At the end, you think about this and hope it isn’t always true: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”
The English player and now pundit Gary Linekar said that, years ago, less in bitterness, one suspects, than in sighing acceptance of England’s fate.
Ah, England. How long ago it seems now that England’s fate at World Cup 2014 was a story anyone considered important. It has been weeks since most of the English media returned to their natural arena of excited speculation about which English clubs were trying to buy the services of exceptional foreign players at the World Cup.
At the beginning, when you’re there, you have high hopes. For a World Cup lit from within by attacking soccer, goals, surprises, unsung heroes and startling performances. We got that by the bucketful. Until it stopped, somewhere in the quarter-finals and then the buzz – the commotion about the unexpected – returned briefly when Germany hammered Brazil 7-1 in a semi-final that was more farce that futebol.
And in that bizarre Brazil defeat is the central narrative of this World Cup, in a nutshell; in all its hopes, dreams and demented expectations.
Anyone in Brazil, perhaps even the dogs on the streets of Rio, will tell you that it is the “pais do futebol,” the country of football. That is, of course, based on its past, not its present. Brazil the country is mysterious to me after four weeks of this World Cup. Solipsistic, sexy, samba-driven in its rhythm, futebol-focused, but foolish in so much.
There were hints of all that at the opening game, Brazil playing Croatia in Sao Paulo. The city was unprepared for the influx, the stadium was flimsily finished, barely on time. The mood of madness you expect at a World Cup (I’ve covered three, and three Euro tournaments) was faintly there, still on the horizon somewhere.
Sao Paulo, a city I hope I never see again, seemed to see this World Cup as an irritation, but an irritation overcome easily by the fact – one as plainly visible as the smog of Sao Paulo – that Brazil would win and everyone would be happy. Best of all, those foreigners with their phrase books and maps, would go away, their money spent.
Brazil would win that opening game 3-1, but the match left a taste, a touch of bile. It was tainted. Staging the tournament for the first time since 1950, Brazil went behind 0-1 from a Marcelo own goal and Neymar came to the rescue. But it took a theatrical dive by Fred to settle it. He went operatic, flailing about after barely being touched, conned the referee into calling a penalty and Brazil went ahead.
You could tell, right there, the team was long on enthusiasm and guile, while short on ideas and talent. Honour was at stake though, and the hubris of it was forgotten in the frantic celebrations. Eventually, mind you, all of Brazil’s nightmares would come stalking through the knockout stages, seeking revenge.
Then the Netherlands thumped Spain 5-1 and the world went mad. Goals, goals, goals! The reigning champions dethroned, exposed. Chile doubled the madness, all speed and fervour. Brazilians looked bewildered too as the vast hordes from neighbouring countries descended on its cities. The mass of Chileans, the Costa Ricans, the Argentines, rambunctious in the streets and on the beaches. It wasn’t, it seemed, about Brazil but about these odd, cheering people declaring that they too were from a “pais do futebol” and they didn’t pay much heed to Brazil’s honour and history.
The Chileans. The Algerians on their mad, magnificent run. The United States, that dour team of trying and never-say-dying, their hundreds of thousands of supporters out-roaring, out-chanting everyone their joyous, who-cares invasion of the local party. The Greeks, spinning a good run from a team of defensive-minded journeymen. For a time, the plot twisted bizarrely this way and that.
Luis Suarez. A child-demon, all his animal instincts let loose in the heat and sweltering zeal of Brazil. The intractable melancholy that follows that – Uruguay, a small country, deeply serious and glorious in its soccer history, undone by this unhinged kid.
If you were there it was all absorbed in a haze of heat, hair-raising cab rides in the dark, the collapsing wall of the Maracana media centre, sneering FIFA officials, shrugging Brazilian waiters, expensive hotels and cheap beer. The velocity of it all was extraordinary. One day the world is worshiping Chile, the next it is calling for the expulsion of Luis Suarez. After that the Costa Ricans are the next big thing and, always, Brazil, the team, the country is in a nervous, angsty revelry.
Brazil the country went into a kind of limbo between Brazil games. In between those you were, reporter or civilian visitor, an irksome tourist. I have never covered a soccer tournament in which so little was done to accommodate the visiting masses. Brazil presented itself like resort you had pre-paid to visit and if you expected more or better, it was your own fault. You get what you pay for.
From all those days and nights of games, planes, buses, taxis, street parties, exhibition and elation, one day and one game comes into focus with emphatic clarity.
It was the day Brazil played Mexico. In Rio, far from city hosting the game, I walked along the beach front, from Copacabana to Ipanema to Leblon. Stopping here and there to watch, peering into bars, watching face-up against a tiny TV by a beer-hut on the beach. The city was near-silent, the beach near empty. Brazil scraped a 0-0 draw and stayed alive, the World Cup party kept going. Nobody was caring much about what might happen next.
After the game I walked on the beach and finally felt the vibe that draws the tourists and what drew the World Cup itself to this place. Away from he velocity of the tournament’s momentum there was the voluptuousness of Brazil itself, the warm breeze, the ocean waves, the occasional figure of a beautifully sculpted body, lost and at peace in the rapture that the place creates.
This World Cup was itself a rapture, for a while. An almost magnificent World Cup. Dazzling until dark cynicism took hold of teams on the cusp of reaching the Final. Football, or soccer or futebol, is indeed a simple game and one played with ease in the surface pleasantness of Brazil. After this, future World Cups will be a harder sell. As a TV event, fine. Not so voluptuous a setting, ever more cynical in nature.
Brazil, the country and the team, almost got it perfectly right. At the end, though, either the Germans win, as the prosaic Englishman says, or the poetry of the irritating neighbours winning, will happen. And hopes, dreams, demented expectations float away.
But beautifully so, in Brazil, like the game is beautifully played there. Sometimes. Anything can happen in Brazil.