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The Kobayashi Maru (or Why International Football Sometimes Feels Like a No-Win Scenario)

LandonDonovan628x471“I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.”
– Captain James T. Kirk; STAR TREK II: The Wrath of Khan”

As the World Cup draw for 2014 in Brazil approaches, I’ve taken note of a curious pastime many of my sport journalist colleagues have been whiling their time away with over the last few weeks: the World Cup Group Stage Generator. Google the term and you’ll find dozens of variations to choose from. They all seem to do essentially the same task. Using an algorithm(s?) that attempts to replicate the nature of the FIFA draw (“randomly” drawing 32 teams from four pots into 8 groups of 4 teams each), these generators hope to anticipate what the competitive landscape might look like over next summer’s tournament by showing what groups each team might find themselves in.

Anticipating tomorrow’s draw, I decided to take a bit of a bite of the bait (phew…) and run one of these generators for myself (the one I chose is here). Obviously, as a futbol fan with an American bent, I kept an eye on how the group stage generator placed the United States National Team. As I ran the generator a handful of times, a pattern emerged: there are no easy combinations this time around. This is a highly competitive World Cup tournament.

Examples of what the generator spat out:

GROUP D:
Germany
Cameroon
USA
Italy

GROUP F:
Argentina
Cameroon
USA
England

GROUP D:
Colombia
Algeria
USA
Portugal

None of these combinations is easy for the United States. This will not be an easy tournament next summer for the Yanks in Brazil. And, as always seems to be the case when the US National Team has to face off against the weight of international competition, many American fans and pundits have come out bemoaning the uphill battle that faces the Stars and Stripes with any one of these Group Stage combinations. There seems to be a sense of complete futility from many of these fans – the United States can’t possibly perform against such weighty opponents. The competition is simply too strong. The United States has a team that, while athletic and spirited, lacks the tactical awareness and finesse to truly go deep into the knock-out stages of the World Cup.

Even Jurgen Klinsmann, head coach of the US team, doesn’t believe the Yanks could ultimately win the World Cup next summer. He admitted as much during an interview with Russ Thaler on NBC Sports (a frank admission that, while probably true, took many fans aback with its candor).

It’s difficult sometimes to not feel the US fan is fighting a “No-Win Scenario.”

Meanwhile, as Brazil prepares for the draw on Friday, a report by ABC News shows the horrific disparity between the powerhouse of FIFA (with its multi-million dollar sponsors) and the struggling nation that will be hosting the competition. You need not look any further than the stark juxtaposition of the luxurious amenities that will be afforded the FIFA clan during the pomp-and-circumstance of this festivity next to the third-world squalor many of the Brazil’s 200 million people live in. When a nation can’t afford public transportation for its citizens, but is running itself bankrupt to accommodate stadiums for an international tournament it can’t possibly turn a profit from, you have to wonder if the whole affair is worth it.

Wasn’t FIFA football idealistically supposed to be an agent for positive change? Isn’t soccer supposed to unite the world? Isn’t this sport our one true, singular language?

Why does the World Cup always end up feeling like politics as usual?

No-Win-Scenario? Is international football our Kobayashi Maru?

Any long-standing STAR TREK fan will know what I mean. For those uninitiated, read on below for some clarification.

The Kobayashi Maru. It was the ultimate test that couldn’t be beaten. It was a test that placed the student into a circumstance that couldn’t be won. The test wasn’t meant to be beaten. The test was designed so that the student would surely lose. That was the point of it. It was intended as an exercise to show how we deal with futility. It was a test of character. It was a test of how we deal with life and death.

TOS_The_Wrath_Of_Khan_Kobayashi_MaruIt was stirring to the imagination of the 5-year-old who was taken to see THE WRATH OF KHAN at his local movie theater by his father. The test that could not be won. An academy cadet was asked to save a ship in enemy territory. However, the confines of the simulation made it impossible to save. The cadet would ultimately have to face certain death to test their mettle. Did the cadet have the resolve to face the unknown? How would the cadet fare in the face of conflict?

