World Cup: My England Problem

David Beckham, England, own work (by ger1axg).

Image via Wikipedia

Today, the World Cup officially got serious. Uruguay and The Good Korea played a fierce win-or-go-home game in the pouring rain. The United States’ gutsy run ended against the sinister forces of Ghana…again.

The Epcot Center portion of the competition is over. Henceforth, no hanging around just because your country has cool indigenous music or because you hosted the 1954 World Cup and everyone feels bad for you now. The comedy novelty acts and legacy admissions are out—France, Italy, off to medical experimentation with both of ya. Several hundred Chinese actors can now return to the casting couches of Shanghai after their dream gig playing fake North Korea fans got spiked.

And with the USA eliminated, things get emotionally complicated for American fans. In my case, there’s England, who play Germany tomorrow in a rematch of 1914, 1939 (I’m sorry, but you have to mention The Wars; it’s in the by-laws) and 1966 (again, the by-laws). This part of the World Cup almost always brings on a weird personal dilemma for me. I call it my England Problem. The problem: On the one hand, now that Team America Fighting is out, I would like to support England against Ze Germans, for reasons of Atlanticist brotherhood and almost speaking the same language. I have a lot of English friends and I’m just goofy for Wodehouse.

On the other hand, the England team kind of makes me want to vomit.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this should be. Yes, I would rather see more of Germany’s super-cool Mesut Özil than England’s lumbering Emile Heskey. Yes, many of England’s supporters and about 99 percent of its sports media pull off an unappealing combination of arrogance, hubris, self-hatred and paranoia. And they haven’t been playing very good soccer so far, with just two goals scored against USA, Slovenia and Algeria. But in all of that, they’re not really very different from any other team in the tournament. So what’s with my deal?

I think this is it: knowing too much about English soccer makes it hard for me to support England. This has everything to do with the twisted sentimental education received by many American soccer fans. Like many of my fellow Yankee imperialist scum who’ve liked the sport for awhile, I have a complicated relationship with English soccer that English soccer doesn’t know (or, in any case, care) anything about.

With this World Cup inspiring actual interest in this country, it bears remembering that not too long ago, being an American soccer fan was akin to belonging to a particularly obscure and pitiable sexual minority. You had to visit strange bars at odd hours and mix with unusual people whom you recognized by coded sartorial choices, such as a Bayern Munich scarf worn in July. You had to seek out “speciality publications.” In my case, I spent many pre-Internet hours secreted in my university’s library, reading three-week old copies of The Observer, which somehow retained a peculiar damp, British industrial scent of their own, making the practice feel even more like hanging out in the back room of sketchy porn shop.

In this sad but sociologically fascinating context, getting into English soccer was a right of passage. We all have favo(u)rite English Premier League teams and we all spend far more time reading The Guardian for its soccer coverage than we spend reading, say, The Washington Post for any reason. (Here I should note that all this really only applies to whitebread Anglo boys like me; American fans of Latin or other extraction have anxieties of their own.) We all tend to talk like fake Englishmen when we talk about soccer. English stadiums (stadia!) boast Medieval-war names like Anfield and Turf Moor; the clubs (clubs! not “franchises”!) all sound cool, exotic and ultra-English. Arsenal? Yes! Preston North End? Amazing. Sheffield Wednesday? What the sam-fuck is that? What happened to Sheffield Tuesday? In contrast, American teams use naff (“naff!”) names thought up by marketing interns, like “Real Salt Lake,” the sports equivalent of naming a one-horse frontier shithole “Paris.”

If global soccer was a high school, England would be the popped-collar preppie kid with the infinity-edge pool in his backyard; maybe his family hasn’t actually accomplished anything in decades, but they have a huge trust fund. Meanwhile, American fans are the kids on the short bus, looking on in envy and thwarted, unspeakable love.

Personally, I add a broader and even more pathetic sports-dork Anglophilia to the equation. I recently devoted most of chapter of an actual book to my love for English darts players and gonzo British sledders. This is the sport-cultural equivalent of donning knickers, bending over and screaming “THANK YOU, SIR! MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?”

