As the World Cup nears the end of the group stage, Globe writers Cathal Kelly and John Doyle discuss the organization of the tournament, its Brazilian backdrop and, more specifically, who is the best player and which country's going to win when the final whistle blows on July 13.
Cathal Kelly: When the walls started coming down at the Maracana press centre, I had my come-to-Jesus moment. I thought, 'Well, the building's collapsing. That seems a little too perfect. However, I've lived well. Adieu.' … It was a long moment. But it was only a rampaging horde of invading Chileans. They seemed harmless enough as security began corralling them like escaped hogs.
We're more than a week into this thing, and it's time to ask ourselves: 'Remind me. How much was my per diem?' It's also time to ask ourselves: 'How's this all going?' The perspective from this corner – perfectly on the pitch, and more than a little dodgy everywhere else. Brazil wasn't ready, and it shows.
But the on-field product is rescuing their international reputation. It's almost as if football and Brazil were meant to go together?!
John Doyle: I tend to agree. For instance, the stadium in Sao Paulo wasn't ready and, as I understand it, in the EU, no country would have allowed it to be used and accommodate the crowd for the opening match. The flimsy wall that so easily collapsed at the media centre encapsulates it all – flimsiness observed here, there and everywhere if you're covering the tournament.
What is saving the situation is the quality of soccer played so far. Wonderful, thrilling matches with lots of goals. And locally, I suspect people only want to talk about the Brazil team. Also I think the reality is that the most important facility here in the IBC, the International Broadcast Centre. This is a global TV event, and unless something massively awful happens, that is how the world sees it. Speculating what it all reveals about Brazil, the country, is another matter.
CK: I suspect it won't mean much of anything to the average Brazilian. Most of them threw their hands up months ago. They were only too aware of how much of a gong show this might shape up as, logistically. There's a little bit of local schadenfreude now that it's gone a little sideways. Not a whole lot. Just enough to embarrass the elites.
In the streets, they're focused on the look of the national side, and not in a fond way.
As ever, the truth comes from the mouths of cab drivers. We were with one the other day who wanted to discuss the relative merits of everyone here. In his judgment: Netherlands 'bom' ; Germany 'bom' , Brazil '(unprintable).'
It is remarkable how invested average Brazilians appear to be in that sinking feeling. Gather any random 100 Rio residents together at any time of day, and half of them will be wearing some iteration of the Brazil jersey. In the favelas, the percentage is much higher. Those people may not have much, but they've found a little extra for a knock-off kit.
However, they're preparing themselves for disappointment. They have that very Canadian way of talking down their own chances, while desperately hoping they're wrong. An inverse invocation of luck.
I don't think things are anywhere near as bad as they seem to fear. Brazil hasn't been a powerhouse here, but barring one out-of-contract goalkeeper, they should be on two wins from two.
Do you see an early exit for Brazil in the cards? And if so, do you have your emergency exit strategy planned?
JD: I'm seeing Brazil scratch through to the quarter-finals and go out on penalties. An England way of doing a tournament.
Before this started, the central narrative, in a purely soccer context, was this: Brazil must win the World Cup at home. Now there is realism.
Everybody has seen most teams play twice, and the quality can be assessed. Brazil, the team, needs some tinkering, though it may be too late. I'm starting to think of Brazil as the Portugal of South America – a ceaseless supply of really good players, but lack of steel when it comes to a tournament. The World Cup is seven games. That requires a unity of purpose and leadership from a manager. It isn't there with Brazil.
Neymar is too young to be talismanic. Maybe the country's wariness about hosting the tournament has infected the team spirit.
And if we agree that Brazil is not up to winning it all, who then? Germany is a candidate. But as we both know you can really only assess a team based on the quality of the opposition. Wiping the floor with Portugal perhaps inflated Germany in some estimations. The Netherlands looks awesome, but played a shagged-out Spain and didn't look supreme against a very plucky Australia. Colombia is a fraud, I think. Something tells me they are flattered by results against Greece and Cote D'Ivoire. Chile's hour has come, I think. They can beat anybody – they've found a groove. They have an intensity about them.
From here on, I think the overall story will be about the ability of European teams to succeed. It's not just the heat and humidity encountered in those bizarre 1 p.m. start times in some venues. It's about sizing up the opposition's style of play.
