There are thousands of reasons to like sports -- they allow you to pretend you're a child, they provide distraction from the drudgery and occasional terror of real life, they are a particularly friendly complement to the consumption of alcoholic beverages -- but my favorite is that they don't matter.
Now, I don't mean they don't matter matter: anyone who has ever sat next to me -- or, more likely, next to me for a few minutes and then somewhere more distant, perhaps across the room or across the street, shortly afterward -- when the Cardinals or Illini play knows that for those hours when your team is playing there's nothing that could possibly matter more. I'm talking about in the grand scheme of the planet. Sports are important precisely because they are so unimportant. They allow us access to emotions that are unacceptable in the real world and give us a safe place to express them. The real world does not inspire you, every five minutes, to jump and scream and shout and curse and howl, unless you are an insane person. Sports requires all these things. They are inextricable from the product itself.
One of the reasons I love international soccer -- and, obviously, the team that represents my country -- is that it is basically consequence-free, context-free patriotism. I love my country, unironically; I'm the one who will eyeball you if you don't take your hat off and hold your hand over your heart during the national anthem. But I am aware of its limits, its exceptionalism, its imperialist heart, its occasional arrogance, its archaic culture wars, its government's (relatively recent) inability to function at even the most fundamental level. Loving my country is not difficult. But it is not uncomplicated.
Ordinarily when I cheer for the United States, though, it gets complicated, because we tend to impose our will on sports the way we do on the rest of the world. I am glad the United States crushes Algeria in Olympic basketball, I guess, but it doesn't feel particularly different than what we would do to Algeria in any other context. In the Winter Olympics, we've basically invented a bunch of sports -- half-pipe, full-pipe, quarter-pipe, mega-pipe, micro-pipe -- solely so we can win them. This is what we do. I don't cheer against it -- I want my country to win -- but it doesn't feel particularly satisfying. It must be what it's like to root for the Yankees.
But in international soccer, we're not the United States anymore: We're Algeria. OK, we're not quite soccer's version of Algerian basketball; let's say we're, oh, Canada, or Greece. We're never going to be the favorites, the great teams are gonna kill us … but we can dream. Basically, U.S. soccer is the real-world version of what Americans imagine ourselves to be, often to our own delusion: Regular average everyday folk who can succeed by dint of determination, scrap and boot-strap yanking. We are a nation of people constantly thinking of themselves as underdogs when we're not. But in international soccer, we are underdogs. It makes it more fun. It is the one time our delusion is actually true.
Nationalism and tribalism are net negatives by definition: They are the central conflicts to be overcome in a civilized world. But in the World Cup draw, they are essential: I -- as an irresponsible American citizen -- know next to nothing about Ghana as a country, but as a soccer team, I hate them. (It's another reason the way we treat the Mexican soccer team and the way we treat Mexico are so dramatically opposed.) You might find all this a bit of hipster patriotism, and you wouldn't necessarily be wrong. That doesn't make it less enjoyable.
So, now that we know whom the United States will be playing at the World Cup next June -- now that we know that U.S. ended in the GROUP OF DEATH! -- it's time to gin up some good old-fashioned hate for those countries. Now, to be clear again: This is not actual hate for the citizens of Germany, Ghana and Portugal. They are citizens of earth like the rest of us. But for the World Cup, they are sworn enemies. We've all got six months to store up some nationalistic bile. Here's an early primer, based almost entirely off recent headlines.
Germany. First off: GERMANY, you know. They've still got some historical making up to do, if you ask this Yank. THERE IS THAT. Also, they're even worse about gender equality than we are. Their chancellor is all "please stop snooping on my phone calls," like … all right, she's got a point on that one. (Even if it's costing them Scientology investigations.) Oh, and: They're the snottiest beer people in the world. BOOOOO GERMANY!
Ghana. They've beaten the United States in the last two World Cups and now have an opportunity to do the same in a third. It is a good thing this happened, because it is otherwise extremely difficult to hate Ghana. The most famous person from Ghana is probably Kofi Annan, who is a very nice man. Ghana has made major headway in reducing the spread of AIDS in Africa. It ranks among the very best on the continent in the Failed States Index. Fortunately, we have the fact that they beat the U.S. the last two World Cups, so now we may transform the peaceful people of this pleasant country into bloodthirsty monsters who must be vanquished. INVADE GHANA!
Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo is your best bet here: For crying out loud, he's in the process of building a museum for himself. All right, so fine, he's also a noted philanthropist and he even is nice to people who run on the field to hug him. But he is better looking and richer and happier than the average person, so LET'S GET HIM. Also, their stock is trading lower than Twitter. LIQUIFY PORTUGAL!
ESPN's Soccer Power Index gives the U.S. a 39.1 percent chance of advancing. As an American, I give the rest of the world 100 percent chance of PAIN. USA! USA! USA!
(You know, I should probably save some of this for June.)