Take, if you will, Hungary's Golden Team. The story may be familiar to you: a near-perfect marriage of radical tactics with great players (Puskás, Hidegkuti, Kocsis, Bozsik, Czibor...), producing a new, adventurous style which was seemingly irresistible; an Olympic gold medal, won with five straight wins by an aggregate score of 20-2; a tying-up of the loose ends of the Dr. Gerö Cup; the Wembley 6-3, with the "people from outer space" and the "fire engine heading to the wrong fire" and the "utter helplessness"; the 7-1 return in the Népstadion; the four-year, 28-game unbeaten run (if we don't count a loss to a Moscow representative selection. And we don't, apparently) the team took into the 1954 World Cup, and not just any unbeaten run, but one in which they truly trounced opponents; the breeze through the group stage (two games, seventeen goals); the Battle of Berne; the thrilling victory over champions Uruguay in the semi-final; the final against a West Germany team they had beaten 8-3 (a real 1954 score, that) earlier in the tournament; the two early goals that would surely see them on their way to fulfilling their destiny as the greatest ever football team; Germany's quick replies to level the affair; a third German goal with five minutes to go...
...and then Puskás is put through on goal, with a chance to salvage this, the game of games. He slides the ball under the goalkeeper Turek and into the net. He gets to his feet, is embraced by his team-mates, turns around and sees that it is, in the words of Cris Freddi in his Complete Book of the World Cup:
Offside. For ever.Johan Cruijff, one of another bunch of beautiful losers, and the only man cool enough to lead wearing fewer stripes on his sleeve than his men, once said:
There is no medal better than being acclaimed for your style.To which one may reply: well he would, wouldn't he? (Or, this being our Hendrik: he says a lot of things, doesn't he?) Which is fair enough. But there is too a poignancy to his words. It resides not just in the (not entirely unreasonable) effort to rewrite the terms in the wake of scoring fewer goals than Holland's West German opponents did in 1974, but also in the way that, in an attempt at self-justification, he unwittingly points in the direction of what we scienticians call a Law: the World Cup is not about winning, but about losing. Or, more exactly, about losing and not losing. Which is not the same as it being about losing and winning.
Bear with me.
The World Cup, or any similar competition, whittles the participants away until one remains. It is an arrow, and without a winner, it is pointless. That one should remain matters immensely; the ones remaining become indelibly marked on the collective consciousness. After all, it's the winners of the 1970 edition who have become football's horizon. And it's the 1954 West Germany team who have had a feel-good movie made about them, whereas the development of the musical Aranycsapat! has presumably been held up as the producers try to fashion a jolly singalong ending out of the team being forced to hide out in a small regional town upon their homecoming so as to avoid the angry mob in Budapest ("It's Tata, Tata for now!"). I've not seen Das Wunder von Bern, but even watching the trailer makes me feel fidgety. Of course it should focus on Germany: it's a German film, and the story of the "Miracle" is easily compelling enough, on several levels, to warrant being reduced to cinematic treatment. But for me, to look at the match like that would be gnawingly incomplete without the gnawing incompleteness of the Hungary story.
203 teams entered the World Cup. Were this post instead an item on a Transworld Sport-type programme (such as, for instance, Transworld Sport) reporting from the South Pacific Games group match/Oceania World Cup qualifier between Fiji and Tuvalu in the Toleafoa JS Blatter Complex in Apia, Samoa in August 2007, this would be the point where we ponder that, no doubt, these players are dreaming of taking to the field in South Africa, and maybe — just maybe — holding aloft that gold-plated replica of a ruptured, upside-down semi-scrotum that people still sometimes call the Jules Rimet Trophy for some reason. These dreams are dreamt, naturally, but in full awareness that they are dreams. Every team may begin with the notion — however fanciful — that this may be their year, but most know the real score. At a conservative estimate, two-thirds of the teams who begin World Cup qualification do so knowing that they will not qualify; occasionally, one of this number will leak into the final thirty-two. Even then, few of the finalists will truly believe that they can win it all, let alone aim for it. Only seven countries have ever won the World Cup. More to the point, only one can win it at a time. We are led inexorably down the path towards coronation, whose climactic nature is, like any good ceremony, powerful enough to make us buy into its magical properties and essential gods-bothering purpose. As we should. But the World Cup would be unbearable if that was all there was to it.
