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Core Samples

So what if my home nation team (USA) didn’t make it out of the first round or that the national team of my ethnic origin (Ireland) didn’t even qualify for the World Cup in the first place or that there is no Cameroon-like side to hitch my wagon to this year? So what? These guys can play!

Even the "card-happy," penalty-calling referees haven’t been able to cause my grief level to exceed that point whereby remote-control devices fly through the air in the general direction of TV screens. Not even the fact that my second favorite team, Mexico, was unable to advance to the second round has caused me to cease tuning in each day to watch this worldwide frenzy called the World Cup.

It’s about the colors and the singing and screaming and the overall lather the fans work themselves into and the totally out-of-the-box costuming that goes on. The whole thing is damn close to being apocalyptic. For many millions, the future of life as they know it can turn on a goal or a lack thereof.

And it’s not just the loss or the win, but the way it all comes down that either rips your heart out or sends you into ultimate rapture. A highly questionable penalty called against your guys during what they call "extra time" at the end of a match is a huge test of rational behavior.

Following just such a happenstance, the Italian squad defeated Australia 1-0 on the ensuing penalty kick. Now hereabouts, it’s not much more than "can-you-believe-it" banter in barrooms, on street corners, and around water coolers. But I would imagine that "Down Under" a dingo or two got roughed up a bit and the pizza joints did less than landslide business.

Worldwide, this is big stuff! All it means is everything! Recovery from what is perceived as a "bad-call" loss can take generations. If all you did was go to war with them, the bad feelings could be resolved much quicker. A swipe of a pen lowering gas prices and all would be forgiven.

Every match is life and death! USC and Notre Dame get a rematch the very next year. Not these guys. The anger exposed in the World Cup is allowed, nay, required, to fester until this wonderfully frustrating and rewarding circus returns four years later.

The USA squad, arguably as deeply talented as any in the tournament, once again appeared out of their element while scoring only one goal of their own in their three opening round matches. They positioned themselves so that when a big call went against them in a must-win match against Ghana, you could hear the camel’s back crack.

The Americans were sent packing yet again with not even a moral victory to its credit. "Off with their heads!" clamored the awaiting crowd. Some members of the coaching staff were rumored to have been hiding with Jean Valjean in the Paris sewer system.

But now, with the second round winding down and the quarter finals coming into focus, the lose-and-go-home aspect of the matches raises the intensity of exhilaration and despair to highly irrational levels. Wearing almost any "logo" upon a ball cap when entering almost any drinking establishment in Europe can be life threatening.

Although British "hooligans" are exhibiting a much lower profile than in years previous, late night revelers in many German cities are still doing their part to keep the "suture" industry in stitches, as it were.

Historically, results on the "pitch" have not been the overriding motivating factor in such melees. Rather, the busting of bones among international football fans has a time-honored tradition of its own – quite separate from those of the sport itself.

Even with the American side back in the states, this World Cup has plenty of exciting matches on the docket. At press time, France, Brazil, Argentina, England, Portugal, Ukraine, Italy and host Germany were still in the mix.

The Brazilians — win or lose — are just flat fun to watch. Ronaldinho is the poet laureate of the midfield and can put the ball on whichever one of Ronaldo’s toes the striker requires. Fewer than a half dozen on the 23-man Brazil squad actually use two names professionally.

Argentina fields a side even American sport fans with goal-deficit disorder can get behind. Let’s just say that they put the ball in the net with a high degree of frequency and, although not as individually entertaining as Brazil, keep opposing defenders and goalkeepers awake at night.

Germany has been methodical and, so far, pretty much mistake free. They set you up, they spread you out, they take advantage of a mismatch, and they either score or chew up the clock. Defending champion France has been only good enough to advance, as has, seemingly, England.

In the main, however, World Cup soccer (or football or futbol) is about ritual on the grand scale. Pageantry, to put it mildly, rules the roost. You’ve got flags and jerseys and the most outlandish headgear imaginable. And then there is song – anthem-like in scope and continual in duration. This is what religion once was, before it got polite.

This is not to say that the skill level and toughness of the respective athletes doesn’t border on virtuosity. Many are the football icons throughout World Cup history who have brought honor to their country and village and family.

"Toughness" receives mention here due to long ago discussion in an alternative place of worship with Father Pat Carley, who at the time served as pastor of Saint Mary’s parish in Park City. Father Pat hailed, of course, from Ireland and possessed sweeping historical knowledge of most things religious, cultural and athletic.

During the World Cup of that year, whichever South American team I rooted for was bashed quite roundly about the head and shoulders by whichever European team it encountered. This behavior completely removed the "skill-level" advantage held by my "lads."

"Foul!" I cried. Father Pat responded quite emphatically with a euphemism for "nonsense!" "Toughness" made the world go ’round and if I had trouble digesting the concept, he would be glad to further my education out back. I declined his generous offer and, have since, come around to his side of the issue. Gooaaallll! Carley scores again!


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