Long Neck, 23 June
Dear Karl Ove,
Despite optimism earlier in the week, I felt genuine dread before the USA kicked off against Portugal. I worried that this was a match that would end badly. Technically, from a US perspective, the match did end badly with a cross by the Noxious One (Why can’t I stand the sight of Cristiano Ronaldo? Is he any more self-absorbed than any other “star player”? Something about the way he looks perhaps — a cross between Superman and Bugs Bunny) onto Varela’s head which then glanced past an astonished Tim Howard into the USA’s net to tie the match 2–2. Not the worst ending possible, but still, a disappointment since we were literally seconds away from clinching our spot in the knockout round. That goal threw us into a state of uncertainty. Now we have to get a result against Germany.
I said to Jose, “This might be a good thing. A win tonight would have been too easy. We would have coasted against Germany and then not have been up in the first knockout match. Now we have to fight in the match against Germany to claim our spot. And that will keep up sharp for the following rounds.”
A good spin? Of course, we only have to play Germany to a draw in order to advance. Klinsmann is already saying that we will play to win. Of course we will. But what else is he supposed to say? It’s not like he’s going to call up is old friend Jogi Löw and work out a deal. (Hints of that infamous match between West Germany and Austria which squeezed Algeria out of the World Cup in 1982?) Working out a deal would mean that we won’t see beautiful football. This World Cup has been a good one in terms of goals. Attacking football is what people want to see and the metric, number of goals per game, is an indication of how well the attack is going. But perhaps the emphasis on attacking football is sign of the decline in defensive play, or players capable of defending against skilled (and highly paid) attackers.
Did the US play well? It’s difficult for me to say. As a fan, all I see is the other team with the ball threatening us. Our attacks are not sustained or penetrating enough. If I watched with the eyes of a neutral, maybe I would have seen something like the match between Australia and the Netherlands. Australia put on an excellent performance. Despite losing to the Netherlands, they could walk off the field with their heads raised. Yes, we just played the match of our lives, the Australians could say. But could the US team say that? Did the US play well or did Portugal falter? The US certainly faltered at the end.
All I’ve done so far today is to write about soccer. Which is just nonsense, isn’t it? When I read that line in your letter, “writing about football is actually nonsense,” it brought me up short since I thought the whole point of this project was to write about football. I mean, we’re writing to each other about the World Cup which is the same thing as writing about football. So are these letters all just nonsense? Perhaps so. But is the joke on us or on the reader? Just imagine the poor reader who pays sixteen dollars for the paperback version of this book of nonsense! But there is value in nonsense. Just ask Lewis Carroll.
One of the first books I read about football was David Winner’s Brilliant Orange. Have you read it? In that book Winner (what a brilliant name for a soccer writer!) quotes another writer, Anthony Mertens, who said, “Football is a safety valve. It plays the same role in Dutch society as literature. They are the only two fields which make it possible to discuss taboo issues which cannot be raised in other forums.” I remember my reaction when I read those lines in Brilliant Orange, I equated soccer with literature. Soccer was the literary sport. And reading Winner’s book was a demonstration that intelligent things could be written when one is writing about football. And when I learned that there was even a literary soccer journal in the Netherlands, Hard Gras, I believed that the Dutch were truly the greatest footballing nation. Since then I’ve learned that the literary soccer journal is a species with representatives in many nations. All the writing in these literary soccer journals can’t be nonsense. Can it?
But I know what you mean. Soccer is a game. It’s men in shorts kicking a ball around a green rectangle. How could there be any meaning in that activity? But yet, here we are, watching the World Cup in Brazil and writing letters to each other on subjects such as fate, identity, nationalism, etc.