This World Cup! This Bloody, Beautiful World Cup!

“And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it” – Eduardo Galeano

The unrepaired cracks in the ITV studio’s glass panels serve as a poignant reminder of the real world. Every time Glenn Hoddle, Ian Wright and their fellow pundits blow another gust of hot air on English football’s pyre, they’re there. Brazil is not just a sunny postcard playground for bikini-clad nymphettes and bronzed soccer gods. People are angry and when people are stripped of their voices they throw things. At Adrian Chiles. And for all the cossetting, bewitching magnificence we’ve all witnessed over the last two weeks, Brazil’s problems, or even our own, are not about to vanish into nothingness once the carnival has packed up and left for the Russian dourlands.

But isn’t that why we need World Cups?

These are times where the notion of the hero and the myth seem increasingly at odds with our self-knowing, self-regarding, selfie-posing realities; a throwback to a world where warlocks and leeches and grainy black and white thrived. Stories were told around campfires or dim gas lanterns, staving off the encroaching darkness from outside. We believed that knights slew bloodthirsty dragons and half-man, half-bull creatures sucked on human bones in impregnable labyrinths awaiting their destruction at the hands of noble brave men. Our grandfathers fought in wars. They rarely told their stories. Nowadays we have a sapping carousel of orange-glow neverbees, morally bankrupt politicians and predatory monsters in the celebrity closet to sustain us. And experts, always experts, pontificating from leather sofas, telling us how to think, blink, act and react. And then there’s us, putting people in their place on social media platforms and making snarky wisecracks for very little reason other than self-affirmation. Doesn’t the song ask, “what ever happened to the heroes?” and it’s a perfectly valid question.

That’s why we need World Cups.

The experts told us that Spain were going to. They told us England had to. Costa Rica needn’t have bothered. Somewhere in the hollow recesses of newspaper coffee rooms and wherever it is that advertising executives lurk, the narratives had already been pre-ordered. Greece would be flayed once again for having the temerity to win a tournament ten years ago. Brazil would continue the Nike-endorsed self-mythologising delusion of o jogo bonito. All Ronaldo would have to do was turn up, cock a wink for the cameras whilst flexing his pectorals and he would be deified and elevated to football’s pantheon. None of these things have come to pass and for this I am grateful.

That’s why we need World Cups.

This World Cup has thus far given us a band of marauding Chilean bandits who sounded the final death knell for tiki-taka’s inward, cold-hearted dominance. To see Spain dizzied and bloodied by both Chile and Holland was something akin to being at a loved one’s bedside just before the inhalation of the terminal breath. The fall was Shakespearean in its pathos. It was a funereal acknowledgement of the transitory nature of all things and of life’s relentless, movement forwards. Chile shed no tears for Spain. Theirs is football’s future.

Elsewhere, a collection of relatively unknown Iranians (whose country our experts tell us to fear though we know little of it) mounted the most dogged of rearguard actions, repelling the World’s Greatest Player until his brilliance manifested itself as it is prone to time and time again. Football is a cruel mistress. She is also a sublime one. Australia fought the doomed fight of the good, the USA was finally welcomed into the world’s game by its own people and the Dutch remembered who they were after suffering from identity amnesia for several years. We now know who Mexico’s goalkeeper is and we all want to dance like Colombians. We also know that Costa Ricans are very good at football. Each and every thing here, unscripted, unseen and life-affirming for those very facts.

That’s why we need World Cups.

Because when the fireworks went off in Algiers, we all knew what it meant. Algeria had qualified for the knockout stages for the first time in their history. But more than that, they would be playing Germany. The country that had once conspired with Austria to eliminate the African upstarts from a World Cup. This would be a grudge match thirty-two years in the making. And should they overcome, perhaps they would meet France in the quarter-finals. A grudge match centuries in the making. It is these echoes from the past that sustain World Cups whether they originate on the field or beyond. To understand Brazil’s almost asphyxiating fear of failure as hosts, you need to know about the trauma of 1950 and its continuing influence. To understand our joy in Holland’s football, you need to know about a pirouette executed by a Total Footballer forty years previously. To understand why Colombia play with such liberating carefree exuberance, you need to know of the time football viciously and prematurely took a life in a Medellin bar. Each and every World Cup is a stand-alone chapter but simultaneously feeds into the next one and refers to the ones that have gone before. The World Cup is narrative at its most spontaneous. It is a never-ending story that rivals the sprawling broadness and idiosyncrasy of Charles Dickens and David Simon. Even better perhaps for there are no re-writes, no edits. It is art at its most pure but despite this, patterns nevertheless always emerge; recurring motifs of success and failure.

