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Schadenfreude

July 14, 2014 | by

Gotze

Götze kicks the match-winning goal. Photo: Danilo Borges/Portal da Copa, via Wikimedia Commons

How apt that the Brazilians are living off Schadenfreude: after the debacle against Germany and a little extra humiliation from Holland, all Brazil’s fans seemed to want was for Germany to prevent Argentina from victory dancing on the beach at Copacabana. Believe me, I get it. As a lifelong supporter of Tottenham Hotspur FC in the English Premier League, much of my soccer pleasure in the last half-century, sadly, has derived only from misfortunes experienced by Arsenal FC, Tottenham’s arch rivals. In the years 1960–1962, Tottenham was clearly the superior team—since then, not so much. Like Brazil and Argentina, the two clubs are neighbors, and Arsenal, like Brazil, has the larger fan base and more money.

But I want to tell you, Brazilians: Schadenfreude (yours and mine) is unhealthy. It mocks the meat it feeds on. Brazil (population two hundred million) is in a much better position that Argentina (population forty-one million) to do something to transform its lackluster team into world-beaters. They need look no further than Germany, where, over a twenty-year period, an entire system from youth soccer up was revamped in the wake of defeat and disappointment to produce the superior team that yesterday won the World Cup in style: a triumph that not a soul would deny they deserved. Is this why the U.S. keeps spying on Deutschland? Looking for the blueprint that will take us to number one? Or are we simply after Angela Merkel’s recipe for Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte?

The sun set behind Christ the Redeemer, and then Argentina went down, too. Lionel Messi won the Golden Ball for best player in the tournament (not that he cared), but it could just as easily have gone to Arjen Robben or Bastian Schweinsteiger or Javier Mascherano. After two overtime games in five days, Messi looked, at times, as if he were walking through treacle. When, as the final minutes ticked away, he stepped up to take his last do-or-die free kick, he was already a forlorn figure; that ball was going wide, or over the bar, and everyone in the Maracanã knew it. Messi’s problem? He was too much on his own, dropping ever deeper, as if a retreat into the shadows of his own half would conjure a Di María to run back up the field with him. In his most successful years, Pelé was surrounded by players of great genius—Garrincha, Tostão, Jairzinho, and Rivelino—individuals with talents that didn’t quite match the master’s, but enabled them to provide stellar support. While Mascherano was a beast in the Argentine defense, Messi had no one quite at the level required for his game to shine at its brightest. He’ll have to return to Barcelona for that.

Of course, there’s always the feeling that he should have been able to do it on his own—a feat Maradona is believed to have accomplished in World Cup 1986, when he scored or assisted on ten of Argentina’s fourteen goals. But, even with the great Lothar Matthäus on board, the West Germany that Argentina beat in that final was not at the same level as Germany 2014, the first team to win a major international championship since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Where Germany is concerned, everyone reaches for the engineering metaphors—it’s knee-jerk—and, this time around, it doesn’t apply. Okay, Germany is well coached: Is this why Ian Darke, the English ESPN/ABC commentator, described Jogi Löw as resembling a Bond villain? Baffling. The team played with a smoothness not like that of a well-oiled machine, but more like that of the movements of choreographed dancers. It looked like art out there, not industry. Certainly Mario Götze’s lovely goal from André Schürrle’s cross was full of grace: one swift movement, chest to foot to back of net. Götze’s father is a professor of computer science at Dortmund University. His son’s goal may be the best thing that has happened to academia this century.

I’ve watched fourteen World Cups, and 2014 is the best I can remember since 1970, bites and all. And now we move on to Putin-land, where Russia (population 146 million) will take on their greatest rivals, the eleven courageous young women of Pussy Riot.

Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is the author of eight books, including Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. He lives in Massachusetts.

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Let’s Get Metaphysical

July 10, 2014 | by

Argentina vs. the Netherlands, 1978: Mario Kempes of Argentina celebrates a goal.

Argentina and the Netherlands played yesterday’s second semifinal. That’s as much as should be said about the match, which forced us to appreciate what this World Cup has been, while remembering what it could have been. Throughout 120 minutes of football, there was first, last, and above all an air of safety that had been refreshingly absent from most of the games thus far—and with that absence came gifts of goals and good play. But yesterday, there was so much at stake: safe passage to a World Cup final. Since both teams are middling, professional, and graced by the presence of once-in-a-lifetime, left-footed talents, they took no risks—no playing the ball patiently through the midfield, no attempts at a tactical surprise. It was a game of chicken, and a penalty kick shoot-out was the inevitable collision.