Honduras, for instance, appears to be on a mission to halt the careers of European superstars by inflicting serious injury. And that reminds me – France vs. Honduras was the one truly bad match here. Agree? Mostly it has been entertaining, attacking soccer with lots of goals.
CK: My brain is already full of Marvel comics plotlines and every phone number I've ever had. There's very little room left in there for anything like impulse control or fine motor skills.
But the way this tournament has spun out so far has stunned me. Though it's a verboten subject in the professional ranks – where managers and players are forced to prattle on about "attractive" football like they're endorsing universal suffrage – football is in a profoundly cynical moment. I blame Jose Mourinho for this (and everything else). He glamourized ugliness. Winning is an all-encompassing rationale, and the more hopeful teams (ahem, Arsenal) are being punished for their aspiration. Win any which way you can, and no one will care how unwatchable it might be.
That's been the pattern in every European Championship and World Cup for more than a decade. The artists flame out. The manual labourers grind through. There was nothing sadder than watching brilliantly skilled teams like Netherlands and Spain reduced to this jobbing style over the past few years.
And then we came to Brazil, and world football shed its defensive skin. Every team that has thrived here goes straight at you. The ones who've tried to sit back and defend – I'm thinking of the U.S. in the 80 minutes after their early goal against Ghana – is eventually punished.
You mention Chile. Chile cannot defend. They couldn't defend a mountaintop against an army of moles. So they've turned their entire emphasis onto constant high pressure. Instead of marking you in their own half, they do it in yours. Then they score.
Though they are stylistically very different, that's the same basic philosophy as the Dutch. They've given up their kung-fu fighting ways of four years ago, despite how well they worked. This is giving me back my faith that the guys who play this game at the highest level actually care about putting on a show.
Another thing – and you'll allow me the freedom of a bad cliché from back home – the stars have been stars. Almost everyone that came in here with huge hype has measured up.
We did a little mano a mano pre-tournament. You tapped Chile's Alexis Sanchez. I tapped Croatia's Ivan Rakitic. I'd like to take this opportunity to roll over on my back, so that you can plant a foot in my belly and have a photo taken.
Anything else you'd like to point out that I got wrong?
JD: I think your assessment of the last 10 years is unfair. Spain flourished with artistry. I'm sorry to see the end of the tiki-taka style, if that is indeed what is happening. I think this Spain team is tired. I think the skilled, thoughtful, short-passing game will flourish again. And, frankly, I don't care if Chile allows a lot of goals. If they win 3-2 or 4-3, I'm fine with that.
Possibly we're both a bit bewildered and exhausted at this point. The first week has been hard to comprehend. There us so little pause between games, so little time for consideration. But I am sure about this – blaming Jose Mourinho for "unwatchable" football is ridiculous. Jose Mourinho didn't make Argentina cause us to squirm and sigh in that awful game against Bosnia-Herzegovina. We were both there at the Maracana. Great occasion, terrific atmosphere. And then the dull, slow tug of dread that this might never end and we were stuck in some Beckettian drama about doing penance for previously having had a good time at a World Cup match. It was dire. Mourinho can't be fingered for that. Nobody can. But you and I differ in taste. I liked the USA/Ghana match. Enjoyed the rhythm of it. Enjoyed the ending, like a wonky drama stitched together in hope. I like Italy too. I enjoy Pirlo's casual, blithe demolition of the opposition.
And, you know, a new World Cup starts with the Round of 16. There will be tears.
CK: I have no sympathy for Spain. They had a great team that was unspeakably miserly with its greatness. Four years ago, they won a World Cup by scoring eight goals. Eight goals in seven games.
Two years ago at the Euro, they got even worse. They seemed so enamoured with the possibilities of horizontality, they may as well have been playing in Flatland.
They didn't bother opening up until the final, which was a good tactic that made for some consistently bad viewing. Spain was a monumentally myopic team and I was glad to see them flame out here. In 20 years, when someone says the words "Spanish dynasty," you'll think of Barcelona rather than the national team.
Xabi Alonso was right in saying they'd lost their "conviction" and "hunger." They'd been leaking it ever since the breakthrough of 2008.
That's my bar for greatness – wanting not just to win, but also to overwhelm – so all my hopes here lie with the Dutch. Brazil is too thin. Argentina is too timid. Germany rampaged in their first game, but that was against a Portuguese side that looked like they'd given up in the tunnel mouth. I'm not quite sure what they are yet.
