In a better, more ‘sporting’ world, Argentina’s footballers, having seen on the big screen that they had been gifted a goal unjustly by poor officiating, would have allowed Mexico to go up the field and score a goal unopposed to even the score, literally. Germany’s players might have done the same thing for England after Frank Lampard’s goal was wrongly denied.
But the World Cup on its first knock-out Sunday is definitely not that kind of world. Nowhere in professional team sports is quite that kind of world. And since that is the case, Mexico and England go home nursing legitimate grievances, and the two teams that genuinely deserved to win go into the next round with some fans putting a tiny asterisk next to their names, because FIFA won’t take simple steps — either with technology or extra match officials — that would make soccer’s decision-making less capricious and vulnerable to error.
Of course there is the theory that FIFA likes it to be capricious because it’s easier for corrupt officials to fix the outcome of games that way. (That there’s match-fixing in soccer is certain; that FIFA likes it that way is speculation.) For whatever reason, the referees and their reasons dominated the talk about a weekend that was otherwise more notable for the fact that all the games went just as you would expect based on the various teams’ first-round form. The fact that England, for example, were most pundits’ favorite before Sunday despite three poor performances, as opposed to Germany’s three good ones, just shows you that most pundits need to pay more attention.
There have been a few tentative attempts by analysts to suggest that in the last few days, despite the sportsmanship not reaching to the levels of my fantasies, we have seen Beautiful Football in the ascendant, with beauty largely residing in the Spanish-speaking world. It’s true that as of Monday, only two Hispanophone teams are among the 20 who have been eliminated from the World Cup, and both Honduras and Mexico were knocked out by other teams speaking the same language. And it’s also true that the Spanish-speaking teams have been playing some of the most interesting, intricate attacking football.
On the other hand, Chile remained in the tournament last Friday partly thanks to the solidarity of Spain, who, despite being dominant, essentially stopped playing for the last half-hour to ensure that the scoreline would put both teams through. (Brazil and Portugal did something similar in their game.) The first hour of that Spain-Chile game did provide a possible answer to my burning question about Chile’s fascinating structure and tactics: how can they possibly put so many players in attacking positions and still be able to defend? The answer: they probably can’t, at least against a very good team. But like Mexico against Argentina, it was nice to see them try.
On an Irish TV panel last week, former Argentine great Ossie Ardiles described the love that is at the root of football, in its Beautiful Game form. “The ball was my lover,” he said. “I went to bed with it — it was everything.” Eduardo Galeano makes much in his writing about Spanish-speaking South America’s preferred feminine noun for ‘ball’, pelota, and the way players there make love to the orb as they play with it. So, have the ball-lovers been winning in this World Cup, as opposed to the defensive tacticians and technocrats? Maybe. So far, so good anyway — with the big losses for Italy and England (with their Italian coach) being the major marks on the debit side of the ledger for the game’s dismal scientists.
Even Saturday’s defeat of the more likable USA team can be scored as good news for ball-lovers. Ghana, though very cautious tactically, score two beautiful goals of great individual skill; the fact that Kevin-Prince Boateng, at the World Cup a solid, skillful holding midfielder, is considered too much of a ‘fancy’ flair player where he plays his club football in England tells you all-too-much about the misguided, ball-hating emphasis of English football. But it’s ‘Coach Bob’ Bradley and his insistence on talking about a soccer match in terms borrowed from chalkboard-and-laptop-dominated American sports — “we made some good plays” etc — that would really make one glad to see the Yanks’ progress halted.
Then on the credit side for the lovers we have the continuing progress of a very attractive German team — who have shown they can effectively mix possession and quick counter-attack — and of Argentina. The latter, with the world’s best player in Lionel Messi and most adorable coach in Diego Maradona, weren’t great against Mexico on Sunday after the officials ruined the game; plus injuries have seen them tinker with an already-worrying defence and play a set of midfielders who haven’t given Messi the support he likes. But on their day they can be as beautiful as it gets — most of us will be hoping next Saturday against Germany is such a day.
But is there another duality, or dialectic, that offers an explanation for the winners and losers of this World Cup, something more solid than a Beauty vs. Technocracy grudge-match, or Hispanic vs. The Rest? How about Youth vs Age? Ghana, as has been frequently noted, are the youngest team in the tournament; Germany are just a few months older than the Ghanaians on average, with Spain and Chile in close attendance, so maybe there is something in that. But maybe not: Holland, Portugal, Japan, Paraguay and Brazil are all still in it as I write, and all near the top of the tournament age-table. In any case, it is not really credible to assert that there is significant physical advantage in being 25 rather than 27, at least not an advantage that can’t be offset, in theory, by the benefits of experience.
