As someone who pays attention to soccer , it was both amusing and irritating for me to read recently that some unnamed players for the USA national soccer team claimed that the team did not do as well as it was expected to do–it failed to qualify even for the continental playoffs from CONCACAF–because it lacked motivation. I was deeply puzzled in one way to hear about this, because the only time people are going to pay much attention in the United States to soccer is during the World Cup. The one tournament that nearly every country and its people care about for soccer is the World Cup. How much more motivation do you need than that to make sure that your team does everything it can do enter the World Cup? I don’t care what kind of personal drama you are dealing with, or how much you dislike the rigors of practice and training camp or how unpleasant it is to undertake away matches in the hexagonal, if you are a world-class athlete playing on behalf of your country, you suck it up and you win and you help the United States build a reputation for being a soccer power commensurate with its size and the number of soccer players we have. There should be no excuses, and failure is not to be accepted. Those who cannot be motivated by the intrinsic value of reaching the World Cup should be replaced with those who have the requisite motivation to win.
Apparently, though, this is not only a problem for the United States’ incompetent soccer players. Let us take the example of Germany. The last time I watched a game from them was in the semifinals of the most recent World Cup (in 2014), then they absolutely dismantled the home Brazilian team 7-1 in front of a large amount of crying fans in Belo Horizonte. It is perhaps uncharitable of me to find that so amusing, but it is so. No one except for Brazil’s fans sheds tears over the defeat of their team. Germany went on to win the World Cup in 2014 and was considered to be among the favorites in Russia this year as well, naturally enough, only to end up losing 1-0 to an inspired Mexican side who could have easily won by twice or three times as many goals. Now, it is true that Germany could advance if it beats South Korea and Sweden, but it no longer has the inside track to a favorable spot in the knockout round, but would likely have to face Brazil if it advances, and we all know that Brazil would be pretty hungry for revenge in the final sixteen if it comes to that. I wouldn’t shed any tears for Germany’s problems either.
Nor is Germany the only team that has not covered itself in its expected glory so far in the World Cup this year. Let us talk about Brazil. When looking at the preliminary power polls for the World Cup, I read someone who rather uncharitably defined Switzerland’s team as the definition of European mediocrity. Yet the Swiss team managed to draw Brazil 1-1 and has a pretty comfortable road to the knockout round with games remaining against Serbia and Costa Rica. In fact, there are few teams that have played so far that have done an inspired job. Russia’s 5-0 victory over Asian minnows Saudi Arabia was certainly an emphatic opening statement from a nation whose soccer reputation has hardly been stellar. Likewise, Portugal and Spain played to a spirited 3-3 tie that was at least a sign that both of these teams were at least trying to score, which is not always something that can be said about World Cup soccer games. At least these games provided some scoring and some interest.
Most of the games, though, have not been so exciting or left the winners with the sort of glory that they expect. Uruguay’s 1-0 win against Egypt was surprisingly uninspired given that Egypt is not expected to be competitive at the World Cup against elite competition. Likewise, France’s 2-1 win against the Socceroos of Australia (who play in the Asian Football Confederation because Oceania is denied an automatic WC slot) had its entire scoring via penalty kicks and an own goal. When you struggle to defeat a team like Australia in the World Cup, you have no business considering yourself an elite soccer nation. The same can be said for Argentina’s 1-1 tie against Iceland (go Iceland!) and Denmark’s 1-0 win against Peru. These are teams that are expected to dominate, and merely to win is not enough. At least Belgium showed up to play and got the expected 3-0 win against Panama, showing that at least they intend to make some noise in this year’s World Cup and not merely do barely enough to beat an overmatched team.
At least other than Mexico vs. Argentina we don’t have any shocking defeats. Nigeria lost 2-0 to Croatia and Costa Rica lost 1-0 to Serbia, but neither of those are necessarily surprises. What we have seen–those of us watching the World Cup at least–so far is that teams expected to do extremely well have done worse than expected and have either not won by as large as a margin as they were expected to or have tied where they were widely expected to win. Only a few teams have surprised (Russia and Belgium, for example) in a good way compared to the many who have played disappointingly poorly. It remains to be seen whether these early impressions are merely teams playing a bit rusty or a bit cautious, or whether indeed playing on the biggest stage is simply not motivation enough for everyone to play their best as it obviously should be. Given the short memory of many sports fans, the Janet Jackson lyric “what have you done for me lately?” comes to mind as reflecting the attitude that fans have towards their teams, and most teams will likely have to concede that they have not done as much or as well as they were supposed to do with whatever excuses they can muster.
 See, for example: