In the end, the 2014 World Cup final turned out like the 2010 final. A scoreless match that seemed to be heading for penalties was only settled at the death when a composed, compact player managed to hold his nerve in front of goal, after everyone else had lost theirs. Last time it was Iniesta. Yesterday it was Götze. But really it was a different sort of match, as befits a different sort of tournament. The 2010 final was overshadowed by the performance of the referee, Howard Webb, who failed to control the spoiling tactics of the Dutch. This time, each side gave as good as it got and the contest had a proper shape to it. Had Higuaín’s first-half goal, which was correctly ruled out for offside, been allowed to stand, it would have been a very different occasion. But the officials got the important decisions right. Argentina fluffed each of their legitimate chances and have no one to blame but themselves. The game spoke for itself.
The arrival of the World Cup final is always a melancholy moment. It means no more lounging around the house in the knowledge that another game will be on in a minute. More than a month of wall-to-wall football gives way to a little bit of cricket and some desultory transfer speculation in the papers. It feels like the end of summer. Really it should feel like the start of summer – after all, it’s early July and the schools haven’t broken up yet. But when I was younger I used to resent the thought that there was now no excuse to stay indoors with the curtains drawn. I still feel like that. To make things worse, the final itself is usually a letdown. There hasn’t been a really exciting one for almost thirty years.
Three World Cup teams were carrying a little piece of my heart: Algeria, France, Italy. When one by one they fell away, a large part of my own tournamental passion waned. As compensation, I picked up the recently published autobiography of my favourite Italian player, Andrea Pirlo, which glories in the frankly irresistible title I Think Therefore I Play. (Personally, I think a comma after ‘Think’ would have improved things no end, but I quibble.)
Sooner or later the Brazilian football team will be treated like lepers, or perceive themselves to be so. Unfair to lepers, but appropriate for an off-pitch reason. The official World Cup mascot, Fuleco, is a Brazilian three-banded armadillo. Humans apart, the armadillo is the only animal that gets leprosy. Admittedly, the evidence refers to the nine-banded kind; it is not known whether the three-banded armadillo is susceptible. It would be very hard to find out, because the Brazilian species is very rare and in danger of extinction. Fuleco's name is a portmanteau of ‘Futebol’ and ‘Ecologia’.
The last time Argentina met Holland at the World Cup, in 2006, the match ended in a forgettable goalless draw. The time before that, in 1998, a meeting between the two countries produced a moment that never grows old: the exquisite winner scored in the 90th minute by Dennis Bergkamp, a seventy-yard pass that he controlled with one touch, redirected with another and flicked home with a third, a sequence that’s about as close as football ever gets to ballet. But the time before that, in 1978, Argentina v. Holland has some of the worst associations of any World Cup match. They don’t relate to what happened on the field, but to what was happening off it, in the prisons and torture chambers of Buenos Aires.
Well, it won’t be the Bite for which this World Cup is remembered after all. Something more shocking did happen. The form book turned out to be a useless guide (Brazil were undefeated in twelve games before last night). Home advantage counted for nothing in the end. Goldman Sachs got it wrong. Stephen Hawking got it wrong. I got it wrong. Everyone got it wrong. Sure, there will be people saying that this Brazilian team was there for the taking, that someone was bound to expose its manifold weaknesses. But no one predicted that result. It simply doesn’t happen that big teams concede seven goals at home against major rivals. It doesn’t happen in the Premier League or in La Liga or in Serie A. It’s inconceivable that Chelsea or Barcelona or Juventus would ship seven at home to anyone, no matter how weakened their team or how unlucky the performance. It doesn’t happen in the Champions League or in the European Championships. It’s certainly never happened at the World Cup. Before last night’s match some bookmakers had Germany as the slight favourites to win, but the margin of their victory is perhaps the biggest upset in the history of the sport.
This World Cup has had most things but one thing it has lacked is a genuine upset. In the round of 16 each match was won by the team that had previously won its qualifying group. In the quarter-finals the likeliest winners in each case turned out to be the actual winners. Now we are left with four teams of impeccable World Cup pedigree whom the bookies cannot separate: any of them would be an entirely plausible lifter of the trophy (the Dutch have never won it before but with three defeats in the final and a history of heroic endeavour they are long overdue). Yes, there have been some mild shocks along the way: few people anticipated that Spain would be trounced by Holland in their opening match and Costa Rica’s victory over Italy was somewhat unexpected, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been given how the Italians were playing. On the whole, though, the form book has been an unerringly reliable guide.
