The Good, the Bad, and the Brackets

I finished third overall in ESPN’s World Cup prediction game. I’d like to brag about it — there were more than a million entries, and I finished just one point shy of the $5,000 first prize – but I can’t. It’s not just because I won nothing for my troubles. It’s also because I didn’t try. Before filling out my bracket, I could have consulted statistics, broken down tactics, and carefully considered historic results. Instead, I just went with my first, unconsidered instincts, and vowed not to change a thing. When I did look back at my picks, I was appalled. Uruguay in the semifinals? Holland beating Brazil? Crazy.

As the World Cup progressed and I shot up the ESPN leaderboard, I was filled with mixed emotions about myself and the tournament. I dabbled in ill-founded vanity about my soccer insight, even as I knew it was my unconscious, not my superior judgment, that was responsible for my good fortune. Then I began to resent my brain for mildly succeeding at such a silly task. Couldn’t my unconscious have been really good at, say, making a whole lot of money, or, perhaps, convincing publishers of the genius of my unwritten novel? Why did I pick Germany over Argentina?

My bracket forced me into odd alliances. I rooted for Uruguay against Ghana. This was in direct opposition to the United Nations proclamation that all neutrals MUST support Ghana. They’re African for God’s sakes. It was also in opposition to my inclinations. I had come to like Ghana’s Serbian manger Milovan Rajevac (above), who sat on the sidelines with a grizzled look and a crooked green, yellow, and maroon tie, while his team glided across the pitch with grace. Before the Cup, I wondered how Ghana would replace the irreplaceable Michael Essien. Anthony Annan, the 23-year-old midfielder, answered. He looked like a longer, lankier Essien with similarly sprouting hair and a strong hold on the midfield. Then there was Kevin-Prince Boateng whose modified Mohawk pointed the way for his quick diagonal runs, and Asomoah Gyan, whose extra-time strike against the United States is still imprisoning my brain. He takes the long ball out of the air, muscles off Bocanegra, the ball bounces, he whips his left foot around – how? – and the ball floats perfectly over the onrushing Tim Howard.

When, after 120 excruciating minutes with both teams scoring brilliant goals and wasting easy chances, Ghana appeared to win the game on the last play, only to have Luis Suarez, the wonderful Uruguayan striker, bat the ball out of the goal with his hand, I din’t know what to think. Red card. Penalty. Gyan steps up. It must be Ghana. It’s fated. Gyan hits the crossbar.

Who was I rooting for then? Who deserved to win?

My ambivalence about this game, and the whole tournament, was not just a result of bracket watching. There was an enigmatic flow to this year’s World Cup. Perhaps it was the conservative strategy employed by so many teams, or it was the deafening hum of the vuvuzelas, or it was the counter-traditional styles: Brazil played with two defensive midfielders. Holland replaced their normal flair with brutality. Italy…. well, let’s forget about Italy. That’s not to say it was a boring World Cup, or that I did not relish watching almost every game, just that the winners and losers were tough to pick out. So many soared, but just about everyone also sank.

Spain didn’t sink — for the most part. After they beat Holland, I immediately re-watched their semi-final with Germany, the meeting of the tournament’s two best teams. It was one of the greatest displays of possession football I have ever seen. Coaches should show this game to all their young players and tell them to watch Xavi and Iniesta without the ball. They move in some kind of beautiful minuet, constantly rotating in circles to the spaces between defenders. They collect the ball again. They pause to let an opponent slide by. They pass again to another partner. And it continues. Ole.

I picked Spain to win it all, because I liked to watch this, and because I wanted them to win, and because I thought they could. I was right, and I don’t mind bragging about that.

very nice article, Austin. just checking in from someone else’s computer at work. i didn’t watch any of the WC, but I am playing livingroom soccer with my kid and he’s pretty good and it’s pretty fun, so who knows, maybe one day i’ll watch a WC. started a note to you on FB recently but didn’t finish, so let me send this now before i get distracted. congrats on getting hitched! xo mira

mira    Aug 17, 12:36 PM    #

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