By Kayle Barnes /
Every four years, I look forward to shaking off the joys and pains of my other sports interests whether college football (Boomer...) to NBA (Thunder Up!), to soccer (oh, Arsenal) to focus on my great romance with the Men’s World Cup. I love following the players I stan during the regular season such as Olivier Giroud in their national team pursuits, the athleticism and grace of the players, the great national narratives that emerge, and the fact that virtually the entire world comes together for a month to shirk responsibilities and normal conversations to focus on the beautiful game whether you call it soccer, futbol, or football.
I try to hold it together and pretend to be normal, but I can’t. During the last World Cup, I even begged my then employer to let me write a blog post about the World Cup and she allowed me to only if I could make a connection between education and the tournament. Et voilà!.
One match can change my entire mood. When France Mbappéd all over Argentina, I had the biggest smile on my face as if I was on the pitch putting in work in a weird e-sports soccer dream crossover. (To be fair, I did paint my fingernails in the tricolor, wear my practice kit, and hang a French drapeau on the wall, so I did do my part.) On the other hand, when Senegal, my preferred African team for the tournament lost ON THE (UN)FAIR PLAY RANKING, I was lowkey salty for the rest of the day. I’ve been known to change my entire schedule for a match.
It’s never 'just' a game and those who say so underestimate the life lessons you can gain from watching the world’s most popular sport. Here are some of my takeaways from the group stage and knockout round:
1) Don’t depend on someone else for your success: Mexico vs. Sweden (0-3)
We were rooting for you! I mean, 'we, the people' who understand that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Did it feel weird rooting for Mexico? Sure. Like a pair of pants that are feeling a little tight because maybe you overindulged or failed to qualify for the World Cup, sure. But after stretching it out, it fit. The passion of the Mexico fans - they hype of this being their year - only for it to come down to Mexican fans in the stands anxiously waiting the result of South Korea’s match.
Don’t be like Mexico’s national team. Be the captain of your fate.
2) Don’t sit on your laurels: Germany vs. Mexico (0-1)
The word on many people’s lips was 'schadenfreude.' The sage Omar once said "You come at the king, you best not miss." The corollary to that is if you’re the king, you gotta stay in control. Germany, with its FIFA number one ranking and title as reigning champ felt like a safe bet for a contender. Until they weren’t. Everyone has a plan until they get knocked out. They’re in good company and continued the tradition of being a defending World Cup champion to go out in the group stage.
Don’t be like Germany.
3) A win is a win: France vs. everyone in Group H
In case the third graf didn’t give it away, I should disclose that I am, in fact not unbiased. (This is The Sports Fan Journal, yes?) Well, I am a French national team supporter and they’ve always been my defacto World Cup Team once the US men’s squad gets knocked out. No shade, just facts. This tournament, I can skip to full-on fandom mode. In the group stage, France looked uninspired at best and aimless at worst, yet they kept winning or at least not losing. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. Don’t let great be the enemy of good and take the Ws where you can get them.
Be like France. Allez Les Bleus!
4) Be gracious in defeat: Japan vs. Belgium (2-3)
Japan edged out Senegal on the previously mentioned Fair Play rule and went on to lose to Belgium, but they kept it classy and bestowed a lesson about playing hard and losing with grace. After their loss, the team cleaned up their locker room and left a tasteful thank you note to their Russian hosts. La classe!
5) Don’t let past defeats get you down. England vs. Colombia (1-1, 4-3 on penalties)
England’s inability to take penalty kicks
is was a thing of legend until one game changed it all. Like much of the footy world, I was ready for the banter and jokes that would inevitably flow and had even questioned the wisdom of suggesting that USMNT fans pick the Three Lions to support. (Sorry Eddie!)
But, Gareth Southgate, England’s coach, had a plan. The man who previously cost England its place in the 1996 Euros put England to work since March to prepare for penalty kicks and it paid off. Millions of drafts had to be deleted and the haters - yours truly included - had to applaud. In a recent interview, Southgate said, “I’ve learnt a million things from the day and the years that have followed it, the biggest thing being that when something goes wrong in your life, it doesn’t finish you.”
Like Chance, Gareth Southgate and England turned all their Ls into lessons.
Be like England.
These are just a handful of lessons one can derive from a month of watching the World Cup. If nothing else, remember the most important lesson that (foot)ball is indeed life.
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