England is the default second choice for many American fans come World Cup time. (Or first choice. I know this one dude, as American as you or me or Barack Obama on his mother’s side, who actually supported England instead of the US when the two teams played at the beginning of the tournament. As a symbolic protest, I un-followed him on Twitter for ten minutes.) This makes some sense. We sort of speak the same language; many of us had emotionally abusive youth-soccer coaches with British accents—which, incidentally, is all you need to get a job coaching youth soccer in this country. Thanks to the Premier League, England’s players, even the ones who aren’t David Beckham, are famed icons of global sport. That makes the team easier to relate to than, say, the Slovakians.

But in my case, this familiarity has produced a certain level of contempt. I spend a significant portion of my fall and winter following a Premier League team (Liverpool, no doubt due to some grisly crime I committed in a previous life). And so I have been psychologically conditioned to hate a large majority of the England team’s players.

Whatever the reality may be, I can’t help but think of defender John Terry, who plays for Chelsea, as a whiny cuckolder. Wayne Rooney, reportedly a very nice man in real life, is firmly established in my mind as an unnervingly childlike psychopath. All those hours wasted on Limey “football” websites leave me steeped in all the worst aspects of England’s soccer culture: the petty, vindictive urge to chop down anyone successful (Exhibit A: Beckham, David); the bitchy arrogance about any and all other sporting cultures, especially ours; Manchester United.

Due to this exposure, I have also accidentally developed a connoisseur’s enjoyment for English suffering. The Dutch invented “total football.” Argentina has Lionel Messi. Brazil is the sport’s global good-times symbol. But no one suffers like England—it’s the one aspect of modern soccer they have totally mastered. So something sick, dark, and dishono(u)rable within me longs for the moment when England stops pretending it’s going to win the World Cup and begins the torturous inquest into why it failed. In many ways, that’s when the entertainment begins.

But there’s another impulse within me, one which says that maybe England has suffered enough. My chosen club’s heroic captain, Steven Gerrard, is also leading the national side after Rio Ferdinand hurt himself and John Terry got caught rogering. I may be a horrible person in many ways, but I don’t think I’m capable of rooting against Stevie G. I also have a sneaking suspicion that England’s Italian manager, Fabio Capello, just might be able to coax his boys into playing “good football” yet.

Thus it continues, my England Problem. At 7 am Pacific time tomorrow, I will likely don a tweed blazer and start saying “quite” after anyone makes a statement. But I won’t be proud of it.

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World Cup: The United States of Landon Donovan

This is just getting embarrassing now. YouTube hasn’t made me cry since Obama got elected.

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World Cup: Team America Fighting!

US midfielder Landon Donovan (10) celebrates h...

Image by AFP via @daylife

Like every other soccer fan in America, I have been on an extended nitrous oxide high today, following Landon Donovan’s instantly epochal, last-last-last-ditch winner against Algeria. American soccer fans are an emotionally febrile and volatile breed, due to decades of emotional abuse. Today’s victory hit us all pretty hard. In the moments after the USA (The White Buffalo? At last?) clinched advancement to the World Cup’s next round, Donovan was crying. I was crying. My wife was crying. Everyone was basically having a mass collective orgasm/sob/consciousness-raising on Twitter. This team tortures us beyond belief, but this time the ending was happy, and we didn’t even have to leave a $50 tip.

I was going to channel all the vim and ecstasy into one hellacious blogpost celebrating the team’s particular Americanness. As in so many things, George Vecsey of The New York Times does it better than I could ever hope. Vecsey even quotes the neo-Whitmanesque sage DaMarcus Beasley (?!) on our National Character: “We bring something to the table, the American people as a whole.”

Well, hell’z yeah. That we do. And this team, as Donovan said in his trademark squeaky grown-up voice in the post-game interview, embodies that something in many ways. Call it, perhaps, a protean, republican spirit of inclusion through merit. The pile-up on Donovan after his goal involved Hispanic dudes, white dudes, black dudes—even a Scottish dude. It was a fleshy amalgamation produced by a country that has always been polyglot and multihued. As my colleague and teammate Andrew Guest—who is in South Africa, blogging his mind out for Pitch Invasion—pointed out in a fascinating analysis, 60 percent of the USA’s preliminary squad players had parents born overseas. And yet you couldn’t unearth a more prototypically American group of guys at any mall in the nation.

