Tuesday, July 06, 2010
I just watched Brazil, ranked by FIFA number one in the world, get defeated by the Netherlands, which is ranked fourth. Consider these statistics: When scoring in the first ten minutes of a World Cup game Brazil was 8-0-1 until today; when leading at the half Brazil was 35-0-2 until today; Brazil had never lost under coach Dunga when both Kaka and Robinho played together 30-0-4 until today; and the own goal to tie the game was the first own goal in Brazil's 97 game World Cup history. Adding insult to the inconceivable, Brazil lost Felipe Melo (who scored the own goal) to a red card in the 73rd minute, so they played a man down in the last 20 minutes.
The lesson, painfully learned by the Brazilians, but oft repeated among all teams, is that no one is immune to defeat no matter what the numbers say. My grandson just lost his season championship in baseball. His team was undefeated all season and they were playing a team for the championship that they had beaten handily earlier in the season. To make victory even more certain, they had two chances to win since it was a double elimination tournament. Monday night they lost to the Cubs 4-3 and then Wednesday night they lost again 4-0. Losses are painful and even more painful when you are expected to win. But all sports have with them an element of uncertainty which makes them exciting to watch and subject to Vegas odds.
Having left the Region II Championship series earlier this week, I saw or learned of a number of upset victories. They are part and parcel of soccer. How often have we attended a game where one team dominated with dozens of strikes, but no goals? Then the opposing team capitalizes on an error and scores the winning goal with their only strike. ""That's soccer,"" the coaches will say. That's life too. We try hard to succeed, do everything right, play by the rules and end up getting short-changed. It happens because fairness isn't a guarantee. It happens because the serendipitous overrides planning on a regular basis.
In the first round of Wimbledon two players, John Isner and Nicholas Mahut played a three day 183 game tennis match, the world's longest. After that marathon, where any mistake could spell defeat and an errant blade of grass or sudden gust could create those mistakes, it was amazing that they synchronized point for point over the course of the final set of the match which went 70-68. Isner eventually won, but in the end no one wanted to declare a victor. The Wimbledon governing committee even held a ceremony directly after the match that rivaled the Men's Singles Trophy presentation, including royalty to give gifts to the referee and the players. Mahut could only accept the gifts graciously and then melt into the locker room to lick his wounds. And Isner? He lost in straight sets in the next round. These history makers completely faded into the background of more well-known and still active names. Now the focus turned to a championship and away from the diversion of an aberrant match.
I enjoy the World Cup because nothing is sure. Between cards, injuries, upsets, and untested match-ups, the outcomes take unexpected journeys. I also appreciate that the World Cup takes a moment to acknowledge the issue of racism, especially in a country well-known for its former racial policy. It's comforting to know that no matter what happens in the games, these nations and their fans are expected to respect all the cultures, races, religions, and political views of the participants since those are not the factors on the pitch determining wins and losses. Even the vuvuzelas (those bee humming horns that hang in the background of every match) prove that national cultural traditions will be tolerated during the matches. I don't expect the World Cup to foster sudden world peace or even a truce in conflicts. But I do like the fact that the conflict on the pitch has a definitive end and outcome that all sides must accept even if they feel it was achieved unfairly. Like all athletes, those who lose will feel that outside forces conspired against them and bad calls or bad plays contributed to their defeat. But even the mighty have to accept the score that exists when the final whistle blows. That's soccer.