World Cup Diary
Here comes the World Cup – and how nice it is to be able to contemplate a tournament where the focus will be on what happens on the pitch rather than in the dugout. During the club season just past, the cult of the football manager got out of hand. The dominant narrative was the will-they-won’t-they-sack-him saga of David Moyes, routinely painted as a Greek tragedy but really nothing more than a tale of modest executive incompetence. At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho made more headlines than any of his players; indeed, than all of his players combined. The question of who would be crowned manager of the season (Rodgers at Liverpool? Poyet at Sunderland? Pulis at Palace?) got as much attention as the destination of the title itself, especially once it was clear that the team to finish top would predictably be the team that had had the most money spent on it.
Even the Champions League, whose format closely resembles the World Cup, ended up overshadowed by the managerial merry-go-round. By the semi-final stage it was all about the ex-Chelsea manager at Real, the ex-Real manager at Chelsea, the ex-Barca manager at Bayern, and the upstart at Atlético thumbing a nose to them all. Everyone had become everyone else’s nemesis. It was like a soap opera in which the main characters have been round the block once too often.
Along with most semi-serious football fans, I could tell you the name of the manager of every English Premier League club on the last day of last season. These things are unavoidable. I also know the names of the winners of every World Cup, who they played in the final and what the score was. But ask me who their managers were and I’m pretty clueless. I know a few: Alf Ramsey of course, and I remember César Luis Menotti, the Argentina manager in 1978, because as a child I was fascinated by his long hair and his smoking. But who coached the great Brazilian teams, or the Italian or the German ones? Who managed Argentina in 1986, or France in 1998? Some vaguely familiar faces come to mind but putting names to faces and then tournaments to names is not easy. I could easily find out, of course. Part of the reason I don’t know is that it doesn’t seem to matter much.
The World Cup is not really a managers’ tournament. Of course tactics sometimes play their part and so does team selection. But the people who make the biggest difference are the players who can turn a game or revive a campaign, often in ways that are impossible to predict. The tournament doesn’t last long enough for the rubs of the green and the flashes of genius to even themselves out. It’s arbitrary (four of the last six World Cup winners have survived a penalty shoot-out along the way) and it’s opportunistic. That’s what makes it fun. A small number of players will acquire a reputation over the next month that they will never leave behind. That’s unlikely to be true of their managers. Perhaps one or two will make a mistake that scuppers their team’s chances: an untimely substitution in a very big game is hard to live down (just ask Alf Ramsey). More of that later, no doubt. But in all those lists of greatest World Cup this or that (matches, goals, saves, strikers, fouls, fuck-ups), have you ever seen a list of the greatest World Cup managers? Me neither. It’s a players’ tournament.
Mourinho’s ultimate ambition is said to be to manage the Portuguese national team at a World Cup. I don’t believe it. If that ever happens it will be a sign that his real ambition is spent.
Many eyes tonight will be on Eduardo da Silva, the Brazilian who plays for Croatia (and the man Arsenal fans will remember as one of their most promising strikers until he suffered a terrible leg break that almost ended his career). By all accounts, if he starts, Eduardo will sing both national anthems before the opening match: one for the place he grew up in (he was born and raised in Rio) and one for the place he adopted as home in his late teens (he moved to Zagreb when he was 16). He took up Croatian citizenship at 19 and made his debut for the national team two years later. He is Croatia’s second highest international goal scorer, with 29 goals in 63 appearances.
What’s interesting about Eduardo is that, as Cameron said to Blair, he was the future once. Around ten years ago it looked as though national football teams would see more and more of this sort of carpet-bagging, with players switching national identity to find a convenient home where they could be sure of a international career. Wouldn’t everyone soon have a Brazilian or two to flesh out their national teams with a bit more firepower? It hasn’t happened. If anything, the trend has gone the other way. Though players move around from club to club with more freedom than ever, national sides have remained remarkably homogeneous. The Brazilians in this tournament are almost all playing for Brazil. Most European national sides consist of homegrown talent, even though their domestic leagues are stuffed with players drawn from all over: look at England (it’s true Raheem Sterling was born in Jamaica but he moved here when he was five). There was a half-hearted attempt to recruit Man U’s boy wonder Adnan Januzaj but in the end he went for the country he was born and brought up in, Belgium. The current ‘golden generation’ of Belgian footballers that makes them one of the most exciting teams in the tournament – Kompany, Fellaini, Dembele, Mirallas, Hazard, Lukaku – is a wonderfully diverse ethnic mix. But every one was born in Belgium.
It’s not just football. The England cricket team that takes the field today for the First Test is more English than for many years, now Kevin Pietersen is gone and Jonathan Trott is hors de combat. Five years ago it was more like a hybrid English-South African side (or as the South Africans said, more like their second eleven). British tennis, bar Andy Murray, is in such a parlous state because Greg Rusedski didn’t herald an age of interlopers wrapping themselves in the Union Jack for convenience. We are stuck trying to make do with the talent we’ve got, which is not a lot. Most sportsmen and women still seem to want to represent their country of origin.
What’s the moral? Well, I hesitate to draw too many parallels between sport and politics (though I don’t suppose that will stop me as the tournament goes on). But people who believed that the age of globalisation would herald the erosion of national identity are clearly wrong. Yes, it’s easier to move around and sell your labour wherever the rewards are greatest (those Belgian players I listed all play in the English Premier League). No, that doesn’t mean the pull of the mother country is dead. That, for better or worse, is why this tournament still matters.