Our republic’s best asset and finest quality is its capacity for fusion. Today’s decisive goal began with a brilliant quarterback-style lob from Hungarian-American Jersey kid Tim Howard to sort-of-Canadian Cali boy Landon Donovan, who slid it forward to another New Jerseyan, Haitian-American Jozy Altidore. Everyone’s favorite word for Altidore is “raw,” by which I think people mean he makes really bad decisions on the ball quite frequently. The kid is part bull, though, and this time he muscled into the box and cut it to Clint Dempsey, a Texan who claims his parents sold some of their guns to finance his youth soccer career. UNITED STATES! UNITED STATES! Dempsey jabbed, the fine Algerian ‘keeper parried, and Donovan lashed it home.

See? Fusion. We’ve heard a lot about “real American” this and “real American” that over the last couple of years, and lately certain polities have indicated that people should be prepared to show their papers to prove that they are, indeed, real Americans. Offering no further comment on that nonsense, I would submit that this goal, among its many fine qualities, was real, real American.

I was going to append these rambling observations with a hearty and profane dismissal of all the talk-radio blatherheads and Jurassic daily newspaper columnists in this country who have slagged off the sport of football over the years. But, y’know, victory leaves me in a benevolent mood. I hope those guys (they’re all guys) watched today’s game and enjoyed it. Maybe a few will weigh the error of their misspent past and join us, the Soccer People, on the right side of history. (We’ll become less annoying in the future—but not today.) Fusion, right? Fusion.

Now, it’s all-in for the group rounds. We’re in a bracket with Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea. Anything can happen.

For more on the strange psychological netherworld of the American soccer fan, check out my book, The Renegade Sportsman.

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World Cup: The Management Secrets of Diego Maradona

Managers! Team leaders! Regional directors! Do you aspire to EXCELLENCE? Would you like to see your organization, UNDER YOUR LEADERSHIP, become the envy of its field? Do you want to SMASH the competition, and do so with STYLE and PANACHE? Do you want to guide your outfit into a BRIGHT FUTURE and, in doing so, get ALL THE CREDIT?

Easy! With Diego Maradona’s Patented Management Secrets, you too can achieve global success, national iconhood and impressive bearditude. Here are three simple ways that you can DO IT LIKE DIEGO!

1) ESTABLISH A BIZARRE FREUDIAN/OEDIPAL RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR TOP EMPLOYEE: In the run-up to this World Cup, if you could not sense the tension between Argentina manager (<<this is the Argentine word for “capricious living god”) Diego Maradona and Barcelona uberwunderkind Lionel Messi just by the peculiar metallic tang in the air, you were probably dead. You had to feel for both parties—a little. Maradona was chosen to manage the national side on a day when the entire AFA was drunk and in a reckless, fatalistic mood. (“Fuck it! Y’know? FUCK IT! We’re fucking hiring fucking Diego. FUCK IT!”) Messi, spirited out of Argentina to receive growth-hormone shots and the world’s finest football instruction when he was a mere child, will basically punch the next person who suggests he’s “the next Maradona” straight in the throat.

So Maradona was playing Messi out of position, and Messi was acting all “miserable child” in the way that only he can. Then there’s the personality gap between the two men; i.e., Diego Maradona owns one of the most robust personalities of modern times, whereas Lionel Messi seems like a nice boy who has no life whatsoever outside football. Maradona hobnobs with Castro. Messi—and I’m not saying he’s stupid; just that this information holds little meaning for him—gives the strong impression that he would struggle to describe Castro’s world-historical significance. The whole team looked doomed for disaster.

BUT WAIT. Instead, Messi seems quite happy playing back in midfield for Diego, and Diego seems overjoyed with little Lionel’s performance. Could it be that Diego has played Messi’s psychology perfectly, drumming up creative tension and instilling an intense desire for affection withheld? What did Maradona whisper in Messi’s ear as he embraced him after Argentina’s easy win over Greece today? Wouldn’t you die to know? Did he say: You are my son and heir, the chosen one? Or did he say: Messi, you look like the fifth fucking Beatle and you should have buried three today? Either way, take note for your next big meeting!

