Don't bet on a U.S.-Germany draw
RECIFE, Brazil -- Let us begin with one undeniable fact: There is no rational reason for the U.S. and Germany to play to anything other than a scoreless draw here on Thursday.
If intelligence holds, both teams should spend a leisurely afternoon kicking a football in the sun, ensuring that both will skip into the World Cup's knockout stage. These teams are not dire enemies with age-old scores to settle; in truth, they are more closely bound than most sides here, thanks to the living, breathing Venn diagram that is Jurgen Klinsmann. A gentlemen's agreement between Klinsmann and his former assistant Joachim Low will mean that nobody risks injury or fatigue; nobody sustains a devastating psychological blow or pushes his country into an otherwise avoidable period of mourning; nobody is given reason to complain about the order of things. Germany finishes an expected first, the U.S. a semi-surprise second in Group G, and off each goes to the games that more plainly matter.
Now let us continue with another undeniable fact: Men are prideful idiots.
On Wednesday, both managers -- good friends, frequent lunch and dinner companions and late-life confidants -- said they want to win. They want to beat each other at this game to which they have dedicated themselves, and they seemed to mean it. They have even put their friendship on hold, allegedly, giving each other the silent treatment until they're out the other side of their highest stakes meeting.
"We want to come out very aggressive, and we want to give Germany a real battle here," Klinsmann said.
"When we want a draw, it never works," Low said. "It's almost impossible. Our objective is to win, that's all."
Of course, what else are they going to say? Earlier this week in Recife, there was a minor tempest when Croatian manager Niko Kovac had the gall to suggest that his team might beat Mexico. After the Mexicans had handily won, Kovac was asked whether his words had somehow hurt him and his team, whether his optimism had served only to light up an opponent that had been waiting to be lit. "If I do not have the right to hope," Kovac said, "then let's finish this whole thing." Was he supposed to say that the Mexicans were invincible and the Croatians were doomed? The demands of the World Cup sometimes put men in impossible spots.
And men in impossible spots become unpredictable. That's when logic and mathematics are lost to a baser instinct. An agreement to draw here, as right and reasonable as it might be, would always be tenuous. It would be fraught by the messy politics of a former master and a former apprentice. It would be threatened by the physics of football, a late unlucky bounce, a fluke collision of particles. It would demand that the players be immune to the gooseflesh effects of anthems, to playing in this square-shouldered cauldron of a stadium, on a hot day, in front of screaming fans.
More than anything, it would require men who survive on their pride to swallow it. The easy lie that the Germans are cold-blooded automatons was shattered during their previous match against the Ghanaians, whose opening goal was the equivalent of turning over a chessboard. (That game's frenzied second half brought to mind one of Mike Tyson's great quotes: "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.") And like Klinsmann has said time and again, a preordained stalemate runs even more obviously counter to American DNA, in which a calculated scoreless draw might feel worse than a loss in a more primal game.
We'll know within the first few minutes of the opening whistle which half of the brain has taken primacy here. Now, in the calm hours before, in the coolness of news conferences and their stiff dances, it seems as though reason will be the day's only winner. But that will require the suppression of so many things in an environment custom-built for release, including the one undeniable fact that makes any game worth playing in the first place: That if men could ever be considered machines, or the component parts of one, then in their hearts they are steam-driven.