Much has been made of the brutal travel schedule and sub-optimal playing conditions at the World Cup. The U.S. Men’s National Team will travel over 9,00 miles (more than any other team- thanx FIFA!) during the group stage, traversing multiple time zones and varied climates. Nearly every team has been put in this situation though – England, for example, played its first game in blistering tropical conditions then kicked off against Uruguay 5 days later with the players asking for gloves to keep warm (shocking that the team that forgot to cover Andrea Pirlo and Luis Suarez was unprepared).
No venue poses a greater challenge to the players than Arena Amazonia in Manaus, which sits square in the middle of the world’s densest rainforest, a lengthy plane ride away what the rest of the world would consider an ideal place to live, breath or most all, play 90 minutes of soccer. Playing in Manaus is like traveling 7 hours to go run wind sprints in a sauna full of cocker spaniel-sized insects. That’s the environment in which the U.S. and Portugal will square off this evening, and for the Americans, it couldn’t be better.
On a level playing field, in optimal conditions, Portugal would probably beat the U.S. 6 or 7 out of 10 times. Fortunately, this is not a level playing field. In horrid conditions, that equation is dramatically altered, with fortune favoring the team that can adapt and endure and survive, and that’s where one other variable comes into play: experience. The ethos of this American team has been forged over time in CONCACAF, the unlicensed bare-knuckle boxing arena that doubles as the America’s qualification group. Offering wildly varied levels of competition, CONCACAF has commonly been viewed as a detriment to the U.S. team. The unique, bruising style of play, unconventional playing conditions and inconsistent refereeing in CONCACAF left the US ill-prepared to face the polished European talent and tactics in world tournaments, until now.
Preparing for the World Cup by playing CONCACAF games is preparing for the NBA season by playing on the And1 MixtapeTour, but all of a sudden, the NBA has found itself hosting a streetball tournament. There’s a reason why Mexico, the US and Costa Rica are 4-0-1 so far in Brazil: Because the World Cup has suddenly become a deluxe version of CONCACAF qualifying (in fairness, the fourth CONCACAF team, Honduras, is 0-2, but they suck a lot). It’s the same reason why South American teams are thriving and the same reason why no European team has ever won a World Cup in South America. There environmental factors – travel, climate, playing conditions, refereeing… – literally and figuratively alter the playing field, and those that can’t adapt, die.
Manaus takes all of those factors and cranks them up to 11. It’s going to be hell for the players, but having emerged victorious after a lengthy campaign in the CONCACAF underworld, the U.S. is used to hell. In a routine span of CONCACAF qualifying, the U.S. will play 8,000 feet above sea level in the throat-choking smog of Mexico City, then in the equatorial humidity of Honduras, then a home game in a blizzard in Denver, then back to Costa Rica to play on shoddy turf in front of thousands of fans separated by refugee camp-style barriers to prevent them from storming the field, then finally in Panama where their bus will be pelted by rocks and glass bottles, and where the unfortunate player assigned to corner kicks will keep an eye out for water balloons full of piss getting hurled at him. In short, Manaus is just a callback to the hot, sticky, ugly world of CONCACAF qualifying, and Portugal? Portugal is soft. Portugal ain’t about that life.
Portugal: “Caution, highly flammable.”
I’m not saying that the Portuguese team represents everything that’s wrong with soccer; I’m just saying that every negative stereotype people associate with soccer accurately applies to the Portuguese team: they’re dirty, they flop, they complain incessantly, they throw tantrums when things don’t go their way, they’re often incredibly boring to watch, and they apply enough pre-match hair gel to grease down a beached whale. Strike a match within 50 feet of that much hair product and you’ll start a fire that’ll burn down the Amazon. They’re awful, and when things don’t go their way, a-la the Germany game, they’re impossibly, exponentially worse.
Portgual: The Man.
They say attitude reflects leadership, and no player is more representative of the Portuguese brand of hatefulness than Cristiano Ronaldo, the team’s captain and the world’s second best player. Ronaldo is a dynamic talent and a freakish athlete and, frankly, an uncomfortably good looking human being, but we came here to bury Caesar, not praise him, so break out your shovels. If you like Alex Rodriguez, but wish he was more narcissistic, Cristiano Ronaldo’s your guy. He’s soccer’s version of Kanye West – wildly talented at his craft, and a materialistic, vapid, abrasive, self-obsessed douche in every other aspect of life.
Among the many, many reasons why Cristiano Ronaldo is eminently unlikable, let’s name just a few:
-He told the media in 2011 that people hate him “because I’m rich, handsome and a great player. There’s no other explanation.”
-He has an ongoing feud with legendary and beloved striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy, which began when they got into a fistfight while training together as teammates at Manchester United and continues today.
