The Harsh Reality of the World Cup

World Cup is something I look forward to whenever it comes around. But at the same time, I hate it too. It’s by far one of the most heartbreaking events out there. I came into the tournament rooting for the French (who was one of the most underachieving teams of the finals), the U.S. (one of the most overachieving teams thus far), and the Spanish (who are just fun to watch). But more on this later… But just how hard is it to watch these games? And how hard is it to really win the World Cup?

To really understand how heartbreaking it really is, you have to understand how to get there. Any national team that’s a FIFA member is eligible to compete (barring some suspension by the federation). If you don’t know by now, the World Cup happens every four years, just like the Olympics. It’s not like the NBA or NHL finals or the Super Bowl, where they have championships every year. However, in order to compete in the finals, you have to get through the qualifying in your region/continent. How it works depends on the region. Asia’s is probably the most confusing (several rounds of qualifying), South America’s is probably the least confusing (all 13 teams play each other twice, top four go to the finals).

So to make it to the World Cup finals, you have to get through that. If you don’t qualify, you have to wait until the next World Cup qualifying rounds in order to try again. There are no guarantees that you’ll play in the World Cup finals, with one exception: you’re the host of the tournament.

Once you’re in, then it’s a matter of getting through the group stage. Especially this year, people complained about ties… Well, they’re part of the group stage, but they make getting into the next round exciting. Those ties that happened have a huge effect on nations’ chances of getting through. The sole difference between going home and going on could be a matter of a point, goal differential, or even goals scored. It’s all build-up into the final round of games in the group stage. Simultaneous games between the four teams to see who will go onto the next round. Teams playing their hearts out, attacking aggressively, taking huge risks.

Then you get into the knock-out rounds. Sixteen teams continue on, single-elimination format. Win or go home. Sometimes, there’s blowouts. Other times, there’s absolute heartbreaking losses (see U.S./Ghana). No team wants to get through four years of preparation to only lose in these rounds. Only the strongest teams keep going on in hopes of coveting the biggest prize in the game of soccer. It’s so intense that it can be difficult for people to watch the game. If no team outright wins after 90 minutes, it goes another 30 minutes of play. If that still isn’t decided, it goes to one of the most tense moments in sports: penalty kicks. All to decide a winner. No sport has the same game-ending event like this. Grown men breaking down into tears after losing in penalty kicks. It’s painful to watch, but a joy and instant relief if you survive this.

All three weeks of group stage games and knock-out rounds all leading up to one final match: The final. 90 more minutes to decide the world champions. All their hard work, planning, and effort to try to become known as world champions for the next four years. Everyone in the world is watching this game, not just limited to the fans alone. That’s how big this game is. Bigger than the NBA finals. Bigger than the Super Bowl. Everyone is watching. Teams come playing to show what they’re truly made of and to show that they deserve to be called champions.

And if your team wins, it’s all about watching each of your team’s players receive their deserved medals before the President of FIFA brings the FIFA World Cup Trophy to the captain of the team, who then hoists it up for all the world to see.

But the chance to win it all is so rare. The tournament happens once every four years, as each team looks to take the top players from their nation to the tournament. You might be one of the better players in the nation, but it can be one injury or streak of poor form that prevents you from being on the national team. That is also assuming that your team also makes it out of their region. If they don’t, tough luck. Some of the best players in the world are relegated to watching, as their nation fails to get past that first stage of the tournament.

A player’s career usually lasts until they’re around their mid-30s, but players may only play once or twice in the World Cup during their entire career, if that. When you get as far as the finals, it’s also tough to see your team lose and be eliminated. Especially when your team has players that are in their prime, you want to take advantage of that. The U.S. is a prime example of that, with players like Bocanegra, Donovan and Dempsey. This is your perfect opportunity. Your chance at glory. You don’t want to waste it.

But when that referee blows the final whistle and the scoreline is not in your favor, you know that the defeat and the end has come. That is the one moment you’ll hate and dread for the next four years, if not longer. Few can say they’ve made it to the World Cup. Even fewer in the world can say they were World Cup champions.

That, folks, is how hard it is to win the greatest tournament in the world.

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