At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Match of the Day: The More Desperate Team Wins

In John Feinstein's A Civil War, the author tracks the entire (American) football season at the United States Military Academy [a.k.a., "Army"] and the US Naval Academy [a.k.a., "Navy"]. The narrative builds toward the rivalry game between the teams at the end of the year. It is in the lead-up to the game that Army head coach Bob Sutton gives a charge for his players to remember in the trenches of the Army-Navy contest.

"The more desperate team wins."

Army took it to heart, winning one of the greatest games in the history of the rivalry, 14-13, on a last minute touchdown. The Cadets were truly the more desperate team (and converting a fourth-and-23 situation late in the game helped, too!).

What does this have to do with today's World Cup slew of games?

Simply that in the 5 pm (Central time) matchup between Spain and Chile, we can restate the Sutton Doctrine: The more desperate team wins. The question is which team is more desperate?

On paper, it looks to be Spain by a mile. The kings of soccer have had their way in Euro Cup 2008, World Cup 2010, and Euro Cup 2012. But against the Netherlands, the Spaniards came unglued under a full-on assault led by Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie. Even all-world goalie Iker Casillas couldn't handle a kick touch that led to one goal. The result was a 5-1 whipping and a minus-4 goal differential that will be difficult to make up. That alone makes Spain a desperate team, like a wounded mother lion enraged that her cubs are in danger. In other words, look out. Spain doesn't deal well with losing, and they should bring their A-game today and make Chile as busy as a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.

But that's on paper. In truth, Chile is coming off a fine win over Australia, having overwhelmed the Aussies in the first fifteen minutes with goals by Alexis Sanchez and Jorge Valdivia. They blunted the determined comeback by Australia, allowing only a goal by Thomas Cahill before Jean Beausejour added the stoppage time insurance tally for a 3-1 win. Here's the thing: Why shouldn't Chile be more desperate, knowing they have their two toughest tests ahead of them? After Spain, they still have to play the Dutch and there is no guarantee what the all-important goal differential will be then. Chile is 14th in the world but only the fifth-best South American team, and the Chileans want to make some noise.

So what's the outcome? Hard to tell. Both teams match up well. Spain has to win, and if Chile manages at least a tie, then it sets Spain behind the proverbial eight-ball. Spain should take it by a 2-1 or 1-0 count, but given the way this World Cup has unfolded so far, I'm looking for surprises of any kind.

Especially when desperation kicks in.

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