Hubris and the 2018 World Cup

Photo: Earl Gardner

American fans know all too well what “hubris” is. Or at least we should. It’s the feeling we had before the game in Trinidad & Tobago. Before it all went wrong. Granted, a lot of things went wrong before they went wrong in front of 1,500 fans in Ato Boldon Stadium. But even with the coaching turmoil, legendary CONCACAF conditions, and roster of rapidly aging players, we went into that night knowing the US would win. And that’s hubris: Ill-placed confidence fueled by pride.

Though the thing with hubris is that it’s only visible in retrospect. In the moment it can feel like a Cinderella story or, in the case of several teams that made the World Cup but have since been eliminated, a logical assumption based on unsound initial premises.

Look at Spain, for example. Before the tournament several well-informed pundits picked them to be serious contenders. Yet they lost to Russia, a team ranked sixty places below them by FIFA. It could be the tiki-taka style of play requires greater organization than a coach hired two days before the start of the tournament can manage. It could be this roster was too far past its prime to really compete. And it could be that the Russian team was benefiting from a healthy home team advantage, as well as an unhealthy relationship with performance enhancement. But it’s probably a combination of all those things. And now, despite their pride, they’re out of the tournament. Hubris.

But no team embodies the spirit of hubris better than Brazil. Their historic achievements are beyond reproach with five World Cups and six top-four finishes. They have been a very good team in the past and there’s every reason to believe they will be a very good team in the future. But this current generation? Not so much. They failed to impress in the group stages, almost conceding to Switzerland and needing stoppage time goals to get past Costa Rica. In the knockouts, they beat Mexico handily but not without Neymar embellishing to the point of it becoming an internet trend with a life of its own. But now they’re out of the tournament, ostensibly no better than Uruguay or Sweden. Or Russia.

And, yet, unlike those other three teams, the conversation about Brazil is not how the team did well to be among the eight best teams in the world. It’s not about what has been learned this tournament and how it can be applied to the future, and it’s not about the promising future of Brazil’s young players. It’s about what a disappointment the team is, and how they should have done better. And who knows, maybe they should have. But they definitely should be looking to learn from their mistakes, in much the same way they should have looked to learn from their mistakes four years ago. Otherwise they’re likely to make the same mistakes all over again four years from now.

That’s where it comes back home really. Disappointment is inevitable in sports, it’s more common than the satisfaction of victory. But not only does that disappointment sweeten the victories that do happen, but they also give us the opportunity to learn far more than any victory could. But that opportunity only pays off if you take it, if you do learn. And from Brazil to US Soccer to the Philadelphia Union, we all clearly still have something left to learn.

I’m not going to pretend to know what Brazil needs to learn, other than a way to temper expectations. And the lessons for US Soccer would take more time than we have here. But the lesson for the Union should be self evident by now. Consistency is a fine quality, and one to be desired if you or your team is consistently good. But when a team is consistently bad there’s no way to see a lack of change as a good thing. If a player isn’t doing their job in game, their position in the gameday roster needs to change. If a formation isn’t achieving the desired results, the formation needs to change. And if a coach isn’t capable of recognizing both of those indisputable truths, then the coach needs to change as well. Doing anything else requires a dangerous amount of hubris.


  1. The Chopper says:

    For Brazil the answer looked pretty simple. Learn how to put your shots on target.

  2. The Neymar spoof was much like Almiron’s act when Blake took him down for the penalty Saturday night. It’must be something they learn early in life, I hope it isn’t supported by their coach but wouldn’t be surprised

  3. Have to say the embellishment of a simple foul is far too common. Totally agree Jimo. There needs to be a change. Rigid and inflexible seem to be our hallmark!

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