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The cruel and beautiful game

We all know about the best laid plans of mice and men. Nowhere is that more true than the cruel and unpredictable world of competitive soccer, where the correlation between performance and result is opaque at best. Such has been the case thus far in the World Cup that began Sunday with an expected drumming by Ecuador of host nation Qatar, likely the worst team in the field. Since then, we’ve had mix of games that went to expectation, those that defied the odds, and some that will leave teams and their fans wondering what should have been.

Such is clearly the case for the American team, who largely outplayed Wales in their opening match on Monday but ended with a 1-1 draw. After leading for the lion’s share of the match, the US gave Wales a penalty kick on an unnecessary foul in the box, a moment that will live in the memories of anyone who cares about US Soccer. If US doesn’t make the round of 16 and Wales does, they will likely look back exactly to this one bad moment of a game they otherwise should have won. That’s the albatross hanging on the Americans’ neck until at least Friday, when they play group favorite England in a game expected to serve as retribution for 1776.

The US isn’t the only team thinking about what could have been. Poland’s star striker Robert Lewandowski was reportedly very emotional after missing a second half penalty kick in their opening match against Mexico, a shot that would have lifted them from a 0-0 draw. But at least Poland was at best an even match with Mexico. The opening salvos by Germany and Argentina were far worse. Germany outplayed Japan by nearly every measure other than the final score, which was 2-1 Japan after they scored two goals in the final 20 minutes. And Argentina lost 2-1 to a far inferior Saudi Arabia in their supposed quest of a World Cup title. Saudi Arabia had exactly two shots on goal all game. And two goals. That is the kind of math that drives soccer fans insane. It may also become part of the mythology of Argentinian star Lionel Messi, who despite his greatness has never won a World Cup – and may likely be defined by that unfair standard. All of this is just in the first round of games, much of which went according to form. France and the Netherlands won, for example. But assuredly, there will be more than a few more unfair, unwarranted, unexpected, and unpredictable results, sending some of the best performing teams home before the Cup evolves to a single elimination tournament.

I won’t try to compare the feelings of American soccer to Argentinian soccer, because that would be crazy. But in the US, there’s already a general sentiment that we may have blown our chance, that one bad decision might have derailed eight years of planning in bringing American soccer closer to the global stage. That’s the concern, especially for fans of a game that’s as cruel as it is beautiful. For other nations, like Germany, one loss to Japan may end their title defense, especially if Spain dominates their bracket. Even though one game shouldn’t dictate everything in a group of four where two move on, it kind of does.

Perhaps that’s why people love soccer so much – and especially the World Cup. Not in spite of, but perhaps because of these cruel twists of fate. There are fans in Argentina who’ve waited generations – since 1986, to be specific – for the opportunity to die in peace. And because of a momentary lapse or two, that may not happen. Meanwhile, Welsh soccer fans, most of whom weren’t alive to see their last Cup appearance in 1958, may have fate on their side to play single elimination soccer. The World Cup offers thrills of chance casinos could only dream of, all draped in the shroud of sport and nationalism. And everyone believes they might just get lucky – which has the added benefit of being true.

As for Argentina and Poland, only time will tell if their mistakes will be the things of nightmares for at least the next four years. And by time, I mean one week, when they play each other in what may very well be an elimination game. I’m sure they’ll both have well designed game plans focused on their two respective stars Messi and Lewandowsky. But you know what they say about plans.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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