56 games down - 8 more to go. Four years ago, it was the vuvazela, that annoying plastic horn that was the symbol of the World Cup, held in South Africa. This time, it's the samba, the carnival, the rhythms of Brazil, the sacred land of the beautiful game. It's a huge upgrade.
The Good. The soccer has been amazing. So far, this year's World Cup has delivered just about everything a soccer fan can hope for. Lots of goals (a record 136 in group play), close games, breakout stars (James Rodriguez of Colombia), upsets (Costa Rica?), multiple subplots, thrills, agony and heartbreak. And if you're not a fan, well....who cares? I used to concern myself with the idea of "selling" soccer to the U.S. audience and convincing the doubters and the soccer-hating American exceptionalists that soccer is actually a terrific game, worthy of our nation's short attention span. Every 4 years, I would beseech the soccer gods, Please, give us a thrilling game. But the soccer gods are cruel. And so the big games, the ones that drew a large American audience - the final game, and the games involving the U.S. team – tended to be dull or controversial affairs. There have been 0-0 games won on penalty kicks (which can either be thrilling or unsatisfying depending on your point of view), or 1-0 games decided by a controversial penalty call. There was Zinedine Zidane's headbutt and now there is the furor over Luis Suarez's bite.
But none of that matters. Soccer is here to stay. Even if the remaining eight matches are snoozers (unlikely), we are well past the tipping point in this country. No, soccer will not be as big as American football. It doesn't need to be. Soccer jerseys are flying off the store shelves. Messi, Ronaldo, Dempsey, Neymar. Highlights from games played in England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga are routinely shown on ESPN Sportscenter. The average attendance for a MLS game in Seattle is over 44,0000. Kids in the USA are playing and adults are watching. More Americans watched the U.S. vs. Portugal match than the NBA or NHL finals or the World Series. And they liked what they saw. Three of the four U.S. matches were terrific and tense and if you were fortunate to watch any of them in a bar or public place, you know that the shared experience - the outbursts and expressions of joy and hope, outrage and frustration - is unique and not something you'll forget anytime soon.
So the U.S. is out. Although, they only won a single game, they performed well. Tim Howard's heroic performance versus Belgium, puts him into the argument about who is the greatest U.S. player of all time. In hockey, 16 saves in one game is not a lot. In soccer, it's huge - Howard's 16 saves were a World Cup record. What that means is the Belgium badly outclassed the U.S. And yet, the U.S. still could have won the game (or tied in extra-time) and that is precisely what is so wonderful and maddening about soccer.
Once the group play ended, and the knock-out rounds began, the goals dried up, but the excitement did not. Brazil and Costa Rica advanced on penalty kicks. France and Netherlands squeaked by with late goals, and Germany, Belgium and Argentina finished at 0-0 and eventually won their games in extra time. This was heart-stopping stuff and no team looks invincible. This is a promising sign for those of us looking for more thrills.
The Bad: There's not much left to write about Luis Suarez and his biting of Italian defender, Giorgio Chiellini. What struck me as so distasteful (no, I will not make the joke about Chiellini's shoulder), were the denials and cries of victimhood on the part of Suarez's Uruguayan coaches and teammates. My favorite was Uruguay's slow-footed captain, Diego Lugano claiming that the bite marks on Chiellini's shoulder were already there and were not caused by Suarez's teeth. Really? When Lugano considers his next career (and judging by his performance for West Brom last year, he'll need to very soon), he should not become a criminal defense lawyer. Suarez himself claimed that he tripped and fell into the Italian defender. He has since retracted this absurd excuse and apologized for the biting and promised that it won't happen again. He apologized to Chiellini but he hasn't apologized to Uruguay for letting his team and his nation down. That's the part that's curiously missing. Now, of course, there is considerable outrage over the severity of his suspension. According to some (including all 3 million people in Uruguay, it seems), it is hypocritical for FIFA to punish Suarez so severely for biting, when far more dangerous transgressions - two-footed tackles etc. - often go unpunished. They act as if Suarez is being suspended merely for bad manners. Yes, soccer is a violent game, but if you can't understand why biting an opponent in a sporting match is different from kicking at an opponent's knee, I doubt I'll succeed in explaining it.
