This World Cup has been everything I could have hoped it could be. To be fair, I was ready. My heart and my schedule were as wide open as the Brazilian defense, waiting for this Cup to blitzkrieg straight to my core. I've spent decades learning to love this beautiful game, building my appreciation for all the smallest nuances, but this is the first time that I have managed to watch every single game of a major tournament, live. Let me just say to all of my similarly soccer obsessed friends out there, this is the way that the game is meant to be watched. All my previous watching experiences now appear as a youth fumbling through a series of relationships, trying to learn how to love, but never going All The Way. Yes, this World Cup was like sex.
That being said, much like other First Times, there are a few things about this experience which I might hope to improve with practice. In fact, some of the lessons of this experience are very similar to the lessons of other experiences. The first, for example, is to be mindful of my environment; always a good rule. The same way the sexual experience gets an easy upgrade by the move from the drama dressing room at the high school to a bed, the World Cup can get an easy upgrade by not watching the final crammed into a small room with four small chairs squeezed around a tiny television, an old cast iron stove, two enormous Great Pyrenees, their ubiquitous fur, and inescapable smell.
Like every football enthusiast, again, ball and foot, not foot shaped ball, in this country, I have accepted and even embraced my role as an ambassador for this beautiful game, and the World Cup is the highest form of the art. Having the excuse to watch the games in public, I found boundless opportunities to consider how many different ways one can communicate the why's of my love for this game. While the Ann Coulter's always stand out, even reasonable people of character will walk away shaking their heads in befuddlement as often as not.
This weekend, I had the great fortune to be able to attend my great aunt's 80th birthday party on our family's old homestead in stark-nowhere North Dakota. The kind, earnest, and generous people who came from miles around to share this event with our family poured through the small room at a near constant rate, being the most direct path from the party out in the barn into the house with the refrigerator and the bathroom. Over and again, an inquiry about the score, a few awkward foot shuffles while watching (only on the first pass, replaced by the subsequent pass-number of laughs, i.e. - 3 laughs on the 3rd pass), then either a condescending or befuddled severance comment.
I get it. It is difficult to find the beauty in a right back peering into the the jungle of defenders before him, and opting to swing the ball back to his support. I would imagine that people who don't like football have a difficult time appreciating the Spurs, too. Much as I love our country, by and large we are not a subtle people. We do not have a great appreciation of negative space. Infected by our logical positivism, we want tangibility. We want our game full of points and stats.
Negative space, in the the artistic sense, is the space surrounding the focal points of the piece. In our game, the focal points are always, ever, the ball and the goal. The positive players are the stars, those rare and special few who are capable of asserting their will around the ball and around the goal, because it is in fact difficult to manipulate a ball with grace and precision using one's feet, even without athletic monsters trying to achieve your ruin. It takes no subtlety to love young James-not-James Rodriguez. His brilliance jumps off the screen, charming even denizens of the lower hells with his easy insouciance. Robben sears himself upon the world with withering pace and matching stare. No one wants to tear our eyes ways from the ball to appreciate the negative space.
Watching Messi in the negative space during this Cup was brutal. The man trudged about the pitch like he was towing a truck. Brilliant as the man can be, and even was on occasion, I can't be comfortable naming him the best player in the tournament when sharing the field with Müller and Mascherano, two of the world's preeminent negative space wizards. Müller is a never ending nightmare running into the most complicated spaces, pulling center backs in twisted knots trying to track him, whether he gets the ball or not. Defending Messi is eternal preparedness while never being prepared, but defending Müller looks like Sisyphusian torture, marking run after run until inevitable crushing failure.
Mascherano was even more impressive. Over the final two games of the tournament it seemed like he cut out 137 different attacks: cutting off RVP passing lanes, taking a dozen long range efforts to the back of a flung leg, tracking the infinite hordes of German midfielders bombing forward, standing Gandalf to the irrepressible Balrog that is Robben in attack. It felt like he was pitching the football equivalent of a no-hitter in the last two games of the World Series, back to back, with both games going to extra innings.
Apologies. One of the bad habits football ambassadors tend to pick up is the tendency to translate accomplishments across sports. I'll say rather, it is always difficult to force a figure-ground reversal in the athletic arts, that is, to make the point of interest something other than the points of interest. It is rare to see defending so impressive that it becomes the dominant theme of the game, much less in a noticeable and engaging manner. Rarity is the highest form of compliment in the world of sport.
Rarity is what keeps us coming back, year after year. Most of the time, it is the same stuff, a slight twist to the annual iterations, as demanded by the inevitability of time and the variability of the human condition. Much like jazz music, many of the artistic themes of our sports narratives never resolve, in any significant sense, but they do, at special times, come together to build a crescendo of unprecedented weight.
The reason I keep watching sports is to find those moments where I see something I have never seen before, the reshaping of my world as paradigms get redefined by the real time generation of new information, and then once every great while, I get to see several paradigms all reshaped at the same time.
The loose wobbling of the stomach when, maybe twenty seconds after smashing a spectacular left footed volley into the net, Tony Kroos cruised down to dispossess, turned to play his MIDFIELD partner in BEHIND the defense, then receive again in turn after the keeper and remaining defenders had cast themselves at his feet in abject surrender, and dump another ball in the goal.
Germany 7 - Brazil 1. In Brazil. In the World Cup. In Brazil.
The hints were there. The match against Portugal looms in hindsight like the revved motor of a chainsaw early in a horror flick. Even with Neymar on the field, the Brazilians weren't exactly setting opponents' box ablaze. Still.
Germany 7 - Brazil 1. In Brazil. In the World Cup. In Brazil.
In the wake of this delightful tournament, it was painful to return to the familiar spectacle of the best basketball player in the world switching teams despite both personal assurances and expectations of longevity, with secrecy and suspense. Unlike so much of this World Cup, this is not something we have not seen before. This isn't even something we haven't seen before from this player. Despite the protestations of fidelity, what I see is a one year contract, meaning that we will like get to see such again. I wouldn't even be surprised if we got to see multiple such spectacles; not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven...
Thoughts on culture, community, and development.