Friday, 13 June 2014

Why you should rewind the last day and a half of football, and live it all again

After one game this looked like being the worst World Cup ever.

After four it looks like being one of the best.

Who knew? Let's face it, anyone with half an eye for the way media brouhahas function knew that the talk of unrest, protest, unfinished stadia, alleged corruption and so on wouldn't actually make one blind bit of difference to how the World Cup is perceived among the world's footballing public. We're not belittling those issues in and of themselves, and both corruption in the game and the level of social and economic inequalities in societies like Brazil are hugely important concerns. The latter is much more important, in fact, than football, we freely admit. But it's football that determines how we remember a World Cup. Any World Cup.

So what kind of football did we get so far?

Well on the first day we got the kind of football match they'll show in the seventh circle of hell. People describing this as an open or unusually attractive curtain-raiser must have been watching a different game to us. Brazil v Croatia was an epic tragedy; not the camp, enjoyable kind of tragedy, but the real, awful, etched-on-your-retina-and-your-soul-forever kind. Utterly inept officiating turned what should have been a hard-earned if scrappy draw for the bustling Croats into an entirely false victory for Brazil, whose football for the most part was pitifully tepid.  The kind of football match, the kind of outcome, that leaves you feeling nauseous; to see a team undone not by their own frailties, but by refereeing error on an almost inexplicable level.

So that didn't look too good. Frankly, it was touch and go whether we continued writing about the World Cup, at this point, or whether we booked a last minute holiday somewhere in a gametime-unfriendly timezone.

But day two, oh. Day two.

Say whatever you like about rumoured corruption, mates, and say whatever you like about dubious construction schedules, arrogant political elites and unrest on city streets. Say what you like, moreover, about standards of refereeing. But we, my friends, live in a golden age of football, where standards of technique, tactic, and entertainment on the field have never been higher. Celebrate that. Yes celebrate.

You may have noticed, today, that a competent and enterprising Mexico side achieved a 1-0 win over a Cameroon team they'd actually beaten 3-0, and (if you're a night owl) that Australia recovered from an initial battering to give the Andean swashbucklers of Chile a fairly serious run for their money before falling 3-1. But in between these events, there was a much bigger one - a match that may well go down as the greatest ever contested in the first round of a World Cup. That's ever. The match between Holland and Spain combined surprise and exquisite quality in equal measure; the kind of surprise, say, that sees North Korea beat Italy 1-0 on a Middlesbrough afternoon, but also the kind of quality that sees a silver-templed but still athletic Dutchman rise to meet a cross he has no right to get to, and send the ball in a spare, ballistic parabola beyond where any keeper could reach. I could be describing van Basten in '88, you say? Yes. I could.

Those who once ruled the world have fallen; their castles, as the song would have it, exposed as built on pillars of salt, and pillars of sand. Washed away by the orange tidal wave, Spain's tiki-taka became mere short and unimaginative passing; their high-line pressing  became a slow, wide open defence easily scythed through by rapier Dutch passes and the explosive pace of Arjen Robben. Or Robben Rensenbrink, should we call him, for there was something of the seventies about today. The personification of it all, this evening, for Spain, was Iker Casillas, the great goalkeeper sad-eyed where once he has been stern with resolve. Humiliated for the last goal, Casillas was not, for once, at fault on that occasion, for the goal had been scored as soon as Robben set off from the halfway line.

Were Spain found out at last? Yes, obviously, is the answer, but the real question is how; it is too early to answer that, just as it is too early to recall what really happened in that crashing, delirious second half, that best 45 minutes ever played in a World Cup first round, that three-quarter-hour when worlds seemed to crumble.

We will breathe again. Tomorrow. And then, there will be football. Welcome to the World Cup.

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