It seems like every conceivable shade of human skin is represented among the players of the World Cup. And it’s not just because there are 32 countries in the tournament. Most teams contain in their ranks a mix of European, African and other (e,g, indigenous American and Australian) backgrounds. It’s probably just a coincidence that the list of games between quite ethnically homogenous teams — the likes of Greece vs Japan, Russia vs South Korea and Iran vs Nigeria — overlaps so strongly with the list of worst games in the competition. Most of the European national squads are far more multiracial than the countries they represent, making a mockery of — but certainly not stemming — the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment on the continent.
When non-European teams use Europe-born players some commentators almost seem to suggest they’re cheating. Certainly that’s the tone of some French pundits who repeatedly remind us, now that Algeria is playing so well, that the starting 11 against South Korea contained eight players born in France.
Football’s fatuous celebration of diversity has long since been exposed as skin deep, at best. But the historical stories that diversity tells are still worth hearing: mostly stories of colonisation, enslavement, exploitation, expropriation, violence and refuge (and that’s just Algeria). When John Brooks rose to head the USA to victory against Ghana, then sunk to the ground in such sweet disbelief, we added another story — the late 20th-century imperialism that saw his GI father stationed in Europe, where young John grew up playing soccer at a level he would probably never have reached in Chicago. Jermaine Jones, scorer of a wonderful goal against Portugal, embodies a similar story.
My own favourite image of on-field diversity and unity from the first 10 days of the World Cup is of the two goal-scorers who came on as substitutes and saved much-fancied Belgium from ignominious defeat against dogged Algeria. Not only is Dries Mertens Flemish while Marouane Fellaini’s parents are Moroccan, but Fellaini has a good foot in height on Mertens when you count his afro. Soccer remains a game that finds space for various sorts of bodies, even at the highest level of the game.
Brazil makes an attractive virtue of its ethnic ‘impurity’, the sheer dazzling range of its bodies, though like most of the mestizo Latin American countries it does so at the expense of honesty about the depth and persistence of its racism. In the football stadia it has attempted to harness nationalism, and to recreate the patriotic fervour that accompanied last year’s protests: when the FIFA-sanctioned one-verse national anthem is finished, the players and fans carry on a cappella and with great emotion to sing another verse. Last week, before they played Mexico, the rendition moved Neymar to tears. Then the team’s performance in the match moved the whole country to tears.
Brazil were a bit better against Cameroon, the worst team in the competition, who played like a throwback to the leggy, wide-open African teams that used to stumble out of World Cups before 1990. But apart from the playful, deadly genius of Neymar, Brazil have not impressed, not compared to, say, France or the Netherlands.
The pundits who have thus proceeded to write off the hosts’ prospects of winning the World Cup are premature. It’s a question of timing. Jurgen Klinsmann’s oft-repeated motivational palaver about the game against Ghana being the USA’s World Cup final was correct: the US are not going to be playing any other ‘final’; success for them in the competition means getting past the group stage; looking at the tournament in advance, it appeared the only way that could happen was with 3 points against Ghana, and then squeezing another point or two from the last two games and hoping other results would go their way.
Brazil, on the other hand, have only one final that matters, on July 13: failure to reach it would constitute catastrophic failure. They have to pace themselves, play it safe, avoid losing. Croatia and Mexico are not likely winners of the cup, but they’re very good teams, of quarterfinal quality roughly, and getting 4 points out of them was a good result. (Monday’s match between those two teams was rivetting, with Mexico building to explosive life in the final quarter, and they need not fear the Dutch.) Of course Brazil need to play better, otherwise ugly failure beckons in the next round; but it’s probably a mistake to think they can’t do that, especially with a change or two — such as Fernandinho keeping the midfield slot he filled in the second half against Cameroon.
Klinsmann is getting mostly good press these days, especially now that the USA have shown they can score without Landon Donovan. But the game against a poor Portugal was a great, crazy stramash, a hectic, eyecatching shemozzle, and Klinsmann shares the blame for the fact that it stayed that way into the 95th minute. After some US time-wasting to protect their lead, Portugal had a throw-in very deep in their own half: suddenly there was a TV shot of Klinsmann shouting and signalling to his players to stay forward and press Portugal. Risky? You bet: the tactic might have prevented Portugal from getting the ball up the field, but if it failed to do so, the USA would be short of players positioned to defend. Sure enough, within a few seconds we saw the strange spectacle of half the US team running back chasing the Portuguese, as though caught by a counterattack — an absurd position for a team defending a one-goal lead in the final minute to find themselves in.