The test was unbeatable. Well, unless you were Captain Kirk, the only cadet to ever win the “No-Win-Scenario.” How did he beat it? The specifics of his methodology are unimportant here (plus, I wouldn’t think of spoiling the film for any of the interested, uninitiated readers who haven’t seen the STAR TREK films yet). What was essential was his unwillingness to believe in a no-win-scenario. He couldn’t accept that there wasn’t a solution or an answer to what initially seemed to be an insurmountable odd. He was relentless in his pursuit of a solution. He refused to be beaten by the Kobayashi Maru.

It’s a game of will and belief.

Of any sport, soccer may be the one most fiercely driven by the psychological. The belief. The will. The game’s motion and flow allows for individual player and team expression that isn’t present in other sports. A sense of individual and team identity emerges in the game of soccer because of its flexibility. How many infinite ways are there to take a first touch in soccer in order to control the ball? We can debate the merits of attractive, aesthetic passing versus smash-mouth intensity, but the ultimate goal is to utilize unique skills and sensibilities to posses and move the ball effectively down the field into the opposing team’s net to score. Within that, the possibilities are seemingly limitless. The opportunity to express is immense. And, expression is almost entirely psychological.

That’s the nature of soccer in particular.

Other sports have their unique beauty. Boxing has its targeted, punching precision. American football has its tactical machinations. Basketball has its sprinting fluidity. Baseball is geometric clarity.

Brasil-2014-Brazil-2014-Logo-Oficial-1aziomhSoccer is about will. A player wills the ball forward. Save the goalkeepers, nobody can handle the ball, so field players have to will the ball forward. They can never hold and move the ball forward, so they have to find other ways to keep the ball moving to their advantage while exerting and absorbing pressure from the opposing team.

Boxing is probably closest to the psychological torrent that soccer is simply because “game-play” stops so seldom. These are sports of building and changing momentum. Dynamics can change so quickly between opponents. A goal or a knock-out can happen with little or no warning. The apparent unpredictability of sports such as these requires a focus and rigor unparalleled in many other sports.

Psychology often determines outcome.

Has the world around this infinitely flexible sport hypnotized us?

Have we all fallen under the spell of the No-Win-Scenario? Has the US fan-base spent so much of its time believing it’s a second-tier nation that it can’t seem to find the psychological push to advance itself further up the international ladder. Are we caught in a wormhole of self-fulfilling prophecy? We mock FIFA and Sepp Blatter, but we secretly harbor dreams of climbing the FIFA rankings. He cry that we want to improve our national team, but many fans ignore our national league. Are we self-saboteurs because, somewhere in the tiniest corner of our hearts, we believe US Soccer’s international relevance is a ship we just can’t save?

Writers running the Group Stage Generator again and again, hoping to find a result that may pave that Yellow Brick Road for the US’s passage into the best-of-16. Riot after riot in Brazil. It’s enough to drive the best of us mad.

Why do I follow crazy thing again? Why do we still rush in to save the Kobayashi Maru? Why rush in to save the ship that can’t be saved?

I think of Greece in 2004. A national team of grit and will. They fought tenaciously against far superior talent and ultimately lifted the European Championship trophy. They fought with gusto. They willed the ball forward.

I think of the USA in 2009. Their inferior skill-set was little to no match against Spain during the Confederations Cup semi-final. They beat them 2-0 anyway. This was following an unexpected win against Egypt. Another team they weren’t supposed to beat. Did the ball simply bounce well for them enough times? Or, did they will the ball forward?

I think of Japan in the Women’s World Cup of 2011 final. The US were superior in almost every way. They had the athleticism. They had the height. They had the pace. They had the drive. But, Japan needed it more. Japan wanted it more. Japan never backed down, equalizing in the dying seconds of the game.

They saved the ship.

Feel free to write all this off as romantic drivel. But, it was the romance of possibility that brought me to this game in the first place. Watching teams outmatched by talent and skill win the match anyway because of their psychological strength and heart. I’m not ready to let go of that sense of the possible anytime soon

But, remember that it’s a sport of will. It’s a sport of belief. And if we don’t, on some level, believe that we can beat the powerhouses or change the social/financial inequities or benefit the world soccer stage, then we’re rushing in to save the Kobayashi Maru without believing in the possibility that we can save it.

And, I personally don’t believe in the no-win scenario.

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