07/07/2010 03:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Fine Art of Losing the World Cup

The glory of seeing one’s team lift the World Cup in triumph may be the dream of all fans, but as all true fans know, it is the experience of losing that more crucially nurtures their relationship to soccer teams as symbols of their nations. This isn’t merely because of numbers—only six nations have ever lifted the World Cup—but because of soccer’s unique propensity for “unjust” results. The frequency with which better teams lose, and referees’ errors decide games, is especially good at forging the kind of intense attachment born of wrongs real or perceived; of pride in a team that “didn’t deserve” to lose; of a fatalist sense of one’s people as born under a bad sign. Some, of course, will feel their teams deserved what they got—as reflectors of a national malaise or traitors to their flag. Thirty-one nations will leave South Africa as losers. Twenty-nine already have, feeding, with their losses, a range of psychodramas among their countrymen and women everywhere.

Where I live, in San Francisco, I watched the highly anticipated second-round match between Argentina and Mexico with a more than a few green-clad Mexico fans in a bar in the city’s Mission District. There, the awful linesman’s decision that gifted Argentina a 1-0 lead was met with fierce groans and shouts. Mexico had played with great zip and confidence in the game’s opening period, bossing their favored rivals and forging a spate of chances at goal. Now trailing by an unjust tally, the team appeared broken. When Osorio of Mexico passed the ball straight to Higuain in front of El Tri’s goal, the Albiceleste’s second goal was met in the Mission with what felt less like anger than resignation. One didn’t feel that anyone felt like Mexico could come back. “La chingada is the mother of all Mexicans,” wrote Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude. Another disappointing day in Mexico-land: what can you do? El Tri’s only hope next time is that its current crop of gifted young players, as a great Mexican writer of more recent vintage put it earlier in this tournament, “[don’t] carry the weight of defeatism that has burdened previous teams in every single World Cup Mexico has qualified for.”

The win that had so buoyed Mexican hopes before they flamed out against Argentina, came at the expense of another memorable loser at this World Cup: the French, whose hapless coach and joyless team conspired—despite their roster’s embarrassment of world class talent—to exit at the group stage without winning a match. Les Bleus’ disastrous campaign is perhaps best summed up by the truth that its most memorable on-field moment occurred not in a stadium but on the training pitch, when the Gallic side, in a blushingly stereotypical instance of petulance and labor trouble, refused to practice. Their debacle was met with predictable rancor at home. National Front politician Marine Le Pen—whose father, Jean-Marie, famously opined that France could “not see itself” in France’s 1998 Cup-winning side led by immigrant’s son Zinedine Zidane—blamed the team’s demise on the presence of players who “are a part of another nation or have another nationality in their heart.” Prime Minister Sarkozy, while eschewing the race card, launched a governmental inquest into how and his football federation had allowed France's "national image" to be so besmirched, ignoring threats from FIFA that government meddling in the affairs of its national federation. (The French weren’t the only national government to react to their national sides’ demise: Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, reacted to the Nigeria’s poor showing by threatening to suspend the team from international play, a move to which FIFA responded by…threatening to suspend Nigeria’s team from international play.)

Along with France—and Italy, their fellow 2006 finalist—the most high-profile team ingloriously dumped from the tournament early on was England. Wishfully installed by bookmakers as third-favorites to lift the Cup, England’s comprehensively lackluster display in South Africa gave the lie, once again, to the perennial notion that just because England bequeathed football to the world and is now home to its best professional league —due not to the quality of English players, but the wealth of teams who import the planet’s top talent to their cause—that its mediocre national side should win the World Cup. In the UK, the chorus of headlines summating another disappointment in this nation whose relationship to its football team is perhaps still about coming to grips with post-imperial melancholia, were pregnant with deeper meaning: “England just isn’t good enough.”

Neutrals and rooters for the underdog in this World Cup, of course, must take a certain pleasure from so many of soccer’s “big nations” failing as they have. Less easy to countenance are the demise of upstart nations. Glad as soccer purists may be to see Paraguay’s dour, defensive-minded team expunged from the Cup by Spain, it’s a hard heart that couldn’t sympathize with the disconsolate striker who missed the penalty kick that might have given his impoverished little nation—shat on and kicked about by its neighbors since the War of the Triple Alliance—the happiest day in its history. Likewise with Ghana, sentimental favorites of a continent once they were the last African team alive—and, with their team nicknamed by Kwame Nkrumah for Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa dream, de facto side of the diaspora as well. When Asamoah Gyan’s last-gasp penalty tragically struck the crossbar, auguring the Black Stars’ defeat, one could almost feel the despairing wails emitting from Accra. Happily for Ghana—denied victory by a cheat’s handball—their defeat can be pegged to an injustice. Ghana’s players returned home heroes.

As the Cup’s semi-finals progress, the two teams with the best chances to win the prize—based on their teams’ wealth of world class players and facility at keeping the ball, what many observers regard as the key to World Cup success—are Holland and Spain. With both those nations’ soccer identities crucially shaped, however, by their history of seeing supremely talented teams losing out, smart money may be on another side. “Football is a simple game,” goes Gary Lineker’s oft-quoted description of World Cup soccer. “Twenty-two men chase a ball for ninety minutes and at the end, the Germans win.” Don’t be too surprised if on July 11th, the one nation at this Cup whose team has appeared to enter each match not merely hoping but expecting to win, wins the biggest match of all.

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is a doctoral student in geography at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written for publications including The Believer, The Nation, and The New York Review of Books. Visit Lapham's Quarterly for more from our World Cup blog.