What’s it like to play in the World Cup? I suppose most of us watching give it a passing thought but little more than that, since it’s so beyond our frame of reference (it’s not so different from Thomas Nagel’s question, ’What is it like to be a bat?’). But for some people it’s a real question. There is a first-year politics student at my Cambridge college who grew up playing football alongside Raheem Sterling. They went to different schools in the same London borough (Brent) and were each the stand-outs in their respective teams. One year when the two schools met, Sterling’s side won 8-7: Sterling scored four of the eight; my guy scored seven of the seven. They were talent-spotted at around the same time and joined the QPR academy together. Sterling was quicker; my guy was technically more adept. Then, aged 14, he broke his hand and had to sit out a season. That was the year that Sterling progressed in leaps and bounds to establish himself as a potential star. When my guy came back he was already playing catch up. As he started to make progress he suffered a bad muscle tear in his leg, which took time to heal. QPR let him go. As he recovered he got picked up by Leicester City, acquired an agent and began to plan for a football career. They started talking image rights and international affiliations. Then the leg went again. And again. It was over. He was 16.
Luck plays a big part in what happens on a professional football field. But it’s almost trite to say that luck plays an even bigger part in what happens before anyone gets there. This student had moved to Britain from Romania with his parents when he was six; at the time his brief football career was peaking he was representing the Romanian national team in his age-group. He had an offer to sign with Steaua Bucharest but chose to stay in Britain. When his leg went he was about to commit to a scholarship scheme with Leicester that would have required him to focus on football full-time and put his formal education on the backburner. Instead, unable to play football, he decided to concentrate on his studies. He is the first kid from his school to make it to Cambridge. They have a big picture of him up in the entrance. In his admissions interview he told us about his footballing ambitions and how they had ended – he had to explain his poor GCSE results – and then he told us about Kant’s categorical imperative. That doesn’t happen every day.
I asked him how he felt about the coming tournament. He was pretty cool about it and also a little bit upset. He is very unlucky and also very lucky. If his injuries had come a year later he would have been out of education with no obvious way back in. If he had signed for Bucharest he would have found himself stranded in a place that was nothing like home. Almost all the players who came up with him through the academy system didn’t make it; almost no one does. Most of them only found out after it was too late to commit to anything else. A few are scrabbling around in the lower leagues, still hoping to get spotted and move on to better things. In the current England squad they look to Rickie Lambert as their role model: he was released by Liverpool aged 15, bounced around near the bottom of the pile, worked in a bottling plant, grafted his way back up through the leagues; now he is in Brazil and has just been re-signed by Liverpool. But almost no one has a story like Lambert’s.
My student has no doubt that Sterling’s success is about much more than luck. He was the player with all the attributes needed to succeed, the skill and the drive. He deserves to be where he is. There is no Romanian team at this World Cup (they lost to Greece in the qualifying play-offs). Romanian football is in a relatively bad way and my guy is not sorry to be out of it. And yet, of course, he can’t help thinking about what might have been. As I write, it’s not clear if Sterling will start England’s opener against Italy; perhaps not. But anything could happen to Sterling at this World Cup. With the right breaks he could be one of those players who comes back with the world at his feet. Meanwhile, my student is nervously awaiting his first-year exam results, on which some of his current ambitions rest. Let’s hope they both have a good tournament.
Football is a team game but it can also be a lonely business. Some positions come with massively outsized risks of getting fingered when things go wrong. Goalkeepers are notoriously vulnerable on this front. Lots of things contributed to Spain’s thumping defeat by the Dutch in their opening match but the most conspicuous mistake was the one made by Iker Casillas, so he was the one who ended up copping (and accepting) the blame. Referees too are highly prone to being scapegoated for their mishaps. A referee who has a good game will barely get noticed. But have a bad one and suddenly the whole world is on your case. Managers can find themselves in the same boat. An experimental team selection that comes off tends to redound to the credit of the player who got picked (hence the praise that is currently being heaped on Raheem Sterling). An unsuccessful one is the fault of the manager.
What this means is that individuals in these roles are incentivised to behave in ways that minimise their risk of carrying the can. Commentators often complain that goalkeepers punch or parry the ball when they should be trying to hold on to it. Catching the ball might be safer for the team but it looks a lot worse for the keeper when things go wrong. A hit-and-hope approach to goalkeeping sometimes leads to mistakes but any grab-and-drop counts as a howler, which is much harder to live down.
Studies have shown that referees are less likely to give decisions that will alter the course of a match than ones that seem to go with the flow of it. If you’re going to make a mistake, better to make one that doesn’t look decisive. That’s one of the reasons referees tend to favour the home side, because the home team is often the one doing all the attacking. Take the very soft penalty that Yuichi Nishimura gave Brazil in the opening match against Croatia. The reason it’s so hard to imagine it happening at the other end is not that the match was fixed (I know this is Fifa we’re talking about, but even so), nor that Nishimura was intimidated by the crowd. Most experienced referees are pretty hard to intimidate. It’s just that Brazil were always the likeliest winners. Even if only subconsciously, referees know that it’s better to favour the team that is less in need of their help. That way, if they get it wrong, they’ve got cover (often in the form of more goals). If Nishimura had given that penalty to Croatia and Croatia had won the game, he really would have been exposed.
This brings us to Roy Hodgson and Wayne Rooney. Should he play him or should he drop him for the crunch match against Uruguay? Hodgson knows that no one expects him to win the World Cup but seeing England’s tournament end after only two matches would count as a monumental failure. If he drops Rooney, that becomes the story. If he plays him and England lose, at least he’s got someone else to carry the can. These things can be a difficult balancing act. Graham Taylor got it horribly wrong when he took Gary Lineker off in a losing cause at the 1992 European Championships, seemingly as a way of signalling where he thought some of the blame should lie. All he succeeded in doing was signalling his own petty-mindedness. Rooney is a less popular figure than Lineker and many England fans would be happy to see him gone. Still, it would take a brave manager to give those fans what they want, given that none of them will be taking personal responsibility if it doesn’t work out. If England win then it doesn’t matter which way Hodgson decides to go: everyone’s a hero. But England managers can hardly be blamed for having some part of their thinking reserved for what happens when England lose.
