19 July 2018

TWTWCTW


I read previews to get educated, and I even tolerate the predictions of the learned to help set the scene, but (with due admiration for those experts) it is with glee that I see such attempts to give shape to the future confounded by each World Cup. It's in there every time, the mysterious element just beyond your ability to identify or to understand how it got there: the strange light outside in the night, someone else's bloody tooth in your drink.

This edition, more than most, careened from certainty to new certainty contradicting the previous one.

After their opening game against Portugal, it looked as though Spain might be emerging from their post-golden era slump, and that their performance might match the talent they collected, imposing as it yet again was. But it turned out they were just the bad old Spain in the good old Spain's too-big suit. Their performance against Russia was a fascinatingly grim self-parody, a sublime monument to mental paralysis: a vast blank slab.

Germany — as constant for the last dozen years as the old West Germany had been, but more fun — were outeverythinged by Mexico, then knocked on their backsides again by Sweden before getting up and showing, in a desperate flash of pride, that they were still Germany. Their tame surrender to South Korea and their management's offloading of blame onto Mesut Özil exposed a rotten heart and showed that they were in fact the new France (and not in a good way).

Mexico made their standard exit in the last sixteen, but the joy and hope they sparked with some of their performances at least ensured that had been promoted to the rank of this year's Chile.

Colombia's goals against Poland, and their outstanding centre-half pairing of Yerry Mina and Davinson Sánchez, made you optimistic to the point of stupidity. Against Senegal, Colombia were nervous, and then Jamesless, but finally victorious. Against England, they seemed terrified. (Why? Jameslessness?) The terror manifested itself first as destructive cynicism, and then, as it dawned on them that they would actually have to play football to win, in a thrilling urgency that almost won them the match. England had looked composed (if blunt as an attacking force); now it was they who looked scared, misplacing simple passes and resorting to the soothing hoof. Yet they paced their way back into the game like a cyclist dropped on a climb, and given a second chance, they kept their heads when it mattered.

Japan were so frightened of elimination in their last group match against Poland that they ceased to play altogether. Against Belgium, they were courage itself.

"...and at the end of what was an intriguing first half..." is usually the most professional way a commentator can plead with a viewer to watch the rest of a dull game, but the first half of Belgium-Japan really did load the second with possibility. The game was the best of the tournament because it was a complete piece, the first minute tied to the last.

The favourites were struggling to impose their desire on the game, while constantly being undercut by the underdogs. Belgium had most of the ball, but couldn't threaten. Japan attacked with quick, smart passing through midfield, then worked the ball around the Belgian half until, almost invariably, a space opened up on the flank (either one), into which a Japanese player was making a run. The ball would find him, and Belgium would be stretched. In the second half, Genki Haraguchi scored following just such a run.

Then Takashi Inui scored with a long-range shot struck with such apparently maximal transference of energy that he made the ball seem at one leaden and weightless. It was a goal experienced more viscerally than euphorically.

Japan harried Belgium into error after error, but a fluke goal (albeit a pretty one) triggered a torrential comeback from Belgium, finished off with a hurricane of a counter-attack goal to win in stoppage time.

In the next round against Brazil, Romelu Lukaku would snake his way through midfield at high speed before setting up Kevin De Bruyne for Belgium's second, in a virtuosic combination of control over his own body, over the ball and over his own mind (picking his path, laying it off to De Bruyne at just the right time before he himself got clattered). He made the winner against Japan without even touching the ball. His outside-in run drew his marker away from the wing down which Thomas Meunier would run to cross for Nacer Chadli to score, the ball having been dummied on the way by Lukaku. He exhibited so many facets of his game in those two moves that without showing it, the striker Lukaku reminded you what a great goalscorer he is too.


Much of the World Cup is about defeat: teams being beaten by teams soon to be beaten. To watch the World Cup is to become a connoisseur of pain. You get an education in the many ways of the knockout. Japan felt the exquisite agony of giving everything of themselves in almost breaking the order, only to find it twisting violently back into place. Peru sang beautifully, but kept missing the high note. England's consolation for elimination was to step straight into a honeymoon period and to break a cycle of negativity (although we've heard that one before). Poland's defeat to Colombia furthered their Sisyphean run of qualifying and flopping. (Would that Ireland could do that.) Senegal were eliminated on a fair-play tiebreaker: death by bureaucracy.

The exits of Germany and Spain were those of a privileged class being confronted with failings they can't decide whether they want to acknowledge. That of Argentina was the inevitable fate of a broken team. (For the neutral, though — if being a Lionel Messi fan counts as neutral in this fractured age — the whole weird mess was worth it just for his goal against Nigeria. With some players, you slow the video to understand their tricks. With Messi, you do so to understand his simple touches. An image to go along with those of Lukaku is that of Kenneth Omeruo putting his weight on his left foot as he prepared to make a tackle with his right, because he didn't expect Messi's second touch to be taken before the ball had hit the ground from his first, because who would expect that? We are all Kenneth Omeruo.)

