Lionel Messi gets sick before soccer matches. He threw up at the beginning of a game between Argentina and Romania in March. He dry heaved during a match against Slovenia this past Saturday. Nobody knows why this happens — not Messi, not doctors from Barcelona or Argentina. “Nerves, I reckon,” mused Argentina national coach Alejandro Sabella.
“I don’t know what it is. But I had a thousand exams,” Messi said earlier this year. “I start to feel nauseous to the point where I almost vomit, and then it goes away.”
If inconsequential matches against Romania and Slovenia make the best player in the world toss his cookies, one can only imagine how he will feel before Argentina’s opening match of the 2014 World Cup, against Bosnia and Herzegovina. The World Cup remains the pinnacle of the sport — possibly of all sports. It is the Olympics with a game people actually care about. Despite the amount of hype surrounding the monthlong event, despite the entire corporate-industrial complex that flowers out of it, and regardless of all the questions it raises about the relative importance of sports to society, the World Cup still holds a powerful grip on the hearts and minds of athletes and fans alike. Lionel Messi has won everything you can win as a club soccer player, but when presented with the opportunity for national team glory, he would trade it all away.
“Argentina is my country, my family, my way of expressing myself … I would change all my record to make the people in my country happy.”
It’s World Cup time. Someone get this kid a Dramamine.
People measure their lives in World Cups. I know my family does. My parents — an English dad and an American mom — met on a blind date in London during the 1966 World Cup in England. The host nation’s victory, and the gin-soaked celebrations that followed, became an essential part of their origin story. England won the World Cup, and six weeks later they were making plans to move to America together. I’m not going to fact-check that story. It’s what they told me. It’s just too good to not be true.
Countries measure themselves in Cups, too. In the States, there’s soccer before and after 1994, when the U.S. held the tournament. In Germany, the 2006 Cup provided the nation with a 21st-century identity, leaving behind a troubled 20th.
The 2014 World Cup, at least in theory, was supposed to be about the game returning to its spiritual homeland. No other nation on earth exemplifies the poetic, transcendent possibilities of soccer like Brazil. It has given us Pelé, Garrincha, Zico, Socrates, Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho. People talk about the great Brazilian national teams the same way they talk about their first loves — through them, they were taught something about life. This is the kind of rhetoric Brazilian soccer culture inspires. This tournament was supposed to be a sort of homecoming for the sport. Brazil. Football. What could possibly be better than that?
Quite a few things, it turns out. Economic equality, human rights, health care, employment, and working infrastructure, to name just a few. With the São Paulo kickoff between Brazil and Croatia coming on fast, and the tragic debacle unfolding in Qatar, the World Cup is forcing people, in Brazil and around the world, to have a tough, if important, conversation about what sports are really worth.
At the end of the day, staging a series of soccer matches will cost Brazil a reported $11 billion. Stadiums, airports, and transportation are still not ready to support the flood of spectators, media, and hangers-on. There was a transportation strike in São Paulo last week and reports of airport workers in Rio going on strike on Wednesday. Beyond the inconveniences felt by those who will be visiting the country for the Cup, there are the very real injustices felt by Brazilians who claim — and who could really argue with them? — that the money being spent on a sporting event could have been used on much more essential projects.
The more you read about this World Cup, the harder it becomes to view it as anything more than an intrusion upon the lives of Brazilians. According to a recently published Pew Research poll, 61 percent of Brazilians see the World Cup as “a bad thing for Brazil because it takes money away from schools, health care and other public services.” Beyond football, the poll reveals concerns about rising prices and falling employment numbers and a lack of confidence in Brazil’s political leaders and institutions. The idea of suits, hacks, and well-moneyed “fans” flooding the country, enjoying a monthlong soccer vacation, and leaving Brazil to clean up in time to stage an Olympics in 2016, is enough to make even the most romantic sports fan sick.
This is the dance we do. We all know the steps. We come for the sports and we suffer through the bullshit. Why is the World Cup any different? Why should we get excited about this behemoth of an event, stickered with brand logos, packaged and sold back to us over and over? Why should we celebrate a competition that sucks up resources and displaces people, run by a corrupt group of robber barons? How is that even a question?
I can’t answer that. Neither can soccer. It’s just a game, no matter how beautiful it can be. I think a conscientious fan can only really do one thing: choose to celebrate everything this game is, to so many different people, from so many different walks of life. You choose to tune out the noise and hear a song.
(Go to 4:06)
This video is from the 2013 Confederations Cup final between Brazil and Spain. It’s the Brazilian national team singing along to their national anthem at the famous Maracanã Stadium in Rio. Watch the final second, when the players join the chorus of voices in the crowd. Check out how Julio Cesar starts to vibrate. Watch how Marcelo — Marcelo! — almost bursts out of his shirt with passion. This is the Brazil — the beautiful, strong, impavid colossus — that I choose to believe in. And this is the game that inspires it.
Among the players singing that song are Champions League, Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A champions. These guys have been bought and sold for millions and millions of dollars, and most of them bring home absurd wages every week, paid by clubs owned by the oil giants, Middle Eastern royal families, and Russian oligarchs. But there they are, these international playboys of Paris, London, Barcelona, and Madrid, all the same, all in yellow and blue, singing about how Brazil’s future mirrors its greatness. They believe it. So do I.
