Every century or so, the English get things just right, setting off a spark that becomes a flame and lights the globe. In 1599, Shakespeare produced “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet” and “As You Like It,” the play that instructed, “All the world’s a stage.” The next two centuries brought Newton’s “Principia,” which measured the heavens, and the derivation of longitude. In the 1960s, the Beatles — the list goes on.
As for the mid-19th century, the English merged those divergent interests of poetry and measurement, refining and codifying the rules of a game they called “association football.” Americans now call that game “soccer.” Most of the world just calls it life itself.
The truth of the game’s universality is now on display, with the 2014 FIFA World Cup bringing a screeching but pleasing halt to general world affairs for the next month. It took Americans a while to wrap our good foot around the sport, but the final 2010 World Cup game for the United States team, in which they were eliminated by Ghana, attracted some 19 million viewers. That’s about one in every 15 Americans, and many of the others are old, racist, dull or babies.
The World Cup is among the most robust forms of sanctioned culture clash, lending flesh and anecdote to long-standing national reputations. The Germans are strong and well-organized; the French are talented and eccentric; the Italians are stylish but have an on-again, off-again relationship with the rule of law.
Soccer’s evolving styles demonstrate some of the most aesthetically pleasing examples of cross-cultural borrowing and adaptation. The 2014 tournament is being hosted by the heavily favored Brazil, whose unmistakable “samba” style was influenced by — you guessed it (probably you did not guess it) — Hungary, masters of the most expressive form seen in the first half of the 20th century. Defending world champions Spain have often left opponents and observers spellbound with their tiki-taka flow of passing and movement, a seemingly unstoppable revision of the old Dutch approach of “total football.”
In past generations, the American style, if one could call it that, called upon athleticism, grit and limiting mistakes. Those days are apparently gone, as German-born coach Jürgen Klinsmann has dared the Americans to play around with the ball, to play on their collective front feet. They’ll have to do so without Landon Donovan, the all-time American leader in goals scored, whom Klinsmann left off the team. And they’ll have to do so against the likes of Portugal and Germany, two of the most terrifying squads on Earth.
The U.S., along with its nemesis Ghana, has been drawn into the so-called Group of Death, but the sentence of execution is not necessarily its own. Most everyone agreed that the U.S. needed to open the tournament with a victory over the Ghanaians — which they achieved with a 2-1 win on Monday. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.
As global happenings go, the World Cup matches themselves are relatively innocent affairs, and always turn up a few elements of downright fun.
Consider the names. This year’s best offerings, among players who matter, include a mercurial Brazilian winger who just goes by Hulk, a Portuguese playmaker named Nani, and Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard, which is also a term for an apple in the Book of Genesis.
Then, of course, there’s the hair. Inevitably, some player will come out looking like a parrot just flew off his shoulder. Inevitably, some other player will come out looking like that very parrot.
Aside from these superficial delights, there are the moments that draw deeper, cutting through prediction and stereotype with some unforeseen plot twist. Watch for the soft-spoken English gentleman with a streak of thuggish violence, or the Dutchman disavowing his freewheeling society and trying to stamp the fun out of everything.