That’s why we need World Cups.

We know some things are inevitable. That the English media will indulge in the routine maudlin navel-gazing as it ponders the reasons why the rest of the world has left the national team behind. What World Cup would be complete without the glorious screams of conspiracy emanating from the mouths of wronged Italians? That a team will emerge out of obscurity and capture the hearts of millions.  That Argentina will meet Brazil in the Final and inflict maracazo on the Selecao all over again. That there will be villains. Maradona’s was a morality tale played out for the masses. Like Icarus he flew (quite literally) too high and his fall from grace was not a thudding crash on jagged rocks but dispensed by an innocuous chaperoning drug-tester. This year it is Luis Suarez. As it was in 2010. His narrative is an example of the duality of human nature brought to extremes. We are all capable of brilliance but equally so, we are all susceptible to succumbing to the primal urges that eternally rage within us. The subsequent hysteria with regard to the now iconic bite is a curious side note to how we have increasingly allowed ourselves to become engulfed by extremes of emotion as a culture.

That’s why we need World Cups.

To shine a light on who we are as a world every four years. How we communicate with each other and how we interact as people. A World Cup is light years away from the tribalism that afflicts the world of club football. People mix, they sing together, they integrate. It is worth the wait and is the reward for the weekly drudge we put ourselves through during the in-between years. I love the fact that we’re all watching the same thing and reacting to it in ways that cannot be harnessed by group mentality or focus groups. The World Cup chronicles our technological advancements, from jerky newsreels to saturated colour, from tinny commentary to tweets lighting up the globe as Messi bends another one in. It makes me feel like a better person and I dread its inevitable conclusion but also know that it will come around again soon. It’s a hopeful event. Despite the corruption and the greed and everything else that is bad and you already know about. Remember, all super-villains are essentially wizened and decrepit irrelevances. The Wizard of Oz was nothing to be feared and Darth Vader was in the end, just a lonely little man. Sepp Blatter can wait. This isn’t about him at the moment.

That’s why we need World Cups.

Because we need stories. And these stories in particular, the World Cup ones. We need memories to sustain us through our lives. And we need those heroes more than ever. Those players and games we’ll spend the rest of our lives recalling and refining in our anecdotes. It was the same for my grandfather in 1954, it will be the same for my son in 2022. If the group stages were anything to go by, this World Cup, in the country that is truly representative of football’s beauty, is shaping up to be the best of the lot. I don’t want it to end. I haven’t slept properly for two weeks. It is rarely out of my thoughts. I love every second of it. When it does end, I know the problems of Brazil will still exist and I will continue labouring under the worries of everyday life. None of that can be escaped nor can it be glossed over. But for now, on the delicate cusp between the group stages and the knockout ones, it’s the best bubble to be living in. And the best thing about it all is that football, for the first time in a very long time, is winning.

That’s why we need this World Cup. This bloody, beautiful World Cup.

Further reading: World Cup Dispatch No.1: World Cup Dreams 2014

Follow Dispatches On Twitter: @Sofalife


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4 Responses to This World Cup! This Bloody, Beautiful World Cup!

  1. Jim Dimond June 27, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

    Brilliant Greg – you’ve surpassed even your usual high standards and articulated what many of us feel about this particular tournament, but could never express so eloquently. I will share this dispatch widely. It should be compulsory reading and useful ammunition for anyone feeling guilty or being berated for watching too many games! Cheers mate. And bravo sou!

  2. Joel p June 28, 2014 at 8:03 am #

    Stunning…that’s why we need dispatches from a football sofa in print!

  3. El Sid June 28, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    Why was tiki-taka cold hearted and inward? I found it poetic. Great article otherwise.

  4. swaye June 29, 2014 at 8:21 am #

    Lovely read. Absolutely brilliant article

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