I am here to tell you about fire. The group stage of the 2014 World Cup was one of the most spectacular phases of a soccer tournament in recent memory. We’ve had torrential rains. We’ve had jungle heat. We’ve had moths the size of magazines. We’ve had wild upsets and crushing defeats; we’ve toppled the entire world order. We’ve seen more goals than in any major conflict since at least the French Revolution. And now — at last — this tournament is about to get serious.
The pause before the knockout stage of the World Cup is a chance to catch our shuddering breath, grab onto the nearest beach umbrella for support, and try to figure out where we are, who we’re with, and how we got into these costumes. Here are five blazing-hot questions to consider as we head into the weekend. Please, handle them with tongs. This is the World Cup; you don’t want to lose a finger.
1. Will Lionel Messi and/or Neymar hoist the dreams of their nations onto their tiny shoulders and carry them like precious gems over the towering mountains of destiny?
Look, pressure is a concept. It’s a state of mind. If you don’t feel it, it doesn’t exist, no matter what everyone else on the planet might say. If you can shrug it off, it’s gone, even if you’re an impish member of the FC Barcelona front line whose entire existence will be judged invalid by billions of people if you don’t all-but-single-handedly win the most scrutinized sporting event on the planet. If you’re just like, whoa, chill, pressure can’t touch you, even if that sporting event happens to revolve around a game that’s notoriously impossible for one person to control, even if the teams you’re expected to lead to glory each feature holes that any sane person could ID as the German shepherd–size pet doors through which doom crawls in after dark. If you just laugh and put life in perspective, you’ll feel fine, even if you happen to be the sole avatar and focal point of a country where there literally are no sane people, where losing at soccer is perceived as a crime somewhere between violent treason and playing bass for Nickelback. If you just crank that Bobby McF and put a big grin on your face, pressure will vanish, even if NO GET UP WHY ARE YOU FOAMING AT THE MOUTH OH GOD STOP WRITHING IT’S HORRIBLE PLEASE GET UUUUP.
So, hey, who wants to be Messi or Neymar for the next two weeks? Sounds fun, right? Win and you earn soccer immortality in Argentina or Brazil, one of the few truly free hall passes this life has to offer. (Ladies and gentlemen, Diego Armando Maradona.) Lose and … well, OK, there’s the unceasing future hell of being scorned by your countrymen and second-guessed by the world. But hey, complimentary World Cup towels! Absorbent.
Messi and Neymar are the narrative double helix of this tournament. Each is facing reality-warping expectations. Each has performed brilliantly so far; they’re both tied with Germany’s Thomas Müller at the top of the scoring list, with four goals apiece in three games.
Messi has launched a free kick so mesmerizing it paralyzed the goalkeeper, and gone on a run that made two Bosnian players tackle each other. Neymar has managed to do this:
… while also leading the World Cup in regrettable hairstyles on target. It’s been sensational to watch, even before you consider that they play for two of the biggest rivals in world soccer and oh, hey, you’re right, they also play for the same club team.
Can they possibly keep this up? Argentina has been a one-man band up to this point. Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero look like they’re playing on Claritin. The defense has been — well, picture a really fun novel; now picture a footnote that nobody reads. For a team coached by stolid mustache-wearer and occasional player-puncher Phil Scolari, Brazil has resembled a yellow case of the yips for long stretches. These teams could be engulfed by reality, or at least Switzerland, unless they get better fast. In the meantime, watching two of the best attacking players in the world try to keep the magic running under the brightest possible lights — that’s going to be special. That’s why we have this tournament in the first place.
2. What will the Luis Suárez–size hole in the Uruguay lineup mean for the rest of the tournament?
Probably not that much! If by some miracle they get past Colombia, Uruguay would collide with Brazil in the quarterfinal, even with Suárez in the side. And as good as Suárez is at both soccer and making people yell about things that aren’t soccer, Uruguay was never likely to stop the Seleção one match short of the semifinal of its own tournament. Without Suárez, Colombia should have an easier time neutralizing Edinson Cavani. And maybe the world press will have a few extra column inches to spend (deservedly) on James Rodriguez. But in terms of cascading domino effects that rewrite the fates of nations, the Suárez ban is pretty much a nonstarter.
Still, though — Suárez, huh? Let’s take a second to appreciate what he’s accomplished. He has now scored five goals in two World Cups. That’s just three fewer than Maradona, by the way. He has also been dramatically banned in both World Cups after scandals that have thrown the soccer media into hysteria. In 2010, there was the last-ditch handball against Ghana that got Uruguay into the semifinals; in 2014, all he did was bite an opponent for the third time in his career. Suárez has this way of provoking reactions so far-reaching and frenzied that it becomes almost impossible to have non-shell-shocked thoughts about him. Maybe he’s evil, maybe he’s a cheat, maybe he’s the victim of a culture that overlooks mental illness when it accompanies success, maybe he’s being enabled by a media that commodifies controversy while pretending to excoriate it. Maybe we don’t really know! Either way, he has blazed through his two World Cups like a profoundly fucked-up comet. Here’s to that, in a way. We won’t forget him.
3. Is Europe dead?
There have been 19 World Cups including the first one in 1930. The host country has reached the final in eight of those tournaments and won six of them. And yet every four years, there’s this little ritual of surprise we enact when teams playing far from home fail to meet expectations, because how could home-field advantage matter in a sport played in massive semi-covered arenas full of 80,000 screaming fans?
