After the sky blue and white carved up Croatia in the semifinals, they earned a clash for the ages against France. The final was about the juiciest imaginable: perhaps the greatest of all time against the golden child of the next generation, two otherworldly talents trading blows on the world’s most dramatic stage, the defending champions against the fútbol-bleeding nation determined to send out a sporting deity on top. It somehow outdid all the hype.

Messi had the supporting cast in his quest; the Argentines, unless defending a late lead, were the most cohesive unit of this tournament almost all the way through. The work rate in the midfield, from Alexis Mac Allister to Rodrigo de Paul to Enzo Fernández, took apart their vaunted French counterparts. On the sideline, the other Lionel, the little-heralded Lionel Scaloni, pressed all the right buttons as he molded his squad, boldly putting a few stars on the bench in favor of the right supporting cast for Messi’s skills. His master stroke: starting the wily veteran Ángel di María, who had the half of his life in the final, as he drew the penalty converted by Messi for Argentina’s first goal and finishing off a majestic passing sequence on their second. The Argentines were in complete control against the world’s deepest footballing machine, and in normal times, this would have been enough for a coronation.

Destiny, however, demands drama. No podía ser de otra manera sino sin sufrir, sobbed Andrés Cantor to his Spanish language audience at the end of the night: they had to suffer, there couldn’t be any other way. The source of that drama, aside from suddenly ragged defending: Kylian Mbappé, the French virtuoso who drifted through most of the game who needed just 93 seconds to knot the score. His vicious strike on the second goal hushed the singing Argentines for the first time all tournament; soccer, perhaps, was ready to pass the torch to a new superstar. But after that it was sheer, magical chaos, the teams powering up and down the pitch trading chances at reckless abandon, substitutions one-upping another, a net-crashing Messi seemingly winning it all before Mbappé snatched it back again in the dying minutes of extra time. So often in soccer penalty shootouts seem unspeakably lame, a way of euthanizing a game that has long since run out of energy, but it felt like the only sane conclusion here. One by one, the Argentines came forward and clinically finished their penalties, while their keeper, Emiliano Martínez, rose to the challenge once again.

When Gonzalo Montiel sealed the Cup with the final penalty, Argentina went into a catharsis to end all catharsis, a pure release, from the pitch to the broadcast booth and everywhere beyond. Montiel ran around cluelessly before his teammates swarmed him, di María bawled for the third or fourth time in the span of two hours, and Messi raised his hands to accept the worship of the masses and channel it through him. On the other side, abject shock, with dazed stares of exhaustion and Emmanuel Macron down on the pitch to console Mbappé. (I here picture Donald Trump coming down to the pitch to inform a United States team in a similar spot that they are all losers, or Joe Biden forgetting who all these people are anyway.) Who needs great conquests or wealth when a two-hour game can provide the apogee of human emotion?

The next night I found myself ignoring Monday Night Football to pour myself a Mendoza Malbec and watch footage from Buenos Aires: a drone sweeping over the Avenida 9 de Julio, the view from a lonely cyclist peddling up a deserted street as the city suddenly explodes, relentless song and dance, a few insane souls scaling the obelisk in the Plaza de la República. Then came the scenes from the victory parade, which had to be abandoned and completed by helicopter to get around the crowds. Oh, to someday be able to party like an Argentine.

And then it occurred to me: a few months ago, I’d been offered a spot on a trip that would have begun in Argentina in late December. I declined: a bit too much money, a bit too complicated logistically. I looked back at the old string of emails and, sure enough, if I’d accepted, I would have been in Buenos Aires on the day of the final. FOMO, you have consumed me.

Life goes on, though, and rewards in Christmas parties and holiday retreats and good hockey. And before long there will be new windows into that full range emotion, life to the fullest, joie de vivre in the face of everything. May the bursts never stop coming.


Winning Everywhere but on the Pitch

The U.S.’s World Cup run is done, ending in the Round of 16 for a second straight time after a 2-1 extra time loss to Belgium. The Belgians were the better team; while the U.S. did blow a few good chances, they were hardly carrying the play, rescued time and time again by Tim Howard in goal. Belgium may be small, but it’s loaded with a golden generation of top-flight European talent, and they should give Argentina a good run on Saturday.