Panama's first World Cup appearance was so precious that celebration overcame elimination. Russia and Sweden left the stage contented in their overachievement.

Croatia started the competition looking quite flat, but spent the quarter-final, semi-final and final straining every muscle and wearing away every nerve ending. Their effort was embossed on the latter stages of the tournament. And there in the middle of it was Luka Modrić, whose "gift", as described by Jorge Valdano (a candidate for player of the tournament), "consists [of] filling the game with common sense". He was a still point in a frantic world — but he snapped into tackles as fervently as his teammates did.

And their hopes ran into France, who proved almost casually that they were the best team in the world. Croatia wound up a punch into which they put a lifetime of hope and fury; France bobbed; Croatia whiffed and fell to the canvas. This was the most confounding thing about the whole tournament: that the prize we attach so much importance to should be won at the cost of so little sweat. It made you wonder whether French has a word for 'insouciant'. It was all a bit anti-climactic.

My favourite major tournament, and the one that has therefore become the standard by which I measure others (this is the kind of thing that chooses you; you don't choose it) is the 2000 European Championship. France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and (coming up on the rail) Italy — they, and other teams, fulfilled so many of your expectations of what a championship should have: daring, passion, bitterness, beauty, anguish, surprise, truckloads of drama and, crucially, truly excellent sides putting each other through the ringer. It was, like Belgium-Japan, a total story, but one stretched over three weeks.

If the 2016 European Championship suffered, it was not because the expansion to twenty-four teams allowed more mediocrity to flood in, but because the countries you might expect to be great were not. This World Cup was similar, except that Belgium finally showed much of what they'd been promising for so long, and France showed how great they are by how much they withheld.

But also by how much they gave. There may have been something disturbingly Mourinhoesque about them: a terribly well-organised defence with an attack loosely connected to the front of it. But Kylian Mbappé called to mind the young Ronaldo. Paul Pogba at times looked ten feet tall (his slashing pass to Mbappé in the final to start the move that led to Pogba's goal stands next to Lukaku's finest moments). While everyone else was busy running around looking for the answer, N'Golo Kanté quietly solved the game yet again. And yes, that defence, as a defence should, glorified the art of responsible spoilsporting: Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti were magnificent. Didier Deschamps did, after all, once win a World Cup playing in front of Thuram, Desailly, Blanc and Lizarazu. Maybe he knows a thing or two.

So even if it didn't scream out, the exuberance (the joie de vivre, as we say in English) that uncoiled in their celebrations after winning the trophy could be glimpsed in their play all along.

I wish this year's France could have been serially tested like their counterparts were eighteen years ago by Spain, Portugal and Italy. I've yet to see a World Cup that has lived up to Euro 2000's strengths. But I can hardly say I've ever regretted watching one. Even the bad ones are good. There's too much going on. To add to the above Diego Costa's solo masterpiece of a goal against Portugal, which encapsulated so much about the player (including how he got away with a foul on Pepe to begin with); Nacho and Pavard's twin strikes; the somewhat distressing dominance of European teams; the last half-hour of Switzerland-Serbia; Artem Dzyuba; the flamboyance of Neymar; Iran and Morocco putting the fear of God into Spain and Portugal ... it would barely begin to cover it. So many memorable moments are already forgotten.

And the World Cup has strengths all its own. It's global, and it matters more. We are privileged to see players in such a vulnerable state — to see how much they can bear, in front of the world and the folks back home, to stake on the outcome, which will eventually be defeat for all but that lone escapee.

Pussy Riot's intervention in the final shook you out of your arrogant reverie (before you drift off again) and reminded you that this most important of the least important things is bound up with the most important things and the world's worst people. The paradox is that it's also a relief from those things, and others, to devote a month of intense absorption to what is, at best, a celebration of human creativity and enthusiasm. Even if it is run by FIFA.

In these days after the end of the tournament, when it's now absent, you can think back to before it began, to the blank slate that was the draw and the fixture list, and think about how much has changed, and how little.

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13 July 2018

The Past of Football: The World Cup, 1506-2022



Following on from his chapters on Alfbert, Lord Ramsey’s England, statistics, and the NASAL, General Sir Frank Lazarus bravely continues his chronicling of the history of the Beautiful Sport by tackling the Large One: the World Cup.


1506

A spectator slips a ball into the ring during a bout of the traditional Florentine post-pub fighting game calcio stramascio (Italian for "proper twenty-one-man brawl"). No one notices, but football is invented once more. A group of holidaying Frenchmen challenge the locals to a game. The World Cup is born. Things gets heated, and an irate Frenchman charges an Italian much in the manner of a rhinoceros, which had only recently been invented.



