Clinging to hope in the World Cup
MANAUS, Brazil -- The English left the jungle in defeat. By early Sunday morning, the historic center of Manaus had been picked clean of their presence. All of their flags and banners were down; their broken glass and crushed cans had been swept away; the bars they had turned into colonies for two strange but memorable nights had been shuttered.
Manaus was Manaus again.
In the Teatro Amazonas, the local symphony practiced, a succession of singers belting out songs of love and loss. There was a small audience of tourists who were lucky enough to pay a visit when the opera house happened to be filled with music. They had their free choice from the 701 seats, the dozens of empty boxes. Among them were two Italian fans in their blue jerseys. The looks on their faces were enough to inspire envy: first winning football, now opera. For a lucky few, Manaus could be confused with heaven.
Not so for the English, who flew on to be swallowed whole by Sao Paulo and its climate of fear, to watch England's now-must-win game against Uruguay on June 19. Losing their first game -- like Spain, like Uruguay -- had left one of the World Cup's iconic teams not in dire straits, exactly, but in a difficult spot. An opening win puts a team in control. Momentum is on their side. First-game losers suddenly have to confront the possibility that they will not be in Brazil for long, consigned in one night to the short spectrum between doubt and resignation.
For some teams, the first game is more than a forecaster. It is everything. The U.S. will open their World Cup against Ghana on Monday, and it's safe to say that an American loss in Natal -- with games against Germany and Portugal to come -- will doom them. Four years will come down to 90 minutes.
The English still have hope at least, if less than they did 24 hours ago. Costa Rica had done them a great favor earlier on Saturday afternoon. One of the magical things about this tournament is that it is such a complicated lock to pick. In some ways, it is only up to you: Win seven games and you have done it. In another sense, the World Cup is an easy metaphor for the planet it consumes: Each of our fates is interconnected. We are all in this together.
There is a market on Sunday mornings in Manaus, one of its few shady streets closed to cars and filled with stalls and crowded with shoppers. There was no evidence that anyone had lost anything the night before. There was meat sizzling on grills and souvenirs for sale -- the Amazon's answer to Rust Cohle had put his beer-can sculptures on display -- and families walked hand-in-hand and happy. Brazil had won their first game after all, so there is no reason here for worry.
None of us has to go home just yet. The outcome grows clearer by the hour, but nothing is certain. There are still so many games to play. But each day fewer and fewer of us can sit in the audience at the opera and believe that the sad songs will be for someone else to sing.