Like many people, I imagine, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing each time England have been knocked out of the World Cup. In 2010 I was in Australia and had to get up in the middle of the night to watch England get thumped by Germany, which was a sterile and deadening experience. In 2006 I also happened to be in Australia, though that was my first time and I had only been in the country 24 hours, so seeing England lose on penalties to Portugal was more spacey and surreal. In 2002 I was in a meeting to grade student exams, which was interrupted briefly to tell us what we already knew, that England had lost to Brazil. In 1998 I saw England lose on penalties to Argentina in the front room of a house in Cambridge. In 1990 I saw England lose on penalties to Germany in the front room of a different house in Cambridge.
In 1986 I was at Glastonbury, where there were only a couple of small screens and far too many people to get a view of England’s match with Argentina; at one point a moan went through the crowd, which I discovered afterwards wasn’t for either of Maradona’s goals, but a cry of despair when Lineker narrowly failed to reach a cross from John Barnes at the death. In 1982 I was at boarding school and a teacher told us that England had failed to get the required result against Spain, which caused me inadvertently to swear in front of his wife. That’s it. In 1970 I was only three. In 1966 I hadn’t been born. It adds up to a conventional, privileged life, during which England are never going to win the World Cup.
The one I minded most, by far, was 1998. Michael Owen’s wonder-goal, which took England into a 2-1 lead against Argentina, was the only time I let myself believe that the pattern was going to be broken. It lasted about half an hour, until David Beckham got sent off. In the next round Argentina were beaten by Holland, who were in turn beaten by Brazil, who lost in the final to France. So that brief glimpse of what it might be like to have a world-beating team was a long way from the real deal. In 1990 the excitement lasted longer, and had England got past the Germans there is a good chance they would have beaten Argentina in the final, but it never felt as if the trophy was quite within reach. England were always playing catch-up with fate.
This time is different. Going out in the group stages after just two matches, without once having held the lead in either of them, is as far from winning the World Cup as you can get. There were some tantalising moments – Rooney’s header against the bar from less than a yard out against Uruguay looked both unmissable and unreachable at the same time – and England put together some nice passages of play, but the positive vibes were so short-lived that they barely register even a couple of days later. Normally England’s World Cup failures make their fans feel the passage of time: every four years is infrequent enough for a life to pass by before you know it. This tournament reinforces how quickly time passes for the players as well. One hundred and eighty minutes of football and it’s done until 2018. Some of them will get another chance, if injury spares them – Sterling, Lallana, Barkley will be back for more. Most players get more than one shot at it. But not many get more than two. Sturridge may have been at his peak for this tournament. Rooney won’t get another chance.
2022 is still scheduled to happen in Qatar, which will hardly suit England. Even Russia is likely to be an inhospitable environment next time round. There’s a possibility England might host the World Cup again during my lifetime, so perhaps there is still a faint possibility I might see them win it. But for the players, this was it. In a world where time is speeding up in so many different ways, four-year cycles represent a brutal reality check. Maybe only electoral politics is comparable: one defeat and it can be a five-year wait till you get a shot at redemption. But the lifespan of politicians is long and they know that if they can hang on, the pendulum will eventually swing their way again. Football is not like that. They think it’s all over. They’re right.
At every World Cup there are ghosts at the feast: teams who ought to be there but aren’t. Some of these sides do actually show up but turn out to be shadows of their former selves, like poor old Spain, dead men walking after just a couple of games (there will be a certain ghoulish fascination to seeing how they perform in their final zombie match-up with the Australians). But there are also the teams that you would expect to be watching who have somehow failed to qualify. During the 1970s the ghosts were England, who went from being one of the best teams in the world to no-shows at both the 1974 and 1978 finals. In this tournament part of an entire continent is missing. Europe remains notably over-represented in what is supposed to be a global competition. But it’s not the whole of Europe that is in Brazil. It’s the south and the east. The far north and the east are more or less absent. You could walk (or swim) from Turkey to Norway through an arc of countries with a proud World Cup heritage that have failed to make the cut this time: Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland all missed out. This is the first World Cup since 1982 with no Scandinavian representation, and in that tournament there were plenty of sides from the old Soviet bloc to make up the numbers (Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were there).
Poland reached the semi-finals back then, part of a long line of Eastern European teams to emerge as dark horses. One of my very favourite World Cup matches was the quarter-final in 1994, when Bulgaria beat Germany 2-1 with a brace of late goals from Stoichkov and Letchkov. The fun was watching a supremely confident German team crumble in the face of a sudden reversal of fortune (I believe they have a word for that). If anyone is going to take the Germans down a peg or two this time it will have to be from some other part of the world. Eastern European football is not as strong as it used to be. Why aren’t the Scandinavians here? Perhaps it’s just chance (Zlatan Ibrahimovic was certainly unlucky to run up against Cristiano Ronaldo in the Sweden-Portugal qualifying play-off), though it is one of the ironies of the footballing universe that real prosperity does not seem to translate into sporting fortune (Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark regularly rank at or the near the top of lists of the best places in the world to live). When it comes to throwing their weight around in European politics the Nordic countries are increasingly assertive. But the impoverished south can still boss them on the football field.
The outlier in this geographical divide is the little pocket that consists of Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. The old Yugoslavia has a strong presence in this tournament. It’s ghostly in a different way. In an earlier post I wrote that there is less national cross-dressing in international sport than once seemed likely. But a notable exception to that rule is Switzerland, whose squad contains four players born in the FYR (two in Kosovo, two in Macedonia), in each case as a result of their parents leaving for Switzerland in the early 1990s. A number of other players, including the entire forward line, were born in Switzerland shortly after their parents emigrated from Bosnia and elsewhere in the FYR. Croatia are going strong in their group. Switzerland, despite a rough time against France, still have a good chance of reaching the next round. Bosnia – or ‘rump Bosnia’ as someone put it to me – are very unlucky to be heading home (the perfectly good goal by Edin Dzeko that was ruled offside in their match against Nigeria was probably the most serious refereeing mistake so far). The children of the Yugoslav wars have been performing well in this tournament, which has come when many of them are at their peak. Some were born during the violence; others only after their parents had fled from it. Affluence doesn’t necessarily breed sporting success. Misfortune sometimes can.