-Google Cristiano Ronaldo “scandal” and you get everything from orgies with hookers and teammates to corrupt Ballon D’or voting. Even with the generous curve for acceptable behavior that gets applied to European soccer stars, Ronaldo has been connected to one hell of a lot of bad headlines.
And if there’s any lingering doubt as to why Ronaldo sucks, here’s one more: Because Joe fuckin Biden said so. Biden to a Brazilian newspaper this week:
“I think he’s overrated. I think he’s given more credit than he deserves. Look, I’ve watched him play before. When he was at Manchester United, and now with Real Madrid, and in the 2010 World Cup, I’ve seen Ronaldo play. And I think, before you can call a player `great’ or whatever, he needs to stay on his feet, and not dive every five seconds. I call him `Tuna Man.’ `Cristiano Tunaldo,’ because he flops around on the pitch like a fish pulled out of water. It’s uncalled for. So yeah, I think team USA is going to give them a run for their money.”
“Tuna Man.” That’s a sick (and accurate) burn delivered direct via Air Force Two. Suck it, Tuna Man.
Bury This Team At Wounded Knee.
After just one group game so far, casualties abound for both squads. The US team lost one of its most important players in Jozy Altidore, who’s probably done for the tournament, and Matt Besler and Clint Dempsey will both play through injuries sustained against a physically domineering Ghanaian side. But the U.S.’s IR list is nothing compared to the utter disaster Portugal sustained at the hands of Germany in their 4-0 loss. Not only did Germany win that battle, they looted the town, burned the churches, kidnapped the women and children and slaughtered the able-bodied men. With Ronaldo already banged up with a significant and much-obsessed-over knee injury, Portugal lost two of its best players for at least the rest of the group stage, had their most important defensive player, Pepe, get suspended due to a stupid, textbook-Pepe red card, and potentially lost a host of other injured players, who are all game-time decisions today. Portugal’s injury report reads like the final dispatch from a doomed round of Oregon Trail: “Bruno Alves has diphtheria, Fabio Coentrao died of malaria, Ronaldo has dysentery, Pepe was captured by natives…”
The injuries also forced an already damaged Ronaldo to play 90 minutes on his bum knee – (well, “play” might be overstating it.) He’ll play tonight, but Portugal could very well be going into the game without their top striker, starting goals, and three of the four members of their back line. Lesson learned: don’t ever fuck with Ghanaian witch doctors.
While Altidore’s absence will raises a number of personnel and tactical questions to which Jurgen Klinsmann may or may not have answers, Portugal finds itself at the bottom of Group G with only a handful of guys healthy enough to dig them out. The question is: Will the loss of key players, the low morale, and the crap playing conditions cause them to fold, as it did in the second half against Germany, or will they circle the wagons and fight their way out of the corner with the second best player into the world leading the charge? We’ll see, but we do know that the first 20 minutes of the game will go a long way to determining that answer. If the US can get a goal, or just frustrate and physically impose their will on a broken opponent, the Portuguese might well finish the job themselves.
Know Thy Enemy:
Portugal’s international achievements through history:
1. Discover the New World
2. Conquer foreign lands
3. Irresponsibly give away all foreign lands
5. Bankrupt the entire country.
Portugal: Even their animals are boring.
The nation’s eponymous invertebrate, the Portuguese Man O’ War, boasts a pretty badass name for being a big brainless idiot that floats around aimlessly for its entire existence. It’s just a stupid blob of nothing that happens to have great branding. Fitting that a nation that hasn’t won a war in 500 years is the namesake of a creature that’s only harmful when it’s being stepped on.
Portugal: Spain’s weird goth roommate. This is an actual direct quote from a website about Portugal:
“Fatalism is an essential trait of Portuguese culture. Fado, as the Portuguese call it,…has given rise to the eponymous music genre, characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a characteristic sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia. Fado has been recognized by the UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011.”
I don’t even have a joke for that. Portugal sounds awful.
Portugal: Where domestic battery gets its own national holiday. From the same website:
The Festa de São João do Porto, held on the night of 23 June, is one of the liveliest celebrations in the country. The tradition, which has its roots in pagan courtship rituals, requires participants to hit attractive girls on the head with garlic flowers or soft plastic hammers.
That just sounds like the first half of every Popeye cartoon. The Italians are so mad they didn’t think of this holiday first.
…And honestly there’s nothing interesting about Portugal, unless you find it fascinating that 70% of the world’s corks come from Portugal. That’s among the top 3 facts about Portugal on every website I’ve gone to. Corks. Half the globe once belonged to the Portuguese. They had Vasco de Gama and Magellan, and today’s they’re just a bunch of weirdos who write emo songs and chase women around with plastic hammers and brag about how many corks they make. Portugal is depressing. You know what’s not depressing? AMERICA.
Prediction: America 3. Portugal 1.