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2) HIRE ONLY THE OLD AND INFIRM, WHILE SHUNNING THOSE AT THE TOP OF THEIR PROFESSION. On its face, Maradona’s decision to include Martin Demichelis and Martin Palermo in his squad, but not, say, Juan Roman Riquelme or Esteban Cambiasso seems patently absurd. Demichelis’ oft-flailing play with Bayern Munich this season had me firmly and unshakably convinced that he hailed from some obscure French-speaking part of Germany and was the product of some bizarre agricultural development program. Meanwhile, Cambiasso spent a season as an integral part of Inter Milan’s brain-freezing defensive machine. Riquelme is every romantic’s choice to run the Albiceleste midfield. Martin Palermo is older than me.

And yet, today, Demichelis and Palermo combined to score the goals that set Argentina up for the next round. Could it be…this is a terrible thought…could it be…that Maradona knows what he’s doing?

3) MARK EVERY MOMENT OF SUCCESS WITH AN OUTBURST OF PSYCHOTIC GLEE. Indeed, Maradona’s out-of-hand goal celebrations are fast becoming the best reason to watch this World Cup. Middle-managers of Earth, be advised! This is how you blast an organization straight to the top! By the force of will, Rosary beads and a general Wolfman-on-mescaline vibe!

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My new book, The Renegade Sportsman, is now available.

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World Cup: Weapons of the Weak

Kim Jong-il

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One striking feature of World Cup 2010 so far: bad teams are producing almost all the excitement.

By “bad,” I do not refer to the hilarious Paris Commune-repeats-itself-as-farce calamity of France; England’s wan, irritable performance; Italy’s stutters; Germany’s wobble; Spain’s lackluster opener. No, those cases show actually good teams (or solid football traditions, or decent-on-paper squads, anyway) succumbing to various combinations of age, luck, early tournament nerves, ferocious opposition, or, in one case, a national tendency to stop working at key moments and issue manifestos.

No, I’m talking about the teams that made this World Cup as multiculti cannon fodder, but which have instead produced the tournament’s most surprising and stirring moments. I’m talking about New Zealand, a team featuring part-time players, standing unbeaten so far and truly unlucky not to claim a win over defending champion Italy. Slovenia, the smallest nation in the field, leads both England and the USA, and has invented a divertingly odd post-goal group celebration. Tough-as-nails Algeria looked, at times, like they were going to run England off the pitch the other day. Even the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea managed to produce one genuinely thrilling moment when they scored against mighty Brazil.

And that was before today’s amazing 10-0 victory over Portugal, achieved through the Juche Idea of Socialist Self-Reliance and on-the-spot guidance from Kim Jong Il beamed via a secret communications system.

If you stretch this definition of team badness, you could even include Switzerland’s midnight smash-and-grab against fashionable Spain, or even Team America Fighting’s defiant draw with England. In this World Cup, you can’t go into any match assuming that the fancy team will win. And that points out one of the sport’s signal features—one that makes it initially frustrating to many, no doubt. The sport lends itself to asymmetrical warfare.

This World Cup hasn’t really generated a sweeping pronouncement about the state of the game—far too early for that sort of thing, unless you work for the British press—but it has shown what a bunch of nobodies who know how to run a tight, well-structured defense can do. They can draw Italy, is what. In soccer, stubbornness, hard graft, organization and guile are the great equalizers—they won’t win the league, but for 90 minutes, they can thwart the Great Powers.

When you hear that Algeria actually warmed up for the England match by watching Pontecorvo’s classic guerrilla warfare flick The Battle of Algiers, the metaphor becomes almost too watertight. A solid back four and a couple skilled holding midfielders are the football equivalent of a closed-mouthed mountain village or a cellular organization of gonzo teenagers who don’t know they’re mortal. The last 25 meters of the pitch can become the Northwest Frontier, where the Empire bogs down. A goalkeeper on a blinder can be the shadowy would-be generalissimo who leads from deep behind the lines.

