Doyle: Journeymen make the World Cup magical

RIO DE JANEIRO — The Globe and Mail

Netherlands' Leroy Fer celebrates scoring the opening goal during the group B World Cup soccer match between the Netherlands and Chile at the Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Monday, June 23, 2014.

(Associated Press)

Hey World Cup watchers, let me ask you a question: Cristiano Ronaldo?

Yeah, him. What’s he done for us? Two games in and Portugal’s chances of progressing are marginal. Ronaldo, a superstar capable of breathtaking play, acknowledged as much after the 2-2 tie with the USA.

“We know it is mathematically doable, but the task is almost impossible,” he told some reporters from Portugal. “But in football, anything can happen.”

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Thing is, what can actually happen in football is that superstars might have little impact.

Ronaldo has been ubiquitous, pre-World Cup and in the early going – on TV, that is, peddling stuff. And according to Monitis, the social media monitoring company, Ronaldo is also “the most-Tweeted-about soccer player this year, with Neymar Jr. and Wayne Rooney close behind.”

He was in that clever ad for Emirates airline, the one where he has a shower in a private bathroom on the plane and meets up with Pele. The cute joke is that Ronaldo realizes some adoring fans are not talking about him when they start talking about World Cup winners. It’s Pele. Smiles all around.

The joke’s not cute any more. It cuts to the truth. Ronaldo will likely leave another World Cup having done more perfectionist pouting than playing brilliantly. Look to Thursday’s match against Ghana for Ronaldo’s summer vacation to start.

It’s the impact of journeymen players, the non-famous and the unglorified, that creates magic moments at this World Cup. It’s a treat to see and savour. It means that, as this great tournament unfolds, it’s not always about FIFA-approved, world-recognized celebrities. It’s also about players who would be asked for ID if they tried to enter the VIP zones at the stadiums.

Even to stalwart followers of the English Premier League, some the key players here are obscure. The Netherlands broke through against Chile through a headed goal from substitute Leroy Fer, who plays in midfield for Norwich City. Look up Fer to check on his accomplishments and you’ll find he was Man of the Match for a 1-0 victory over Southampton and Player of the Month for last November. Emirates has not been on the phone asking him to join Pele and Ronaldo up in the air.

Defender Gary Medel of Chile toiled for Cardiff City last season, a club relegated, and will now be in the Championship, not the Premier League. Fellow Chilean Gonzalo Jara, who has been excellent, was released by Nottingham Forest not long ago. Francisco Silva, another key part of Chile’s team, plays in Spain for the emphatically unglamorous Osasuna, which barely escaped relegation from La Liga last season.

Costa Rican captain Bryan Ruiz, who scored that wining goal against Italy, plays for the Dutch team PSV Eindhoven. Officially his employer is Fulham in the EPL, but Fulham loaned him out to Eindhoven six months ago.

This World Cup is full of such figures. The tousle-haired Mexico goalie Guillermo Ochoa comes to mind. He was sensational in Mexico’s 0-0 draw with Brazil, but he isn’t attached to any club in Mexico, let alone Europe or South America.

Yes, we’ve seen some dynamite goals from the revered god’s of world soccer – Neymar calmed Brazil nerves with a two fine goals against Cameroon, and Lionel Messi scored a wonderful strike against Iran, in injury time, to secure a win. But it’s not just Messi or Ronaldo who have people leaping from their seats in joy and surprise. It’s also those who had, before now, gone utterly unnoticed.

The British press sometimes refers to the World Cup as “a shop window,” meaning that players are on display, for sale. Fine. All the credit to those who end up with lucrative contracts at big clubs. They are the one who make the tournament truly thrilling, not the ones who already make millions to publicize ritzy airlines catering to millionaires.

After all the fuss about the cost of the World Cup, and the gulf between rich and poor in Brazil, it’s only fair that the torque that drives the tournament comes from the toilers.

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