And how I love the conspiracy theories! According to the apologists of biting, there is a witch-hunt against Suarez because the powers that be, in FIFA and the British press, favor European nations and don't want smaller latin countries, like Uruguay, to do well in the tournament. (The irony is that the Italians were spinning the exact opposite conspiracy theory – they say the match officials failed to toss Suarez from the game against Italy because FIFA needs stars like Suarez for ratings.) In fact, the primary beneficiary of the Suarez suspension was not Europe, but Uruguay's next opponent, Colombia. Colombia has also been without their best player, Falcao, due to injury but they nevertheless took care of business, dispatching a Suarez-less Uruguay 2-0 behind their new rising star, James Rodriguez. Colombia has, arguably, been the team of the tournament so far and now they play a quarter-final match against the host, Brazil. No offense to Colomiba, but I would have loved see a quarter-final match-up between Uruguay and Brazil instead. And I suspect FIFA would have loved it too because it would have meant a rematch of the most famous football match ever played on South American soil – the mythical final game of the 1950 World Cup, when Uruguay stunned mighty Brazil 2-1 to win the world cup at Brazil’s sacred stadium, the Maracanã. What a subplot that would have been. But for every subplot that is denied, a new one is born and this afternoon, Colombia will try to traumatize a new generation of Brazilians with an upset of Brazil’s Selecao on their home soil.
The Ugly. If Brazil lose this afternoon, the ensuing rioting will probably be the ugliest thing about the World Cup. But I’m most interested in what happens on the pitch. So let’s talk about diving. Unlike biting, which does not actually give your team an advantage (don’t flatter Suarez by calling him a cheater, call him a psychopath), diving is a form of cheating that is often rewarded. This has always been a problem with soccer. Some players try to draw penalties by falling to their ground when they’re not even touched. In other cases, the cheating is more subtle. The player is clearly fouled but he exaggerates the impact and falls to the ground in order to sell the call. Which brings us to Arjen Robben of the Netherlands.
Arjen Robben is a diver. He’s also a world class attacker who has impeccable skill and is blazing fast with the ball at his feet. Let’s flash back to the World Cup final match in 2010. Spain and Netherlands were deadlocked at 0-0 after 82 minutes when Arjen Robben, with a burst of speed, broke free with a chance on goal. The Spanish maned defender, Carles Puyol (who resembles Dee Snider of Twisted Sister), prevented the goal by attaching himself to Robben’s back just outside the penalty area. It was a clear foul, but Robben stayed on his feet, struggled to stay with the ball and there was no call. If Robben had fallen to the ground, there surely would have been a foul called and either a penalty kick or free kick just outside the box. Perhaps Puyol would have been ejected. Instead, Spain went on to win the game, and the World Cup, in extra-time, 1-0.
Did Robben learn a lesson? If there’s contact in the box, fall to the ground – let the referee see that you’ve been fouled. Maybe. After all, those fouls are hard-earned. Robben uses great skill to put himself in those positions. And so when Holland came from behind to beat Mexico last Sunday, it was because Robben made a great play and then play-acted. His foot came into contact with the foot of Mexico’s Rafa Marquez, and Robben went down like he was shot. The penalty was called and the goal scored on the penalty kick was the difference in the game. Whether or not Robben’s conduct was justified, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. There was nothing cheap about Robben’s two goals against Spain in Holland’s 5-1 win in the opening round. This goal felt cheap.
I hate to see games decided that way and I hope we see less of that sort of thing as we head to the quarterfinal and semifinal matches. But if the final 8 matches are as exciting as most of the previous 56, it won’t really matter.