I am watching the World Cup more intently this year than ever before. Yesterday, in Palm Springs, I walked to the Hair of the Dog Saloon to watch the US-Germany match. Germany won 1-0, but nevertheless the US advanced out of the "Group of Death." (The Death teams: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, US.)
The US is now in the single elimantion round; or, in World Cup parlance, the "knockout stage."
A few of the TVs at Hair were tuned to the Portugal-Ghana game, which was happening simultaneously. Due to the elaborate rules in the group stage--which includes factors such as greatest combined goal difference in all group matches--the US could win by losing as long as Portugal: beat Ghana, tied Ghana, or did not lose to Ghana by too much.
Portugal prevailed 2-1, so the US was guaranteed advancement unless it lost by a shocking number of goals.
Portugal scored that second goal in the 81st minute of their game, at which time the US was down 1-0. My table mate at Hair relaxed at that point, saying "we're fine now."
This was true, but felt deflating. It seemed like consulting actuarial tables rather than playing to win.
I understand the logic--rest your players, relax, wait till the knockout stage and then pull out all the stops. In American football, baseball, basketball or hockey the closest equivalent is playing with your second string after your spot in the playoffs in assured.
But the difference in those cases is that your spot is assured by your team's own actions--not through the efforts of some other team.
This is the strange thing in the World Cup. It must take a toll on your confidence to win by losing. I'm glad the knockout stage is here.