Are these the pretty things that sell soccer and suntan oil? No. They are precisely the factors that drive fans and non-fans alike semi-mental. But we need to respect these dark and unlovely arts, because they make football something more than skills exhibition put on by male models. They make football possible. They are the weapons of the weak.

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My new book, The Renegade Sportsman, is now available.

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World Cup: Who Will Survive the Group of Stress?

Joachim_Löw

Image via Wikipedia

When the World Cup draw materialized, lo, about 94 years ago, one group leapt out at me. And when I say “leapt out at me,” I mean in the fashion of a feral cat that hasn’t eaten in awhile. It wasn’t the USA’s surprisingly tricky quartet, dubbed the EASY Group by some arrogant gits in the British press who will hopefully have four years to rue their words after this coming week. Nor was it the ballyhooed Group of Death—I’m sorry, I mean THE GROUP OF DEATH!!! After the initial fixtures, it’s looking more like the Group of Two Overhyped and Negative Teams Plus the Juche Idea and Brazil, When They Feel Like It.

No, the foursome that instantly put the bloodshivers on me was the Germany/Serbia/Australia/Ghana configuration. Not because I thought it would produce the sort of flowing, gripping football that we nerds so love to glorify, but rather the opposite. Just reading those four team names in succession just about gives a man a bleeding ulcer. I immediately dubbed this the Group of Stress.

Leave aside the fact that no one sees Germany on their schedule and thinks, Oh, goody. Even though Joachim Loew’s side plays a vastly prettier game than stereotype demands, Ze Germans are still Ze Germans, and many a flattening will be had at their whim. Still, there’s a reason that Loew looks like a hunted man in the photo above.

It’s these other three teams. Not one of them is the side one thinks of when one thinks “World Cup football.” (In fairness, there’s a good chance that at that moment, one is thinking of beer rather than an actual XI.) Nor are they the kind of plucky, lovable underdogs who give the tournament a bit of charm. They are, individually and collectively, a bunch of gnarly fuckers, the sort of sides that damage opposing managers’ mental health. Put them together and you have: yes, THE GROUP OF STRESS.

In Serbia, you’ve got the whole Tito’s Zombie Army thing to worry about—the fact that Yugoslavia, despite ceasing to exist, remains a secret force in world football. The former Balkan socialist utopia may be a rotting Wikipedia entry these days, but the legacy of its potent national squad lives on. Two ex-Yugoslav republics have tough teams in this tournament, and two others came close to making the field. We’ve already learned a few things about the Slovenes, and I will color myself unsurprised if sorry England and their WAGs depart in favor of elk-like Slovenia and (uh, maybe?) their SWAGs. The Serbs showed their mettle in beating Germany, and now just have to be suitably cunning against Australia to live up to their dark-horse billing. Will I be excited if the Chain of Events somehow leaves the US playing Serbia in the next round? No.

As for Ghana—well, I know it’s not the done thing to discuss African sides as if they were actual football teams rather than the living embodiment of the People’s Joy in the Continent’s Game. But Ghana established itself in my mind as a bunch of diving, cheating, time-wasting and, above all, canny bastards when they slipped a shiv into naive little USA last time ’round. I will revise that assessment when proven otherwise. The thing is, Ghana is the one African team so far that has actually won a match. In fact, the Black Stars are the one sub-Saharan African side so far to exhibit understanding that a football match is a contest that can be won or lost, rather than an extended audition for a U2 video.

Finally, Australia. Well, with two sendings-off, they’ve pretty much fucked up their bid for the Fair Play Award. To be honest, they were not exactly favored in that category coming in. The Ozlandians have not looked very good so far, absorbing the thrashing of the tournament at Germany’s hands and clinging to a point after drawing Ghana. But—and I am not attempting to engage in national stereotypes; let’s kick racism out of football, et cetera, et cetera—I have this weird feeling that Ghana and Serbia may have cause to regret letting Australia see where the good silver and antiquarian books are kept. Hear me out: heavy-tackling Australia cons some Serbian hothead into an early red and wins its final match 2 : 0. Simultaneously, an enraged Germany beats the hell out of Ghana, say 3 : 0. Who gets the second bid? With hypothetical goal difference locked at -2, we look to total hypothetical goals. With three against Ghana’s two, advance, Australia fair.

