So far in the World Cup, it’s Donald Rumsfeld 1 Pele 0. The former Defense Secretary’s sneering dismissal of Old Europe seems, in this realm anyway, prophetic, as anciens regimes slink home to the continent in disgrace; while Pele’s famous pronouncement that an African team will win the World Cup by the year 2000 seems unlikely to come true before 2014 at the earliest.
It’s been a strange cup so far because there’s only been one good game: Italy-Slovakia, which only really took off in the barnstorming last ten minutes. There have been exciting moments, Landon Donovan scoring against Algeria most clearly. (Though if you want proof of the World Cup’s triumph over the historical anti–soccer American bias, look no further than the mayhem that greeted the desperate injury time winner; it’s Algeria, man, seriously.) There was also South Africa going two nil up against France, Messi against the entire Nigerian defense, and perhaps most memorably of all Patrice Evra against Robert Duverne. But it’s hard to remember a whole game, and there has been nothing so far that compares to either of the semi finals from four years ago; Italy v Germany or France v Brazil. (There is also the France-Brazil from 1986 that is, I think, the single best soccer match I have ever seen.)
There have been surprises in all directions. New Zealand got the greatest result in their history twice, drawing against Slovakia and then again against Italy. By the third game, they must have felt they were getting into a rut, so they lost to Paraguay. North Korea had an incredible first half against Brazil and an even more incredible collapse against Portugal. Japan seems to have become rather good, while France, Italy, Denmark, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast all seem to have lost their mojo. By the third game though, it would have been a brave man who bet against Spain, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, the U.S. .and England all making it through to the next round, in a couple of cases with the help of what seemed like collusion, most notably in the second half of the Spain Chile game yesterday afternoon.
Now though, all of that has been set aside. As the ESPN commentators like to portentously announce, “It’s win or go home.” The novelty value is gone and the tournament begins to take on an identity.
It seems that the idiosyncrasies of the Jalubani have been mastered, finally, and the good players are starting to find their form. Van Persie scored his first goal for Holland, Kaka will have had a rest, Messi is Messi, David Villa only seems to score beautiful goals and Rooney surely cannot play any worse. As an added bonus, Cristiano Ronaldo might continue to have a terrible World Cup. The camera caught him yesterday admiring himself on the big screen before taking a useless free kick.
All right-thinking fans should hope that other refs may follow the example of Benito Archundia, the Mexican referee who booked a player for diving in the Brazil Portugal match today. There has been far too much flinging yourself to the ground and clutching your face in an attempt to get an opponent sent off. (Really, Fernando Torres, we thought you were better than that.) It may not be in the FIFA rules but a single straight red card for diving would be a large step in the right direction.
If the quality and the dignity of play both blossom in the knockout stages, we could have ourselves a very interesting couple of weeks. And that’s before even considering all the possibilities the draw offers for some really bad tempered displays of national fervor, both on and off the field.
The draw has thrown up a few real revenge doozies. The obvious one is England-Germany. Germany has a habit of shrugging England aside during knock out games and then adding insult to injury by insisting that their historic rivalry is with the Dutch. England endlessly insists that Germany beating them at football somehow validates the firebombing of Dresden. If England manages to get past Germany, they will mostly likely face Argentina—confronting another footballing injustice and invoking another display of British military might. Assuming, that is, that Argentina gets past Mexico, who will be looking for revenge for being knocked out in 2006.
Speaking of getting knocked out in 2006, there’s the U.S. against Ghana.
Spain will play Portugal, looking for Iberian bragging rights, and then, in a Conquistador twist, the Brazilians (oppressed by the Portuguese) play Chile (oppressed by the Spanish).
If all this is not enough, the terrible beauty that is the penalty shoot out awaits. Someone is going to fail. Tragically. And publicly. This alone makes the knockout stages essential viewing.