Monday, July 12, 2010

The World Cup is over

The first thing I read that inspired me to write about soccer was Brian Glanville's "Story of the World Cup." My brother picked it up for me at a garage sale and wrapped it for Christmas, but it stayed unread on my bookshelf for a long time. Who wanted to read through a yellowed compendium of fifty year-old match reports?

Except the story Glanville told of the World Cups of old—1954 and the Battle of Berne, the weird antics surrounding England in Mexico, 1970, and the revelation that the 1974 final was in fact awful, a poorly refereed mess (at least according to Brian)—was one I'd never read. Glanville's relentless suspicion about FIFA's intentions behind the Big Show kindled a sort of manic curiosity about football on my part, mostly because in the North American soccer dark age, writers would either wax embarrassingly poetic or attempt vaudeville-esque comic dismissals about the world's interest in soccer. Glanville's fierce defense of football from it's supposed bureacratic protagonists was completely new to me.

Ominously, the edition my brother managed to pick up ended in 1990. Glanville had this to say about the final: 
"It was probably the worst, most tedious, bad-tempered Final in the history of the World Cup. Diego Maradona was half-crippled; Claudio Caniggia, Argentina's dashing blond striker, was suspended—the result of a mere handball. The Germans, utterly uninspired, won through a penalty which should probably never have been given, but most neutral spectators were just glad to be done with the game. This time, the tournament did not escape the consequences of its elephantiasis."
You might say 2010 was marginally better, with Iniesta's goal after extra time, although in a sense it too should never have happened once Howard Webb failed to award the corner. But really, what's the difference? Maddeningly, it didn't have to end this way. 2010 had been an entertaining World Cup following 2006's cookie cutter affair. Germany rose above the ancient cliche's about efficiency and organization on the back of some wild-running youngsters, Uruguay dazzled even as they prickled the conscience, Holland never looked convincing but they at least looked game to do something, especially against Brazil.

Speaking of the Dutch, reading through WSC's World Cup preview on Holland this morning, I was bemused to see this: "The backline is seen as the main weakness. The attack, in contrast, is up there with the best of them—assuming guys like Arjen Robben and van Persie are fit." So what happened last night? Part of me think the Dutch bought into their own stylistic inferiority and, based on the susceptible superiority of World Cups past, were determined to wear it as a badge. Lost in all the nationalistic rumination about the two missed opportunities in 74 and 78 (and arguably a third in 98) was the idea that the Dutch were perhaps not that bad.

Indeed, with Van Bommel and De Jong kicking the shit out of Spain, Robben still managed to find space in the final Spanish third, usually on the counter attack in the second half. I'm no Zonal Marking, but I wonder what the Dutch might have accomplished had Kuyt and Robben were a little more adventurous on the wing earlier on, with van Persie and Sneijder doing something cute and old fashioned by running onto a solid through ball once in a while.

The Dutch didn't have a particularly deep back four, but the point seemed to cloud out the Spanish midfield and to stop Xavi and Iniesta and Alonso by essentially running into them. Was it absolutely necessary? Was it "right"? Again, it seemed the Dutch bought into tikki-takka and Spain's beauty, and believed themselves to be inferior but "pragmatic." It was as if they were determined not even to attempt to resemble a team confident in scoring, lest they dredge up old ghosts from the seventies.

Still, I can't help but think that if Holland trusted in their ability to exploit space, if Kuyt and Sneijder felt confident enough to get a bit farther forward, if van Bommel and De Jong believed in their own capacity for creativity and let the back four worry about defending for once, maybe it would have just come down to what football apparently used to be about: scoring more goals than the other team.

Terribly naive, I know. Mourinho would read and laugh. Anyway, the World Cup is over. It was over twenty-four years ago, and I don't think it's coming back. That ugly golden trophy is getting crushed under its own weight, the expectations are too high, the myths have been told and retold a few too often, the "feeling" we're supposed to feel for the "unifying power of football" more a mark of hope, an admission of absence, than fact. As we get farther and farther away from 1986, that tournament seems to loom ever larger over us. We get more and more tense watching World Cup games, worrying about goals-per-game averages, classics, the weight of the ball, the attendances, the atmosphere, the sum of parts that never quite add up to a whole. We wonder when it will be football again, when the World Cup will once more dip into the ineffable without it feeling forced.

And then we wait another four years and tell ourselves, this time, this time will be different.


Elliott said...

I just can't stop pondering the two misses by Robben - if he had converted either chance, we would hear no end about the "De Jong Yellow Card" and the incompetence of Howard Webb. Whew.

Dr3 said...

the last two paragraphs; absolutely spot on.