The Final Four World Cup: An American Perspective
by Peter Kravitz
After Trinidad and Tobago bounced the United States out of the final 2018 World Cup qualifier, I thought that I would have a lot of free time this summer. I wouldn’t be obsessively viewing soccer in dank bars, shunning the beach and other sunny activities.
But alas, the World Cup has sucked me in. Blame my English friend Mat Scanlan. Mat, an English police officer, visited the US in June this year, as he has done for World Cups 2010 and 2014. Together, along with my brother in law, Adam Green, we watched England’s first game, for the third straight World Cup. That was enough to get me hooked once again.
Though I didn’t play soccer as a kid and have little interest in professional club games, the big international tournaments and their qualifiers always draw me in. It has been a strange journey. Like most American sports fans, I used to find watching soccer painful, akin to something as incomprehensible as cricket, which, by the way, is Mat’s favorite sport. I overcame this aversion while traveling in Italy in the late 1980s. My wife and I stayed with the Tavarellis, the family of my Italian friend, Iolanda Bus. We all watched as the Soviet Union stunned heavily favored Italy, 4–1, in the semis of the UEFA 1988 European Championships, thanks to a pre-Putin strategy of mugging, slide tackling, and just beating the snot out of the much smaller Italian team.
The nation of Italy virtually closed the day after the loss to the Soviets. The usually cheery northern Italians appeared dazed and confused. But a beautiful Dutch squad then mesmerized all of Europe by capturing its only international tournament ever, thanks to the spectacular performance by the striker pair of team captain Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten in the final. Gullit was too solid for the Soviets to knock down, and van Basten scored one of the all-time greatest goals in soccer history when he volleyed a 50-yard pass into the net for the 2–0 Euro title.
I’ve been a diehard fan ever since.
So here I am, glued to the World Cup once more. It has been fantastic! I enjoyed the über-drama of defending champion Germany’s early boot out of the tourney by South Korea. I even like the commercials elbowing fun at the US absence. Even a defensive snoozer like Sweden’s 1–0 win over Switzerland in the knockout round lured me in last week, despite my wife showing me a red card for not getting off the sofa.
The relentless slog of 70th-ranked host Russia to the quarterfinals stunned me, as it did most soccer fans. The question on my mind was: Did Putin somehow engineer that success? But that quarterfinal versus Croatia was a great game. Tied at the end of regulation time, the Croatians scored first in extra time. The Russians dramatically tied the score in the 115th minute. In the end though, Russia fell to their southern Slavic brethren in penalty kicks.
As for me, I’ve adopted England as my team. Mat is extremely pessimistic about their chances. England, the nation that invented soccer, has faltered in World Cup and European Championships for 50 years. I urged him to have hope. Teams that never win have won a lot lately. In the fall of 2017, the Houston Astros won their first World Series. Then in February 2018 the Philadelphia Eagles won their first Super Bowl. And just months later the Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup. So, why not England now?
As my friend Mat, awaits the England-Croatia semifinal, he e-mailed: “Supporting England is a rough ride—52 years of getting knocked out of tournaments is a lot of pain.” So true. Two years ago tiny Iceland defeated England in the round of 16 in Euro 2016. Things seemed hopeless for the English national squad, but England has now found a great leader in 47-year-old coach Gareth Southgate. So as for me, I’m optimistic. I’m even going to work on learning the words to “Football is Coming Home,” one of the many songs the English sing at games, about the years of hurt dating back to England’s lone World Cup win in 1966, according to Mat.
This week’s matches are so exciting! First, the all-European Final Four of France-Belgium on Tuesday and England-Croatia on Wednesday. Then the final on Sunday, July 15, which might surpass the 3.2 billion-person viewership of the 2010 World Cup final.
Many American sports fans won’t watch, but after 30 years of witnessing brilliant tension and excitement on the telly, I look forward to the last three games of this tournament. I’ve forgotten how to enjoy summer without my daily soccer fix. And maybe, just maybe the US can find its own great coach, return to the World Cup in 2022, and even become a contender!