Teams that go 1-1-1 in group play can only hope for so much, but realistic hopes check into the halfway home during any World Cup. In fairness, the U.S. side has earned a bit of optimism after emerging from the supposed Group of Death with 4 points and a ticket to Arena Fonte Nova for Tuesday's knockout game with Belgium. Just how much optimism depends on how much realism one will permit. Fair warning: the most honest calculation puts a damper on that whole "I Believe That We Will Win" thing.
The worst anyone can say about the Belgian side is that they will be much better in 2018 and are no joke as is. The "as is" version features attacking midfielder Eden Hazard, who is in league with Neymar -- Neymar! -- as the best of soccer's emerging stars. Backing up the 23-year-old Hazard are 26-year-old jack-of-all-trades midfielder Marouane Fellaini (aka the one with the sweet afro) and 21-year-old striker Romelu Lukaku, who is the bulldozing striker that American fans hoped Jozy Altidore would be. While the team itself has yet to demonstrate the brilliance expected of their attack, they rode a dominant defense to the full nine points in group play, and remain the classic World Cup dark horse capable of ruining any favorite's run on the right day. And then there's the U.S. side.
There's no nice way of saying it, so let's just say it: The Group of Death, save for Germany, turned suicidal. Ghana's youthful, inexperienced side imploded thanks to internal and external turmoil culminating in a near-boycott that forced Ghanaian president John Dramani to overnight an overdue $3 million payment to the team. Portugal was doomed by Cristiano Ronaldo's knee injury and an insurmountable 4-0 self-destruct sequence loss to Germany in the team's first game. By comparison, the miserable form of would-be star midfielder Michael Bradley and a dagger draw with Portugal register as relative blessings for a U.S. side that got all the breaks a .500 team could ever ask for. Every World Cup has its group play escapees that benefit from circumstances beyond their control and the U.S. is every bit that team. Now comes the part that hurts, but only if you let it hurt.
Belgium is going to do vile, deplorable, borderline illegal things to a U.S. team that, be real, got outplayed during most of its run to the knockout stage. The near certainty of defeat is something for Americans to obfuscate in the name of maintaining an illusion of coming glory, or something to be embraced against impossible odds that aren't even worth worrying about. You can find your jingoistic calls to rally around imagined American virtues in near endless supply elsewhere, they'll fatten you up on foolishness and leave nothing but the worst sort of hurt come Tuesday night's purge. That's no way to get through a World Cup.
Going into any World Cup the list of teams with any chance of raising the golden trophy is unfairly short, but every corner of the earth watches anyway. The reason has less to do with nationalism than it does a simple desire to see one's country do what they can on sport's biggest stage. Greeks, Chileans, Uruguayans and Mexicans the world over are already mourning their respective knockouts, but if past history is any indicator, they will dutifully follow their sides for the next forever and hope it turns out a bit different come 2018, even as they know that it probably won't.
If the assumption that the World Cup serves to reify nationalist fervor is true, then it does an awfully piss-poor job of actually doing so. Don't take my word for it. Actor and noted Greek Billy Zane captured the essence of rooting on a national side when he tweeted "Next time.." after Greece's soul-crushing penalty-kick loss to Costa Rica. That guy gets it. Be more like Billy Zane, everyone.
Besides, any fan of U.S. soccer already has something worth celebrating: The knowledge that 2014 is the last gasp of American soccer as anyone knows it. What its new form will be remains well beyond prognostication, but Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and maybe even Michael Bradley won't be around for it in any meaningful way. Maybe the new form will look something like the Belgian golden generation already in progress and maybe it won't, but it will be a step into the unknown that American soccer has long resisted.
The unknown is what comes with believing every word of "I Believe That We Will Win" and accepting that it's just another rallying cry. After all, Belgium is going to make America swallow every dumbass joke about waffles we've ever made come Tuesday. However, when self-belief fails, next time remains. So says Billy Zane.