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.)
Hence, when we see a team or an individual rise above the history of all the encounters, all the simultaneity of events, what we’re really witnessing is something we see sadly infrequently: a personification of freedom. This weekend, Holland will play Brazil to avoid the distinct displeasure of finishing fourth, as in 1974 and 1994 and 1998, and Germany will face Argentina, as in the finals of 1986 and 1990. The latter was among the worst finals ever played. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself.
Yesterday, as evening descended over a sullen São Paulo, no one was free. Not even Leo Messi and Arjen Robben, both of whom seemed born to dodge hurricanes in outhouses with the ball still stuck to their feet, could slip away from the moment. Everyone was there and not there. Argentina’s coach, Alejandro Sabella, mainly stayed out of the way. The Dutch coach, Louis van Gaal, didn’t switch goalkeepers for the penalty shoot-out this time, or drastically change the formation midgame. Each team had a defensive player offer a titanic, perhaps career-defining, game: the Netherlands’s Ron Vlaar and Argentina’s Javier Mascherano. Nothing and no one got past them. In the first half, Mascerano took a hit to the head and seemed to black out for a moment, but then resumed playing in a matter of minutes, as if nothing had happened. Vlaar suffered no such injury. But in the absence of a willing volunteer among his more skillful teammates, he offered to take his team’s first penalty, and missed it.
Until that moment, the two men seemed like mirror images of themselves, in play and appearance. But that’s why the game has penalties. We can’t run forever. And we can’t live the same lives. Someone loses. And it’s written down.
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.