A good friend of mine—a full-fledged Man of Sport, though only a Man of Football because I intermittently force him to be—made this observation after yesterday’s match: “I was disappointed not to see more World Cup, but I was mostly disappointed by the World Cup I did see.”
And, you know, that captures something essential about both this event and football itself. I think the World Cup only really works if you go for full immersion—abandon yourself to the whole thing, watch every match you can, even group stage third fixtures between geopolitical nonentities, and eventually you will be rewarded. Perhaps not by every match or any particular match, but by the whole experience.
I have been a conscious member of the global TV audience for six World Cups, and each one encapsulated a particular summer in a particular era of my life. In 1990, I barely knew what was going on, but I liked it. In 1998, I was drinking way too much cheap beer and living with eight other dudes in a converted (there’s an understatement) nunnery. In 2002, I was living with my girlfriend in Portland, waking up at all hours and rampaging on email with all my soccer friends during the work day. In 2010, that girlfriend and I are married and we’re systematically indoctrinating our helpless child to the point that he insisted on staging a full re-enactment of a pre-match ceremony the other day, complete with national anthems and handshakes.
My point is that a given World Cup lives on not because of specific matches, but because of the whole vibe of following the tournament, match in and match out, for a month. Certainly, if you were looking for all-time performances out of this tournament’s big names, they offered very few. Most of the “headliner” matches, including yesterday’s sour and small-hearted final, turned out to be pretty lame. Portugal v Ivory Coast? Both teams should have been summarily kicked out of the tournament. Germany v England; Germany v Argentina; Germany v Spain? All proto-classics on paper, but complete washouts (entertaining in their own way) because one side or the other failed to attend. Yesterday, Spain and the Netherlands put on a 120-minute display that felt designed to demonstrate why major soccer leagues (as opposed to Major League Soccer) don’t use playoff systems to determine their champions.
On the other hand, some matches that excited no one when they appeared on the fixture list were absolutely cracking. I would include all four matches played by our ever-embattled USA on that list—every one, a demonstration of football in extremis. No one outside of Auckland and Wellington marked their calendars for any of the New Zealand matches, but the heroic, semi-professional All-Whites staged a handful of the Cup’s most riveting moments. Slovakia v Italy, any one? Mexico v France? Australia v Serbia turned into a madcap track meet—one of the most fun matches I watched through the entire tournament. Who knew Uruguay would be so entertaining and compelling? Meanwhile, Brazil bored the life out of me every time they played—except in the North Korea match, when the Thousand Mile Horse managed to discomfit the Brazilians for a few gloriously weird minutes.
What the Cup does in microcosm, football does at large. It is the one major sport that raises more questions than it answers, and instills a fatalistic world view in just about all of its followers. Soccer says, what will be, will be—and we have no idea what that is, so you may as well have a Campari and soda and try to enjoy this 0 : 0 stalemate while you still have breath in your lungs. For better or worse, it’s hard to just drop in on soccer, because you’re likely to visit when Nigel De Jong is playing. To really understand the family, you have to crash on the couch forever.
And so it ends—badly, but fittingly, with victory by Spain, the one team in world football that imposes a comprehensive vision on every single match it plays. Like Spain’s style or hate it, right now everyone else is just reacting. As for the Netherlands—I mean, c’mon, dudes. This whining about the referees is just about the last straw. You played a shitty little match and were lucky not to have three players sent off. You trusted to luck and venom, and they served you well, until they didn’t. Take it with some dignity. What will be, will be.