There’s plenty of reasons to watch the World Cup. Any time two countries square off in anything, the atmosphere is different. When the Mets play the Phillies, I might think about past games against the Mets, or maybe a person in New York that I think is an idiot, but that’s pretty much where it stops. When Germany plays England, as they do Sunday morning at 10AM EST, there’s a history of games, and there’s a history between Germany and England, albeit old. When Portugal plays Brazil, ditto. Since the USSR fell, I think it’s a little harder for United States folks to identify with this. Would we get excited to play Mexico in the World Cup? Maybe. Definitely was exciting to play Canada in the hockey gold medal game, but how many other international rivalries like that do we have?

So I can understand the lack of identification with the World Cup in that regard. And I know we don’t really care about soccer, which is the sport played at the Soccer World Cup, so that might be a barrier. But here’s a great reason to watch the World Cup: it’s the Final Frontier.

At various times during its athletic history, the United States has either invented and dominated, or just dominated an incredible number of sports. Let’s consider the following:

  • We created the sport of basketball, which has been taken up by many other countries.  The US has won 13 gold medals at the Olympics in basketball.  The next closest nation is the USSR, which has won 2. Oh yeah, and they don’t exist any more.  We may not always have the most dominant team, and we may not dominate every competition, but we’re the team any other team wants to beat.  The NBA, the most competitive professional basketball league is in the United States.
  • Canadians developed ice hockey, and internationally are the reigning Olympic champions.  However, the United States has won the gold medal, and hosts the National Hockey League, which is the highest caliber professional league in the world.  I think hockey is probably the best source of international team competition for the the United States due to a number of factors.
  • Baseball has never really been taken seriously on an international level, and I think that’s because it was such an internal product for a long time.  International competitions are starting to emerge, like the World Baseball Classic, but the timing is not great, and many of the big names don’t show up to play for the US.  However, the highest caliber professional league is based in the United States.
  • Summer Olympic sports have been dominated from time to time by the US.  Track and field stars are largely from the US, the most famous swimmers are mostly from the United States, we’ve won team gymnastic golds and individual golds, and we frequently lead the medal count for the entire Olympics (although China had more golds than we did in 2008).
  • Winter Olympic sports are a little less strong, but this year we won the medal count and made a strong showing in the hockey tournament.

So what’s missing?  Soccer.  Basically every country in the world has a soccer federation.  The same is not true of basketball, hockey, baseball, or pretty much any sport.  There are 208 nations recognized by FIFA (which is 14 more than the US considers, but who’s counting), and therefore eligible for the World Cup.  208.  Qualifying for the 2010 World Cup began with 204 of those nations.  By contrast, the FIBA World Championship, AKA basketball world championship, started with 106 nations.

And despite being a global superpower, heaps of money, and 300 million people, the United States has never won the World Cup.

It goes beyond that though.  The US has hardly even been relevant at the World Cup.  In 1930, when several European teams didn’t attend the World Cup because the boat ride was too expensive, the US placed 3rd.  After qualifying in 1950 and subsequently being eliminated in group, they did not qualify again until 1990.  The have qualified for the knockout phase in 1994, 2002, and 2010, only winning one game in 2002.

This is why I watch the World Cup.  It’s one of the few sports arenas in which we’re a legitimate underdog, every single time.  There’s nothing better than backing the underdog, only to see him actually pull it out.  The World Cup puts the USA in that position every time they qualify.  They are George Mason trying to make an epic run to the Final Four.  They are Dikembe Mutombo and the Nuggets trying to beat the highly favored SuperSonics.  It’s one of the only times when we get to be the little guys instead of the big bad guys that everyone wants to beat.  It’s one of the only times where other teams are embarrassed to lose to the United States.

Being the little guy frequently sucks because you are the little guy.  You frequently get beat up, you are constantly written off, you are laughed at, you are mocked, and you are usually summarily beaten and excused from the tournament.  But I watch the World Cup because I know one of these years we’re going to make an epic run, and it’s going to be really fucking awesome.

In some ways I’m glad that it didn’t happen this year, because when it does, that’ll be it.  We’ll have crossed the Final Frontier.  We can no longer say that we’ve never been relevant, nobody believed in us, etc., because one time we were relevant.

Now that the US is gone, there are still plenty of underdogs to keep an eye on.  Here are a few:

  • No team from outside of the South American federation or the European federation has cracked the top 3, besides the USA in 1930 (and I remind you that some teams didn’t make it because the boat was too expensive in 1930.  The boat.).  Ghana, Japan, and Mexico can change that with a good run to the finals.
  • Chile, whose best finish at a World Cup was 3rd in 1962, was devastated by an 8.8 earthquake recently.  That is one of the strongest recorded earthquakes in history and did ridiculous amounts of damage to the country.  Plus they are a really fun team to watch, so they would make any final exciting
  • Slovakia did not exist when I was in 6th grade.  That makes you an automatic underdog.
  • The 18 World Cups have been won by 7 nations.  That’s not a very good job of sharing.  The following remaining teams have never won the World Cup: Netherlands, Paraguay, Portugal, Spain, Japan, Slovakia, Chile, Ghana, and Mexico.  Paraguay, Portugal, Spain, and Japan are all playing in one quarter of the bracket for a spot in the semifinal, so one of those teams will inject some new blood in the semifinals.

And there are also plenty of randomly cool things to root for.  Here are some of those:

  • The chance that Paraguay would play Uruguay in the World Cup final is pretty awesome.
  • Uruguay, Brazil/Chile, Argentina, Paraguay is a possible final four, for an all South American semifinal.
  • Paraguay could take on Argentina in the semifinals and Brazil in the finals, both border nations.  When borders get involves, I believe that means that the ‘shit gets real’.
  • Here are the other potential Border War finals and Border War games: Netherlands-Germany in the finals (The ‘I don’t care what they let you smoke over there’ game); Chile-Argentina in the finals (AKA Chile vs. Morbidly Obese Chile); Spain-Portugal is definitely happening (The ‘Our hair and injury faking is much better than yours!’ game); Argentina-Uruguay (Battle for the 3rd Cup); Brazil-Argentina (Clash of the Titans).

Basically, no matter what happens, there’s a reason why the last few games will be interesting.  Enjoy the rest of the tournament.

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