So I've decided to purchase a World Cup fantasy team.
I've always had an inexplicable, if abstract, affection for the planet's pre-eminent soccer tournament. I say inexplicable because I've never been able to sit through an entire soccer match in my life. I have the typical ugly American sentiments about the world's favorite sport.
It strikes me as a lot of little guys running semi-aimlessly as they chase a ball around a very big field. Announcers get so excited when they sense even a whiff of a scoring chance. I can see it as a sort of Buddhist ritual - deny thyself pleasure long enough and thou shalt reach a greater understanding of the universe. But something fun to watch over beer and nachos? Nope.
So I don't have much use for the sport at the center of the World Cup. But I love all the crazed, hyper-nationalistic sentiment around the teams - the English worrying about another damaged star, the one-name Brazilians with feet from the gods, that ESPN commercial in which they talk about the Ivory Coast ceasing civil war to support its first-ever World Cup qualifier. That's all great.
I remember the first time I got a sense of how much it meant. I was at summer camp on the Eastern Shore, and the guy who did our laundry was European (can't remember which nationality). So I got to talking with him one day about why he and his countrymen loved soccer. And he described for me Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" goal from the 1986 Cup.
Now this guy had no rooting attachment to Argentina. Like most, he thought Maradona cheated and punched the goal in with his hand. But he finished his discourse by saying, "It was genius. Beautiful genius." He said it with the same glint in his eye that I would've had describing Scott McGregor's shutout in Game 5 of the 1983 World Series.
And I sort of got it. For atmosphere, no sporting event, not even the Olympics, can beat the World Cup.
So I go through a ritual every four years of trying, and failing mostly, to engage with this awesome happening. I've bought books about soccer. I've studied the game's history and tactics. And this year, I'm starting a fantasy team.
I've always touted fantasy sports as a way to interact more deeply with the games we love. Maybe it can help me engage with a game I've struggled even to like.
Since I'm not a soccer sophisticate, I reached for the first game I could find with a Google search - FIFA's official fantasy game.
First, I must reiterate how much I love the wording on non-American fantasy sites. "Lastly," FIFA tells me, "if you find that some elements of your team are not producing the goods, you can enter the transfer markets at specific points of the FIFA World Cup to rejuvenate your side with fresh talent."
I'm quite certain I'll need rejuvenation.
Anyway, I have to pick 23 players with no more than three from any one nation (so much for my all-Brazil, all-single-name strategy.) I'll start 11 and carry 12 reserves. Apparently, I'll get to reselect after the first round of play. That's good, because I have little notion of which nations are likely to advance. I even get to pick a captain whose points will count doubly toward my score.
I'll get points for goals, penalty-kick goals, shots, saves and tackles. But I'll lose them for penalty shots missed, red and yellow cards and goals allowed. I wonder if there will be enough goals scored in the whole tournament to justify this exercise. Wait, that's my ignorant American side talking.
Now, this is tricky, because I can't just select the best players (not that I know their names, anyway). I have to scout the opposition and decide which teams seem likely to score in bushels.
In 2002, logic would have dictated a heavy reliance on the French. They were defending champions. They had the world's reputed best player in Zinedine Zidane (world-class name, by the way). And they scored exactly zero goals on the way to a quick and ignominious exit.
Does that mean Zidane is a sleeper this year as he enters his last major tournament? Could Brazil and Ronaldo lay the tin egg this time around?
What about those fretting English? Everybody knows that Beckham chap, but the nation's real prodigy, Wayne Rooney, may not play because of a broken foot. I can't draft a soccer player with a broken foot, right?
I'd like to pick an American and get all jingoistic, but really, are any of this country's guys likely to shine? Seems like most experts don't expect them to advance out of a very tough group.
OK, so I'm rambling. I haven't picked my team yet, and I clearly need to read more Cup previews before I do. But at least I care.