Sketches of Spain; England Acquits Itself Well


World Cup 2014

Rowan Ricardo Phillips, from New York:

Thursday has turned to Monday. The World Cup has blossomed. The opening game seemed intent on mocking any potential pleasure or faith you may have had in this tournament—but now it’s become so good, so quickly, that some people are already calling it the best World Cup they’ve ever seen. Eleven games thus far and not a single draw; the matches have been, for the most part, tightly contested. The Swiss threw in a last-gasp winner against an extremely naïve Ecuador; teams have sought to be positive, to attack, sometimes without thinking before rushing forward. But enough of that, Jonathan will no doubt be writing about England; his memoir is called Kick and Run, after all.

Almost all the big players have played up to their lofty status. Almost.

Spain, as you likely know by now, was atomized by the Netherlands to the tune of 5-1. The score flattered Spain: Holland could have, and really should have, scored a few more. To put into proper context, remember: Spain is the two-time defending European Champion and allowed a total of two goals (two!) in the last World Cup, which they also won, beating a Holland team so intimidated that instead of playing the osmotic football for which they’re famed, they played like the Steven Segal All-Stars, bastardizing themselves among the long line of great and balletic Dutch teams.

Four years later, the main actors were the same (including these two), but Holland was deadly and Spain soporific. What changed?

Sure, there were tactical shifts, at least on Holland’s end. On Spain’s end, as I’ve written about elsewhere, the will and desire to pressure their opponent off the ball was simply absent. Does winning everything sap you of desire? Does a long domestic season make, in the summer, the legs more stubborn? Perhaps. To their credit, Holland played a highly fluid 5-3-2: the three midfielders became four or five not robotically, but intuitively. Their coach, Louis van Gaal, is a mad genius: in the late nineties, when he was coach of Futbol Club Barcelona, he took a risk on youngsters by the name of Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta, and Victor Valdés: the spine, head, and nervous system of the greatest club team the world has ever seen. But in Spain, van Gaal found fame not for his shrewd coaching but for his terribly accented—and incorrectly gendered–upbraiding of a journalist in Barcelona: “¡Tú eres muy malo … siempre negatifa, siempre negatifa; nunca positifa!” (For the record, he was right about the press—but I digress.)

The real problem for Spain was a torqued version of the simple problem we all face: time. Four years are only four years, except in football, where four years are like twelve. Back in 2010, Holland tasted the bitterness of defeat in extra time, to Spain, in the last game of the Cup. Now, in their first World Cup game of 2014, they faced Spain again, meaning they had the greatest gift a football player can hope for: chance.

Spain, on the other hand, were dour; their defenders sloughed around, enervated and out-sprinted, as though they carried their own urns in their arms. The midfield couldn’t conduct the chorus—they were, as Keats put it, “the spirit ditties of no tone.” This team seemed less Spain than a sketch of Spain.

Speaking of: when the legendary composer Joaquín Rodrigo was told that Miles Davis had just released an album called Sketches of Spain—and that it began with a marvelous interpretation of Rogrido’s most well-known composition, “Concierto de Aranjuez”—Rodrigo reportedly turned speechless and then became incensed. “¿Qué es eso de hacer un arreglo de mi música sin mi permiso?” he said, meaning roughly, Who is he to make an arrangement of my music without permission? Rodrigo knew little about jazz or the concept of standards, how music departs from its creator and exhibits thirst in itself for change. Spain, by way of the success of Barcelona, set a virtuosic standard for football over the past six years and three major tournaments. But they’ve shown up in Brazil playing the same notes and expecting to hear the same notes from others—notes of capitulation. Five goals later, one wonders if the response from deep within was “¿Qué es eso de hacer un arreglo de mi fútbol sin mi permiso?” Spain seemed to arrive with things backwards: vici, vidi, veni. And for emperor, king, or champion of the world, that’s simply not how things work.

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Jonathan Wilson, from London:

In the one of the more bizarre off-field incidents of this World Cup, the French coach Didier Deschamps reported to FIFA last week that a drone hovered over his team’s training ground in Ribeirão Preto. “Apparently drones are used more and more,” he said; one assumes he had in mind the surveillance of prospective opponents’ tactical plans, unless he was just talking about the Bourne movies. It’s a possibility, of course, that the drone recently employed to deliver a pizza to the rooftop of a twenty-one-story apartment building in South Mumbai had wandered off course on its second run, or had made an earlier delivery to the Uruguayan team, who certainly looked like they’d been eating pizza: they had a slow, large-with-everything-except-the-anchovies defense, and the speedy and athletic underdogs from Costa Rica tore them apart, 3-1.

And while we’re on the subject of Italian food: in order to keep my enemy close, I sought out a trattoria on London’s Charlotte Street a few hours before the England v. Italy game. When the check came, I asked the waiter who he thought would win, and he said, “I don’t really care, I’m Polish.” Then he added, “I suppose as I live and work here, I would like the UK to win.” Of course, “the UK” does not have a team, which may come as a surprise to Americans for whom the generic term Brits reflects a yearning for harmony on the British Isles that has never existed. If the UK did have a team, it would undoubtedly do better than England, who really could have done with Gareth Bale, a Welshman, running down the left wing against Italy instead of Wayne Rooney—poor guy is starting to look a little past his sell-by date. An England loss is fully regretted only in England. In Scotland it is wildly celebrated—England’s “Hand of God” nemesis Diego Maradona was greeted as a hero when he visited Glasgow in 2008; in Wales, it’s largely ignored; and in Northern Ireland, it’s an occasion, on sectarian grounds, for both cheers and jeers.

So England duly lost in steamy Manaus. Andrea Pirlo, “aging” at thirty-five, produced yet another masterful display in the midfield, brilliantly selling a dummy to set up Italy’s first goal and nearly scoring himself in the last minute with a free kick that seemed to challenge several laws of physics before hitting the crossbar. Mario Balotelli, operatic as ever, headed in the winner. I wouldn’t say there was gloom all over England. After all, the young team had acquitted itself well, had played with panache, and the nineteen-year-old Raheem Sterling had been electrifying. In any case, you can’t have universal soccer-related anything when half a million of your residents’ first language is Polish, and your capital is, in expat population, the sixth largest city in France. There are even sixty thousand Brazilians in London. Thus, as these games roll out, there are explosions of joy, some large some not, all over the city.

Most people, however, enjoyed Holland’s 5-1 energized and euphoric demolition of Spain last Friday. The reason? Soccer fans outside the newly kingless kingdom have had it up to here with ticky-tacky. Van Persie’s glorious timed-to-perfection header and Robbens’s wrecking-ball strikes meant sundown for Spain, evening’s empire returning to sand.

And then, after ten games in four days, and just in case we had forgotten him, Lionel Messi took the field for Argentina against Bosnia in Sunday’s last game and produced a goal splendid in form and movement, perfect in execution and clearly designed to confound any hovering drone.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s second book of poems, Heaven, will be published next year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award.

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.