Will that happen? Um, no—probably not. But then again, this…is…the…Group…of…well, you know.

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My new book, The Renegade Sportsman, is now available.

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World Cup: England's SCREAMIN'!

Fabio Capello. http://www.postproduktie.nl/voe...

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So it’s just a typical World Cup day—in other words, it’s 13.30 Pacific Coast time, and I feel like I have lived an entire adventurous lifetime since the alarm trilled just before the USA v. Slovenia kick-off. (I couldn’t even contemplate the dawn patrol game from the Group of Stress—if I’m going to wake up in the dark to watch Germany and Serbia do anything, there better be a Panzer division involved.)

In fact, I suspect that I, a mere 35 years of age, kind of look like Capello right now.

The high/low jags provided by Team America Fighting in their usual insane performance were enough to ruin anyone’s digestion for a year, and Algeria’s brave draw against some abject island nation didn’t exactly prove to be a lunchtime of Nag Champa and om-chanting either.

Let us unpack.

First of all: I fucking told you about Slovenia, didn’t I? As soon as the beautifully manicured Sasha Vujacic buried the decisive freethrows in last night’s NBA Game Seven, I knew we were in for it against the Green Dragons. I mean, how many top-tier Slovenian sportsmen can there possibly be? How is it that the television screens of America, a country where no one who hasn’t taken an eccentric hipster honeymoon there could even find Slovenia, are suddenly awash with jocky Slovenians? We are in the midst of some kind of global demographic anomaly, and I figured Team America would have to white-knuckle it in the face of this phenomenon.

And, well, we cannot play defense, can we? And we, generally speaking, cannot tell the difference between an ideal time to attempt to pass the ball into the goal, Barcelona-style, and the ideal time to shoot at the goal because it is, you know, right there. The goal. Rectangular space defined by white posts and a crossbar. Throughout the first half, I kept screaming “WHY AREN’T THEY SHOOTING?!?” while my wife became a puddle of despair on the couch (not because of me, this time—thanks, Robbie F.!) and my poor, drowsy child looked at me and said, “What’s wrong, Daddy? Calm down, Daddy!” This unfortunate kid. One day, he’ll be thanking his shrink on national TV, Artest-style.

Thank the Football Gods, blackhearted little elves that they are, that we dug up some quality for the second half. Bob Bradley doesn’t have his defense very well-drilled, but he is fairly canny with the subs. And Landon Donovan will never hear a word said against him in this house again. Apart from the goal, he is one of the few players in this tournament who can say he’s mastered the idiotic intricacies of the Jabubabababa, or whatever they’re calling this ball so cleverly designed, the best players on Earth can’t use it. It’s only taken a decade, but Landon has matured into one of the more reliably classy players out there.

And, yeah, we got jobbed by the ref, who was an absolute disgrace. Now that the heat of the moment (in which I went on Twitter and called for Barack Obama to liberate the people of Mali by force of arms) has passed, here’s what I have to say to my fellow USA supporters in re: the disallowed goal: Call the WHAAAAAM-BULANCE. We are big kids now, and this kind of thing happens. Let us not forget that we received a hilarious gift goal in the England match. One point given, two points taken away. Remember, they are elves, these Football Gods.

Anyway, not to worry, because we have a friend in England. His name may or may not be Wayne Rooney, whose habit of walking around the midfield with a dejected look on his face certainly suggests that he’s trying to help someone out. Someone else. England’s performance against Algeria only brushes against respectability because France has already defined the absolute nadir of supposed EuroPower performance in this World Cup. In fact, the Republique can take pride in Algeria’s take-charge approach to today’s match—at least there’s one half-decent French team at the tournament.

Even though Algeria never really looked like scoring, they played England off the park for just about the entire match. They looked assured, confident. They frankly looked kind of huge, not unlike an offshoot of the fearsome breed of square-jawed mountain elk the Slovenians field. Which, of course, raises the question: if the Algerians can make a joke out of England, what the hell will they do to us?

But that’s a nervous breakdown for another day. For the moment, we must simply savor the football’s endless capacity to surprise, delight, and cause early-onset angina.

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My new book, The Renegade Sportsman, is now available.

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