June 24, 2014

Play to Win, Be Happy With a Draw

In many ways, a dull 0-0 draw with Germany on Thursday is just what the United States needs.  In one, other, quite significant way, it's precisely what the game in the United States doesn't need.

If you're new to the World Cup, you may wonder why, after days of games played at distinct times, with no overlap, we finish up the group stage with both final games in each group being played at the same time.  The answer is simple - to keep teams in game A from knowing the result in game B and strategizing accordingly.  In other words, FIFA wants to keep everybody playing full out down the last minute.

Alas, this is not merely a hypothetical concern.

In Spain in 1982, West Germany found itself in a group with Austria, Chile, and Algeria.  Algeria stunned the Germans 2-1 in their opening match, before losing to Austria.  Germany rebounded to pound Chile, 4-0.  In its final group game, Algeria then knocked off Chile, 3-2.  As a result, when Germany played Austria the next day, both teams knew that a particular result - a 1-0 Germany victory - would see them both through.  So, this happened:
After only 10 minutes, Horst Hrubesch put West Germany in front, and then...nothing.
Neither side, understanding a 1-0 decision was mutually beneficial, mounted anything resembling an attack throughout the remainder of the match. The passes were lateral or backward and, tellingly, the tackles were soft between adversaries that would typically have gone at one another with venom.
'Fuera, Fuera!' ('Out, Out!') chanted the displeased spectators in Gijon, and the few Algerian supporters at El Molinon burned money in protest, according to ESPN FC.
At the final whistle the score remained 1-0 in what has since become known as the 'Anschluss of Gijon' . . .
Thus, in 1986, the shift to both final games in a group being played at the same time.

Of course, the situation in our group this year is that the Ghana-Portugal match being played at the same time we take on Germany is irrelevant if our game ends in a draw.  That result, regardless of how badly the other teams maul each other, and Germany wins the group and we move on as the second-place team.

Almost since that scenario popped up Sunday evening, there's been talk of potential collusion.  Mostly in jest, but still, there's a lot of grist for the mill.  We have a German coach, for whom the current Germany coach served as an assistant.  There are five German-American players on the US roster, some of whom suited up for Germany at youth levels.  And, most importantly, if either team loses they open themselves up to elimination based on what happens between Portugal and Ghana.

Jurgen Klinsmann, of course, has poo-pooed the entire idea that some kind of arrangement might take place, as he must.  Nor do I think there is one.  In the modern world of media saturation I think such a thing would be impossible to pull off.

However, I worry about what the perception will be if, sometime in the second half of a listless 0-0 draw, everybody just starts to pack it in and be happy with what they already have.  That soccer has draws is one of the regular complaints of the complainers in this country.  It's hard to argue against a result like the one against Portugal on Sunday, where both teams played hard and things just happened to work out that way.  On the other hand, not every draw is a thriller.

I kind of hope we don't get a thriller on Thursday.  But I kind of hope we do.  So long as, at the end of the day, we make it out of the Group of Death.

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