Is there something else that might underlie performances, and the lack of them, at this World Cup? How about a partly-material explanation, one we might call ‘hunger’, or ‘something to prove’? I wrote last week about how the global-football industry pummels its player-workers, and the peripheral place that international games, even in the World Cup, hold for players whose primary contractual obligations are to their clubs. It seems to me — and this is worth a thorough analysis historically and at the end of the tournament — that there is a reasonable, albeit imperfect, correlation between under-performing at this World Cup and already being securely in place on a big contract at a top club in a major European league, especially the big three leagues for player salaries, in Spain, England and Italy. Conversely, the teams that have exceeded expectations are those that are full of players who would presumably love to get a transfer to a top club in a major European league, and who are putting themselves in the shop window at the World Cup.
It’s not a perfect equation. The very top English and Italian clubs, for example, rely heavily on foreign talent, so the under-performing national squads of British and Italian citizens both feature some players who play outside the traditional club elite, and might like a move up. But such players can prove themselves worthy of such a move in a weekly ‘shop window’ in their domestic leagues: they don’t need to prove it in the World Cup. And they sure didn’t. Meanwhile, the top striker at England’s most famous club, Wayne Rooney of Manchester United, was the World Cup’s top disappointment.
The miserable French squad, with all its problems, featured 10 players from top English and Spanish clubs. The young and hungry German squad, by contrast, features no one at all who plays his club football outside Germany, though that is certain to change before the end of the summer. Uruguay’s players are scattered around South America and Europe — but the nearest any of last Saturday’s starting 11 comes to a top club is veteran forward Diego Forlan at perennial Spanish also-ran Atlético Madrid. On Ghanaian websites, fans openly speculate that their team’s penchant for long-range shooting is a function of players trying to burnish their highlights videos for self-marketing purposes; unlike the star-studded, and duly disappointing, Ivory Coast team, none of Ghana’s starting 11 is at a top club.
Diego Maradona, while obviously enjoying some leading Europe-based players, especially in attack, notoriously left a couple of Inter Milan’s best off the plane to South Africa, choosing a surprising number of South American-clubbed players for Argentina’s squad. Even Brazil, once you get past that elite defense, boast a midfield and strikeforce who by and large don’t play at the most famous European clubs — one exception, Kaká, has plenty to prove, and may want to move, after a rather poor season at Real Madrid. Chile and Paraguay’s footballers are far from the game’s top table, which groans invitingly with cash and sponsorship, and which can be seen clearly from South Africa. Over-achieving Japan are at a nadir in the country’s recent history in terms of players on big money and high visibility in Europe: the best they can manage at the moment are players in Moscow, Wolfsburg and Gelsenkirchen. Again, this World Cup provides the best opportunity for players to change that situation.
Of the teams still standing and fighting in this World Cup as of early Monday, only Spain’s, and to a considerably lesser extent Holland’s, are chock-full of players who have reason to feel complacent about their current club positions, and the money and status that go with them. I think both these teams still have something to prove about their commitment to winning this tournament.
Of course, even if the correlation I’m suggesting is largely correct, that doesn’t mean that the key explanatory distinction is Complacent vs. Hungry, or Very Rich vs Wanna-Be-Very-Rich. It could be that playing for Chelsea or Liverpool or Juventus or AC Milan or Real Madrid or Barcelona — fighting for multiple domestic honors and playing lots of midweek games in major European competitions — is just that much more draining than playing for other teams, and that players from those clubs have too little left in the tank this month. It could also be that the managements at those clubs make it clear that a player who comes home wrecked from international duty could lose his place in the team. It is remarkable, for example, how few Manchester United players, given their obvious quality, have had international careers of sustained distinction.
Nonetheless, I think there is something to be said for relating the best World Cup performances to the psychology of ambition. As much as we like to think of this tournament as sui generis, that ambition may not be all about the glory of winning the World Cup, but about achieving permanent levels of material comfort and security for oneself and one’s family beyond a poor boy’s wildest dreams.
HARRY BROWNE lectures in the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology and is author of CounterPunch’s Hammered by the Irish. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org