The Pony in the Pile of Manure: Remaining Optimistic in the Face of the World Cup Draw
OTF’s Nick Fox is here to look on the bright side, or, if you like, polish a soccer turd…
The joke goes like this. A kid who is a terminal optimist gets a present from her ornery uncle. The uncle wants to prove the kid isn’t all smiles, so he sends her a big pile of manure. The next day, the kid’s out digging through the manure, happy as can be. When the uncle asks her what she’s so happy about, the kid says, “With all this manure, there must be pony in here somewhere!”
Maybe World Cup Group G isn’t the worst group Team USA could’ve landed in, but that’s like saying we were lucky to get the measles instead of the plague. Friday’s World Cup draw was a butt clinching experience for even the most optimistic USA fan, and many pundits are already lowering the bar on fan expectations. Germany is a World Cup favorite and arguably the best team in Europe not named Spain. Portugal has arguably the best player in the world. Ghana is arguably the best team in Africa. And the USA is arguably in a serious pile of manure.
So let’s dig around for that pony, shall we?
USA vs. GHANA—June 16, Natal
Hello Ghana. We meet again.
The USA has played the final game of their last two World Cups against Ghana, and was defeated 2-1 both times. With games against powerhouses Portugal and Germany looming, anything short of a victory here would make it almost impossible to reach the next round of play. Furthermore, the Black Stars are coming off a stellar performance in qualifying, which included a 6-1 thrashing of Bob Bradley’s Egypt side (poor Bob). They are fast, tough, experienced, and like the US, will come into the game with nothing to lose.
Team USA didn’t get many favors in the draw, or the scheduling for that matter (Hello, Amazon!). But the order of play might turn out to be their one saving grace. There are more than enough veterans from 2010 who will view this game as an opportunity for redemption. They will not lack for motivation facing the team that bounced them four years ago, and a win against the most beatable (though still extremely tough) side in the group would be huge boost for their confidence going forward.
IF ALL ELSE FAILS
A loss here pretty much deep-sixes Team USA’s chances, so at that point the need for you to truck off to the Amazon for the second match becomes far less pressing. Besides, Natal is known for having fabulous beaches. You can kick it with the locals and the few Mexican fans left over from the game three days before, who you can get to buy you all the drinks you want by uttering the magical words “Graham Zusi.” Let the Portuguese fans go deal with the mosquitoes in the Amazon. We’ll have another Mai Tai on the beach (*cough* we saved your butts Mexico *cough*).
USA vs. PORTUGAL—June 22, Manaus
You know where you are? You’re in the jungle, baby! YOU’RE GONNA DIE!
Thanks to Jurgen Klinsman dropping a Cue the Rain line, Team USA and all her lovely supporters (at least, those who aren’t still passed out in a shrimp cocktail back in Natal) get to travel to Manaus, which is a Portuguese word meaning “Ah ha ha! Sucks to be you!” Manaus is just over 1700 miles from Natal (roughly the distance from Chicago to L.A.), and game time temperatures could top 90 degrees (coupled with knee-buckling humidity). Not only that, the Americans get to face Cristiano Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo’s feet, Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals, Cristiano Ronaldo’s hair, Cristiano Ronaldo’s dives, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s smirk.
The venue. Seriously.
Averse weather conditions are the great equalizer in sport. A torrential downpour or a driving snowstorm can turn an otherwise precise title-contending team into a sloppy mess struggling to keep pace with a relegation-worthy side. Poor conditions favor the weaker squad, and the talented Portuguese will be facing brutal, unfamiliar weather conditions. And don’t overlook the long flight, either. Remember, one of the biggest issues for players coming from other countries to play in MLS is getting used to long distance travel on a regular basis. A 1700-mile flight to play a game is a very rare occurrence for European players. For most American players, it’s an ordinary fact of life.
It’s also important to remember that, with the exception of the frequent genius of Cristiano Ronaldo and his magical faux-hawk, this Portugal team is maddeningly inconsistent. Their qualifying campaign included draws against Northern Ireland and Israel (twice), and a narrow come from behind win at lowly Luxembourg. This is the third consecutive major tournament that they have needed a playoff victory to qualify for. If their inconsistency weds itself to the surreal conditions of the venue, they could easily be on the wrong side of a major upset.
IF ALL ELSE FAILS
The Amazon Rainforest is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet, with over 800 species of mammals, 16,000 species of trees, and 30 millions species of insects. So…that’s pretty cool.
USA vs. GERMANY—June 26, Recife
Ever wonder how “German efficiency” became a catchphrase? The Germans sure don’t. You know why? Because wondering is inefficient.
The Germans are three-time World Cup Champions and have placed in the top three in each of the last three World Cups. They just finished an undefeated European qualifying campaign with a +26 goal differential. Of the 23 players shortlisted for the Ballon D’Or this year, five of them (22 percent) play for Germany (and that doesn’t even include Miroslav Klose or Lukas Podolski). They are the team you play in your nightmares. They are a hidden difficulty level on FIFA 14 known as “Just Quit Now.” Hell, even their nickname—Die Mannschaft—sounds like it’s going to stand on your face while it heads in its fourth goal.
The only reason Germany isn’t considered the best team in Europe right now is because Spain has been the Cloverfield monster for the last five years. Even so, Die Mannschaft have to be considered one of the favorites to win the whole enchilada (or Die Enchilada, in German).
Really? Okay. Why not? How about two of them: The schedule and Jurgen Klinsmann.
Why the schedule? Because it’s entirely possible that this game will be meaningless to Die Mannschaft (seriously, how scary is that name?). If Germany beats both Portugal and Ghana (very much inside the realm of possibility), then this game will not have a sense of urgency for them, especially if their goal differential is high. If they’re already guaranteed top seed in the group, they’re not going to risk injuries (or yellow card suspensions) heading into the elimination rounds.
And then there’s the matter of Klinsmann. That’s former German international and German National Team manager Jurgen Klinsmann, thank you very much. And maybe that doesn’t mean anything. Maybe having a World Cup Champion who scored 11 goals in three trips and also managed Germany to a third place finish at the 2006 World Cup as Team USA’s manager won’t change a thing. But, as my grandfather would say, it couldn’t hurt.
Also, Germany’s last loss was a 4-3 defeat this summer to…(wait for it)…Team USA.
Hope springs eternal.
IF ALL ELSE FAILS
If Team USA get knocked out on the final day of competition and you are there in Recife for the match, this is where you will be the following day.
There are worse fates.
OTF’s Nick Fox grew up in Sarasota, Florida and has never fully recovered. A former tour guide in both Chicago and New Orleans, Nick’s also worked as a mule driver, a sailor, and a travelling poet. He’s currently working on a novel about gold miners and waiting for the White Sox to win another World Series. Follow Nick @OlympicMule