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This official World Cup ball bears the autographs of some of the greatest players in soccer history. For some reason, its owner has opted to cart it along at this tournament, where it may become a target for thieves. (Cathal Kelly/The Globe and Mail)
This official World Cup ball bears the autographs of some of the greatest players in soccer history. For some reason, its owner has opted to cart it along at this tournament, where it may become a target for thieves. (Cathal Kelly/The Globe and Mail)

Fun at the World Cup: paranoia, injustice, and Wayne Rooney Add to ...

He shouldn’t have, but he couldn’t resist showing off.

Wedged into a crowded stadium press centre – notoriously a place where some of your colleagues are also opportunistic thieves – a Spanish journalist pulled something from his bag.

Wrapped in plastic, he had an official World Cup ball. He’s spent a quarter century filling it with the autographs of the greatest players in the history of this tournament: Pele, Cruyff, Eusebio, Zico, Rossi, Fontaine(!), Di Stefano(!!).

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The list goes on. This is a priceless treasure. At home, he keeps it in a bank lockbox.

Isn’t he worried?

“Yes,” he says, eyes bugging. “Now I’m crazy, because it is with me.”

That’s the proper level of paranoia for a World Cup.

From the perspective of the on-field product, this has been the best start to a tournament in memory. It’s also been one riven through with presumptive conspiracies, national finger-pointing and Wayne Rooney Wayne Rooneying.

It started out poorly in the opener when Brazil was the outrageous beneficiary of a terrible penalty call from Japanese referee Yuichi Nishamura in its game against Croatia. You’d be wrong in thinking the fix is in, but that didn’t stop anybody.

Brazil’s O Globo did its best to calm matters by running a one-word banner in the next day’s paper: “Arigato!”

Poor Croatia. They’re having a rough time of it. On Sunday, they refused to talk to their own media because a couple of paps snuck into the team’s hotel pool and took nude photos of some players. Why they were nude in the first place was … well, let’s leave that one alone.

Since then, nearly every match has provided us with one frictive talking point or another. Two goals incorrectly disallowed for Mexico; another for Switzerland; allegations of cheating against Chile; an uncalled penalty against Uruguay.

We reached peak conspiracy over the weekend when France coach Didier Deschamps told reporters he’d spotted a small radio-controlled aircraft flying over a French practice.

“Apparently, drones are being used more and more,” Deschamps said, sounding so perfectly French one hopes he was breaking off the end of a baguette while sitting astride a bicyclette as he said it.

France, you may have heard, have a few issues. Their continuing domestic disturbance burst forth here again when the team’s biggest star, Franck Ribery, was accused of chickening out with a back injury because he refused to get cortisone treatment. The French team doctor suggested Ribery was afraid of needles. Ribery responded that he’s more afraid of the team doctor. It is, as they say in French, un pickle.

That French sense of injustice would rise exponentially Sunday through their match against Honduras – a country in which they have been known to sell radio-controlled helicopters.

If they were the ones doing the spying, then they were doing it wrong.

Canadians may remember Honduras from an 8-1 dismantling of our own national team two years ago. That humiliation didn’t just end Canada’s World Cup dream. It encased it in concrete and dropped it into a lake.

From that perspective, what followed was painful to watch. It’s one thing to have your head handed to you by a team of quality. It’s quite another to lose to an 11-man ju-jitsu club who also happen to play soccer.

From the off, Honduras launched themselves into the French with martial excess.

France is used to fighting. They’re just not used to fighting other people.

Again and again, play ended in a heap of bodies and what passes for fisticuffs in football (a cleating, followed by angry pointing and light shoulder tapping).

This was a first for Brazil 2014 – an unwatchable contest. I’m not sure who suffered more – the French or me. I do know where my sympathies lie.

And yet, we still found room to inject a hint of paranoid delusion.

In the 48th minute, France banged a ball off the Honduran post, which then shimmied across the face of goal. Honduras’ comical ‘keeper, Noel Valladares, was waiting at the opposite post to knock it into his own net for a nanosecond, before scooping it out. That rarest of rarities – an own-goal by a goalkeeper.

For the first time here, we were about to witness laser-guided goal-line technology at work. Instead, the fancy replay first showed the ball hitting the post – “NO GOAL!” it screamed.

The online world went bananas. A large part of it continued losing its mind long after we’d seen the important part – the ball clearly across the line as the sequence ended.

This is how low we’ve fallen. WE’RE ARGUING WITH COMPUTERS. Next thing you know, we’ll be beating up calculators and breaking up with our refrigerators. Carefully, people. Carefully. This is how The Terminator starts.

While there was no fraternite to be had, we did end with la justice. France won 3-0. That result tells us nothing about France. Eleven random guys off the street could give Honduras a game, as long as they provided their own medical insurance.

The more important thread that went unbroken was our own deepening need to get something of substance from every contest at this World Cup.

Even when that thing is manufactured outrage, it continues to point in the direction we’d all hoped – a tournament shaping up as one for the ages.

Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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