Or: Argentina and the Netherlands played yesterday’s second semifinal. That’s as much as should be said about the match, which forced us to rue what this World Cup could have been, and to remember it exactly as it was. Throughout 120 minutes of football, there was an air of danger in every movement that put to the sword the careless attacking and defending we’ve seen in all the games thus far—we’ve suffered own gifted goals and poor play for it. But yesterday, there was so much at stake: safe passage to a World Cup final. Since both teams are fairly stout and battle-tested—graced by the presence of not only once-in-a-lifetime, left-footed talents, but a host of other complimentary stars—they went forward intelligently instead of rashly. They avoided over-elaborating in the middle of the pitch and followed their tactical plans to the letter. It was as though the game was played in a labyrinth, and a penalty kick shoot-out was the inevitable way out.

Football games between sides with history between them seem to exist in a multiverse—everything that has happened between them happens here simultaneously. All outcomes exist at once. Hence, Argentina versus the Netherlands in the São Paulo of 2014 is Argentina versus the Netherlands in the Marseille of 1998 is Argentina versus the Netherlands in the Buenos Aires of 1978. The weight of history is in the thickness of the air: young men run into each other with the anxiety and ache of memories that are not theirs, and the colors of their shirts become portals. No competition is barnacled by its past like a World Cup. Two sides significantly better than Brazil—but neither of which had ever defeated Brazil—capitulated in the round of sixteen and in the quarterfinals, more to the canary-yellow shirts than to the players who wore them. (We know what happened afterward.) Read More »

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No More Tears

July 9, 2014 | by

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This “Jesus Wept” photo became a meme in the aftermath of Brazil’s defeat yesterday.

O Lachryma Cristi, what has happened to our weepy Brazilians? Since day one of this tournament, it seems, they have been in tears. As the technical director Carlos Alberto Parreira reported, “They cry during the national anthem, they cry at the end of extra-time, they cry before and after the penalties.” The sports psychologist Regina Brandão was rushed in, but failed to stem the flow; then it was the Pressure! The Pressure! A nation’s hopes, et cetera, et cetera.

And now this 7-1 pasting, the iconic gone-viral boy in the crowd, glasses pushed up, fingers pressed to eyes, sobbing into his Coca-Cola cup; and somewhere else not too far off, the pretty girl with tears streaming down her cheeks, rivulets slowly obliterating the Brazilian flags she had painted there. Wherever you look, buckets: David Luiz crying; Oscar, his face pressed down soaking someone’s shoulder. Cry me a river—the river cried turned out to be the Amazon. Meanwhile, the Germans never shed a tear, although Mesut Özil looked as if he might cry when Bastian Schweinsteiger yelled at him for missing an easy opportunity to put goal number eight past Júlio César. Lighten up, Bastian!

And now the hundred-foot-high concrete Christ the Redeemer that stands with arms outstretched, gazing over Rio from the peak of the Corcovado mountain, has been photoshopped with its hands to its face, a meme for the ages. Read More »

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Third Place

July 8, 2014 | by

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From a 1994 German postage stamp.

The arc of this World Cup nears its completion. Over prosperity and poverty, over cities and shores and jungles, over fair winter and fiery winter, it ascended, curved, and now looks to settle, in Rio’s Maracanã on Sunday.

But first, the midweek semifinals. Four teams remain, and four heavyweights at that—Argentina, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands. Two of these will paint the enduring portrait of this World Cup.

There’s hardly a World Cup whose final image hasn’t occurred in its final match. Think of Holland’s Nigel de Jong’s karate kick to Spain’s Xabi Alonso’s chest in 2010; or Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in 2006; or Ronaldo, who’d sat out most of the past three seasons because of knee injuries, scoring the only two goals of the 2002 final against Germany; or Zidane’s two first-half goals against Brazil in the ’98 final, and the strange sight of Ronaldo, then at the height of his powers, seeming to struggle to stay on his feet; or the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, Roberto Baggio, missing the decisive penalty against Brazil in Los Angeles in 1994; the euphoria of Paolo Rossi in ’82; the Dutch scoring in ’74 against West Germany in West Germany, within two minutes of kickoff, and with the Germans yet to touch the ball; and on, and on. Read More »

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O Jogo Bonito

July 7, 2014 | by

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“The Battle of Santiago”—Italy vs. Chile, 1962.

