In some respects, it’s a blessed relief to get a little respite from the World Cup. If nothing else, it has been emotionally draining. The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of unprecedented excitement, of matches that have shifted their shapes before our very eyes, and while there may have been some disappointment at the outcome of many of the Second Round matches, there have been points over the last two weeks when it has felt as if every one of our emotions has been tugged at by a game that, in its very simplicity, offers what what can sometimes feel like a myriad of different emotions, some painful, some infuriating, but very, very occasionally, they hit heights that knock the wind from your chest and leave you beaming and speechless at the beauty of it all.
For some of us, the world of this particular game can be a troublesome and murky one. Once involved in the seedier side of the game, it’s easy to allow that cynicism to cloud every single thing that you see, but of the last two weeks have taught me anything whatsoever, this must surely be that the love, the child-like glee and the sheer blank-faced disbelief are still there, if only they can be roused from their slumber. There have been points over the last two weeks when I have been slack-jawed and speechless at what I have seen and the order in which such brilliance has unfolded right in front of me, from James Rodriguez’s almost baffling moment of beauty for Colombia against Uruguay to the single-minded – and ultimately ill-fated – obduracy of the American goalkeeper Tim Howard against Belgium on Tuesday evening.
And here’s the thing about this beauty. There is no set format to it – no-one and nothing dictates from a rule book where we can and can’t see such joy. It truly is entirely in the eye of the beholder. At one end of the spectrum there is a certain absurdist poetry that can be seen in the player who trips over his own bootlaces and tumbles, as if auditioning for a position with a circus, or the team that arrives with stellar hopes, only to crash and burn before a cackling television audience. At the other, however, there are certain moments of individual brilliance so singular and extraordinary that no words can ever do them justice. Should we be fortunate enough to witness these as they come to pass, perhaps all we can do is let our mouths hang over and allow whatever noise is emanate from it come out. Sometimes, nature just has to be allowed to take its course.
Furthermore, those moments that remind us of why we fall in love with it all in the first place aren’t just limited to the individuals. What may well turn out to be the two most memorable performances of the Second Round of the competition didn’t come from individuals but from teams, and from losing teams, at that. Algeria played with such style and grace against Germany that they can certainly consider themselves unfortunate to have lost the match, and departed from the tournament with many complimenting their slick, counter-attacking game. The United States of America, meanwhile, sometimes felt a little lacking in pure technical ability, but put in a performance of absolute honesty and graft in narrowly losing to Belgium on Tuesday night.
This match was clear proof that, even in the global village that is twenty-first century football, clear clashes of style can still break out. Belgium are clinical in their approach, the sporting equivalent of a grouping of football throughbreds, raised on what the imagination might well have been a stud farm and scattered like pollen across Europe’s major leagues. The American team, by contrast, was a little thin on technique, but they played with guts and commitment that has not been repeated much elsewhere in this tournament and, while it’s true to say that Belgium deserved their win, it was a reminder of how cruel this game can be that such toil can go without reward beyond praise. In terms of pure results, this tournament ended up no better than the American national team had managed before. In terms of raising awareness of the game in the country and enhancing its reputation within the global football community, however, a step forward has certainly been taken this summer on the other side of the Atlantic ocean.
Against a background of such drama, tension and excitement – which came in all the colours of the rainbow, from the tense and taut goalless draws of the Second Round to the stardust sprinkled performances of some nations in the group stages – most attempts at studied indifference to all carry something of an air of futility about them. A tidal wave of excitement crashes against the shores of our minds, we have collectively undergone a reversion to that very state of innocence. A wise man once said that “The best World Cup finals is that which is played the closest to when when you were ten years old.” The majority of us seem to have reverted to that state for much of the last two weeks. And the remaining matches to played over the next nine days may all be turgid affairs, but they will stop offer up moments of joy and drama prepared without a script, and played out before a global audience of hundreds of millions, if not billions.
Shortly before this tournament began, I wrote a brief cri de couer on the subject of the tournament, which was set against a background of uncertainty over whether some of the venues would be completed and fully tested as well, of course, as the sound of vociferous protests being held against the tournament being held in Brazil in the first place. We should continue to oppose FIFA, with its murky dealings, air of autocracy and quiet contempt for those who watch the game, but we should not allow the obesity brought about opulence to block our view of something that is wonderful, unique and frequently very good to us. Perhaps this is a game that still has a beating heart, after all.
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