Any World Cup match-up between Germany and France is an opportunity to exorcise the demons of 1982, when the two countries (if you treat Germany and West Germany as the same country) met in a semi-final that remains one of the most traumatic matches in World Cup history. Certainly, it traumatised me. Most people remember it for the horrific foul committed by the German keeper, Harald Schumacher, who jumped knees-first into the onrushing French forward Patrick Battiston, knocking out his teeth, breaking his ribs and leaving him unconscious. What made it worse was that no foul was actually given. After the match, Schumacher’s lack of contrition stoked anti-German feeling in France to the point that Schmidt and Mitterrand had to issue a joint statement to calm tensions. But at the time – that is, as the game was unfolding – it didn’t seem so bad. Football was still a contact sport back then, and these things happened. The horror was what came later.
The star of this World Cup is called Brazuca. Who’s he? It’s the ball. It got its name in a poll of Brazilians in 2012: according to FIFA they chose it because the word ‘captures national pride in the Brazilian way of life’ (the second choice was the Bossa Nova, which would have been overegging it a little). The ball was designed by Adidas with the aim of avoiding the flaws of its predecessor, the Jabulani, whose erratic performance marred the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Football designers often have a not-so-secret agenda to build something that will lead to more goals. The Jabulani was smooth and light, in the expectation that it would fly into the net. Unfortunately its aerodynamic features, combined with the high altitude at many South African grounds, meant it was more likely to fly away. The players didn’t trust their ability to control it over long distances, which contributed to the general ugliness of a tetchy, finickety tournament. Too many games ended up being played at close quarters.
On the subject of the Suárez bite, the World Cup pundits (David Runciman aside) were in agreement for once: ‘He’s sick’; ‘He’s obviously got a problem’; ‘He needs to get help.’ But in a kind of casual-wear version of ‘political correctness gone mad’ not a single one of them mentioned what’s staring us all in the face – the Suárez overbite. No one thought to mention those outrageously present teeth. But isn’t it possible that the back story is right here, hidden in plain sight? It’s not hard to imagine him receiving real grief for those teeth in his earliest years: children can be devastatingly cruel. If Suárez goes into analysis now, what chance his therapist will discover that on some deep unconscious level football was but a detour to his real goal – the revenge of those outsize teeth? That lurking somewhere in the backyard soul of Luis Alberto Suárez Díaz is still a hurt and resentful little boy? ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’ always struck me as one of the more misconceived bits of popular wisdom. Broken bones are nothing, a detail, a cinch to mend. But cruel and blithely repeated nicknames can haunt the soul for decades. A kiss on the wrist when he scores; a bite out of the old, jeering world when it stands in his way.
People with a passing interest in football often ask two questions about the World Cup. When will an African team win it? When will the United States win it? Both good questions. It’s long been clear that some of the world’s most talented footballers come from Africa and they often emerge in clusters from particular places (Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast). But as yet this hasn’t translated into any world-beating teams. In the US the appeal of soccer has been on the rise for a while now, leading to the suspicion that when the Americans put their mind to it they could translate their enormous global clout into on-field dominance. But again, it hasn’t happened yet.
This is the day after the incident that will no doubt be the one for which this World Cup is best remembered (it will take something pretty tasty in the remaining games to dislodge it). The tournament now divides into pre-bite and post-bite. The world is already awash with virtual newsprint expressing various shades of bemusement, amusement or (most often) outrage at Luis Suárez and his ravenous teeth. I hesitate to add to the surfeit of noise. But really, why is one footballer biting another so uniquely shocking?
At every World Cup there are ghosts at the feast: teams who ought to be there but aren’t. Some of these sides do actually show up but turn out to be shadows of their former selves, like poor old Spain, dead men walking after just a couple of games (there will be a certain ghoulish fascination to seeing how they perform in their final zombie match-up with the Australians). But there are also the teams that you would expect to be watching who have somehow failed to qualify. During the 1970s the ghosts were England, who went from being one of the best teams in the world to no-shows at both the 1974 and 1978 finals. In this tournament part of an entire continent is missing. Europe remains notably over-represented in what is supposed to be a global competition. But it’s not the whole of Europe that is in Brazil. It’s the south and the east. The far north and the east are more or less absent. You could walk (or swim) from Turkey to Norway through an arc of countries with a proud World Cup heritage that have failed to make the cut this time: Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland all missed out. This is the first World Cup since 1982 with no Scandinavian representation, and in that tournament there were plenty of sides from the old Soviet bloc to make up the numbers (Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were there).
