The opening ceremony; Brazil and Croatia.
When I switched on last night’s World Cup opening ceremony, it first appeared that some São Paulo carnivalesque version of Macbeth was in production and Birnam wood was on its way to Dunsinane. A number of figures masquerading as trees were making their way around the field shaking their branches and twigs. But soon the trees had exotic birds for companions and then some children in white bounced on a trampoline while mechanical leaves unfolded and, of course, we were not in Scotland but a virtual rainforest, where the uncontacted tribe appeared to consist only of JLo, Pitbull, and Claudia Leitte. Luckily for them, the Amazonian jungle on display was the Disneyfied version, significantly denatured: there were no carnivorous plants in evidence or shamelessly sexual banana fronds. Two years ago, scientists discovered in a Brazilian river a new species of blind snake that looks like a penis. I do not believe it was represented during the opening ceremony. The tribe of three sang “We Are One (Ole Ola),” plucked from the Songbook of Truly Awful Tunes Written for Grand Occasions. The message held up until the twenty-sixth minute of the game that followed, between Brazil and Croatia, when Neymar received the tournament’s first yellow card for slamming his forearm into Luka Modrić’s throat.
We all know that Nature, even when significantly denatured, abhors a vacuum—so as soon as the rainforest had left the field, on came the teams. The Brazilians walked out with their right arms extended on to the right shoulder of the player in front, as if only their leader could see.
Not seeing, as it turned out, was a theme of the game. The Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura, for example, failed to see that the Brazilian striker Fred had not been fouled by Dejan Lovren, which led to Neymar converting the game-winning penalty. Nor did the ref see that Julio Cesar, Brazil’s goalkeeper, had also not been fouled when Perisic had a goal disallowed. Or that Oscar’s clinching third goal came after Rakitic had been blatantly fouled.
Call me Croatian, but that’s the way it was. What everybody saw was Croatia’s first goal, which could not be in doubt, as it was scored by a Brazilian when Marcelo inadvertently directed the ball past his own goalkeeper and into the back of the net. In case there was any uncertainty, the TV feed bizarrely decided at this point to employ its spanking new goal-line technology and show us the ball crossing the line and rolling slowly … to the back of the net.
It has been clear for some time that we are in the service of the robot and not the other way round, but more and more it is becoming evident that we cannot trust ourselves to discern anything.
Neymar, who came close to receiving a red card for his felling of Modric—can you really give a red card to the most popular player in the host country before the first game is three-quarters over?—showed that he is a talented and lovely player, and he scored two goals. Yet his team, so far, only looks good, not great.
Pascal once remarked, “If Cleopatra’s nose had been out of joint the history of the world would have changed.” And so it is with the whistles of referees and the history of World Cups.
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.