If a football match is, in part, a metaphor for a battle, then defeat is a metaphor for dying, and victory is a metaphor for ... not dying. I trust that at some stage of your existence hitherto, you have discovered that you are one day going to join the majority. (If not, it's time to have a word with your folks as to the precise nature of this "puppy circus" they told you Snuggles had run off to join.) We are the only animal equipped with this awareness, and it bothers us. We are programmed to fight our own mortality — by, say, making babies, or taking pictures of each other. It's a form of madness: a madness that makes us human. But we cheat death in an altogether more basic way: we stay alive. The universe will kill us if we stand still. It wants us to sate its entropic appetite; it wants us to fulfill our fate and return to the chaos whence we came. We inevitably will, of course — that's what fate means. All organisms may possess a mechanism for self-preservation, but our foreknowledge gives our fear of death a unique profundity. Merely to hold our destiny off for another day, to postpone it until some indefinite point after now, is a triumph and a matter for celebration. If this appears meagre to you; if it appears doleful; defeatist, even ... well, you lead an existence either most lucky or most unlucky.
Any sporting contest, especially a competition which gradually pares down its number of participants, simulates this spirit; it ritualises it. The end of the journey is always a step away; annihilation is forever on call. To see each successive phase of a tournament as a step towards its ultimate resolution would not be to miss the point, exactly, but it would be to give it a glancing blow at best. Each stage is more than just an increment. Such is the sense of foreboding in the face of elimination, and such is the prospect of the deep joy of avoiding it, that a match becomes a universe within a universe. It takes on a meaning that, without detaching itself from the "championship" element of the tournament, is self-contained and keener than keen. Thoughts of the sweet hereafter are of limited use. There may be no future after the final whistle. For all you know, this is all you've got. A competition is a series of survivals and demises.
I say "a competition", but the World Cup embodies this most of all. A unique admixture of circumstances makes it uniquely grand, uniquely mad: its globalness; its co-option of the peculiar neurosis of the national football team; its three-year duration and quadrennial period, epic spans in sporting terms (the Henry-triggered meltdown in Ireland was ludicrous in its extent, but it can be partly explained by the fact that 2014 may as well have been 3014 at that point); and so forth. Above all, it is so through the force of an extraordinary consensus; it is so because we (or as great a "we" as can be reasonably imagined) have willed it to be so. The desperate, magnificent vitality intrinsic to sport is lit up by this extrinsic investment. It is heightened beyond a point where it is simply "sport, only more so"; it is alchemically converted into something other.
The ennui that prevailed in the first week of this World Cup was understandable. It was hardly the most exciting of beginnings, even when only compared to its 2006 counterpart. When we watch games ... well, we want them to be good, and the cumulative effect of so many not-so-good matches in a three-a-day schedule can be wearing. What were less understandable, however, were the glum pronouncements on the quality of the tournament — indeed, on the state of football itself — based simply on the evidence of these matches. The unearned definitiveness of this mopetastic palaver was puzzling, for one assumes that at least some of those so quick to judge had at least some previous World Cup-watching experience. Feverish anticipation can be the enemy of patience, but this was silly. A World Cup is never defined by its first week. This is in part because of a kind of recency illusion: the last few games are more memorable because they happened last. Moreover, it is because the full Worldcupness of the World Cup exists only as potential in the opening batch of games. It begins to coalesce only in the second round of group games, when those teams who started badly are starkly confronted with the consequences. It becomes more real with the final group games: dead rubbers aside, these are decisive (although some teams go into them with a head start). It becomes urgent and inescapable from the first knockout round.