Spain and Uruguay’s shared need for a shake-up were discussed here in the last article. Spain’s two line-up changes for their second game, against Chile, were not enough. Uruguay made five, but really only needed the one: goalscoring genius Luis Suarez, seemingly recovered from injury, and now immortalised in pizza. Suarez is hard to like: the handball in 2010, the biting, the incident of apparent racism. But with his enthusiasm and raw emotionality, he is, somehow, hard to hate too — at least by Irish people when he’s beating England.
England’s own youth and aggression made them much more likeable than usual this time around, but they were undone by square pegs in round holes. Manager Roy Hodgson believed the hype that said Steven Gerrard, who seemingly no longer has the legs to play just behind the forwards, could be transformed into a more deep-lying midfielder, protecting the defence and spraying the ball around like Andrea Pirlo. it’s a myth that cost Liverpool the English championship in May, and has now seen England out of the World Cup in June.
Chile are very easy to like. Tactically they are the younger cousins of the great Spanish team, with a shared emphasis on diminutive players who are great at passing, but Chile’s game is faster, wider, more vertical: sideways passes are relatively rare and there is always a handful of players ahead of the ball. Against Holland, though, Chile were tied in knots by a densely arrayed Dutch defence, and didn’t look like they quite believed they wanted to win to avoid Brazil in the next round.
The stylistic relation between some of the successful teams here and the late, great Spanish side is too distant for us to do anything but lament the decline of Spain and their previously influential midfielder, Xavi Hernandez. As Chavez bestrode Latin American politics, so did wee Xavi dominate world football. Xavismo reached its most glorious heights not for Spain for for the club side Barcelona, where Xavi’s touch, vision, rhythm and passing accuracy seemed to redefine football. Spain under his direction sometimes seemed a bit more sterile, but two European championships and one World Cup underline the power of Xavismo for the national team (though not the team of what Xavi sees as his true nation, Catalonia). Although Lionel Messi has already scored two beautiful, important goals at this World Cup, he mostly looks a shadow of the player who has provided the sharpest of all possible blades for Xavi’s beautifully crafted Barca knife. With 34-year-old Xavi wandering off to play his remaining club football in Qatar, of all places, you can’t help fearing that not only will we never see his irresistible greatness again, but we may never quite see Messi’s either.
All things must pass. As Barney Ronan wrote in the Guardian, this month Spain have been familiar-looking but lacking in precision: “Which is a bit like saying Usain Bolt looked OK, just a bit slow.” In retrospect, Xavismo really died in the semifinal of the European Champions League in May 2013, when Barcelona suddenly, all at once, were made to look small by Bayern Munich, who beat them 7-0 over two games. We hoped in vain for a brief resurrection at this World Cup, but it was not to be. Incredibly, the last Spain game with Xavi in the squad was yesterday’s meaningless one against Australia, hard to even find on TV, and the fallen genius was consigned to the bench, allegedly injured. In the absence of resurrection, we’ll have to wait instead for new glories to be born.
The game between Colombia — with its young maestro James Rodriguez, a potential future Xavi — and Ivory Coast may well have constituted the best, and best-matched, collection of players across both teams that we’ve seen so far in the competition, at least until Germany vs Ghana came along. Both these games had a lot in common: though short of goal-mouth action in the first-half, each was a feast for the football mind. (And in Sully Muntari Ghana appears to have a player with a common touch.) Colombia deserved their 2-1 win, and strengthened their reputation as the most fun team in the World Cup: not only do the multicoloured players have the best synchronised dance moves when celebrating a goal, but they also tried a trick corner kick routine straight off the playground. Sadly that game’s stodgy English referees were having none of it.
Fun? We shouldn’t overstate its place in the game. One of the more tragicomic interviews of the last week was the one in which Cristiano Ronaldo admitted that his fitness was merely 100%, not his more usual 110%. But added that he could not remember since childhood ever playing a game when he was not in pain. He certainly looked pained against the USA, though mostly at the inadequacy of his teammates, and in the final quarter-hour he took the tired option of waiting around the penalty area for a cross he could head home. However, in the end he found the capacity for one last run on the ball, and one last cross that he would give rather than receive, to brilliant effect.
The sport, and the specific conditions in some of the venues in Brazil, make terrible demands on players’ bodies and minds. The sight of Uruguay’s Alvaro Pereira suffering what looked like a concussion against England, then successfully demanding to be allowed back on the pitch, was more disturbing than inspiring. Some of my favourite moments in matches have seen players with cramp being helped to stretch their legs back to usability by their opponents: the brotherhood of fellow sufferers for the sake of the spectacle. But by god, it’s some spectacle the brothers are giving us.
Harry Browne is writing for Counterpunch throughout the World Cup. He lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author ofThe Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter@harrybrowne