Like many people, I imagine, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing each time England have been knocked out of the World Cup. In 2010 I was in Australia and had to get up in the middle of the night to watch England get thumped by Germany, which was a sterile and deadening experience. In 2006 I also happened to be in Australia, though that was my first time and I had only been in the country 24 hours, so seeing England lose on penalties to Portugal was more spacey and surreal. In 2002 I was in a meeting to grade student exams, which was interrupted briefly to tell us what we already knew, that England had lost to Brazil. In 1998 I saw England lose on penalties to Argentina in the front room of a house in Cambridge. In 1990 I saw England lose on penalties to Germany in the front room of a different house in Cambridge. In 1986 I was at Glastonbury, where there were only a couple of small screens and far too many people to get a view of England’s match with Argentina; at one point a moan went through the crowd, which I discovered afterwards wasn’t for either of Maradona’s goals, but a cry of despair when Lineker narrowly failed to reach a cross from John Barnes at the death. In 1982 I was at boarding school and a teacher told us that England had failed to get the required result against Spain, which caused me inadvertently to swear in front of his wife. That’s it. In 1970 I was only three. In 1966 I hadn’t been born. It adds up to a conventional, privileged life, during which England are never going to win the World Cup.
‘Will you be supporting England?’ English people have asked me ever since I can remember. My family moved to London from Kiev in 1980, when I was three. The question might look like a football version of Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’. But one of the earliest things I worked out as an immigrant child is that you’re not meant to rush into English identity. You can do that in the US maybe, but it would be utterly un-English to try to be too English too fast. ‘Who do you support?’ is a bit of a trick question.
Football is a team game but it can also be a lonely business. Some positions come with massively outsized risks of getting fingered when things go wrong. Goalkeepers are notoriously vulnerable on this front. Lots of things contributed to Spain’s thumping defeat by the Dutch in their opening match but the most conspicuous mistake was the one made by Iker Casillas, so he was the one who ended up copping (and accepting) the blame. Referees too are highly prone to being scapegoated for their mishaps. A referee who has a good game will barely get noticed. But have a bad one and suddenly the whole world is on your case. Managers can find themselves in the same boat. An experimental team selection that comes off tends to redound to the credit of the player who got picked (hence the praise that is currently being heaped on Raheem Sterling). An unsuccessful one is the fault of the manager.
What’s it like to play in the World Cup? I suppose most of us watching give it a passing thought but little more than that, since it’s so beyond our frame of reference (it’s not so different from Thomas Nagel’s question, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’). But for some people it’s a real question. There is a first-year politics student at my Cambridge college who grew up playing football alongside Raheem Sterling. They went to different schools in the same London borough (Brent) and were each the stand-outs in their respective teams. One year when the two schools met, Sterling’s side won 8-7: Sterling scored four of the eight; my guy scored seven of the seven. They were talent-spotted at around the same time and joined the QPR academy together. Sterling was quicker; my guy was technically more adept. Then, aged 14, he broke his hand and had to sit out a season. That was the year that Sterling progressed in leaps and bounds to establish himself as a potential star. When my guy came back he was already playing catch up. As he started to make progress he suffered a bad muscle tear in his leg, which took time to heal. QPR let him go. As he recovered he got picked up by Leicester City, acquired an agent and began to plan for a football career. They started talking image rights and international affiliations. Then the leg went again. And again. It was over. He was 16.
Many eyes tonight will be on Eduardo da Silva, the Brazilian who plays for Croatia (and the man Arsenal fans will remember as one of their most promising strikers until he suffered a terrible leg break that almost ended his career). By all accounts, if he starts, Eduardo will sing both national anthems before the opening match: one for the place he grew up in (he was born and raised in Rio) and one for the place he adopted as home in his late teens (he moved to Zagreb when he was 16). He took up Croatian citizenship at 19 and made his debut for the national team two years later. He is Croatia’s second highest international goal scorer, with 29 goals in 63 appearances. What’s interesting about Eduardo is that, as Cameron said to Blair, he was the future once.
Here comes the World Cup – and how nice it is to be able to contemplate a tournament where the focus will be on what happens on the pitch rather than in the dugout. During the club season just past, the cult of the football manager got out of hand. The dominant narrative was the will-they-won’t-they-sack-him saga of David Moyes, routinely painted as a Greek tragedy but really nothing more than a tale of modest executive incompetence. At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho made more headlines than any of his players; indeed, than all of his players combined. The question of who would be crowned manager of the season (Rodgers at Liverpool? Poyet at Sunderland? Pulis at Palace?) got as much attention as the destination of the title itself, especially once it was clear that the team to finish top would predictably be the team that had had the most money spent on it.