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Oh, that Italy-Uruguay game was one for the old-timers and the purists.
No, really. None of your goalfests, to hell with your flair. Football, says a significant school of thought, is a game of endurance and attrition, and if it’s being played properly, no one should ever score. Traditionally, no two countries typify just how hard, cynically and unplayfully the ‘game’ can be played than these two, Uruguay and Italy.
When he coached AC Milan, Arrigo Sacchi had a famous training routine that pitted ten attackers against five defenders, including the goalkeeper, for 20 minutes at a time. The attackers could never score. (Sacchi did have quite possibly the best back-four ever assembled.) And he was regarded, by Italian standards, as a crazed, goal-loving manager: still, he needed to remind those attackers where they truly stood in the hierarchy of calcio.
And so it went on Tuesday, a real 20th-century match-up. Sure, Italy’s Marchisio got sent off for a foul that 25 years ago would have been regarded as a midfielder exercising his prerogative to clear a little space for himself. That red card no doubt shook things up a bit. But still, it was a game calculated to drive a 21st-century striker crazy.
And so it did. Two 21st-century strikers in fact. In other circumstances the story of Italy vs Uruguay would be the madness of Mario Balotelli, an outrageously talented player for whom the clock is ticking past the excuse that he is ‘young’. He earned his yellow card with impressive athleticism, no doubt about that, but such was his petulance that it was impossible to imagine him making any contribution to the second half other than collecting another one. Cesare Prandelli capitulated to the obvious and substituted him at halftime.
That left just the one temperamentally suspect striker on the field, and the rest is history.
Luis Suarez, not long ago a poor boy from a broken family in Montevideo, is not entirely well, mentally speaking. Let’s leave it at that, because dimestore psychology is sometimes entertaining but ultimately almost as exasperating as the demonising of a guy who is, sure, a serial offender — but whose offence, while odd, is virtually harmless and ineffective compared to half-dozen others you could name, whether for gaining advantage or hurting an opponent.
If, by some act of the randomness gods, Suarez’s overbite actually contributed to the defeat of Italy, it still needs to get in line behind the weather, the red card, Prandelli’s tinkering with the line-up, Pirlo’s age, and the injuries that kept Riccardo Montolivo and Giuseppe Rossi out of the World Cup squad.
And the suspension FIFA has handed Suarez, combined with the perception that he’s nuts, probably means his move to one of the big Spanish clubs is at least temporarily derailed. You don’t have to cry for him financially — the fine imposed for the bite is roughly 30 hours’ salary — to know that he has brought himself more pain than he has inflicted.
I have no special brief for Luis Suarez. His goal-blocking handball in 2010 not only kept Ghana out of the semi-final but cost me a bet. If you read the English FA’s incredibly thorough investigation of the charge that Suarez racially abused Patrice Evra, the Uruguayan’s immaturity and cluelessness (I’m being polite) are obvious. But when a Counterpunch editor sent me a story recounting how my beloved Bruce Springsteen, never previously known for his interest in soccer, had tried to make light onstage banter about the incident, my instinctive reaction was: “Bite me, Bruce.”
If you really want to revel in the misfortunes of a superstar, there is a much more obvious candidate. I’m writing this article around the corner from Honved’s stadium and Puskas’s grave on the outskirts of Budapest, a football city where even the hipster bars have big screens for the World Cup and the intellectual bookshops have tomes about Messi in the window. The people of Hungary haven’t seen their team in the tournament for decades (though the 1954 side should have won it), but they speak football’s universal language: laughing at Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo is a player whose greatness tends to earn only grudging admiration, courtesy of his diving, his whining, his preening, take your choice. What really gets the juices flowing are his failings.
Portugal vs Ghana was most notable for confirming the diagnosis that Jurgen Klinsmann is a very lucky manager: while Team USA were failing to get the draw they needed against an unmotivated Germany, Ghana were presenting gifts to Portugal to deny themselves the win that would have eliminated the Yanks — first an own goal, then a piece of goalkeeping that would see an under-13 player benched. For Ronaldo’s only goal of the tournament to have come from a opposition-goalkeeper’s gentle pass to him was humiliation enough (he didn’t smile, let alone celebrate); but that late goal saw Ghana’s morale collapse and Ronaldo was presented with three, count ‘em, golden opportunities to bring Portugal back from the brink. He spurned them all, to agonising effect. Oh how Budapest laughed.
So the USA stumble forward, their new fans back home sweetly unaware of how outclassed they should be by each succeeding rival, their players bravely in denial about it. And now the Ghana players, having wisely taken what a Counterpunch Ed. calls the Chuck Berry approach to getting paid, must quickly figure out a way to get past customs with all that cash.
The tournament rolls on regardless, down a couple of sullen and sullied geniuses. We are left in the purer realm of the likes of Messi, just hit with a €33 million bill for avoided taxes; and of Neymar, whose transfer last summer from Santos to Barcelona makes Enron look like a model of financial transparency. After the first two weeks of this World Cup, the only real surprise will be if they don’t have some surprises in store for us.
Harry Browne is writing for Counterpunch throughout the World Cup. He lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter@harrybrowne