Look at these two coots. One is more than 1,000 years old, the other almost 238. Both can be eccentric.
One is England, and if you've never been in England for a good post-World Cup-match handwringing, then I highly recommend going to England for a post-football-match handwringing, one of the world's better reading-viewing spectacles.
The other is the United States, gradually cottoning to soccer.
One will play Uruguay on Thursday, all set for fervent majority analysis; the other will play Portugal on Sunday, all set for fervent minority hope.
One has a team renowned for world-class talent but world-stage wilting; the other has a team renowned for Triple-A talent but world-stage fighting. One just spent the first part of the week deconstructing a pretty defeat; the other just spent the first part of the week celebrating a raggedy victory. One has held a national deconstruction one fan called "surprisingly positive," an assessment itself fresh and humorous; the other just held a national hurrah that took some time before it seemed to give way to, Oh, but they'd better play better in the next match.
One has obsessed over a single player of great fame (Wayne Rooney); the other has celebrated an anonymous guy who just seemed to walk in out of Berlin and deliver a decisive header (John Brooks).
One long has identified itself with football; the other identifies itself with another kind of football plus baseball and basketball. When the other (United States) drew with the one (England) at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, it signaled that England's impressive qualifying campaign might fizzle and that the United States' bid might glow. (Both vaguely happened.) When the other upset the one at the previous Brazilian World Cup, in 1950, it became one of the biggest shockers in World Cup history. (That flatters both winner and loser.)
One reckons its national team ought to frequent the top of the modern game it perfected. Its English Premier League is the runaway-biggest sports league in the world. The other would -- and should -- be pleased if its national team eluded Group G in Brazil. Its NFL conducts something called a "Super Bowl." One long grew associated with losing until its Olympic teams began racking up medals; the other long grew associated with winning but, bafflingly, hasn't bothered too much with winning at the most important world game.
What's the deal with that?
One puts such a magnifying glass on the national team that, when the England team departed for Germany and the 2006 World Cup, huge hopes in the overhead compartment, the BBC showed the plane taking off live and described the inflight menu including "clotted cream." (I wondered if clotted cream might hinder performance.) The focus is so intense that it's a cliché to wonder if players play while afraid to err.
A fine, loud debate has rung through England this week over Rooney, the 28-year-old striker who has oozed greatness in his Manchester United career but has yet to score in a World Cup (only possibly because of clotted cream). In a nation of about 53 million managers, some of these managers think the actual manager, Roy Hodgson, succumbs to Rooney's reputation when he highlights Rooney. Bearing in mind some variation in position, they want more emphasis given to young Liverpudlian delights Daniel Sturridge, 24, a striker, and Raheem Sterling, 19, a midfielder.
Against Italy, Rooney both gorgeously set up England's own goal and apparently hindered the defense, leaving ample room to opine this way and that, and for what the outstanding Sam Wallace of the Independent called "the great lurch to extremes that exists in English football." It loosed what Wallace called "the classic exorcism theory, as if getting rid of the player the country previously relied upon will magically open a new chapter."
(Of course, there's never, ever any such thinking in the United States, especially not with quarterbacks in college towns.)
Wallace: "The English football public has always wanted to love Rooney, an everyman English figure who, in a parallel life, could so easily be driving a van and bossing a five-a-side with his mates on a Monday night. Failing that, it is more than prepared to hate him. Hate him for not proving that a bloke with many of the flaws of the Saturday-night-on-the-high-street Englishman can be capable of taking on and beating the best in the world."
Hints from practice had Hodgson planning to highlight Rooney perhaps even more, play him in the middle as he likes. If he gets that long-sought goal in the pivotal bout with Uruguay, big love could commence.
Love so big isn't possible on the other side with the other coot. The United States' band of bloody-nosed scrappers just finished winning while outplayed. Its controversies tend to be sillier, such as the frilly one where the manager practiced sincerity and said he couldn't see his team winning it all. As uphill as it seems, this other coot goes to the rain forest on the weekend with a chance suddenly golden: It will play a Portugal team whose megastar (Cristiano Ronaldo) looks more imperfect than usual and whose play against Germany looked discombobulated. If the United States could slip past Portugal, one of the teams that made Group G so deathly, it could clinch early passage to the round of 16.
This little tugboat that just might, by the way, hails from the biggest, richest nation in the World Cup.
Coots can be eccentric.