Players have bought into feeling of being part of something huge in Brazil
The true heir to Maradona arrived at this World Cup in São Paulo last Thursday night – Luis Suarez
It might come as a surprise to those who automatically associate the word “Fifa” with bland corporate mediocrity to hear that the official Fifa movie of the 1986 World Cup is actually a fine piece of work. Narrated by Michael Caine and featuring a weirdly beautiful synthesiser score by Rick Wakeman, the movie is called Hero, and it pursues an individualistic agenda in keeping with the Me Decade.
Hero tells the story of Mexico 86 by tracing the paths of the star players through the tournament. Most of the shots are tightly focused on an individual player – the screen filled with images of Michael Laudrup dribbling, Enzo Francescoli getting kicked, Michel Platini rearranging his thinning hair. You often can’t see the game context or most of the other players. Instead, you see some other things that aren’t so apparent from the wider angle.
Hero is mostly about Diego Maradona and the real star of the movie is Maradona’s face. Few players have lived the emotions of the game as intensely as Maradona and over the course of the film we see him experience the whole gamut, from operatic anguish to incredulous joy.
When you watch this movie you understand why Maradona was more than just the best player in the world. He remained the world’s favourite footballer for years after he had retired because his face was as expressive as his feet. He had an instinctive understanding of what it meant to be a hero. He knew how to channel the emotion of the crowd and reflect it back at them. Football doesn’t matter without the audience and Maradona played the audience as well as he played the game.
This is probably the reason why Lionel Messi has never managed to supplant Maradona in Argentina’s affections. It’s nothing to do with Messi’s talent, which is as great as Maradona’s – greater, if you like to measure these things by counting goals and medals. It has to do with how he expresses himself.
Messi plays the game in a sort of imperturbable trance, he appears impassive, even cold. Sometimes he betrays flashes of irritation or amusement, but he only lets go at really big moments. When he scored against Bosnia last week he allowed himself an eruption of exultant relief, and you could see in that instant how deeply he had felt the misery of failing to score in South Africa last time. But from minute to normal minute of the game, Messi’s face tells us little about how he’s feeling. Maradona’s face told us everything, so we could feel like we were living every second of it with him.
Immortal featThe true heir to Maradona arrived at this World Cup in São Paulo last Thursday night. It wasn’t just that by scoring two goals against England to condemn them to World Cup elimination, Luis Suarez had done something that superficially resembled Maradona’s immortal feat in 1986. It’s that Suarez does these incredible things in such an expressive way that he allows us in to his experience. As he cried tears of amazement after his second goal we all knew for a moment what it feels like to hurl the little streets upon the great.
Uruguay are possibly one of the worst teams in the World Cup but on Thursday they showed us what international football can be at its best. It wasn’t just Suarez who was possessed by the spirit of heroism. There was that fascinating scene that played out after the left-back Alvaro Pereira was knocked out cold. Uruguay’s team doctor indicated he had to come off, but Pereira refused point-blank to be substituted and stumbled back on to the field.
After the match, the player’s union, FifPro, issued a statement complaining that football’s rules do not do anything to protect players who are concussed. But it was clear that the person Pereira needed to be protected from was himself. On one level, what happened was obviously wrong. Uruguay’s management should not have allowed their player to risk his health. And yet there was also something inspirational about Pereira’s refusal. You suspected that some of the English players might have accepted the diagnosis of concussion with a certain quiet gratitude, as a way to get honourably discharged from the game. Pereira showed how much more it meant to Uruguay and on Thursday their desire made the difference.
That kind of desire has not been seen enough at recent World Cups, where the apparent indifference of many teams and individuals fed into a fear that international football might be losing its relevance. It seemed as though the players already had so much money and status from club football that they had started to think of international tournaments as little more than irritating impositions that cut into their holiday time.
In South Africa, there was a strange sense of the World Cup taking place in an airless, artificial Fifa-zone, cut off from the people of the country, a perception which was not softened by the cold weather and half-empty stadiums and that weird vuvuzela drone. Euro 2012 was arguably even worse, with those terrible pre-match ceremonies contributing to an impression of being part of something pre-packaged and unreal.
Whole worldHere in Brazil there is an excitement that the players cannot help but absorb by osmosis. Here it is easy for them to have the feeling that they really are performing before the whole world.
Maybe it has something to do with the cities. Everyone constantly reminds you how dangerous Brazil’s big cities are, but every city has something beautiful about it. São Paulo is a megalopolis that can remind you of New York City or Istanbul or Soweto, depending on where in town you happen to be.
There is the Miami-like beachfront at Fortaleza, drenched in endless sunshine, or the little houses of Salvador piled on the hills around the Fonte Nova stadium. And even travel-jaded footballers would have to be impressed by the grandeur of the rainforest and river visible from the air on the way into Manaus. At that city’s Ponta Negra beach you stand and look out across the Rio Negro, which is only half of the Amazon, and it’s like looking across Dublin Bay. This is a river?
This tournament has full stadiums, noisy crowds, hot sunshine, short shadows, bumpy pitches, crazy packs of fans who pursue the team coaches through the cities on motorcycles. Everywhere there is the feeling of being part of something huge. The players know that this is the real thing.
Fantastic shapeMaybe that explains why many of the stars are playing the best international football of their lives. The best individual performances have arguably come from the Dutch pair of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie. Both of them were struggling with injuries four years ago in South Africa, but they have arrived in Brazil in fantastic physical shape. Here are two guys who know this will probably be their last World Cup and who look determined to seize the chance. Van Persie, in particular, has not looked this sharp in years. All of us, with the possible exception of David Moyes, can take pleasure in the sight of a great player at the peak of his powers.
Then there are some players who naturally have the temperament for tournament football. The outstanding candidate here is Thomas Müller, the German forward who has eight World Cup goals in seven matches after his hat-trick against Portugal. In addition to remarkable gifts of anticipation and timing, Müller’s performance against Portugal also displayed some of the quick-thinking cynicism that was associated with the winning West German teams of the 1970s and 80s. He is a player whose 360 degree view of the possibilities is not obscured by sportsmanship blinkers, and if his behaviour generates a certain quantity of heel heat, the spectacle is all the better for it.
Suarez, Messi, van Persie and Müller all understand the same thing about the World Cup: this is their chance to win the kind of fame that doesn’t end. In Brazil, the game’s ultimate stage has found its perfect backdrop.