The biggest issue for the U.S. was its midfield play and lack of possession. Michael Bradley has been made the scapegoat here, and not without reason, though anyone who was expecting him to be Xavi or Schweinsteiger or Pirlo was in for a rude surprise. The U.S.’s defensive tactics covered for a lot of that hole, but if they want to be more than an exciting upset threat, they really need to start controlling play more. There were some key steps this Cup, with a win over nemesis Ghana and a near-win against a good Portugal team, but the U.S. remains somewhere on the outside of the world’s elite, and that #13 FIFA ranking, for all of its flaws, probably gets things about right.

Even so, the Cup was, for the most part, vindication for Jurgen Klinsmann, who coupled his enthusiasm and mind games with German efficiency and had a knack for making the right substitutions when injuries didn’t force his hand. Whine all you want about ESPN’s bitter robot analyst—err, Landon Donovan—or some of the comments to the media, but the U.S. coach knew what he was doing from start to finish, and his fine touch with the likes of DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green suggests a bright future. Klinsmann took a team with minimal top-end talent and serious injury issues and put them in a position to win. There is a vision here that goes far beyond the 2014 World Cup, and the U.S. has the right man directing this long and arduous ascendancy to soccer relevance.

Mexico, meanwhile, did what the Mexicans do in the World Cup, likewise bowing out in the Round of 16 for a sixth consecutive time. This was the most excruciating, though, as they held a lead over the favored Dutch with less than five minutes to play. The end result wasn’t a huge surprise—Miguel Herrera’s very conservative approach after the Mexican goal left El Tri a bit too reliant on the heroics of Guillermo Ochoa, and exposed that back line so much that it was hard not to think it was just a matter of when the Dutch would strike. The cautious approach worked in the group stage, and it’s hard to rip on Herrera’s tactics after he turned a struggling squad into one that looked pretty good in its first three games, but the Mexicans needed a bit more positivity to compete with the world’s elite. It wasn’t beyond their ability.

The eight group winners may all have gone through to the quarterfinals, but that hardly suggests any sort of dominance by the traditional powers. The great Spanish dynasty is dead, and no one is leaping to fill the vacuum. The Brazilians don’t appear terribly cohesive, and have issues in back; the biggest things they have going for them are geography and Neymar’s heroics. Argentina is in a similar boat, though Lionel Messi might just be good enough to carry his nation to the title in spite of it all. Their side of the bracket is open for the taking, and one gets the sense that they have yet to show us their best. The quarterfinal between France and Germany, meanwhile, should be a thriller between two of Europe’s top contenders. France’s easy road so far is a mild surprise after their debacles in recent years, but the talent is clearly there; the Germans, while perhaps not quite as crisp as their western neighbors, are still probably better when playing to their potential, lacking the disjointedness of their fellow favorites from South America.

The other four teams left in the race offer some intrigue, too. The Colombians are unproven but perhaps the most exciting team in the Cup, and James Rodríguez has the potential to take his coming-out party to the next stage if he can exploit the gaps often left by the Brazilian defense. The Belgians are also new to this stage, and while they lack the dynamism of the Colombians, they have enough top-flight players to trouble Argentina. On the other end of the spectrum, this great Dutch generation refuses to die, and have earned themselves a favorable quarterfinal against Cup darlings Costa Rica. If the Orange Crush can handle the upstarts, who’s to bet against their tried and true formula?

Whatever the end result, this Cup has had the feel of a watershed moment for U.S. soccer. For the first time, it felt like more than a fringe sport. It was hard not to get sucked in when walking into a bar packed with people in red, white, and blue chanting USA! and that cheer that was cool in hockey three years ago, that collective ecstasy and frustration shared by everyone. The aggravating nature of soccer—ninety minutes of frustration in the hope of one or two seconds of brilliance—lends itself to that unity, and when the ball finally does hit the back of the net, everyone gets it. It has its flaws, but the simplicity makes the appeal universal.