This is the day after the incident that will no doubt be the one for which this World Cup is best remembered (it will take something pretty tasty in the remaining games to dislodge it). The tournament now divides into pre-bite and post-bite. The world is already awash with virtual newsprint expressing various shades of bemusement, amusement or (most often) outrage at Luis Suárez and his ravenous teeth. I hesitate to add to the surfeit of noise. But really, why is one footballer biting another so uniquely shocking?
Matthew Syed, fulminating in this morning’s Times, says ‘there is a case for a lengthy worldwide ban that sends an unmistakable signal that talent can never justify the kind of behaviour that, in other circumstances, might bring a man before a judge for common assault.’ But football matches are full of assaults that would, in other circumstances, count as criminal acts. They break each other’s legs, for God’s sake, and it’s not always by accident. The Italian defender Chiellini, who looks like he can look after himself, went down under Suárez’s attentions as though he had been punched, but he hadn’t. I guess it hurt, and he certainly had the scars to prove it, but they were only pinpricks compared to the damage that other kinds of fouls can do.
Is it the curious intimacy of the contact? Biting, or anything involving the mouth, seems categorically distinct from the usual run of flailing elbows and wild lunges. It looks wilful because it belongs to a completely different realm of human activity: eating, or perhaps love. In no sense is it part of the game. But for that reason it can hardly have been deliberate. What was Suárez trying to achieve? To get Chiellini to punch him in retaliation? There are far better ways of managing that. It was such a stupid thing to do that it must have been impulsive. The problem with a defence of crime passionnel is that Suárez has form. It’s his third bite, which suggests at the very least that there is a part of him that is beyond all reasonable control. That makes people very uncomfortable.
In the end Suárez’s problem is not that biting is so much worse than the other things that players do, but simply that the other players don’t do it. Once norms exist, however arbitrary, universal adherence makes any breach a very serious matter. Whatever it is that Suárez can’t control is something that everyone else can control. That makes him a real renegade. It’s like the moment Eric Cantona jumped into the crowd at Crystal Palace to karate kick a fan who had been giving him terrible abuse (something for which he was very briefly jailed). In some ways what was most surprising about that incident was that it doesn’t happen more often, given what footballers do to each other and what fans do to each other. How many players must have wanted to return in kind some of the poison coming their way from the crowd? But since it doesn’t happen, there was something truly shocking about seeing Cantona breach the invisible boundary that separates the violence that happens on the pitch from the violence that happens in the stands. Suárez has breached another such invisible boundary and it looks like he is really going to pay for it.
People with a passing interest in football often ask two questions about the World Cup. When will an African team win it? When will the United States win it? Both good questions. It’s long been clear that some of the world’s most talented footballers come from Africa and they often emerge in clusters from particular places (Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast). But as yet this hasn’t translated into any world-beating teams. In the US the appeal of soccer has been on the rise for a while now, leading to the suspicion that when the Americans put their mind to it they could translate their enormous global clout into on-field dominance. But again, it hasn’t happened yet.
It is still conceivable that this World Cup will produce an affirmative answer to one of those two questions. But you have to say it is extremely unlikely. The US are through to the next round, along with two African teams (Nigeria and Algeria), but all three were pretty fortunate to get out of their groups and none looks up to surviving four matches against the big boys. So there’s another question to ask. When will a Latin American team outside the big two (Brazil and Argentina) win the World Cup? This tournament looks like a golden opportunity for one of the unheralded South American sides to make the breakthrough. (It’s true that Uruguay have won it twice but that was back in the early days when the competition was nowhere near as fierce as it is now.)
A notable feature of all modern World Cups has been the phenomenon of continental home advantage, which means European teams do better in Europe and Latin American teams do better in Latin America. In 2006 in Germany all four semi-finalists were European (France, Italy, Germany, Portugal). This time round in Brazil five of the six South American teams have made it out of the group stages, where they have been joined by Mexico and Costa Rica. By contrast only six of twelve European sides are still in the competition. Familiarity with the climate seems to have something to do with it. So does familiarity with the surroundings. In this World Cup the Latin American teams have simply looked far more at home.
But events have conspired to mean that 2014 will not produce a repeat of 2006, with all four semi-finalists drawn from the same continent. Uruguay have been deprived of their star player (in circumstances that look to many Uruguayans like a genuine conspiracy). Colombia are also without their top striker Falcao, who was ruled out of the tournament by injury. The real misfortune, however, has been the luck of the draw, which has resulted in four of the five remaining South American teams finding themselves in the same quarter, meaning only one can reach the semis. Chile play Brazil in the round of 16 and the winners of that match will have to face the winners of Uruguay v. Colombia. Brazil and Argentina have been kept apart – you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe that was always going to happen – so a Brazil v. Argentina final is still a realistic possibility. If that happens it will be because Brazil have disposed of their local rivals along the way.
Brazil remain the likeliest winners, if only because national home advantage can still trump continental home advantage. South American teams might feel more at home playing in Brazil than, say, England did, but they won’t feel nearly so at home when facing Brazil themselves. It will be a big shock if Chile, Colombia or Uruguay can defeat the hosts. But it’s not impossible. After all, this was the year when another big two (Real Madrid and Barcelona) were finally outgunned in their domestic league by Atletico Madrid, something that would have seemed barely credible when the season began. If Brazil do lose, the narrative surrounding the World Cup will shift. For now, the talk of popular discontent has been stifled by the vibrant excitement of the football: so far it has been a markedly successful tournament. The promised protests against the waste and corruption surrounding the event have been muted (bar the routine booing of Sepp Blatter). But if Brazil crash out to one or other of their noisy neighbours, that’s unlikely to last. It certainly won’t look like value for money then.
