As I contemplate today’s World Cup draw, of course my eye strays to that instant boon for Atlanticist kibbitzers and casual Premiership fans, the first-round, first-match meeting between England and the United States. Every World Cup is all about the subplots and evolving motifs, many of which exist only in the minds of individual fans. The match-up between football’s Mother Country and scruffy, saaaah-ker-playing Prodigal Nation provides the perfect primary narrative for the six months between now and then—and a handy distraction from such grim real-world matters as the Copenhagen climate conference, health-care reform and Fernando Torres.
England, England, England. I couldn’t be happier. See, the mere possibility that the USA could beat England in a World Cup match means that my second-most-feverish soccer fantasy—just a whisker behind Manchester United going bankrupt, being sold off for parts to a Moldovan farm-equipment conglomerate and being renamed Traktor Giurgiuleşti—could come true. And, you know, it could. England is understandably relieved with this draw. They are in excellent form, and appear to have broken tradition by hiring a decent manager. Nothing in these three games against Team America Fighting, the Algerians and the sinister Slovenes should disturb their calm. And true, if you play England v. USA ten theoretical times, the Lions probably win six or seven, with a couple of draws and maybe a 1:0 Yanqui shocker thrown in. But they’re just playing one time, and Spain learned what that can be about last summer. If Tim Howard plays a blinder; if Oneywu gets healthy enough to provoke the inevitable Wayne Rooney red card just a couple matches ahead of schedule; and if Jozy Altidore gets lucky in the box, you could see a result that would…
…Well, what would it do? A USA victory just might be the top item on SportsCenter, and would certainly provide a pretext for the ritual celebration of yet another false dawn among American soccer fans. In England, it might just spell the End of Everything, bringing on some serious 2012-style Gotterdammerung-type shit. The wind-up of the Mayan Calendar has nothing on the hair-trigger mass psychology of the English sports fan. A World Cup defeat to the United States might prove so challenging to the average Englishman’s fundamental understanding of the nature of the universe that business as usual could become impossible.
So there’s one storyline to watch. My three other favorites as we allow the pre-draw glitzfest to recede mercifully into memory and steel ourselves for the geometric progression of media hype through 11 June:
—As Run of Play notes, the gyrations of North Korea should be fascinating. In addition to being saddled with an interminable official name in which every single word is arguably or totally false, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea looks lined up for three consecutive almighty hammerings in the Group of Death. We can expect a dose of “on-the-spot guidance” from Kim Jong Il, followed by an intriguing effort to spin Didier Drogba’s attempt to win the Golden Boot in one match as a victory for the militant proletarian state. Although—who knows, really. The Koreans are the ultimate mystery packet. A cursory glance at the current squad reveals players employed by such opaque entities as “April 25” and Kyonggongop Sports Group (also known as the Ministry of Light Industry, which might as well run a football team, I suppose, given what we know about the North Korean manufacturing base).
Interestingly, however, the NoKos are far from the most insular team at this World Cup, with at least four players based in other countries. (Including a player for Japanese club Kawasaki Frontale, which sounds like an extremely entertaining, possibly fatal sex maneuver.) That’s four more than England, which couldn’t export a player if the Queen’s life depended upon it, and three more than Italy, which is the Serie A all-star squad plus the Reviled Traitor, Joe Rossi.
The Brazilians, Portuguese and Ivorians will be tempted to look at the DPRK fixture as an opportunity to light up their goal-difference tally in case, as is totally conceivable, all of them end up with five points. Such black-lined and weighty envelopes are to be handled with extreme care, however. I imagine the North Koreans will be among the most motivated sides at the tournament.
—Will Germany survive the Group of Stress? Ze Germans have cause to be among the more bummed out collectives post-draw. They can probably—probably—pencil in three points against Australia. But would you fancy confabs with the Serbians and Ghanians, no matter how many Cups you had in the closet? Above all, this figures to be a persnickety little section, marked by “robust” challenges (Australia, which sometimes gets its many football codes mixed up) and all the push-me-pull-you, my-God-I’ve-been-shot bullshit one can expect from Balkan and African teams. No, I have still not forgiven Ghana for diving and time-wasting its way through the match that eliminated USA in 2006. These three could annoy Germany to death.
—Just how melodramatic, tragicomic and hysterical will Argentina’s meltdown be? I mean, you know it’s going to happen. Diego Maradona wouldn’t have it any other way. Do managers get substance tests? In any case, I’ll have what he’s having.