All of that said, I have some reservations about soccer going mainstream. There’s the obvious complaint about a broader but less knowledgeable fan base, leaving us with the painful Landon Donovan whiners who didn’t actually know anything about him beyond that one goal against Algeria. But the World Cup also comes with a dose of false cosmopolitanism that ignores the corrupt and moneyed interests that dominate FIFA, an organization in which the New York Yankees would look frugal and kindly to their fellow franchises. FIFA is a fairly accurate reflector the world’s power structure, and I do not mean that as a compliment. The Cup is nice and international, which is all good fun when you’re a kid and learning to appreciate all of the silly little things that make countries unique, but becomes a bit facile after a while, with Mexicans in ponchos and Americans playing up a self-consciously overdone U.S. bravado (‘Murica!). Soccer is a global sport, and that is a double-edged sword; it brings us closer to the rest of world, but abandoning other sports in its favor eats at the diversity that makes things interesting. If our “shared language” boils down to a bunch of stereotypes, Coke ads, pop stars at the kickoff concert, and rolling about on the ground in feigned pain, is it really a language worth sharing?

It can go deeper than that, though, so while soccer will never be my first love, there are aspects that continue to grow on me. For the U.S., it’s time to look ahead to Russia in 2018 with ever-rising hopes; in the meantime, we’ll hope the remaining eight add yet more drama to what has already been a superb Cup. And even if they don’t, maybe will get a few memorable little nibbles.

(Can I get some credit for going over 1,000 words before making a Luis Suárez pun?)

From One Cup to Another

The hockey season came to an end on Friday night, with the Los Angeles Kings collecting a second Stanley Cup in three years. They dispatched of the New York Rangers in five tidy games; sure, three went to overtime, but the Rangers never could quite shake off the sense that the real battle for the title came in the Western Conference Final between Los Angeles and the Chicago Blackhawks. That series was the highlight of the postseason, a reminder of everything the NHL can be as the winners of four of the past five Cups seesawed back and forth over the course of seven games.

The Kings are deserving champs, a thoroughly complete team that made dramatic comebacks and overtime thrillers a matter of daily routine. Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar are at the top of their games, Marian Gaborik proved the ideal rental of a championship caliber finisher, and Justin Williams and Alec Martinez provided the clutch heroics. Los Angeles may never be a proper hockey town, but the Kings are starting to develop a reputation, an image cultivated by the stone-faced Darryl Sutter, whose fixation on the moment made it easy to settle into the rhythm of the playoffs and take everything in stride.

The overmatched Rangers, meanwhile, were left to lean on the brilliance of Henrik Ludnqvist in goal. Smothered under wave after wave of King forecheckers, the Rangers iced and coughed up the puck far too often, leaving King Henrik as their sole line of defense. He singlehandedly gave them a shot in Game Five, but the Ranger skaters, already outclassed by their counterparts, looked to be out of gas.

The playoffs were also a coming out party for Ryan McDonagh, the Ranger defenseman and Cretin-Derham Hall alumnus. While not flawless, McDonagh was a wrecking ball throughout, and his lasered shots from the point were among the most effective weapons in the New York arsenal. If his shot had gone a half-inch to the left in the first overtime on Friday night, and we’re probably getting ready for Game Six. The 2007 Mr. Hockey can now claim the mantel of best Minnesotan in the NHL, and from there, it’s not too much of a stretch to place him near the top of the best Americans in the league. Of course it can be hard to compare positions, and Patrick Kane is probably better when he’s at the top of his game (which is not exactly every game he plays), but McDonagh is right up there with anyone. I am annoyed by attempts to use individual players to build up or tear down certain development paths—using such logic makes one a better cherry-picker than Dave Spehar—but McDonagh’s prowess at the very least shows that Minnesota high school kids can become franchise players without running halfway across the continent to get to that point.

And now, after spending so many hours watching artistry on ice sheets, we turn southward to look for it in a jungle. Three days into the World Cup, the race for the title has only tightened. Host Brazil is the obvious favorite, but they didn’t exactly look like a championship caliber squad in the opener. Sure, they won 3-1, but they were the beneficiaries of some generous refereeing and shoddy goalkeeping, and showed serious weaknesses down their flanks. Croatia, meanwhile, can be reasonably proud of its effort, and has some chance to go through to the second round.