The star of this World Cup is called Brazuca. Who’s he? It’s the ball. It got its name in a poll of Brazilians in 2012: according to FIFA they chose it because the word ‘captures national pride in the Brazilian way of life’ (the second choice was the Bossa Nova, which would have been overegging it a little). The ball was designed by Adidas with the aim of avoiding the flaws of its predecessor, the Jabulani, whose erratic performance marred the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Football designers often have a not-so-secret agenda to build something that will lead to more goals. The Jabulani was smooth and light, in the expectation that it would fly into the net. Unfortunately its aerodynamic features, combined with the high altitude at many South African grounds, meant it was more likely to fly away. The players didn’t trust their ability to control it over long distances, which contributed to the general ugliness of a tetchy, finickety tournament. Too many games ended up being played at close quarters.
This time round has been much better: more open games with more goals, more shots, more saves, and fewer yellow and red cards. It’s not all down to the ball, but a lot of it seems to be. The players trust this one. It moves in the air, but not wildly, more in little shifts and eddies within a predictable arc. The Jabulani behaved a bit like a boomerang. The Brazuca is more like a Frisbee. It has a rougher surface with deeper seams to give it greater consistency (the smoothness of the Jabulani made it more vulnerable to turbulence). Goalkeepers appear to trust it too. This tournament has been marked both by the number of long distance shots that have been on target and by the number of them that have been saved, which is what you want from a football match. The long passing has often been spectacular. The players look like they are enjoying themselves.
It also helps that the Brazuca is pretty. The fluid pattern of interlocking fingers looks lovely in slow motion, allowing the TV viewer to see the rotation on the ball and its path through the air. The ball is distinctive, but not so distinctive as to be distracting. Last season the FA, in a desperate effort to revive interest in their flagship tournament, introduced a pink ball for all FA Cup games. It certainly helped brand them: whenever I turned on the TV and saw the pink ball, my heart sank a little. You knew what you were watching: a Mickey Mouse tournament.
The Brazuca is already a badge of quality. Has there ever been a tournament, with so many moments that look lovely enough in slow motion to make you sigh? Take the loveliest moment of all, James Rodríguez’s sumptuous volley for Colombia against Uruguay in the recent round of matches. It had everything you could want from a goal. The quick glance goalwards that signalled intent. The first touch that brought the ball under close control. The perfect arc of the strike, until it crashed into the crossbar and then down and up into the net. A large part of the appeal of football, when it is at its most appealing, is aesthetic: the patterns that the players make with the ball against the static features of the pitch. With that goal Rodríguez signalled his arrival as a global fixture. But the ball was the star.
Any World Cup match-up between Germany and France is an opportunity to exorcise the demons of 1982, when the two countries (if you treat Germany and West Germany as the same country) met in a semi-final that remains one of the most traumatic matches in World Cup history. Certainly, it traumatised me. Most people remember it for the horrific foul committed by the German keeper, Harald Schumacher, who jumped knees-first into the onrushing French forward Patrick Battiston, knocking out his teeth, breaking his ribs and leaving him unconscious. What made it worse was that no foul was actually given. After the match, Schumacher’s lack of contrition stoked anti-German feeling in France to the point that Schmidt and Mitterrand had to issue a joint statement to calm tensions. But at the time – that is, as the game was unfolding – it didn’t seem so bad. Football was still a contact sport back then, and these things happened. The horror was what came later.
The game ended 1-1 after 90 minutes. In extra time, France took a 3-1 lead before Germany scored two late goals to level it at 3-3. Those thirty minutes were gripping beyond words, as France seemed to have the game won but then, incredibly, carried on attacking, leaving the way open for the Germans to muscle their way back. Like most ‘neutrals’ I passionately wanted France to win: this was the team of Platini against a German side that seemed to epitomise efficiency over flair. The way the French refused to shut up shop when two goals ahead only added to the Manichean qualities of the drama: one side was still playing football regardless. But after 120 minutes you couldn’t separate the two teams on the score-sheet. So, to penalties.
This was the first ever penalty shoot-out in a World Cup match. It was also the first penalty shoot-out I had seen. Penalties had been used as a way to settle a few big European games during the 1970s (including the final of the European championships in 1976) but somehow all that had passed me by. I can still remember my shock at realising that this game, in which the stakes could not be higher, was going to be decided in a way that would place responsibility for the defeat squarely on the shoulders of an individual player. Someone was going to have to be the fall-guy. The first to miss was the German defender Uli Stielike, a hard-as-nails player nicknamed ‘The Stopper’, not a natural object of human sympathy. When his penalty was saved he broke down and wept like a child. He was literally inconsolable. I had never seen such ghastly emotion on a football field. It no longer seemed to matter that France should win, only that this man shouldn’t have to carry the can. It didn’t occur to me that the French could still lose. But then Didier Six missed his penalty, and with the score tied a 4-4, it went to sudden death. The Germans scored their next kick. Maxim Bossis missed his. To describe him as appearing distressed afterwards would be an understatement. He looked like a ghost. I was 15 at the time and watching with my older sister. I remember saying to her after it was over: ‘This has ruined my summer.’
Penalty shoot-outs are now so commonplace that we barely register the horror of them. Yes, it’s still a nerve-shredding business, especially when your team is on the losing end. It must be awful to be Gonzalo Jara, the Chilean whose final penalty last week bounced off a post and sent his team out of the tournament. He looked miserable. But most players have now been through it often enough to know that forgiveness is usually at hand. Jara was quickly embraced by his team-mates. In 1982 no one really knew what came next. It looked so arbitrary and so awful. It also seemed so stupid: a match like that settled like this? I was scared that Bossis might, as they say, be a danger to himself.
