Ecstasy to a Precious Few
& Agony for the Rest of Us
Time to face the inevitable: to pick a wrong team and bet the farm that your dreams won’t go south. In about two weeks, the World Cup will kick off in Brazil and the host, plus 31 other nations, will spend a month chasing a soccer ball through grit till glory.
Two will book a ticket to the July 13 final in Rio, and out of some 400 players expected to step on the grass, they may count with one or two of a group of eight outstanding talents to fulfill, or deflate, the hopes of millions of their comrades.
The history of this tournament may as well be written by the feet of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina’s Messi, Spain’s Iniesta, Brazil’s Neymar, Italy’s Balotelli, Netherlands’ Robben, France’s Ribery and Chile’s Sanchez, or by the drive, team work, and ultimately sheer luck of everyone else.
The cup is capricious, though, and make a hero out of some unknown buck, instead, who’ll score that untimely goal, make an unlikely play, and provide the fleeting moment of suspended time when the ball succeeds in kissing the net. Between that kiss and the stadium explosion that follows it, lives the world’s most popular sport.
Short of divining who’ll be the winner, we once again embark on the vain exercise of establishing what we know, hoping that what we don’t, doesn’t bite us on our behind. In fact, it’s our duty to toss the dice and look ahead, despite all reasoning to the contrary.
A Colltales reader wrote so sensibly that ‘even the worst teams in the world have their faithful, and emotionally, masochistic followers.’ But if asked, one wouldn’t get such a straight assessment of their own misery, but all sorts of rational and, really, no nonsensical arguments to the contrary.
You won’t get a straight assessment about the outlook for this cup here either. Rather, I’ll switch to a single voice, so to allow myself to be entirely partial, deeply biased, and at times, completely irrational. You may get some useful hints, though, at least about how this game turns temporarily insane half of the world’s population.
WISHING UPON A STAR OR TWO
For starters, let’s get something out of the way: not to dismiss world champions Spaniards, but they have already peaked and, as last year’s Confederations Cup final has proved, they’re beatable. I’m not wishing for Brazil to cross paths with them again, but there are a number of teams that can knock them out early and often.
Talking about aging squads, if this cup were in Europe, Germany would be a natural fit to take it all once again. But for the fact that they strive under hard conditions and this group of players has been performing at its best for several years now, I’m not sure in the whole it still remains a suitable match to younger teams, though. Or to the grind of their own group, which in any case, they’re expected to win.
Italy and France are two tiresome mysteries too, but for radically different reasons. Piro & Balotelli notwithstanding, the Italians seem a fatigued bunch, and their schematics on the pitch will be hardly effective against the more agile contenders on their way. France, on the other hand, is a mystery because it’s failed to renew itself, since the sorely missed times of Zidane, headbutting and all.
In fact, the bureaucracy that took hold of European national teams, in opposite to their vibrant clubs, is baffling. Or anyone thinks that Belgians, Greeks, Austrians, Russians and the Swiss have something up their sleeves to shock the world? Puzzlingly, such lack of enthusiasm is echoed by the Africans, too. Long ago, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria, specially, used to be a refreshing sight. Now they seem er European. Something happened on their way to the big leagues.
The malaise had already defeated the Dutch four years ago, but a former French colony, Ivory Coast, may hold some promise of something more than an early elimination. That leaves Portugal and its star Ronaldo with the sole job of representing the continent, old masters and slaves alike, in ways that even their useless former aristocracy would feel undeservedly proud of. Too bad that ahead of them stand Ghanians and Americans.
WRECK AT THE HEART OF THE AMAZON
Or too bad for the Americans. When they finally have a string of decent teams and players, and now a world class German coach, they’re literally dropped in the middle of the Rainforest to fight the heat, mosquitoes and at least two serious seekers of the holy grail of any soccer saga.
Team USA seems destined to have a go at it, however, and as everyone knows, I’m biased towards them too. But facing old foes from the past two cups (go figure this random process), and the long airfare commute they’ll have to endure, may be all too much. If the metaphor still stands, they may as well crash before ever leaving the jungle. Pity.
Since the cup is in South America, there are at least three local contenders this time around, apart from the host, and they all have visceral reasons to get there one way or another. Of them all, I naturally fear the most Argentina, but curiously, theirs is the team with the most flaws.
Messi is a different animal wearing the Celeste than in Barcelona garb, in diametrically opposition to what his teammate Neymar becomes when playing with the famed yellow jersey. But when it counts, it may be all for the bleaches, of course. Regional rivalries apart, Buenos Aires could use the whiff of some good times, for a change.
Uruguay, which may pick a bone with Brazil at the worst possible moment (for the erroneously called Cariocas) and Chile, perhaps the most vibrant Latin Americans to land in the neighbor nation, complete the golden three. Also Chile, unlike Uruguay, lost a World Cup at home in 1962, won by, yes, Brazil. So it may also have a bone to pick with the host too.
Mexico too gets often in the way of the 5-time champions, and given that it almost didn’t make it, may crank an extra gear to do in Brazil what Pelé & Cia. did in Mexico in 1970. Maybe, but it’s unlikely; the current Tri lacks what’s plenty about los hermanos of the Southern Cone: tradition and grit. The same for Costa Rica, Honduras, Colombia and Ecuador.
THE BALTIC & MIDEAST CONUNDRUM
For all the press about the obvious, the possible, the what ifs, and the usual smiling losers (we feel for you Japan and Korea, 2002 co-hosts who couldn’t win their own cup either), there are two truly dark horses, hungry to spoil and inflict pain on everyone else: former Yugoslavia’s two warring factions, Croatia and double-named Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Inheritors of the region’s famed gumption and having not a bone but whole cemeteries fueling their drive, both may be glad to beat to a pulp former political tormentors and, of course, each other. Central to Croatia’s murderous agenda, for instance, is Brazil. Heaven, or rather, Hell only knows what will happen if the host’s run over at the opening salvo.
Finally, as preventive therapy to this fossilized muscle pump of mine, let’s wish for joy and jogo bonito, even if my own team may prove incapable of producing them for more than a few minutes throughout the month. Let Algeria or Iran bring it on, instead, just to prove that, in soccer, joie de vivre may come from the most miserable and war torn places on earth.
Of course, that won’t prevent me in any way from spending a deeply distraught month screaming at the TV, spitting unpronounceable curses, and hating the day I was born to witness no less than five world championships and now, given such uphill prospects, may as well be beaten to a pulp too. I fear the upcoming days of profound depression as if, like in victory, those presumptive losses will be my very own and personal fault and I’ll never forgive myself for them.
TIME TO SPEND CURSING AT THE TV
I’ll be raging mad and unreasonable and ruthless against anyone standing in Brazil’s way, so be warned. To the ultimate (not really) glory, or to nothing else. Second place, let it be said, is grounds for tragedy, both personal and national. I’ll blame it on the soulless state of futebol, on Fifa opportunism, corruption, world hunger and income inequality.
No matter how wild the hyperbole, I won’t be far off the target. The game’s become one of riches and privilege, of spoiled athletes, and hefty endorsements, of runs and kicks, none too magical or unexpected, and don’t even get me started about the ugly return of racism, hooliganism, and even a toilet bowl crashing and killing a fan, for crying my liver out loud.
Apart from that, though, I expect a good time to be had by all.
* Final Cup
* Four Year Loss