Followers of this space know that I enjoy soccer generally, and the sport’s quadrennial World Cup tournament in particular. As a columnist I covered two World Cups—in the United States in 1994 and in France in 1998—and rank them as Nos. 1 and 1A of the favorite events of my sports-writing tenure. Their color and excitement were unsurpassed, and the skill of the participants at least equaled that of any of the other major global sports fests.
Feet are harder to control than hands, and what the top soccerers do with theirs is remarkable. If you don’t believe that, try kicking any round object with your “off” foot (most of us are right-or left-footed as well as handed). Just making contact is an accomplishment, and watch out that you don’t land on your butt after a swing and miss.
So while you might expect that I’m looking forward mightily to the next World Cup edition, which begins on June 14, you’d be mistaken. I’ll no doubt take in some random games, and be intrigued by some individual matchups, but the event already has been pretty much spoiled for me. I’ll be paying less attention to it than I have in the past.
There are two reasons for this:
--The U.S. isn’t in it.
--It’s in Russia.
The U.S. isn’t in it because it didn’t make the field, falling short in the nearly two-year qualifying phase that ended last October. FIFA, the outfit that runs the Cup, is mindful of the big American TV market and our nation’s contingent of well-heeled traveling fans, and very much wanted the U.S. to make it, but that required winning enough games in our easy, North and Central America play-in division, and we didn’t. Team USA entered the last two games of the six-nation, 10-game tournament needing only one tie to earn a Cup spot, but lost to Costa Rica at home and then bowed to Trinidad and Tobago on the road. The latter loss, by a 2-1 score, ranks as a one of the biggest soccer upsets ever, not only because of T & T’s tiny size (its pop. is about 1.3 million) but also because of its 1-win, 8-loss record going in (the U.S.’s final mark was 3 wins, 4 losses and 3 ties). It was kind of like a Major League baseball team losing to a Class A club.
Heads rolled because of the failure-- the two U.S. coaches and the national-federation president during the tournament either were fired or quit under fire—but with the every-four-years Cup format it meant a long slog the wilderness for the entire American sport. Soccer is a minority taste in this land, so the setback wasn’t as catastrophic as it was in the perennial powers Italy and The Netherlands, but not being in the party after a seven-time run stings.
The fact that this year’s tournament is in Russia attests to the corrupt nature of FIFA. Like its multisport counterpart the International Olympic Committee, FIFA is a self-appointed, self-perpetuating body that exists to enable its leaders to stuff their pockets from the deluge of money that has come to big-time world sports, through no special efforts of their own. Like the IOC, FIFA is partial to authoritarian governments like that of Russia and the 2022 World Cup host Qatar, where the graft is conveniently centralized and there’s no danger from pain-in-the-ass citizens’ groups protesting its predations. The record of both groups forfeits any presumption of innocence in their dealings; one can safety assume that bribery plays a role in all their major decisions.
That the fix already is in for this year’s Cup is shown in Russia’s inclusion in by far the easiest of the tournament’s eight, four-nation round-robin groups. Russia never has been a world soccer force, and its national team is ranked 66th world-wide going in, but the “draw” blessed it with a group that includes other non-powers Egypt, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia. The Cup’s opening match, pitting the Ruskies against the 70th-ranked Saudis, will be the least-attractive such game ever.
In a better world national virtue would count for something in the award of international sports extravaganzas, but not in this one. Russia under the odious Vladimir Putin leads any list of world evildoers, making war on its neighbors, jailing domestic dissidents, murdering ex-pats and waging cyber attacks against the Western democracies.
In sports Russia is a pariah, its banners and emblems (but, unfortunately, not all its athletes) barred from the 2016 Summer Olympics as a result of revelations of wholesale doping violations at the 2014 Winter Olympics, which it hosted. Its state-organized doping regime extended well beyond those Games, involving more than 1,000 athletes in some 30 sports, according to numerous sources. It may continue yet, as evidenced by its continuing ban from international track and field competition and its nose-thumbing failure to bring its drug-testing procedures up to standard. Drug testing for the World Cup will be carried out in Switzerland, not Russia.
Russia’s soccer fans behave worse than its athletes, if that’s possible, roaming foreign cities in paramilitary packs and raising bloody havoc when the national team plays abroad. Russia nearly was ejected from the 2016 European Champions in France because of their antics. Last March FIFA again threatened action when fans in St. Petersburg directed racists chants at French player Paul Pogba during a match there; that was just the latest of many such incidents. Such things play poorly on international TV, so Putin, et al, can be expected to rein them in during Cup play, but the nasty undercurrent can’t be whitewashed away.
There has been some international bounce-back against the Cup, with some corporate-sponsorship slots going unfilled and at least Great Britain refusing to send official delegations to the opening and closing ceremonies. But the “show must go on” mentality that also pervades the Olympics will hold, and the Cup will continue to be the world’s most-watched sporting event, with a peak TV audience estimated at three billion people.
Some of us Yanks will be among that number, and with the U.S. not represented the question of rooting will arise. Fox Sports, which owns U.S. TV rights, for a while promoted a “root for your roots” approach, which would have Americans pulling for their ancestral homelands, but I’m grateful that my forebears escaped from theirs, so that’s out for me. I’ll give a cheer for England because its team includes several members of Tottenham Hotspur, by club-team favorite, and for Iceland, where my daughter-in-law is from. But mostly I’ll be rooting for good games, the same as I do for domestic competitions that don’t include my Chicago teams.
And I’ll be flicking through my TV guide to find the broadcasts of the Spanish-language network Telemundo. My Spanish is poor but one doesn’t need much of it to follow Andres Cantor, its lead soccer announcer, and his signature cry of “GOOOOOAAAAAL” requires no translation.