On some karmic level, the Netherlands is owed this one. They have always been the most aspirational side in the world. All the romance surrounding Brazil is a function of the Garrincha/Pele/Jairzinho years. In every generation since, Brazil's main weapon has been suffocation.What other team could make a World Cup final, and be scolded for it by their greatest hero (Johan Cruyff) for the manner in which they'd made it? That is an unreachable standard worth applauding. They're Le Sacre du Printemps of football.
Every other great Cup-winning nation has a variety of craft, and made a lavish living at it. The Dutch are artists, and they've starved for their principles.
They've been nervy here, but entirely committed. Australia did them the great favour of giving them a scare. I believe they'll overwhelm Chile in the final group game – and wouldn't that be a wonderful preview of a potential final? Then I think they'll scythe through the rest of the tournament.
The really amazing thing? I think that the average Brazilian would rather the Dutch win playing a mythic, forgotten Brazilian style, than have their own team win it in a dispiriting slog.
JD: We will have to agree to disagree on Spain. Watching them play, in person, was always an enjoyable education in how soccer can be played: You looked at the complex formation, the short passing and, suddenly it was like watching a beautiful flower blossom in seconds. If they were hated, they were hated in resentment of their discipline and focus, by begrudgers.
Something that irks me is how FIFA stops being an issue as soon as the ball starts rolling on the field. We all start talking players, teams, results. I've done a few interviews with Canadian radio from here and it always comes up – how corrupt and arrogant is FIFA, really? I don't even know where to start with the answer. Certainly FIFA hates us, the written press. And it gets more intense and hostile. I've never covered a tournament that provided so little to the media. When we got our accreditations here, we got the FIFA press badge. Nothing else. No background on stadiums, cities, travel. Even UEFA, which is as eccentrically hostile as FIFA, gives you a little booklet of info. I think FIFA's arrogance and hostility got transferred to those involved in organizing and running things locally. We meet nice, welcoming people and yet there is a strange vibe about this tournament.
But enough about us, let's talk players. I know you've asserted that Luis Suarez is the best player in the world right now. A case can be made. Still, I think he's more fascinating as a precocious man-child than as a player. He's a poacher, an enormously gifted one, but not a truly skilled, refined player. I think he'll flame out soon. Not necessarily at this World Cup, but soon enough. Mind you, Uruguay is a compelling soccer story. Tiny country, fourth at he last World Cup and winners of the 2011 Copa America.
Which brings us – me, anyway – to Lionel Messi. I have a feeling that Messi is at some crisis point in his life and career. He's phoning it in. There is no motivation there. Barcelona has ruined him as a player in that asking him to perform for Argentina is like asking him to pretend for a month that he's part of some other family. New mom and dad and all that. And he just can't do it.
CK: If we presume that, at the most elite level, players share a roughly equal skill set, then what separates the very best of them is opportunism. On that basis, Suarez is the greatest form player in the world. He had two real chances against England and took them both. Let's also recall that he was in a wheelchair following knee surgery as recently as two weeks ago.
The first goal – a slashing header – was, for me, the goal of the tournament. Robin van Persie's stretch-header against Spain was braver and more spectacular, but Suarez's was more cunning.
Van Persie was working on instinct. Suarez had every aspect of his move plotted as he walked toward the box. He is a master here. Messi may be a more up-out-of-your-seat player with the ball at his feet. No one is more studious than Andrea Pirlo. But Suarez is both a blunt and a cutting instrument, and his aim never errs.
As for FIFA and the media, I prefer the animus. It allows one to swing from the hips in the only place that counts – on the page.
Now that we've got all this sorted out, final thoughts?
JD: There is also something that you, me and the watching public should remember. We actually know very little about what is going on inside most national teams. The dynamic can be very hard to read because most managers and players talk in cliché. In a book I read, the manager of Cameroon at the 1994 World Cup talked about feuds and schisms inside the team, all of which amounted to a disaster. He said, "We lost those games at the hotel." He meant it. And only recently we have come to learn that in the French national team, Zidane and Thierry Henry never got along. According to Henry, Zidane mostly declined to pass the ball to him. If I remember correctly, Henry says he only ever scored one goal for France that was the result of a Zidane move.
So, as the public often concludes, you and I actually know nothing about soccer at the World Cup. But we keep trying.
As for you and your antics here, I'm saving it for the next book.
CK: (Worried expression)