“In sport, winners can survive only if losers do too; otherwise, there’d be no game” – Tim Flannery
How will you remember this World Cup? Will it be for the collective panic attack that gripped the Brazilian nation when the penalties crashed and fluffed but ultimately undid that effervescent band of pirate footballers from across the border? Or will it be for Angel Di Maria’s anonymous ghosting of a goal against the Swiss as Argentina sweated minutes before the dead ball roulette wheel loomed ominously for yet another random spin? Is Kevin De Bruyne a name that will enter our game’s folklore? Will the talking head previews of World Cup 2026 still be condemning the scurrilous swan dives of a Dutch footballer, long after he has accepted a lucrative role as a World Cup talking head?
If the opening stages of this tournament were defined by the (in)glorious eliminations and humiliations of some of football’s self-entitled powerhouses and underpinned by the shock of the new, the Second Round will be mythologised as the chapter that shook football’s certainties to the core and very nearly turned our perceptions and expectations on their heads. And by the end, those heads were dizzy; giddy with the possibilities of what football could have been and what it can become.
It is unprecedented to see each group winner in the quarter-finals, however much they might have squirmed to get there. But with the exception of our new darlings Costa Rica and Colombia, there’s a sense that we’re here again, going over the same old narratives as France’s doomed 1982 semi-final against West Germany gets uploaded onto websites for yet another retelling of Harold Schumacher’s fetish for a bit of the old ultraviolence on unsuspecting French substitutes. How many new ways can the story of Total Football be brought to life or that the weight of expectation bearing down on Brazil (its origins lying in an embarrassing act of hubris that saw them declaring themselves World Champions on home soil prior to 1950’s deciding game) is stifling yet also inspiring them to ‘right the wrongs’ of history.
This isn’t designed to denigrate the achievements of all those teams who have progressed (well, in Holland’s case, and Robben in particular, maybe just a little bit). They did what they had to do, as the truth of the truism dictates. However, what we’ll be witnessing over the coming days is a continuation of narratives from World Cups past. If the ‘C’ nations falter, the semi-final lineup will carry on the tradition of carve-ups between those who have always determined where the trophy will reside for the ensuing four years. And with that, a little (but most definitely not all) of the competition’s stardust and dash of romantic whimsy has been lost. How much more intriguing would it have been to see Algeria go toe-to-toe with their former colonial masters or the untidiness of the USA’s streetfighting men take on the artistry of Lionel Messi, in turn capturing the imagination of a nation so long resistant to this game’s alluring charms?
As Chile and Nigeria, Mexico and Greece have fallen, it’s dawned on me that there is more heart in the glory of defeat than there is in the glory of victory. It sounds contradictory but there’s something inherently human about the idea of heroic failure; dreaming the impossible dream and fighting the unwinnable war and all those other spirit-swelling aphorisms. Why else do films such as Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest continue to endure, telling as they do the doomed stories of protagonists who refuse to accept the stacking up of the odds against them? Stephen Piles in The Book Of Heroic Failures recounts the story of bullfighter El Gallo (The Chicken) who would adopt the macho poses associated with the sport as he entered the arena but would routinely run for cover once his bovine adversary emerged. His cowardice became the stuff of legend, so much so that he was persuaded to come out of retirement on seven occasions. His more courageous contemporaries however, were less fondly recalled.
And so it goes with World Cups. How often are the ground-breaking Dutch sides of the seventies, playing football’s equivalent of the children’s game Fruit Salad in tangerine shirts (is that a new way of describing Total Football?) or the monochromatic brilliance of Hungary’s ‘Magnificent Magyars’ in 1954 remembered with the wistful sigher labelling them the Greatest Team Never To Win The World Cup? Add to that roll-call Socrates and Zico’s mesmeric side of 1982; a team that could legitimately classify itself as really Brazilian in style, swagger and temperament. Gazza’s tears were born out of failure. As were Asamoah Gyan’s in 2010, once he rattled the Uruguayan crossbar in stoppage time thus eventually paving the way for the celebrations of the nascent Luis Suarez and his cronies. All these and more are the stuff that World Cup montages are made of; soaring strings from indie anthems, disconsolate supporters in smudged, bedraggled fancy dress, players lying prostrate on the pitch shedding tears of despair and exhaustion.
It’s these moments that in essence capture our souls because they represent human fallibility and courage at their most extreme. More so than the ultimate pursuit of victory because our lives are not continuing episodes of success piled upon success. We try. We fail. And sometimes we win - not always mind you and when we don’t, we pick ourselves up and carry on because we don’t have a choice. The only thing we do have a choice over is how we deal with adversity when it does arrive.
To that end, football as ever holds up a mirror to life. Due to a series of unforeseen and unfortunate events, Nina, the kids and I have had to return home prematurely from our year in Greece. Our experience has taught us many things but the thing that runs parallel with what I’ve seen so far at the World Cup is the willingness to have a go, despite insurmountable obstacles in front of you. It would be easy to wallow in regret and frustration but it serves no purpose. We tried everything possible to make it work but as with Chile and Algeria’s fates, sometimes the weight of history and the unfamiliarity of the terrain are too difficult to overcome.
What the future holds for us is uncertain. What I take away with me from Greece is the memory of sitting in a square packed full of Greeks knocking back ouzo and chewing on fingernails as the local church chimed well past midnight. I’ll remember a Greek break of five against two Costa Ricans and how everybody knew that once that chance was squandered, the team’s fight was chastened. The shootout defeat was inevitable. We were left with ifs and buts and a glorious defeat that will play through the ages and be exaggerated for even greater effect.
That’s how I’ll remember this World Cup. Alongside an American goalkeeper who turned his tics into an advantage and saved and saved and saved, shot after shot after Belgian shot. I’ll remember Algerian counter-attacks of such explosiveness that normally composed Germans were reduced to flailing limbs and tackles. I’ll remember the most fearless team I have ever seen go within an inch of knocking out the hosts and the heroes’ welcome they received on the streets of Santiago upon their return. There is no shame in losing. It’s how you lose that matters.
I’m stocked up with memories now. I have the legends of the noble fallen to sustain me and fuel this unabashedly romantic football soul of mine. Yes, America winning the World Cup would have been outrageously amazing but that would have been too much like a Hollywood schmaltzfest, right? And Algeria playing France is probably better left to the imagination anyway. This way it’s better.
Let Neymar mug and pout for the camera with choreographed precision tears whilst Robben shamelessly shows he is a player for this age. The victim of his deceit, Rafael Marquez proved throughout the tournament that he is more than that. That he is a player for the ages and will always be remembered as such.
Let the Big Boys have their trophy if it makes them happy.
The experts might tell you otherwise but that’s not why we remember World Cups. They didn’t quite do it this time, but my word the underdogs were brilliant weren’t they? Maybe it’s time to start re-thinking which teams can legitimately be considered underdogs at the next World Cup? Maybe it’s time for some nations to learn that there are different ways in which you can lose. This year’s Second Round was full of the best kind. Take note egos, take note. The World Cup’s for losers.
Further reading: This World Cup! This Bloody, Beautiful World Cup!
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