France v. Germany this time round doesn’t have the same Manichean qualities: two goodish teams who can each put on a show on their day. It’s a game to look forward to as a neutral without quite setting the heart racing. The French will still be out for revenge – they got a chance at quick retribution in the 1986 semi-finals when they faced the Germans a second time and blew it, losing 2-0. But they have at least had the catharsis of their triumph in 1998. Yet for those of us who aren’t French, there still hasn’t been any real closure on 1982. If this one goes to penalties, please let the French win it.
This World Cup has had most things but one thing it has lacked is a genuine upset. In the round of 16 each match was won by the team that had previously won its qualifying group. In the quarter-finals the likeliest winners in each case turned out to be the actual winners. Now we are left with four teams of impeccable World Cup pedigree whom the bookies cannot separate: any of them would be an entirely plausible lifter of the trophy (the Dutch have never won it before but with three defeats in the final and a history of heroic endeavour they are long overdue). Yes, there have been some mild shocks along the way: few people anticipated that Spain would be trounced by Holland in their opening match and Costa Rica’s victory over Italy was somewhat unexpected, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been given how the Italians were playing. On the whole, though, the form book has been an unerringly reliable guide.
Before the tournament started, Goldman Sachs issued a forecast in the manner of a market report that predicted that Brazil would meet Argentina in the final. Deutsche Bank said much the same. Stephen Hawking, using different methods, indicated that his money too would be on Brazil. None of this is rocket science. The World Cup is an extremely predictable event: it doesn’t do major shocks. There has never really been a surprise winner, certainly not since West Germany defeated Hungary in 1954, and somehow it feels wrong to call anything involving German triumph an upset. Certainly there has been nothing like the thunderbolt victories achieved by Denmark and Greece in the European Championships of 1992 and 2004 respectively (both countries were available at odds of around 100-1 before those tournaments began). In the World Cup, underdogs flirt with the limelight before getting stamped on. The old order always reasserts itself in the end.
One of the great divisions in sport is between the competitions that favour dynasties and those that favour the upstarts. American sport – above all American football – is distinctly anti-dynastic. The draft system ensures that the team with the worst record gets to select the best player next time round, which makes it incredibly hard for anyone to stay on top for long. Some put this preference for equality over inherited privilege down to America’s democratic spirit. Others, perhaps more plausibly, note that it is a function of an economic arrangement that looks a lot like a cartel (in American sport there is no promotion and relegation), so that the owners are simply making sure they all get their fair share of the spoils.
By contrast, no sport is more dynastic than football. In the European leagues the same teams dominate for years, often for decades, sometimes for ever: the aristocrats of Portuguese football, of Spanish football, of Italian football, of Scottish football (until Rangers’ recent demise, which is unlikely to be terminal) have a seemingly permanent lease on power. One question that outsiders often ask about football is why fans put up with the same teams winning year in, year out. But insiders rarely ask it: the hold of the sport derives in part from the reliability of its hierarchies. Everyone knows where they stand, so everyone knows what they are up against. This breeds loyalty. It also generates drama. Though the established order will prevail in the end, in any given match the upstarts can still dream of overturning it.
Before this World Cup, Chile had never beaten Brazil in Brazil during more than a century of trying. Nor had Colombia. Combined the two countries hadn’t tasted victory against their biggest rivals in their own backyard in more than sixty attempts. They still haven’t, though last week Chile came within a bar’s width of doing so. The World Cup is the apogee of football competitions. It seems appropriate that it should remain the most dynastic.
Well, it won’t be the Bite for which this World Cup is remembered after all. Something more shocking did happen. The form book turned out to be a useless guide (Brazil were undefeated in twelve games before last night). Home advantage counted for nothing in the end. Goldman Sachs got it wrong. Stephen Hawking got it wrong. I got it wrong. Everyone got it wrong. Sure, there will be people saying that this Brazilian team was there for the taking, that someone was bound to expose its manifold weaknesses. But no one predicted that result. It simply doesn’t happen that big teams concede seven goals at home against major rivals. It doesn’t happen in the Premier League or in La Liga or in Serie A. It’s inconceivable that Chelsea or Barcelona or Juventus would ship seven at home to anyone, no matter how weakened their team or how unlucky the performance. It doesn’t happen in the Champions League or in the European Championships. It’s certainly never happened at the World Cup. Before last night’s match some bookmakers had Germany as the slight favourites to win, but the margin of their victory is perhaps the biggest upset in the history of the sport.
What makes it weirder is what took place between the second goal and the seventh one. The first two were bad defensive mistakes in keeping with this team’s familiar weaknesses: poor marking at a corner, then a shot spilled by the goalkeeper. Schürrle’s seventh was a freakishly perfect volley of the kind that can strike at almost any time, but almost never does. But for goals three, four, five and six it was as though the Brazilians had more or less stopped playing. The Germans moved the ball past them at will, taking as many touches as they liked, even in the penalty area, where no one seemed to want to close them down. Perhaps, at 2-0, and realising they were overmatched, the Brazilians understood that the worst was already upon them. But that doesn’t really make sense.
Had Brazil lost last night’s match 2-0, or even 3-0, it would have been a disaster but not a total disgrace: today’s narrative would have been about the vulnerability of a team stripped of its two most important players coming up against a better organised and more disciplined side. But no one is talking about Neymar now. The incentive structure for this team should have made them try harder at 2-0, because the difference between holding at that point and capitulation is the difference between a reversal that could be explained away and one that will haunt all of these players for the rest of their lives. They will never escape it: this is now the event for which they will always be known. The Germans, meanwhile, had no great incentive to push on once victory was assured, but they kept going as though their lives depended on it. For a while this was a game played through the looking-glass.