And it is in the light of the very Worldcupness of the thing that it must be seen. Of the five World Cups I have seen prior to this one, none has approached the 2000 or 2008 European Championships for concentrated excellence. (It may be that it's not even possible with a 24- or 32-team competition; in which case, savour Euro 2012 before the mediocrities are granted squatters' rights for France '16.) Yet for all that (and it's a pretty substantial "all that" to be getting on with), neither of those tournaments approached any of those World Cups for depth of meaning and feeling, because the European Championships lack the particular insanity of the World Cup. This insanity is the riptide that sweeps everything and everyone along with it. The meaning of a moment in football cannot be fully discerned by pickling it and examining it later; it always depends on context. In a World Cup, you can't move for context. Every act is performed from Dionysius' chair. This is why the third-place playoff is reduced to being a thank-you gig for the home fans, or a present to the mid-level team for not getting too far above their station. No matter how good a game it may be, it's still just a chummy natter between two benign ghosts — ie. the boring-as-shite kind. It could be the greatest aesthetic feast, but it would still be pallid next to the dourest last-sixteen encounter.
Paraguay-Japan wasn't quite that, but it was almost indigestible for the neutral. Nevertheless, the Worldcupness was still there, still very much there, in a place inaccessible to the dubious feed-me squeaks of a billion hungry chicks. It took Eamonn Dunphy, of all people, to draw the attention of viewers in one country to the parallels between the match and a certain Monday afternoon in Genoa twenty years ago, which happened to be the greatest day in that country's soccer history and, in its way, one of the greatest days in the modern history of the country itself.
It was also a prime example of the capricious nature, as we might see it, of the World Cup. That Nike ad (I can't believe it is Focus!) rang hollow not just because of its FIFA intro-movie stylings and its apparent belief that Homer is still funny (it pains me to say it, but can't someone slip him a Dignitas email address?). It falls flat in its inference that the future would necessarily be written by those players under contractual obligation to them, or at least by those of a similar, if (grumble grumble) non-swoosherrific, stature. If everything is magnified by the World Cup, it is this that gets magnified the most. In our minds, our hopes and forecasts are a kind of Platonic form. The World Cup reveals them to be subjective wishfulness. No, worse than that: it reveals them to be bunkum. This is not "Nike curse"-induced, 20-20 hindsight. This is reality, as borne out time and again. The failure of Hungary in 1954 is the perfect World Cup story. The result was "wrong", though it was so close to being "right" — to elevating the Golden Team to a state of perfection. It was so close to being "right" that the juxtaposition between the ideal (something seemingly tangible, yet still hypothetical) and the actuality (where the current has dragged us to this point and no further) was demonstrated in the starkest manner. It brought up the tyranny of the irreversible moment like a new scar: time's arrow and what have you. The story attained a perfection in its exquisite imperfection. It was the very essence of the drama that is the life force of the World Cup, the very essence of the Worldcupness that informs every knockout game. Perhaps this was the Platonic form of the World Cup, after all.
Not to belittle West Germany's, or anyone else's, success by focusing on failure. If defeat is a metaphor for death, then a championship is a metaphor for immortality. A metaphor, mind: no matter how many times the word gets repeated, it doesn't make it literal. Neither do I think we mean it in the sense of belonging as firmly in the psyches of those future generations, as they tend to their wounds after the sandbag riot, as it does in ours. Are we quite sure that they will buy into the magic of the thing as much as we do, that it will matter more to them than, say, the standing high jump at the 1906 intercalated Olympic Games does? (Ray Ewry ftw, btw.) It's immortality on a scale we can comprehend: immortality that's artificially induced, that refers to the history we have chosen to buy into, that will be immortal for as long as we (as individuals) are. It more than suffices.
But even then, there are limits to this immortality, if that's not too paradoxical. A portion of it is reserved as a tithe to the continuation of this rite. Because it will begin again, and the glory will become a burden, an anxiety. It will become something to be defended — something, maybe, to be lost. Sunrise, sunset. Cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon. Yes, we have no bananas. And so forth. Forever.