What kind of quarter-finals did the World Cup deliver on Friday and Saturday? Some index of their breathtaking drama and shock value can be gathered from the fact that though the favorites, the great footballers of Brazil, gruesomely self-destructed before our eyes on Friday, the world had two even bigger talking points by Saturday evening: 24 years after Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ at the same stage of the tournament, we had the hand of Suarez, and the death of God.
Now that we’re breathing steadily again and waiting to see what the semifinals will bring, we can look back at these four extraordinary games of soccer and see what lessons they could possibly teach us, of relevance to our political life as well as to the living politics that is the game of football. I reckon there’s one for each game.
1. We live in a world of contingency, not certainty — so leave the predictions to Madame Marie.
I don’t know reliably how many of Brazil’s elite footballers regularly peruse CounterPunch, where they could have read last week about their own “likely” World Cup triumph, along with the imminent demise of national teams from Europe in the face of South America’s huge advantages. They could have seen similar forecasts in publications from every corner of the globe. Maybe at some level the players believed they could see into that certain future, that their hands were already on the trophy. Then in one absurd moment, when the wobbling flight of that bloody Adidas Jabulani combined with a noisy stadium combined with god-knows-what caused Felipe Melo to glance a Dutch cross into his own net, Brazil saw their crystal ball shattered. They spent the next 40 minutes chasing aimlessly around the pitch looking for the pieces. That ridiculous goal had merely leveled the scores at 1-1, but from that moment the Netherlands were the only team who looked like they would go on to win. It turned out Brazil were like the Harlem Globetrotters in a way I didn’t intend when I made the comparison last week: they were like a show team, and when presented with real adversity — especially adversity that was partly self-inflicted — they collapsed completely, victims of their own certainty.
But for all the certainty of this post-facto diagnosis of Brazilian ills and sins, the collapse might very easily not have happened; they might still be sailing coolly toward the cup on the strength of a first half against the Netherlands that featured their best football of the tournament and might have yielded more goals. Felipe Melo was, it’s true, voted worst player in the Italian league by fans, but he had been a solid defensive midfielder for Brazil, and had set up their first-half goal. He might not even have been on the field Friday: he had missed the previous games with injury, and his equally solid, more creative young replacement Ramires was suspended for the Dutch game only because he pointlessly picked up a yellow card in the game against Chile — in retrospect, a decisive moment for Brazil, but one that could equally have proven meaningless, if a couple of weird moments hadn’t turned Melo into the villian of Brazil’s dramatic final act.
Football, like life, is not a lottery. Things happen for reasons. But we should be wary of believing we know just what those reasons are, or assuming that they’ll go on causing exactly the same things.
With that caveat in mind, I suggest another important reason for the things that have happened at this World Cup — a reason that relates those events to structures of football play and power outside the bubble of the tournament. The ‘big teams’ that have defied the narrative of chaos and collapse are those with a key group of players through various parts of the team who play together at successful clubs all year ‘round. Spain have Barcelona players in central defense and midfield. Their one goal on Saturday came from a move that saw Barcelona’s Xavi touch the ball to Barcelona’s Iniesta, who squared it for Barcelona’s Pedro. His shot hit the post, but luckily new Barcelona signing David Villa was there to knock it in. Germany can move the ball from Bayern Munich’s Lahm to Schweinsteiger to Mueller to Klose. Even the more scattered Dutch team can crucially link Van Bommel and Robben, two more Bayern boys. By contrast, England and France — beset, to be sure, by a host of troubles — had no such ‘spine’; Italy had several Juventus players, but they were presumably sick of each other after a terrible Italian league season (in the company of their clubmate Felipe Melo).
Which brings us to Argentina, whose manager Diego Maradona spurned key players from Italian and European champions Inter Milan, leaving his team with no clubmates on the field, and illustrating our next lesson….
2. Ideology is useless without a plan.
Or, as Marx suggested, the point is not simply to interpret the world, but to change it. Maradona offered us a beautiful ideology, all about rejecting football’s technocrats and defensive tacticians and releasing its artistic heritage of individual and collective expression. But it turned out his Argentina team had only the feeblest notion of how to turn their good intentions into reality. I wrote last week that “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”. It turned out I was giving Maradona too much credit. Against Germany, with reports saying that those injuries had cleared up for Walter Samuel, easily the best Argentine defender and a lynchpin of that great Inter team, and Juan Veron, who was clearly Lionel Messi’s favored passing partner when he played early in the tournament, Maradona persisted with weaker players, in a line-up that was superficially attacking but lacked coherence in midfield. The result: Messi kept trying to provide the coherence single-handedly, which meant he was not in the positions where he could pose real danger to the German defense.
