So we come again to this ritual winnowing of realities, this quadrennial judgement upon Each and Every Soccer Nation. I wrote in 2010 about the universes next door, universes where the almosts were weres and vice-versa - Prime Minister Roberto Baggio, triumphant winner over Brazil; Landon Donovan, the guy who missed that shot, blew out his knee, and now opines bitterly on NBC.
Everything is still all to play for; anything is possible. There is a universe right next door where the USA, against all sane belief, win the whole damned thing - and, in every universe, the World Cup final is a sort of metaphysical singularity in the group mind of football. If the USA wins it, anyone anywhere will immediately be treated to an explanation why, I don't know, their muscular countering style was emblematic of the moment; they'll be tied somehow to Atletico Madrid, and Sid Lowe will write "Do We Underrate Athleticism?"
But it's hard to imagine we're in that universe. It's next door, but it's very dark in that direction; if you squint ... maybe? If you squint, it seems like it's got to start with something other than a meltdown tonight against Azerbaijan. We're in the universe where Donovan scored that goal. We've had enough disasters in the last few years, gentlemen - if you'd be so kind as to look sharp, and put our minds at ease?