The big shocker came on Day Two, when the Dutch dismantled Spain 5-1 in a rematch of the last Cup final. The men in orange, after entering the Cup with little fanfare, are suddenly back among the contenders, while Spain now looks like the old team past its prime. The loss naturally brought about some talk of the demise of tiki-taka; I’m not sure it’s a condemnation of the tactic so much as it is a sign of decline among this squad’s longtime core. As Barcelona’s parallel (relative) struggles have shown over the past two years, tiki-taka requires a relentless work rate, something that older players just may not have, especially in the Brazilian heat. Their next match, coming against a decent Chile side that won its opener, will be instructive. It’s worth remembering that they lost their 2010 opener to a weak Switzerland side before kicking it into gear.

Speaking of looking old, Uruguay sure did in a 3-1 stunner of a loss against Costa Rica on Saturday. With Luis Suarez on the bench and injured, the rest of the squad melted about the pitch in Fortaleza, allowing Los Ticos to impose their will with surprising ease. Colobmia’s impressive win over Greece, on the other hand, marked them as a potential player, especially given their weak group; they now join Belgium among the chic picks to make a rare venture into the later rounds. And age showed no signs of slowing Italy, whose 2-1 victory over England may have been the most championship-worthy performance to date. Andrea Pirlo remains peerless at age 35, and Mario Balotelli’s presence insures the Italians won’t be exemplars of bus-parking boredom, as they occasionally can be.

Mexico opened with a 1-0 victory over Cameroon that could easily have been more lopsided. El Tri hobbled into the Cup, but the core of this team did win a gold medal two years ago in London, and new manager Miguel Herrera hasn’t been afraid to shake things up in pursuit of a winning formula. So far, so good for the boys south of the border; Brazil awaits next. The U.S., meanwhile, has to be excited to get out on the pitch on Monday so that Jurgen Klinsmann is no longer the focus of the headlines. It has been anything but a smooth run-up to the Cup for the American skipper, and while I largely support his vision, I wonder how long it will take for him to wear out his welcome if things keep up like this. It doesn’t matter how good a coach’s ideas are if he cannot command the respect of his players. With the U.S. stuck in the group of death, any realistic judgment of Klinsmann’s efforts will have to take much more than the results into account.

My pick to win it all remains the Argentines, though I admit part of that may be my well-hidden diabolical side coming out as I try to imagine an Albiceleste victory parade in Rio. Argentina has a few questions on defense and their unmatched strikeforce will need to find some chemistry if the whole is to exceed the sum of the parts. It may also be a while before they’re seriously tested, as they’ve drawn a cakewalk of a group. Messi and Friends sailed through the early rounds four years ago, but Germany took them apart in the knockout stage. The question here is one of discipline: can this team come together in the homeland of its most bitter rival?

When it comes to discipline, Germany and Italy always lead the pack; while Europeans traditionally don’t do well in South America, those two are clearly among the safest picks for a title at the moment. Portugal is also somewhere in the picture, depending on the state of Cristiano Ronaldo’s knee; even with him, they don’t exactly play a thrilling brand of futebol. The French and English camps are surprisingly quiet; for once, the expectations around those two squads might be realistic, and it will be interesting to see if they, like the Dutch, can serve up a reminder of their proud histories. The early returns on England are not exactly glowing, while the French get underway Sunday against bottom-feeder Honduras. (Spanish pun alert.)

Heat and referee controversies aside, the games so far have been defined by a lot of offense. That’s great for the tournament as a whole, though it’s worth noting that some of the best performances—like those of the Dutch and Costa Ricans—weren’t the result of throwing attackers forward with reckless abandon; instead, they focused on good discipline first, and let a select few forwards roam freely to create their chances. One is reminded of that positivist slogan across the heart of the globe on the Brazilian flag: ordem e progresso. Order and progress. It had mixed results as a turn of the century political platform, but as a maxim for modern futebol, it gets things about right. The Spaniards might rebound and the Argentines have yet to unveil their approach, but I wouldn’t bet on a variant of Total Football winning this Cup. There is too much parity, too many teams well-built to rely on the counter, and too much humidity. The eventual winner will be above all a disciplined squad, and will couple that with enough offensive initiative to eclipse those who park the bus. We’ll check back in a month to see who that might be.