The World Cup now enters its Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome phase. We began with a thriving civilization of 31 proud soccer nations (plus France). Only four battle-hardened survivors remain to spar over scarce resources in an unforgiving environment.
In other words, the really fun part starts Tuesday, when the Netherlands lines up against Uruguay. If this sterling pretext to skip work, drink in the morning and chat up foreign hotties hasn't grabbed you yet, it's time. Four teams left. Pick one. How? Well, I have some thoughts about that. To wit:
Three mostly irrational (but awesome) reasons to root for…
1. Uruguayans are surprisingly hot.
I carry some adolescent damage here. As I recount in humiliating detail in my recent book a teenage encounter with a troupe of Uruguayan choirgirls left me hormonally scarred for life. But having since set actual foot on Uruguayan soil, I can confirm that the nation's distinctive Hispano-Italiano-American-German-African genetic matrix spins off some fine-looking humans of both genders. Check out star striker Diego Forlan, a ridiculous blond Adonis whose midriff isn't so much a six-pack as a symphony-grade xylophone.
2. Cheering for villains is always perversely enjoyable.
Sure, sure-we all convinced ourselves that if Ghana made the semifinals, everyone would get their own personalized Nobel Peace Prize in the mail. Enter nasty Uruguay. Sinister Uruguay. As you may have heard, Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez "saved" a last-second Ghananian shot with a seventh-grade-girls-volleyball punch off the goal line. Some people now consider Suarez a war criminal for snuffing out Africa's World Cup hopes. ("Nothing can dry a continent's tears." And that's me, vomiting in the corner.) Meanwhile, the culprit and his mates are exquisitely unrepentant about the whole affair. You know what? Screw Ghana. Get into it.
3. They basically took a time machine to get here.
Uruguay won the first World Cup ever, in 1930. Uruguay also won the 1950 World Cup. Soccer fans regard these achievements the same way Americans regard the fact that we once had presidents named "Millard" and "Grover": they occured, but in a now-irrelevant epoch. Seeing Uruguay in the World Cup semifinals in 2010 is like seeing the Original Celtics come back to challenge for the NBA title. Retro cool.
1. They wear orange (and make it work).
Everyone wears red or blue. France and Italy both call themselves "the Blues." Boring. Only the Dutch can pull off eye-bleeding orange, and make it seem totally appropriate. Back in the bong-hazed day (the ‘70s), this tangerine dream was even nicknamed "Clockwork Orange".
2. Wesley Sneijder might secretly be the best player in the world.
Everyone's all Lionel Messi this, Xavi that, Cristiano Ronaldo the other. (Well, actually no one says the latter.) But Wesley Sneijder, the Netherland's stubby, 5-foot-7-inch midfield generalissmo (and no one's idea of a 30-second shoe commercial waiting to happen), is just bossing the scene. He just knocked in two goals to eliminate Brazil. He leads the World Cup's only unbeaten, untied team. The dude is an undervalued stock.
3. They all look like World War II resistance fighters.
Sneijder and his primary accomplice, Arjen Robben, are both young bucks in their mid-20s. Somehow, they both look like they just spent about three years bivouacked in a birch forest, surviving off airdropped RAF rations and picking off stray Wehrmacht supply columns. Shaved heads. Starved countenances. Overall, a steely approach coupled with some crafty, old-school Dutch flourish.
1. To piss off Adolf Hitler's ghost.
Hard to imagine anything that would be more delightfully disturbing to the failed Austrian landscape painter and racial theorist than this rainbow-fruit-flavored German team. The Mannschaft (seriously!) now consists of a bunch of Poles, Turks, the odd half-Spaniard, and black dudes. It's like the Weimar Republic never ended. Miscegenation rules.
2. Germany could be the defining team of the tournament (and the decade).
A month ago, everyone was all high on Spain and Brazil, babbling nonsense about England's "golden generation" and wondering just how amazing Argentina could be. Achtung, bitches! Keyed by slick midfielder Mesut Özil, World Cup goal machine Miroslav Klose and bratty wunderkind Thomas Müller, Germany has played the most stylish and lethal soccer in the tournament. They hammered both Argentina and England by a cumulative score of 8-1; overall, they've scored 13 goals and allowed just three. Their tactical mastery means commentators still spew clichés about "Teutonic efficiency," but these Germans pass with Latin flash and attack with a balls-out exuberance reminiscent of—hell, I'm going to say it—the United States. They're young. They're fun. Two more wins could bring a dynasty to power.
3. The coaches wear hilarious outfits.
Whoever devised the brilliantly Euro-gay blazer/blue sweater combo sported by manager Joachim Löw and his underlings should either be fired immediately or hired to dress all coaches in all sports, forever.
1. They have amazing hair.
Whether it's Fernando Torres' aerodynamic fauxhawk, Xavi's greasy super-spiv moplet or Carlos Puyol's staggering bumper crop of caveman curls, you can't out-coif the Red Fury. In a follicular sense, they're the opposite of the Netherlands.
2. They prove that peace in our time is possible.
Spain is home to two world-stomping superclubs, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona-the Montagues and Capulets of global soccer. Real Madrid traditionally represents the Spanish state; FC Barcelona embodies Catalonia's semi-secessionist identity. They're not so much rival teams as rival universes fated to collide eternally in some baroque Eastern teleology. And yet this Spanish team manages to blend its pulsating Barcelona core (midfield genies Xavi and Andres Iniesta; defenders Puyol and Pique; striker David Villa) with select Real Madrid weaponry (goalkeeper Iker Casillas; working-class hero Xabi Alonso; defender Sergio Ramos). Lions lay down with lambs and a U2 song plays in everyone's head. Yay, harmony!
3. They're still the team everyone else wishes they could be.
Spain got the whole soccer world excited two years ago, when they won the European championship with a mesmerizing, geometric, rapid-fire passing game. Their intricate "tiki-taka" style hasn't really caught fire yet in the World Cup. In fairness, they've been up against dour funkillers like Switzerland, Portugal and Paraguay, the sort of teams that make everyone hate the sport and life itself. The semifinal against Ze Germans (the real final, in many minds) pits two adventurous, creative teams against each other. This is what the World Cup was designed for.