I believe that we will win.
(I know that Belgium will win.)
I believe that we will win!
(I realize that Belgium is probably going to win.)
Yes, I am waffling.
USA vs. Belgium, this afternoon in the World Cup round of 16. Chuck Norris vs. Jean-Claude Van Damme. Katharine Hepburn vs. Audrey Hepburn. Guns N’ Roses vs. Gotye.
We got this. Or do we?
If you want to understand the United States’s place in the global strata of football, understand that Belgium is bordered by three nations that have each already advanced to the quarterfinals (France, Germany and the Netherlands) and that have far superior World Cup and football lineages. And yet the Belgians, or as their footballers are known, the Red Devils, are decided favorites over the Yanks this afternoon.
Belgium? That’s right, Belgium. The word itself means “Canada of Europe,” as the nation is divided into two major linguistic groups, the Dutch-speaking Flemish people and the French-speaking Walloons. Yes, Walloons. Like Canada, Belgium poses no military threat to its neighbors and brews superior beers to the USA. As I type this, Belgium is the only one of the 10 remaining countries in the World Cup with a region (Flanders) named after a character from The Simpsons.
Or perhaps it’s the other way around.
What the Red Devils do have and the Yanks do not is a plethora of footballers with experience and status in one of the world’s two most competitive leagues, the English Premier League. Ten Belgians play in the EPL, including three from Chelsea, which finished third. Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet toils for Liverpool, which finished second this season. While the Americans have a smattering of players who have or are competing in the EPL, only keeper Tim Howard (Everton) has done so with distinction the past season or two.
This afternoon’s match could very well set a weekday viewership record for ESPN as well as one for American workers who suddenly recall that they have to pick up their children from a play date. One of the more curious aspects of the match is that it will have not two but three cheering factions, the smallest of which will be the pro-Belgian group (identifiable by ordering Stella Artois with too deft an accent).
The other two parties will both be American: the raucous “I Believe” flag-cloaked crew, most of whom, let’s face it, are still recovering from their Bonnaroo-induced hangovers; and the silent and cynical “I-want-my-country-back” demographic, who cannot wait until this quadrennial storm passes and weekday afternoon television can return to its rightly monarch, Judge Judy. The latter group, when they do venture curiosity about this edition of the U.S. Men’s National Team, wonder aloud about the ethnic heritage of team captain Clint Dempsey.
Thirteen months ago the Yanks and the Red Devils met in Cleveland for what the sport refers to as a “friendly.” The Belgians won 4–2 in a match that was nowhere near that close. Afterward Dempsey, when asked by a reporter how long it would take the Americans to catch Belgium in terms of soccer prowess, replied, “Years.”
The deadline came a little sooner than that. Then again, only weeks before the U.S. men’s hockey team defeated the USSR in the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid, they’d been trounced by that same squad 10–3.
The stakes between these two sides are nowhere near as great—Belgium is historically an invadee, not an invader, after all. And the chasm in talent is also narrower. An American win today would be an upset, but not quite a miracle. More like a “nearacle.”
Enjoy the match.