It’s been fun, admittedly, watching some of the big European teams, the ex-colonial dreadnaughts, run aground in Brazil. Sorry, England. Later, Spain. It’s been real, Portugal. Maybe take 10 seconds to check your privilege, uh, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Still, though, even without Italy, even without Croatia, UEFA got six teams — the Netherlands, Greece, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium — into the Round of 16. That’s the same as the figure from 2010, when the World Cup was in South Africa. In 2006, in Germany, the number was 10.
It’s probably fair to say that Europe’s dominance in world soccer has been slowly declining over the last decade or so. But particularly given that four South American teams are crammed into the same quarter of the draw this year, it’s just too big a leap to say that the run of high-profile losses means Europe is powerfully diminished as a world soccer power. It’s got as good a chance to place two or three teams in the semifinals as ever. Sorry, global progress!
4. How far can #belief take the #USMNT?
OK, fine, it came down to Cristiano Ronaldo. Fine. The United States men’s national team’s path to the knockout stages of the World Cup was let’s just say considerably eased by the most carefully moussed head in world football, while the eyebrows attached to that head arched superciliously and the mouth attached to that head pursed with distaste and the brain inside that head fantasy-popped a million pastel collars. The USMNT didn’t technically need Ronaldo’s goal against Ghana to clear its path out of the group, but the Real Madrid star’s left-footed goal abated what was starting to feel suspiciously like panic. Fine. Credit where it’s due. Ronaldo might not be the most likable figure ever to self-brand his own line of gigantic rhinestone belt buckles, but this is the World Cup. If your squadron of hard-fighting patriots is going to lose 1-0 to the German Mannschaft, you might as well find some comfort in a guy named after Ronald Reagan.
All things considered, it was one of the weirder imaginable runs to the round of 16 for the American team. The results got progressively worse (a win, then a draw, then a loss), only they did so in ways that felt progressively more triumphant (we played badly in the win, then really well in the draw, and then escaped the group in the loss). Literally all of our players broke their noses. We wound up celebrating after losing to Germany, which is exactly the kind of non-regulation historical shenanigans that make the Greatest Generation think soccer is for ballerinas and communists.
And you know what? It makes no difference. We’re through to the last 16. We get Belgium next, which should at least give us a chance to stomp some actual ballerinas. (I’m sorry, but “Eden Hazard” is a name that was born to be followed by “as the Sugar Plum Fairy” on a theater marquee.) Whether we can win is a different question. The Belgians field a small army of European club stars, from Chelsea’s Hazard and Romelu Lukaku to Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany. They entered the tournament as a dark horse favorite. Everyone’s saying that they looked vulnerable in their group-stage matches, and that’s true, although the way people are saying it does kind of tend to overlook the fact that the USMNT spent the majority of its group-stage matches one Beasley or Gonzalez or Beckerman clearance away from being goal-scored-on back to the Stone Age.
We could win this game. It could happen. The narrowness of Belgium’s attack will play into the USA’s defensive strength in the center of the pitch. Clint Dempsey is so haunted and broken and grimly determined at this point that I wouldn’t bet against him in a gunfight, much less a soccer game. It’s also possible, and indeed to be hoped, that Jurgen Klinsmann will surreptitiously field Ronaldo as a naturalized American winger called “Kyle Perfecto.” You’ll recognize him by the portrait of Abe Lincoln shaved into his left temple.
If we make it to the quarterfinals, we’d likely play Argentina, which, hoo boy, OK, but let’s say Messi eats some bad churrasco. The biggest win in U.S. soccer history would then lead us to a possible semifinal against Mexico, which we would obviously win 2-0. That would land us in the final against Brazil, where we would lose 3-0, because even my absurd fantasy has limits, but there would at least be enough bad calls that we could blame the referee.
I guess what I’m saying is this: The United States men’s national soccer team is the best soccer team in the world.
5. Who’s the favorite to win this thing?
You mean apart from Miguel Herrera GIFs? Four years ago, Spain went to South Africa to back up its momentous win in Euro 2008; four years before that, Italy started strangling teams early and wound up surrendering just one goal en route to the final. (GUESS WHICH COUNTRY SCORED IT.) This year, the sense of who’s the top team — even of who’s any good — has jumped all over the place. Brazil came in as the favorite, but then the Netherlands pulverized Spain, but then Germany crushed Portugal, but then Ghana held the Germans to a draw and Australia nearly did the same to the Dutch, and, oh, has anyone noticed that Colombia won all of its group games? Yeah, that happened. Please don’t do a search for cocaine jokes on Twitter.
At this point, there are at least three teams who wouldn’t be surprising as winners (Brazil, the Netherlands, Germany). There are another three or four who could challenge for the title if things break the right way (let’s say France, Argentina, and Belgium, at least). Then there are the South American wolverines that are eating people’s faces (Colombia, Chile). After a totally thrilling group stage, the knockout rounds look as wide open as in any major competition since at least Euro 2008 — coincidentally also the most fun international tournament of the last 10 years. Remember Germany-Turkey that year, in the lightning storm? Remember the feeling that something was happening that you’d never seen before — that you didn’t know where the tournament was going, but you knew the destination would astound?
That’s the precipice on which the 2014 World Cup is poised at this moment. Anything could happen. Here’s to fire.