One set of quarterfinals in the World Cup books, and one must say the entertainment value has repaid all that time we’ve spent listening to vuvuzelas, ignoring Glenn Beck and pretending that Portugal was going to do something. Today’s games were crazy, brutal, heartbreaking, dramatic and—as is always most important—hilarious in their own subtle, nasty way.
The World Cup run-in is high season for weird theories about how football works. Why, some genius just wrote an analysis suggesting that nations only win World Cups if they’ve experienced a period of authoritarian government. (Run of Play’s dissection of this thesis is a better read than the original itself.) There’s the Soccernomics approach, which factors in population, GDP and footballing experience, by which logic neither Uruguay nor Ghana stood a chance of winning today’s match (against one another) for various reasons.
All this theorizing ignores a key (if hoodoo) precept about football, which is: Given a choice between a rational outcome based on two sides’ relative merits and a result that plays a malicious, ironic, smirking little joke on someone, football will most often choose the latter.
Consider poor Brazil. They used to play so prettily—a brand-name circus performance, really—but then the football gods sat them down and gave them a stern talking to. Look, Brazil, we all like this jogo bonito bullshit you’ve been peddling, and please feel free to keep using it in the adverts. But these days, winning is is an adult pastime, so you’ve got to get some discipline and organization and a few bat-swingers in defense. Structure! Holding midfielders! Play like professionals!
So Brazil dutifully goes out and hires a squareheaded martinet of a manager. He puts together a side that leaves out a lot of the Federative Republic’s flair products in favor of cold-blooded pragmatists. The whole outfit spends a solid year bumming out the world with its insistence that winning comes first and, dammit all, we’re not going to have any fun doing it, either.
And, of course, today they needed flair. They ran into the other nation most associated with Art Football; moreover, the other nation that has been slapped around for not getting the result after scientific displays of awesomeness. (Holland is the Arsenal of international football: if they never had to play anyone, they’d win every trophy.) The Dutch lured Brazil into a tight, gritty foul-fest, a Stalingrad-style house-to-house fight all about achieving a position, bunkering in, taking a kick, achieving a position, and doing it all over again. Faced with a side content to tackle, harass, harry and flail in scrubby little set-piece goals, Brazil desperately needed a moment of aesthetic supremacy—an inarguable slash through midfield followed by an exclamatory finish.
Instead, all they had was Dungaball, and some naive and ineffectual thuggery. Dunga. He was the future, once—the guy who was going to grow Brazil the fuck up so it could win in the muscular modern game. Except today they didn’t need muscle. They needed Art. Cala boca Wesley Sneijder, bitches!
Then, Ghana. This is my sixth World Cup, and I have watched a lot of football over the last 20 years. (Time I’ll never get back, I suppose.) And I’ve never seen an ending weirder, more arbitrary and more cruel than the freakshow of missed penalties and evil-doing rewarded that brought the Black Stars’ inspirational, continent-uniting underdog run to an end. I loved it.
See, Ghana distinguished itself by becoming the only African team that knows how to get a result, come what may. Dating back (at least) to their cold-blooded 2006 elimination of the United States, they’ve always been willing to do the business. Dive in the box? Waste a little time with a fake injury? Why not? It’s a Man’s Game, after all.
Football’s message to Ghana: “Oh, you think you’re hardboiled? Meet Luis Suarez’s hand!” I’ve been wracking my brain for a Hand-of-God-style sobriquet for Suarez’s last-second “save”—someone will get there, I’m quite sure—but in the end, it was just the kind of bizarre intervention that twists history one way and not another. Plan all you want, and you cannot plan for Suarez’s hand. Sorry, Black Stars—but you had 120 minutes to win it, and you didn’t, so fare thee well.
Now we have one semifinal set, between two teams riding some seriously dark mojo. What vicious little pranks do football’s elves have in store for the Netherlands and Uruguay? I, for one, look forward to the horror with great eagerness.