Part of the beauty of writing, is that achieving truth and reality is subjective, and depending on who you talk to, impossible. Predicting the outcome, or excitement in sports, is a frequent, fascinating, and futile endeavor. That’s part of what makes it so fun. The Superbowl is always hyped, but rarely does the pre-game buildup reflect the nature of the game, as we saw with the systematic decimation of the Broncos at the hands of the Seahawks. The NCAA Tournament provides the most exciting bang-for-your-buck four days in all of sports, and yet it cannot be fully described, and certainly not predicted. A World Series like the one that happened between the Rangers and Cardinals in 2011 is something that a Hollywood scriptwriter would look at as unbelievable fiction, because sometimes words feel cheap in the face of real world events.
No sporting event encapsulates those truths more than the World Cup. It is a once every four years, nation unifying, world stopping, political force, that happens to involve a ball, and a laundry list of the world’s greatest soccer players (though unfortunately a number of them will be missing from this year’s tournament for various reasons).
The World Cup is such a globally unifying experience, and yet it holds a different significance for everyone that watches it. Of course there are the teams you’re rooting for, and the teams you’re rooting against, but it is also an event defined by setting. Not just the setting of the tournament, but setting of the spectators and fans. Whether it is a pub in London, a piazza in Rome, a sold-out stadium in Rio, a cafe in Lagos, or a conference room in Presque Isle, Maine, each holds its own power. That will be what comes to mind when you think of great saves, powerful goals, brutal tackles, and nimble footwork. It will bring back the taste of the beer, the brow full of sweat, and the butterflies in your stomach.
There is another side of the World Cup: the off the field politics. FIFA is by most accounts a pretty terrible entity. It’s a corrupt governing body, that often serves the interests of its aging oligarchs, rather than the sport it is supposed to govern. New details have emerged in the perceived corruption of Qatar’s 2022 bid, that saw a tiny nation with summer heat temperatures in the 120s, and very little sporting infrastructure, get awarded the World Cup. FIFA tried to maintain that there was no shady business going on, but now the floodgates seemed to have broken, with major sponsors stepping in to voice their concerns that too many back room deals, and briefcases full of money won Qatar the bid.
Brazil has its own set of concerns, a set that doesn’t appear to be dying in the days leading up to the tournament. Human rights protest, and even riots, have spread across the South American country, as the spending for the World Cup’s infrastructure has overshadowed the lack of spending on Brazil’s healthcare, education, and numerous other basic government duties. During last summer’s Confederations Cup — what many view as the dry run for the World Cup — there were numerous violent clashes between police and protestors, even during the final that saw Brazil dominate Spain 3-0. In the year since, other protests have sprung up, and there have even been fears about working conditions after eight laborers died at various times during the stadium construction process. The show will go on, but expect much more extra-curricular political protesting during the next month.
As if the greatest sporting event in the world didn’t need extra hype, the off the field politics, FIFA greed, and personal importance will be accompanied by the usual on the pitch excitement. Brazil will be riding a wave of pressure and support, as the host nation vies for its sixth World Cup title. Anything but a win on home soil will be a failure. Spain will be looking to win an unprecedented fourth straight major title, but appear slightly more vulnerable than the last go round. Germany brings its normal well oiled machine, minus a few key cogs due to injury. Argentina seems to be rounding into its usual ethereal form that could see it spoil its rivals host tournament, or flame out too early, yet again. The other contenders are there. England has a monumentally tough group with Uruguay, and the Italians. Italy and Uruguay each have injury concerns of their own, but still should knock the English out, and let the press have a field day with the fallout. The Americans look to have their hand’s full with the Germans and the Portuguese, not to mention their now archival Ghanaians — who have knocked them out of the last two World Cups. Portugal is hoping Cristiano Ronaldo will be fully fit, and the entire Iberian nation will be holding its breath if he’s not. Dark-horses abound in the likes of the Ivory Coast, Belgium, and Colombia, but don’t be surprised if it’s the usual suspects making deep runs in the tournament.
I won’t be making any predictions on the tourney, it’s too sacred to me personally to try to prophesy, but I will be pulling for my usual trio of nations: the Italians, the Americans, and the Dutch. I’ll be glued to my TV for the next month, enjoying the greatest sport even in the world. Hopefully you will too. Thursday can’t come soon enough.