Stuff like this hits me in the feelings box. Two years ago, I moved to Los Angeles from New York. Allow me to be the 200,000th person to observe that this is a lonely place, every day can feel the same, and everyone looks like they are on their way to or from shooting an episode of Suits. It’s a wonderful town to live in, but if your life consists of getting up, going to work, and going home, it can be a little hard to feel part of the global community here. Los Angeles is a wonderfully diverse place, but it’s not a very communal one. With the ocean at your back and a sea of red brake lights in front of you, the city can feel like an endpoint on a map, not a gateway to the world.
The World Cup changes that. You start hearing coworkers, friends, and neighbors tell stories about family trees with roots in Switzerland, brothers or sisters who live in Chile, deep affection for the WAGs of Portugal, the up-and-coming stars of the South Korean U-21 team, or a father and a mother who met on a blind date in England.
We are all outlaws, baby.
But if you want to have a really interesting conversation about the World Cup, and the world, ask someone to name their second favorite team in the tournament.
To me, the World Cup means national pride in many nations. It means feeling a bond with my fellow citizen-fans, everywhere — Three Lions or Indomitable Lions. It means believing in the possibility, be it great or small, that something extraordinary can happen to your team in the next four weeks. And it means that instead of ignoring the people who are hosting the event, you do everything you can to celebrate them. So, from the bottom of my heart, thanks for putting up with this, Brazil.
Geoff Hurst, member of the England national team that won the World Cup the summer my parents met, once said that football is a game of tomorrows. Well, tomorrow hits today. I feel like Lionel Messi. But, you know, watching him balance a ball on his head like a sea otter during a recent Sabella team-talk, I am starting to think his problem isn’t anxious nausea brought on by the immense pressure he puts on himself. To me, he looks like a kid playing a game.
Maybe it’s just butterflies.
If I have done my job, you are storming around your home or office screaming at your spouse or coworkers like Gianluigi Buffon screams at his defenders. You are suitably up for the Cup. Hopefully the Men in Blazers preview videos; the features on Belgium, Brazil, exoskeletons (!), and the Ivory Coast; and the tactical guides have gotten you adequately prepared for the soccer nirvana that is about to take place. But if you still need a little more priming, I am here to help you through the next few days.
Like a great Motown album, the 2014 World Cup is not hiding the hits. So here’s a look at five must-see matches from the first few days of action.
Brazil vs. Croatia
Every game for Brazil is a trap game, but this one especially. Croatia is the host nation’s toughest competition in Group A, and this is an outstanding opening match — way better than Mexico–South Africa in 2010 and Germany–Costa Rica in 2006. Croatia may not have the same cool cachet since Slaven Bilic took his “Harry Dean Stanton as soccer coach” routine to Turkey, but they have some real players. Luka Modric and new Barcelona signing Ivan Rakitic are one of the silkiest midfield partnerships of the entire tournament field.
For a variety of reasons, Brazil want to get off on the right foot here. Not the least of which: According to Paul Gardner over at SoccerAmerica, “In sum: over the past four World Cups, 46 teams have lost their opening game. Only 4 of those 46 — not quite 9 percent of them — made it to the second round.” Brazil should get through Group A without too much fuss, and a draw against Croatia isn’t the end of the world, but watch for a pretty tight contest here.
Spain vs. Netherlands
And one day into the tournament we get what might be the crown jewel of the group-stage matches. We get a rematch of the contentious 2010 World Cup final here. Both teams are turning a generational page. For Spain, this is likely the last chance for the Xavi-Iniesta dynasty to win silverware, while Holland is managing the transition from the Robin van Persie–Arjen Robben–Wesley Sneijder team to a younger group. These two nations have produced some of the best soccer the world has ever seen, and I’m hoping we see some of that in the somewhat less-intense group-stage atmosphere. As you may remember, these two can get a little hot under the collar with each other.
Chile vs. Australia
One of the greatest pleasures of the World Cup is the chance to watch soccer players you may not get to watch on a regular basis, on the world’s biggest stage. Please, do yourself a favor and watch Chile’s Arturo Vidal on Friday. He’s recovering from knee surgery, but it looks like he’s going to play. Pray that he does. The Juventus midfielder is one of the best in the game at his position right now. Mike Goodman sang his praises in his tactics guide, and Ryan O’Hanlon got dizzy for him a couple of months ago. He is a beastmaster, and Chile, at their best, play like a house on fire. I think they’re going to get through with one of Netherlands and Spain. Sorry, Socceroos.
England vs. Italy
Like Netherlands-Spain, this is a changing-of-the-guard game. Two of the best central midfielders of the last 20 years — Italy’s Andrea Pirlo and England’s Steven Gerrard — will be on the (apparently crappy) pitch in Manaus. It’s going to be hot as hell, so we may get a conservative, “no, after you,” kind of game, but watch out for some of the young guns to make an impression, especially England’s Daniel Sturridge and Italy’s Mario Balotelli, and maybe substitute appearances from Raheem Sterling and Ciro Immobile.
Argentina vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina
Lionel Messi will play in the World Cup on the same day LeBron James plays in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. What an incredibly lucky day to be a sports fan. I think I’m the one who needs the Dramamine.