With the Brazilians, you could say the team’s structure fell apart in adversity, along with their discipline and self-belief. Argentina, however, actually kept their discipline, and kept plugging away — Messi never shirked, and the sight of him still attacking at 4-0 behind in the 92nd minute underlined his greatness. What they lacked from the start of the game was a structure. And it appears this happened because Maradona was unwillingly to change what he regarded as a winning side, even though the problems in what evolved as the team’s line-up had been evident for three games against weak opposition. It is incredible to think that four of the Inter Milan starting 11 that won the European Champions League were Argentine, and that none of them figured when it came to the crunch against Germany — two were left off the plane entirely, two were on the bench. It appears that Maradona’s determination not to win ‘the Italian way’ — Dunga’s Brazil had been accused of being excessively, cautiously Italian-like — led him to wilful ignorance.
So after a spate of stories suggesting he was ‘crazy like a fox’, Maradona showed he was simply crazy. Beautiful, but crazy. And maybe, too, the victim of a little karma: when young Thomas Mueller turned up at a post-match press conference after Argentina and Germany met in a friendly game in March, Maradona said he looked like a ballboy and stormed off, refusing to share the stage with a mere lad. Now Mueller, one of the top players of this World Cup, has played a key role in ending Maradona’s beautiful dream, one that proved to have all the depth and careful consideration of a Che Guevara t-shirt.
3. Cheaters sometimes win.
There wasn’t much in the Uruguay vs Ghana game to suggest that it was going to become one of the most memorable in the history of the World Cup. But then, with the final whistle only moments away, Ghana attacked, and Uruguay striker Luis Suarez, having retreated to the goal line, reached up a hand and beat away the dreams of a continent and of hundreds of millions of people watching around the world who were aching to see an African team in the semifinal for the first time. (Including me: before the tournament I had bet on Ghana at 10 to 1 to reach the semis.) Sure, Suarez was ejected from the game (it was over anyway) and is suspended for the next one, but it seemed there could be no punishment strong enough for such a raw and brutal piece of foul conduct. Instead, the heaviest punishment landed on the shoulders of the innocent Asamoah Gyan, forced to pick up those dreams all over again and somehow carry them, now leaden with the weight of the world’s expectations, to the penalty spot. Alas, having felt that weight, he overcompensated, making them rise incredibly fast but inches too high.
For the fifth straight match Gyan had laboured in exhausting isolation, as Ghana’s Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac ordered his midfielders to keep their distance. Only in those dying minutes against Uruguay had Gyan found himself surrounded by attacking teammates, whether under the coach’s orders or in defiance of them. After he missed that over-freighted penalty, Gyan showed why he remains one of the heroes of this World Cup by cleanly dispatching his shootout penalty kick, even as some of those teammates, men you would have expected to step up, were clearly too emotionally shattered even to try.
Justice was not done. Justice was undone. And football people look at the hysterical upset of the every-four-years followers of the game and they shrug their shoulders and say “So what?”. Soccer is just another institution, they tell us, from years of bitter experience. Of course it has rules — but who ever said anything about ‘fair’?
And for Uruguay, Suarez is a hero, who took one for the team.
4. Hard work doesn’t always pay off.
Sometimes just one brilliantly decisive intervention can trump dedicated effort. Look at Paraguay the other night: sure, they had an amazing dream, of two South American teams in the semis, unfancied ‘guays’ rather than Argentina and Brazil; and sure, they had a plan, to defend tightly and narrowly and attack quickly on the break; but what they had most of all was a level of tireless effort you’ll rarely see on a soccer field, to reach every pass, to fill every space, to block every Spanish move.
Spain looked inferior to them in this and most other respects. Then, as the game wound toward its conclusion, the young Catalan Cesc Fabregas passed the ball in midfield simply toward his fellow Catalan Xavi Hernandez. The marauding Paraguayans expected, having seen him do it a million times before, that Xavi would control the pass and continue a patient game of two-touch tiki-taka (tippy-tappy) to probe for an opening. Instead, incomparable genius that he is, Xavi moved toward the center circle but flicked the approaching ball behind him toward his club mate Iniesta. Suddenly there was space. Iniesta shrugged off two Paraguayans who rushed to fill it as he charged forward, then with the ball he found the further space this had created and into which Pedro charged to shoot.
Spain had seemed to play inadequately, without sufficient effort. In reality, they were waiting for a moment when they could reduce all Paraguay’s doggedness to the misery of a quarterfinal also-ran. They found that moment, and filled it perfectly.
Like, I suspect, most of the people watching around the world, I was cheering for the losing team in all four of these games, so these lessons were hard to take. But there was something to relish, too, in the fact that this beautiful game, this overblown tournament, this universal carnival of cosmopolitanism, could also be such a cruel and clear teacher.
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