What makes it more poignant is thinking of Brazil’s relief at coming through the two previous rounds. No one enjoyed the victory over Chile more than David Luiz, who converted one of the vital penalties. He then scored a wonderful free kick against Colombia in the quarter-finals and produced one of the great goal celebrations afterwards, face contorted, arms pumping, veins bulging, like Marco Tardelli after he scored the goal that secured the trophy for Italy in 1982. But what David Luiz was celebrating led only to his own destruction. How he must now wish he had missed his penalty, or had sent his free kick a few feet over. An early exit for Brazil would have produced an outburst of national fury and a search for scapegoats, but the individual players could have ridden it out and their careers might have recovered. There is no recovering from this. It’s indelible.
Normally when something as dramatic and unexpected as last night’s match takes place there are conspiracy theories on hand to explain it. The players were drugged (that’s what they said about Ronaldo when Brazil lost 3-0 to France in 1998). The match was fixed (that’s the story about Brazil’s exit in 1978). The referee was against them (that’s how Uruguay managed to beat Brazil in 1950). Alternatively, if you don’t want a conspiracy theory, you can simply put it down to bad luck: these things happen every now and then. But the players weren’t drugged last night; the match wasn’t fixed; the referee had nothing to do with it. And these things don’t happen every now and then. It’s that even rarer thing: a complete mystery. Some are saying that it was divine retribution for the Brazilian authorities’ decision not to allow a minute’s silence before the game in honour of Alfredo di Stéfano, the great Argentinian player who had died the day before. Maybe not. But it certainly looked like an act of God.
The last time Argentina met Holland at the World Cup, in 2006, the match ended in a forgettable goalless draw. The time before that, in 1998, a meeting between the two countries produced a moment that never grows old: the exquisite winner scored in the 90th minute by Dennis Bergkamp, a seventy-yard pass that he controlled with one touch, redirected with another and flicked home with a third, a sequence that’s about as close as football ever gets to ballet. But the time before that, in 1978, Argentina v. Holland has some of the worst associations of any World Cup match. They don’t relate to what happened on the field, but to what was happening off it, in the prisons and torture chambers of Buenos Aires.
As Argentina won the tournament by defeating the Dutch 3-1 in the final, political prisoners could hear the roars of the stadium crowd from their cells, and then the even wilder celebrations of the hordes who flooded the squares of the city afterwards to celebrate their triumph. The brutal Junta, which was engaged in a war of disappearance against its own people, had seen the World Cup as an opportunity to drown out dissent with a tide of patriotic enthusiasm. Here was its reward.
Two kinds of story get told about the match. In one, the prisoners have the victory rammed down their throats, as evidence that they are completely isolated, forgotten by the football-mad masses. Guards force them to listen to the radio, compel them to cheer each goal and taunt them with the screams still coming from the torture blocks. The Mothers of the Disappeared had hoped that the arrival of the international media to Argentina in 1978 might draw attention to their plight. But the football was the story. Nothing else mattered. In The Ball is Round, his 2006 history of the global game, David Goldblatt wrote:
People flooded on to the streets of Buenos Aires, of Rosario, Córdoba, of every tiny town and dusty barrio. Ar-gen-tina, Ar-gen-tina, Campeón Mundial! Ar-gen-tina, Ar-gen-tina, Campeón Mundial! On Avenida Corrientes a car with darkened windows moved slowly, gingerly through the pressing, uncontrollable crowds. Inside military officers sat quietly with one of their few remaining living prisoners, a leading figure in the Montoneros: ‘You see we have won.’ They let her soak up the reality of the situation through the sun roof and treated her to a meal at a restaurant brimming with patriotic reverie. Asado never tasted so much of ash.
The other stories also have the prisoners cheering along; but in this telling, they are doing it of their own choice. They too are football fans and they can’t help it: they want Argentina to win. In some ways, this is even sadder: the victims of the regime taking genuine pleasure from a victory that had been contrived by the regime to maintain its grip on power. How can something as trivial as football transcend the hard fact of political oppression? But there is also something wonderfully defiant about it. Who were the Junta to claim this victory as their own? It was Argentina that had won. When football trumps politics, it doesn’t always follow that politics has been trivialised. In some circumstances, letting football trump politics is the only way of fighting back.
There has long been a suspicion that Argentina’s victory was itself a fix. To get to the final ahead of Brazil the team needed to beat Peru by more than four goals in their penultimate match; they ended up winning 6-0. Dark rumours abound about the pressure put on the Peruvians by the Argentine military and by their own government; talk of collusion between the dictatorships in Buenos Aires and Lima was fuelled by the presence of Henry Kissinger at the match in question.
In the final, everything possible was done to upset the Dutch team, who were less amenable to overt threats. Their bus was misdirected to the stadium via a long and tedious route. They were kept waiting on the pitch for ten minutes before the Argentine team made an appearance. The protective arm cast worn by one of their players, Rene van der Kerkhof, was the subject of a furious protest by Argentine officials, even though he had been wearing it without comment in the five previous matches. It worked, to the extent that Holland started the match slowly and were soon behind. But with eight minutes to go they equalised. Then, in the final minute, the Dutch player Rob Rensenbrink had a glorious chance to win it but only managed to hit the post. Argentina scored twice more to seal the victory in extra time. Rensenbrink’s miss meant the Junta got their way. But that couldn’t have been fixed. That the Dutch came within inches of spoiling the party shows that sport always retains the power to trump politics.