A little more than halfway through Brazil’s horrible, galling victory over Colombia last Friday, I began to wonder what type of foul might actually persuade the Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo to issue a yellow card: A studs-up, two-footed, kung-fu fly-kick to the chest, like the one launched by Eric Cantona against a fan in the stands back in 1995? Any one of the number of egregious fouls, including punches to the head, committed by Italy against Chile, and then by Chile on Italy, in the infamous Battle of Santiago in World Cup 1962? Maybe multiple Suárez-type bites by a hyena pack of players on a prostrate Colombian felled by a scything tackle might have done the trick.

As it was, Thiago Silva eventually received a yellow card for stupidly impeding the Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina as he was about to drop-kick the ball upfield (hardly a big deal); Mario Yepes received one for a tackle no worse than countless that had preceded it; Júlio César received one for understandably wiping out Carlos Bacca on his way to a goal that resulted in a penalty for Colombia; and, cruelest of all, the superb James Rodríguez—who, throughout the tournament, embodied all the skill, verve, and fluidity that’s supposed to be the hallmark of Brazilian soccer, including the ability to smack the ball sweetly into the back of the net—received a yellow card for a tackle he had half pulled out of, his first offense. Then, from the ensuing free kick, David Luiz scored what turned out to be the winning goal for Brazil—an even greater injustice, as Rodríguez had been targeted and pummeled, mostly by Fernandinho, more or less from the opening whistle. As Sam Borden observed in an excellent article in the Times, it is all very well for Luiz Scolari, Brazil’s coach, to claim that Neymar had been “hunted” after Juan Camilo Zuniga had kneed his star player in the back and broken his vertebra—no yellow card—but it was his team, under his direction, that had set the tone. Brazil has lost its reputation and doesn’t look likely to recover it in a hurry. Read More »

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Hooray for Losers

July 2, 2014 | by

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Tim Howard in the rain, 2013. Photo: Steindy, via Wikimedia Commons.

Americans are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do it. For the longest time, second place in any competition, domestic or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions. (Third was not even worth acknowledging.) While other countries celebrated their silver or bronze medals with parties and parades, American commentators thrust microphones into the faces of the “losers” and asked, sotto voce and with unconcealed disappointment, “What happened?” or “What went wrong?”

But this time around, American irreality, with its dangerous admixture of heady confidence—recall that Times poll, which revealed that a majority of fans in only three countries believed their nation would win the World Cup: Brazil, Argentina, and … the USA?—and its obliviousness of “failures,” has not translated into terminal disenchantment with the U.S. team. Okay, they lost to Belgium, the smallest country (in terms of land mass) in the competition, but the goalkeeper, Tim Howard, put on one of the greatest displays in the history of international football. The team fought until the very end, scored a fine goal, and almost forced the game to penalties. Americans may have thought—absurdly? endearingly?—that their team was going to win the whole shebang, but when it didn’t, they were content to take their place among the multitude of also-rans.

This is extraordinarily good news, psychologically, philosophically, and maybe even in terms of foreign policy. In a way, it made the front page of most papers this morning. Few journalists reporting on the game, or on President Obama’s supportive tweets, failed to observe the good-spirited way in which the team’s fans, both locally and abroad, took the loss. If the U.S. can come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t have to be No. 1 in everything, who knows how far this new humility will take it?

Of course, the loss was made easier to swallow by Howard, who broke the record for saves in a single World Cup match—and they were quality saves, to boot. Howard was by turns brave, acrobatic, positionally astute, commanding, and almost invincible. In Howard, Americans discovered a true hero … and he was a loser.

So now that Belgium, in the powerful form of Romelu Lukaku, has turned out the light, is another big switch soon to be flipped? Last night ESPN culled the highest overnight TV rating ever for a World Cup game. There were 25,000 at Soldier Field in Chicago, outdoor screens and crowds all across the country, riveted attention in offices, packed bars. Is the nation so fickle that France vs. Germany and Brazil vs. Colombia will now hold no interest?

All the signs point in the other direction—and FIFA is already mooting the possibility of the U.S. hosting the World Cup in 2026, smack in the middle of Chelsea Clinton’s second term.

Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is the author of eight books, including Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. He lives in Massachusetts.

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