If you’re reading this, you know something I don’t: who won the World Cup. (Is it Brazil? Don’t tell me it’s Brazil.)
As I write this, the first round of the group stage is almost complete. A German loss, unexpected draws by Argentina and Brazil, and an epic performance by the easy-to-hate Ronaldo have made the tournament feel wide open so far. According to a survey by ExpressVPN, 30 percent of Americans plan to watch the World Cup. It promises to be a good one.
I live with an Italian girlfriend, an Irishman and a Brazilian … hence only Brazilian flags litter the house. Despite making it to the round of 16 in 2014, a qualifier defeat by Trinidad and Tobago kept the U.S. out of the party for the first time since 1986. Ireland fell in the playoff qualification to Denmark, losing 5-1 in Dublin after drawing 0-0 in the first leg.
Even more remarkable, however, is a year without two-time winner and soccer powerhouse Italy. (Who imagined a World Cup with Iceland but not Italy?) As the Brazilian keeps reminding us, Brazil is the favorite this time.
The more one keeps up with history and current events, the more impressive the World Cup becomes. In 2014, Russia violated international law by annexing the Crimea Peninsula. This year, they’re hosting the World Cup. In no other event – sports or otherwise – does the globe come together and successfully (for the most part) overcome politics. (Sure, there’s the Olympics, but it’s not the same.)
I’m sure neither Nigeria nor Chad forget recent border conflicts when they face off, nor is there historical amnesia when Tunisia or Algeria play against their former colonizer, France. Still, the game goes on.
I recognize soccer isn’t a sport fit to American tastes. It is low-scoring, can end in a tie, and there isn’t a cheerleader to be found. Plus, we’re fairly bad at it. Still, it’s a chance to do what the other kids on the playground are doing, since no one else really plays our sports.
(I know, the Olympics, but it’s not the same.) Also, it probably works because we’re not that into it. If America truly committed to the World Cup, with our advantages in population and sponsorship wealth, we’d once again play the part of the big evil empire everyone wants to take down. There’s enough of that already. Instead, we can be American by exercising our love of underdogs such as Panama or Morocco.
The tournament is less than a week old, and our household has succumbed to World Cup fever, partly because of the pool the four of us have created. We guess the results of each match, getting points for getting either the winner or the score right, as well as for predicting who advances to the round of 16.
It has brought us together, huddling in front of the laptop, and accomplished something I had failed to do thus far – get my girlfriend to watch sports. The pool has unleashed her competitive side. She wants to win, badly, and because of it, she watches all the matches with me. She has no interest in the NFL, and baseball puts her to sleep. No matter who is in the finals, I already see myself as the real winner of the World Cup.
I’ll always have a fondness for the World Cup, regardless. With the exception of one cousin, the majority of my family didn’t follow soccer. Still, my German grandfather had an interest in it and, last tournament, we all found ourselves gathering at his house to watch the U.S. and German matches.
The U.S. made it to the round of 16, and Germany won the final. Although it was never said out loud, it was a way for us to celebrate his birth country and where our roots came from – something once difficult for Germans to do. He passed away that winter. We were glad to have found another way to make memories with him.
This year, I’m pulling not only for Germany but also Iceland, where I have also lived. Consider: The U.S., with 325 million citizens – or China, with 1.4 billion inhabitants – didn’t make the tournament, but a country with 330,000 people did. Consider: Over 10 percent of the country attends each match in person.
The current Icelandic squad has already been lauded for beating England in the 2016 UEFA Euros to reach the quarter-finals and will now try to pull off another miracle in getting out of a group that also has Argentina and Croatia. They have already delivered a shocker by drawing 1-1 with Argentina (another tournament favorite).
The Icelandic goalkeeper stopped the penalty kick of Messi (perhaps the best player in the world) to save the draw, guaranteeing he will never lack free beer or the attention of women in Iceland. Meanwhile, despite the early loss to Mexico, Germany is still seen as the best chance to stop Brazil from picking up another title.
Then again, you already know how it went. (Just tell me it’s not Brazil.)
If you’re reading this and thinking, “But it’s soccer,” I’d say give it a chance. Think March Madness but on a global scale. Think of it as an easy way to improve your geography. Think of it as something else to follow from the tractor radio. Make it a chance to get together.
Pick a team for any reason at all and be glad or upset for them. Celebrate the world setting aside differences to come together for something special. If you missed it this time, you’ll have to wait another four years, but it just might be worth the anticipation.
Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.