The arrival of the World Cup final is always a melancholy moment. It means no more lounging around the house in the knowledge that another game will be on in a minute. More than a month of wall-to-wall football gives way to a little bit of cricket and some desultory transfer speculation in the papers. It feels like the end of summer. Really it should feel like the start of summer – after all, it’s early July and the schools haven’t broken up yet. But when I was younger I used to resent the thought that there was now no excuse to stay indoors with the curtains drawn. I still feel like that. To make things worse, the final itself is usually a letdown. There hasn’t been a really exciting one for almost thirty years.
Some games are blow-outs, like France’s trouncing of Brazil in 1998 or Brazil’s all-too-easy takedown of Germany four years later. More often they are stilted and cagey affairs, waiting to be settled by a mistake or with the help of the referee. One of the very worst came the last time these two teams met in the final in 1990, when Argentina snarled and Germany postured their way through an ugly match that was only settled by a late penalty. The good news is that the last truly dramatic one was between the same two teams four years earlier, when Argentina led 2-0, Germany came back to level it, before Argentina snatched a winner thanks to an exquisite, defence-unlocking Maradona pass. Cue ecstasy. Here’s hoping it’s 1986 all over again. But I’m not holding my breath.
What makes the gloom worse this time is the thought of what comes next. In four years we’ll be in Russia and it’s hard to imagine that will be much fun. The performance of the Russian team at this tournament was one of the few unmitigated disasters. Russia came saddled with weighty expectations, along with the highest paid manager in Fabio Capello, who is reported to have been on more than £6 million a year, double what the next best paid – our own Roy Hodgson – was getting (the third highest salary went to Prandelli of Italy and since all three went out in the group stages it only confirms that this is not a managers’ tournament).
Cambridge University Press has done a data scrape of all English language reporting of this World Cup to see which words describe which teams. For Russia, the top three are ‘drab’, ‘error’ and ‘mediocre’ (by contrast, Colombia gets ‘exciting’, ‘unpredictable’ and ‘attacking’; Australia gets ‘positive’, ‘effort’ and ‘spirited’; and Bosnia gets ‘injustice’, ‘defensive’ and ‘forceful’). Russia played like a team all too conscious of the impatient demands of its powerful patrons. They are hardly going to be less impatient in 2018.
There has been something of a bread-and-circuses feel to the tournament in Brazil but it’s also had a genuine innocence and exuberance to it. Fifa may be a corrupt organisation but this hasn’t been a corrupt tournament (Brazil’s exit confirmed that). Political presence at the games has been minimal. None of that is likely to hold in four years time. This year’s real bread-and-circuses event was the Winter Olympics in Sochi, where Russia finished top of the medals table and Putin cropped up everywhere with his frozen, ghastly grin. It was fantastically expensive; it was stage-managed; it was sterile. That’s what we have to look forward to. Then, four years after that, if Fifa gets its way, we’ll be in Qatar. Enjoy the fun while it lasts.
In the end, the 2014 World Cup final turned out like the 2010 final. A scoreless match that seemed to be heading for penalties was only settled at the death when a composed, compact player managed to hold his nerve in front of goal, after everyone else had lost theirs. Last time it was Iniesta. Yesterday it was Götze. But really it was a different sort of match, as befits a different sort of tournament. The 2010 final was overshadowed by the performance of the referee, Howard Webb, who failed to control the spoiling tactics of the Dutch. This time, each side gave as good as it got and the contest had a proper shape to it. Had Higuaín’s first-half goal, which was correctly ruled out for offside, been allowed to stand, it would have been a very different occasion. But the officials got the important decisions right. Argentina fluffed each of their legitimate chances and have no one to blame but themselves. The game spoke for itself.
So did Germany’s victory. It is hard not to be struck by what Louise Taylor calls ‘the startling synchronicity between the philosophies behind Germany’s economic and footballing revivals’. The best team in the tournament, responsible for its most memorable performance, came from the country that is performing best off the field as well. When Spain won in 2010, that was definitely not the case. Footballing triumph went along with looming economic disaster: the best team in the world came from a country that was tiptoeing towards possible bankruptcy. Its star players belonged to clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona that were floating on a sea of debt. This German team, with its nucleus from Bayern Munich, is a much more secure enterprise. The victorious Spanish were given a heroes’ welcome by the then prime minister, Zapatero, who hoped to harness some of their kudos to his own ends. Merkel doesn’t need to try nearly so hard. There is a picture of her after last night’s game in the German dressing room, surrounded by the players and smiling bashfully. Has a politician ever looked so at home among the sweaty jocks? They really are all in this together.
The Germans have an amazing knack for producing World Cup champions at politically apposite times. The ‘Miracle of Bern’ in 1954 signalled West Germany’s rebirth as a nation. Their victory in 1974, after a tournament in which West Germany managed to lose a group match to East Germany, came at the height of Ostpolitik. When they won in 1990, it was shortly before German reunification. Now they have a world-beating team made up of players drawn from East and West, many of whom have been working steadily together for nearly a decade. Their triumph is the result of long-term planning and a refusal to kowtow to passing fashions. The progress has been both smooth and spectacular, combining technical know-how with moments of real flair. They are the envy of the world. It can’t last, because nothing ever does. But for now it’s hard to see what’s going to stop them.
This has been an enjoyable tournament to write about because it too has had a nice shape to it. The passing dramas and electrifying moments –Suárez, Rodriguez, Chile, USA, Robben, Van Persie – have been subsumed in a single, overarching narrative of German ascent and Brazilian demise, which climaxed in the most unexpected half an hour of football of this or any other tournament. Still, my lasting memory relates back to something I wrote about at the beginning. I described the contrasting fates of two East London boys who grew up playing football together. One, Raheem Sterling, ended up at the World Cup. The other, whose footballing career was curtailed by injury, ended up at my college in Cambridge, where he had just sat his exams. I said I hoped they would both have good tournaments. Well, Sterling’s didn’t last long. But my guy got a first. Who needs football anyway?