The World Cup is over. I wrote a piece about time, Messi, sadness, and yesterday’s final.
Watching sports is, among other things, a special way of experiencing time. Sport is like music or fiction or film in that, for a predetermined duration, it asks you to give it control over your emotions, to feel what it makes you feel. Unlike (most) forms of art, though, a game has no foreordained plan or plot or intention. The rules of a game impose a certain kind of order, but it’s different from the order of an artwork. A movie knows where it wants to take you; no one can say in advance where a game will go. All of its beauty, ugliness, boredom, and excitement, all of its rage and sadness emerge spontaneously out of the players’ competing desires to win. For however long the clock runs, your feelings are at the mercy of chance. This happens and then this happens and then this happens. You’re experiencing, in a contained and intensified way, something like the everyday movement of life.
Here’s my latest World Cup column for Grantland. A quick taste:
What a great team does, of course, is clarify uncertainty, and given the descent into anarchy that was the first three weeks of the tournament, it would be nice to have one great team just as a convenience. The thing about soccer, as opposed to, say, American football, is that hardly anyone ever really knows what it’s supposed to look like. You want one team to climb up to the mountaintop and hold forth a shining example of style for others to follow. Spain gave us tiki-taka, and, love it or hate it, it was at least an ethos. The history of the game moves forward with these revelations. At this World Cup, the glowing tablet is likely to read “SORT OF MORE COUNTERATTACKING THAN BEFORE BUT GOD KNOWS WHAT WE’RE DOING WITH THESE FULL-BACKS.” It might work, but it’s not exactly poetry.
What this World Cup has offered instead, and where it seems most likely to produce lasting memories, is superstars. I can’t remember a tournament that seemed to be more about individual players, both because of everything they have at stake and because of the influence they’ve had over outcomes. When Spain was Spain, as Barney Ronay recently wrote, “the ball was always the star.” In Brazil, we’ve seen game after game turn on individual moments of skill: Neymar pixie-dancing through 14 or 15 defenders, Arjen Robben scything to his left with the inevitability of death, Messi dragging entire defenses across the pitch like someone resizing a browser window.
1. Will Lionel Messi and/or Neymar hoist the dreams of their nations onto their tiny shoulders and carry them like precious gems over the towering mountains of destiny?
Look, pressure is a concept. It’s a state of mind. If you don’t feel it, it doesn’t exist, no matter what everyone else on the planet might say. If you can shrug it off, it’s gone, even if you’re an impish member of the FC Barcelona front line whose entire existence will be judged invalid by billions of people if you don’t all-but-single-handedly win the most scrutinized sporting event on the planet. If you’re just like, whoa, chill, pressure can’t touch you, even if that sporting event happens to revolve around a game that’s notoriously impossible for one person to control, even if the teams you’re expected to lead to glory each feature holes that any sane person could ID as the German shepherd–size pet doors through which doom crawls in after dark. If you just laugh and put life in perspective, you’ll feel fine, even if you happen to be the sole avatar and focal point of a country where there literally are no sane people, where losing at soccer is perceived as a crime somewhere between violent treason and playing bass for Nickelback. If you just crank that Bobby McF and put a big grin on your face, pressure will vanish, even if NO GET UP WHY ARE YOU FOAMING AT THE MOUTH OH GOD STOP WRITHING IT’S HORRIBLE PLEASE GET UUUUP.
Read the whole thing here.
Here’s my post about watching USA-Portugal on Copacabana beach last night, with cameos from a laser beam of pure emotion, a legless umbrella-selling dwarf, and a woman with a tray full of alcohol and a mysteriously cloudy right eye.
Christ the Redeemer of the Streetlamps (Follow @runofplay on Instagram)
I’ve been thinking a lot, during the ongoing the shell game of this World Cup season, about whether soccer can restore any of the damage that soccer abets and causes. I got to thinking about Pele and Garrincha, and what it would be like if the World Cup were less in the first player’s image and more in the second’s.
Pelé was the numbers superstar, the player who scored more goals and won more trophies than anybody else. Pelé was a winner. Garrincha was a loser who just happened to have this astounding gift. He was born with deformed legs; doctors didn’t know whether he’d ever walk properly. He became probably the greatest dribbler in soccer history. They used to call him Anjo das Pernas Tortas, the angel with crooked legs. His personal life was a wreck; he drank like he was bent on suicide, wrapped cars around stationary objects, fathered more than a dozen children. But he played with such joy. They called him that, too: the joy of the people. He would beat his defender on the wing, then dribble the ball back for the fun of beating him again. “People almost died laughing,” Eduardo Galeano wrote.
I wrote a column for Grantland about this. It’s also got a lot about Pele’s hair being turned into diamonds, so I guess click if you’re into that.
The run-up to the World Cup is taking attention away from the incredible story of Atlético Madrid, which is about to play its two dominant Spanish rivals in two games that will determine the championship of both Spain and Europe. I wrote for Grantland about Atleti’s brain-bending endgame and how they arrived at this point.
New Grantland column about the possibly sort of glorious destiny of soccer’s most premium team.