Asides and Offsides: Notes on the World Cup Confronting the Myth and the Reality of Soccer as Another World Cup Begins
As in any other sport, the point is the narrative—but no other sport magnifies its lore in the same way as soccer.
This is Asides and Offsides, a World Cup notebook by . Bryan Washington
Last Saturday, en route to a doctor’s appointment, I caught Iceland’s World Cup opener at a bar beside the clinic. It was the country’s first tournament appearance . They’d been matched to play Argentina. Inside, after I’d found a seat, a big dude in a Mexico jersey posted up behind me—he said he’d actually arrived moments before, and for that particular seat specifically. He absolutely had to sit there. It was where he’d sat four years ago. Every last action needed to be replicated for Mexico to advance the following afternoon.
I moved. He sat. As Iceland and Argentina coalesced around one another, there was an awkwardness between us. The bar’s silence was punctuated by our respective grunts, our muttering at no one in particular. We weren’t talking to each other, exactly, but we were talking together. And when, apropos of nothing, this guy wondered why Lionel Messi hadn’t taken control of the match yet ( something he wouldn’t get around to doing ), I said that I hoped Mexico wouldn’t make the same mistake, and all of a sudden my neighbor smiled, extending his hand for a shake.
Now, we were best friends. Or brothers. We would live or die together. Bound by the whims of Javier Hernández, Guillermo Ochoa, and their crew. We talked animatedly for the next hour or so. I wished him luck for the rest of the tournament.
After he’d squeezed the whole of my forearm (“for luck”), I left and arrived wildly late for my appointment. When the lady conducting my labs asked about the delay, I whispered something about Iceland, and she gave me this look of disbelief. She told me it wasn’t a very good excuse. She was rooting for Nigeria. She asked if I’d seen their new jerseys , I told her I had, and as she drew my blood she proceeded to describe them to me anyway.
You could argue that every last moment of ours is fraught by merit of our finitude—not to mention the exacerbation of those days by technology, or the commodification of those very same seconds by late-stage capitalism, or our current ongoing hellscape of a geopolitical shuffle—but from June 14th until the middle of July, if you are fan of fútbol then you also carry the comparatively lightweight burden of a crowded tournament schedule. And even if you’re from a nation that didn’t make the men’s tournament—like the United States , where we seem to be in the process of rupturing our country’s internal organs (or, maybe, just making their true functions more obviously apparent)—the World Cup can be a salve, a reprieve within the madness, for those who wait for and watch it every four years.
As in any other sport, the point is the narrative ; but no other sport magnifies its lore in the same way as soccer ( barring the ongoing egregiousness of FIFA ). There’s a sense of possibility that’s implicit in every touch of the ball, and no matter how big a star may be, the ball is all they started with. It’s one of the world’s most accessible sports, and also one of its most grueling. A team’s star player can carry the collective weight of a generation. Generations can pass before a country births its own star. And a single score can turn a layperson into a legend, or a throwaway match into the game that’s cited for decades to come.
Depending on who you talk to, Germany will reprise their 2014 tournament victory . Or France will win, despite the absence of star striker Karim Benzema . Or England will win, on the heels of Raheem Sterling . Or Spain, alongside Gerard Pique and David De Gea. Or Brazil, which, Neymar’s allure aside, begins every World Cup with the promise of taking everything home. Every player has a story, and every star has a myth—but then the games come around and everyone, simultaneously, is struck with reality.
In Argentina’s first match, Messi was nearly entirely a non-factor, leading to a draw that felt a lot like a loss (or, from Iceland’s end, like winning it all ). Mo Salah , Egypt’s world-beating superstar, was relegated to the bench for their loss against Uruguay . Neymar sank under the weight of his stardom, rendered ineffective, and scoreless, in Brazil’s draw with Switzerland. South Korea lost to Sweden. Panama lost to Belgium . And Russia opened the tournament with a win against Saudi Arabia (only to win a second match yesterday afternoon against Egypt), with a glowing press box housing the country’s leaders, reminding the players and the viewers and the world that the beautiful game is hardly ever a game at all .
But of course there were heroes, too: Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, in what is probably his last World Cup, seemingly single-handedly lifted and resuscitated his team in a draw against Spain . Senegal defeated the eighth-ranked Poland , leading to the second defeat of a European team, and the first victory for an African one, in the tournament. Japan defeated Colombia in the first-ever World Cup win for an Asian team over a South American squad, and if, as Rowan Ricardo Phillip noted in the last Cup , “games are balanced on the distress of an atom,” there’s a fair chance that this year’s opening matches have already flipped that equation on its head.
On Sunday, my mom and I watched Mexico overtake Germany. The loss should’ve felt like an upset. Watching it in my parents’ home, it didn’t look like that at all. But I thought of the guy in the bar, and his tiny little ritual, and meanwhile, down south, Mexican fans (probably) created a tiny earthquake .
The World Cup will go however it goes, but the seams between the games will occupy our daily lives, blurring the line between reality and the game on-screen. After South Korea dropped their first game, a buddy living in Seoul messaged me that despite their initial loss, he thought his country was winning the year. Another friend living in Panama was ecstatic that her team qualified for their very first appearance in the Cup—if all they did was simply walk on and off the field, they’d make history. There is no way to know what will happen next year, let alone next month (the United States will host the World Cup in 2028, and there is quite literally no telling what this country will look like by then), yet in spite of everything, the matches will proceed. We’ll live our lives alongside them.
And while it isn’t entirely possible to disconnect them from the reality they’re based in, the matches all but create parallel universes inside of themselves. After Mexico had sealed the win , my mother texted a coworker who’d implored her to watch the game, wishing him a happy Father’s Day. He responded almost immediately, sending a picture of his family. All of them donned the green and red jerseys. He asked my mom how it could possibly get any better. And while the rest of the tournament could rewrite that notion or eliminate it entirely, the moment has happened; it’s already history; it will always be there for us to recall.
Bryan Washington will teach a 6-week Online Fiction Workshop for Catapult beginning on July 3rd.