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Gone Down Blinking

At the risk of sounding naïve—actually, check that. Embracing naïveté with two magnificently clenched thighs, riding naïveté down through the upper atmosphere like the bomb in Dr. Strangelove, I can’t understand why I’m supposed to accept that “the point” of the Gold Cup was to audition players for South Africa. Why wasn’t the point of the Gold Cup to, you know, win the Gold Cup?

You: Soccer in the modern era is a complex hydra-headed thing and competitions have to be prioritized and managed and it’s all a balancing act and compromise and targeted expectations and the conservation of resources.

Me: Yes, I’ve heard that.

But I want to suggest—and again, I say this with the concentrated innocence of a body pillow that will one day be made the legal bride of a 35-year-old Japanese virgin—that this whole system has out-finessed itself.

Seriously, if there were a player who showed the kind of craft and subtlety that we routinely employ in judging the importance of soccer tournaments, he’d be spending the summer professing his loyalty to his current employer while not saying anything to discourage Real Madrid. Think about this. Had we lost 2-0 to Mexico in the Gold Cup final, no one would have cared; we would’ve been all insouciant and “but think of all the guys who got international experience out of this.” But since we lost 5-0, it was suddenly a national emergency. Dear, mild Christopher Sullivan was calling out Bob Bradley’s selection policy on TV. Soccer blogs staged fantasy executions that spilled almost as much imaginary blood as real electric ink.

What, exactly, as fans, are we supposed to do with that? How are we even supposed to prepare for a game when we don’t care if we lose it, but do care if we lose it by a lot? We’ve gone way beyond saying a tournament is important or unimportant, like it’s a switch that we flip. We’ve put the thing on a dimmer knob, and we’re actually taking in tournaments at just the right softly ambiguous level for a dinner party with semi-decent wine.

Now, obviously, this isn’t only an issue for America, and it isn’t only an issue for soccer. Lots of sports, at least outside the monolithic season-playoff-championship structures of the major American leagues, suffer from confusion over which competitions are the ones people are meant to care about. Boxing’s probably the most obvious example, since at any given time over the last hundred years there may have been an actual champion, or there may have been a group of mugs holding some percentage of the 237 variously sanctioned belts. But soccer has taken this to the point that barely a week goes by when we don’t find ourselves watching a team not quite trying to a win a game they’re not exactly interested in—to the point that this is such a distinct match genre that it ought to have its own name, the way some late-season games are called “six-pointers.” (Maybe a “half-pointer”? Maybe a “Sisyphus game”?)

So what’s the problem with this? To put it very, very naïvely, the problem with this is that it isn’t fun. Whatever sport is supposed to do for us, whether you think it’s entertainment or food for the spirit or an excuse to drink liquors and opine, it clearly isn’t supposed to make us endure this kind of strategic quasi-defeatism. To put this another way—and try to suspend your reality-based objections for a second and just imagine this simply—what would have been more fun, the Gold Cup we just watched or a Gold Cup in which the American stars who beat Spain last month went all-out against the best players from Mexico? What sounds like more fun, a Gold Cup that was a semi-unimportant chance to give some untried players a run-out, or a Gold Cup that people cared about like it was the continental championship it’s supposed to be? That people cared about, say, the way they care about the European Championships?

You: But we have World Cup qualifiers coming up. We can’t wear everybody out. Plus, we can’t risk messing up anyone’s European career. For God’s sake, the Gooch is at A.C. Milan!

Me: I know. I don’t know what I’m thinking. Clearly no other continent is able to stage a championship that good players play in and everyone tries to win. Clearly that is an impossible goal, as I was just thinking to myself yesterday when watching a clip of Joan Tomàs scoring the winning goal for Spain in Euro 2008.

Anyway, I understand that this is how things are, and there aren’t any immediate fixes for it at either club or national level. (Oh, but what the hell: make participation in national cups optional; make the Europa League a single-elimination tournament [which would actually make it more fun than the Champions League on some levels]; tie continental championship tournaments to World Cup qualification; make Franz Beckenbauer the FIFA czar of enforcing the rules on clubs that hold their players back from international tournaments and make the penalty for infraction a weekend seminar hosted by Franz Beckenbauer. None of these suggestions is a joke, by the way.)

I just think that amid all the hands-being-wrung-so-hard-they-spontaneously-burst-into-flame that’s followed the Mexico game, we could stand to realize that part of the problem is that we’ve created a continental championship that no one knows how to feel about. If we had a North American championship that unambiguously mattered—or if, to go even more pie-in-the-sky, soccer were organized so that, you know, teams were motivated to win the competitions they entered—our current outrage-or-not wouldn’t be complicated by the fact that we treated the Gold Cup as a clinical trial to determine whether Kyle Beckerman was a World Cup-quality player. (Since there was obviously so much uncertainty on that point.) Instead, we got what we got, and as is so often the case in this sport, wound up who knows where.

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Gone Down Blinking

by Brian Phillips · July 29, 2009

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