Brazil 2014 has captivated and delighted as stars twinkle brightly
Hankering after the old days and holding them up to the light as a shining example is based on a selective memory in most cases
Argentina’s Lionel Messi scores on a free kick during the 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match against Nigeria. Photograph: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini
It’s been a great World Cup so far, full of goals, excitement and top players actually living up to their billing. And it could get even better in the knock-out part.
So round about now the reaction should kick in: because with the inevitably of a doomy electron tailing a peppy proton, there has to be a contrarian kickback against this feel-good consensus.
It’s almost an auto-alignment thing, like tyres out of whack; and, by and large, good. After all there’s nothing to get acid corroding the intestinal wall quite like relentless “paaasitivity”. But that’s to tailor the media version of this trace-kicking impulse in a coat of sparkly jargon. In this game there is a sequential chain more predictable than anything Newton might have imagined.
Just as inevitable as the immediate outrage at Luis Suárez sinking his Freddie Mercury’s into an Italian shoulder has been the subsequent counter-argument about hypocrisy and Luis’s supposed psychological complexity, all of which is presented as commendable attempts at balance, but can actually be a consequence of little more than a mundane editorial requirement to say something different.
Exciting but ordinaryThus Suárez as disgrace has been followed by Suárez as misunderstood, crucified and by the end of the tournament there’s a chance of Suárez having been assumed. It’s a narrative thread so formulaic it makes Fair City look like Fargo. And it comes in a one-size-fits-all versatility for all topics, never mind something as malleable as football.
So no surprise then that there have already been contrarian rumblings about how most of us are watching the World Cup with a hopelessly straightforward two-eyed enjoyment and so lacking the mysterious third-eye insight required to recognise how in fact it’s all very ordinary.
Exciting, but ordinary: plenty of organisation and effort and energy, but a noticeable deficit of technical quality: and for those kept awake at night by such things, the early departures of Spain, Italy and even England signals something of a crisis in the overall shape of the world game.
There’s also been moaning about this World Cup lacking the excitement of new stars emerging from nowhere, or the exotica of something different, which in the hands of a fluent trace-kicker can sound persuasive but is really little more than an exercise in nostalgia and an example of how time can make even the rosiest of spectacles go an even deeper shade of magenta.
The World Cup did used to bring novelty in terms of players, and styles, and football culture, precisely because every four years really did bring something new. It was like football’s Gypsy Rose Lee, flashing a rare glimpse of South American samba or Mediterranean moodiness. Gypsy knew better than anyone that what excites is the suggestion of what you can’t see.
But the digital age has dispensed with suggestion in favour of overwhelming in-your-face exposure. If there’s a 10- year-old kid in Madagascar, Manchester or Manaus able to manage a couple of hundred keepy-uppys in-a-row, then there’s an agent somewhere prepared to hawk the video to a club. The days of an uncovered gem out of nowhere securing a dream move from the Bario to Barcelona are long gone.
Lot of mediocrityAnd the old days weren’t so great anyway, no matter how much fond-sepia is plastered onto the retrospective prism. As someone whose “Mundial” memories range back as far as Argentine ticker-tape in 1978, and Paolo Rossi peeing on Brazil’s beautiful game in Spain four years later, take it from me, the highlights reel removes an awful lot of mediocrity, the sort in fact which was condemned unfavourably then to the even older and better days before that.
Those bemoaning the lack of a universally heralded great team at this World Cup so far seem to forget that really great teams are by definition rare. Brazil in 1962 and 1970 were outstanding. Brazil in 1994 and 2002 weren’t. But they all won. The Dutch in 1974 were exceptional, and lost. The Dutch four years were ordinary, and lost too.
In the last 40 years, how many international sides justify being called great: the French of 1998 and 2000 probably, Italy 1982 maybe, Spain in the last half dozen years certainly; the same Spanish side unusually crammed with individual talent willing and able to play together that’s now at home and apparently forgotten.
Can anyone reasonably expect a comparable successor to the Spanish to materialise straight away? This was a team that played in the glare of worldwide attention and still managed to keep us spellbound. Is there any way of quantifying how even greater it is going to come to be regarded when nostalgia gets it in its sights and the replays start to look crackly and quaint
Most championship-winning sides have one or two outstanding individuals and are otherwise mostly functional and well organised, the very attributes that will probably be readily dismissed in the next couple of weeks. This is the reality of most international teams and always has been. It’s just that unfamiliarity used to lend a certain mystique.
Great craicSo forget the smartarses; we’re being blessed with this tournament. Anyone who sat through Euro 2004 or Italia 90 – yeah, yeah, great craic, but the football was mostly dire – knows how much of an endurance test it can be. What’s great this time is the intention, the desire to try and win rather than suffocate.
Anyone who doubts we are in the presence of great players just has to tune in tomorrow to see how futile Swiss attempts will be to neutralise Messi. You’ve got to be some contrarian not to appreciate that.