1930

The soccering world plead with their British masters to revive the old World Cup idea. The British say no, but gallantly allow the foreigners to stage a competition by themselves, if they were even capable. The winner of this event would face the champion of the Home Internationals, then the supreme tournament, in a showdown for global supremacy. In the final, Uruguay and Argentina can't decide whose football to use, so they use both. The ref can't keep score, and in the confusion declares Uruguay winners. Reminded of their promise of a super global playoff, the British go oh, we don't know what you're talking about, we're busy that decade, we were joking anyway, shut up, go away, there's a Scottish League-Irish League game on.


1934

With the World Cup hosting rights awarded to Italy, Argentina decide to enter the tournament disguised as Italians, in the hope of profiting from favourable refereeing decisions this time. This fails to work, as the officiating is scrupulously fair and impartial at all times. Despite this, Italy/Argentina win the competition.

To save time, the 1938 World Cup is held simultaneously. Italy/Argentina also win this.


1942

With everyone else too busy killing the flip out of each other, my now late then punctual fifth cousin Bobberidge Lazarus seizes the opportunity to stage the 1942 World Cup in his self-declared microstate Lazarusvania (pictured below). All the other nations of the world being too chicken to turn up, Lazarusvania are declared champions and remain the only unbeaten team in World Cup history except Scotland. The FIFA still won't recognise this because ooh that bloody Sepp Blatter.


1946

The whole world clean forgets about the World Cup! They promise they won't do it again.


1950

200,000,000 people cram into the brand new Maracanã to watch the final game between Brazil and Uruguay. The Uruguayans are victorious, but Jules Rimet has left the Him Trophy under the bed from the war. To cover up his mistake, he points out that since the competition format did not technically include a final, the World Cup actually has no winner. Everyone shrugs their shoulders, goes home and never speaks of the match again.


1954

The FIFA decree that all games will be first to 100 or until it gets dark. The Germans stun the world by beating Hungary in the final. They celebrate by being very friendly to strangers, drinking lots of water, and dancing all night to acid oompah.


1958

Brazil power to glory behind young phenomenon Edson, who celebrates by stealing a name from the tournament's Swedish hosts. He will henceforth be known to all as Pelle. In his victory speech, Pelle declares: "I am much better than Maradona."


1962

Chile and Italy get into a massive fight, but a dog runs on and pees on everyone, and people rejoice in the sheer bloody beauty of the moment. Pelle misses the latter stages of Brazil's triumphant run due to injury, but nonetheless collects his medal in full kit.


1966

England's triumph and subsequent fall from grace have already been extensively covered in this series. Suffice it to add that further research has revealed that a large shipment of grain was dispatched from Felixstowe to Leningrad the day after the final. I'm just leaving that piece of information there.


1970

whoooooooooaaaaaaahhhhhh duuuuuuuude have you seen this it's all like colours and stuff it's so bright and shiny and bluuuuurrrrrry and like green and yellow man look at that yellow it’s the yellowy yellow lellow lellyowest yellow I’ve ever seen where is this place it's sunny like aaaaaaaaall the time dude is it just me or is this game going reeeeeeal sloooooow like they're barely even moving wait did Italy just win their group 1-0 is that weird looking German dude okay he can't stop scoring goals for some reason look at the yellow and the white it's like there's a party in my retinas and everyone's invited OH MY GOD HE'S SHOOTING FROM THE HALFWAY LINE AAAAAAAHAHAHAHAAAAA wait wait what they were two up weren't they weren't they answer me man what the fuck dude I want a Peru shirt is that guy playing in a sling like an actual fucking sling HOLY SHIT HE JUST WENT ROUND THE KEEPER WITHOUT TOUCHING THE BALL FUCK FUCK I CAN'T TAKE THIS THIS IS GETTING TOOOOOOO MUCH they keep passing passing passing what are they doing passing passing passing I feel sick passing passing passing he's just passed it to nobodFUCK MAN IT'S THE FULL-BACK I'm going to die


1974

A World Cup of firsts: Scotland truly become Scotland for the first time; future 40-year-old Dino Zoff concedes a goal for the first time in his life; and the Dutch qualify for their first World Cup (apart from that other time when they were called the Dutch East Indies).

The Dutch had created an entirely new soccering philosophy called Sexy Football, which was a development of the Brazilian style, O Sexy Football, named after Irish missionary priest Fr. Peter O'Sexyfootball (an t-Athair Peadar Ó Soichsighphiotbál). It was invented by Czechoslovakia's 1962 goalkeeper Johan Cruij/yff, who would for inspiration stare for hours at paintings by the old Dutch goalkeeping masters: Vermeer, Mondragon, van der Saenredam, &c. Sexy Football involved players running around all over the place and kicking the crippins out of the other team.

In the final, the Dutch do it so astoundingly magnificently that after 22 minutes the Germans concede defeat. The Germans' captain, Franz 'The Director' Peckinpah, personally hands over the new cup, bought in a trophy emporium in Munich because Brazil had left the old one under the bed from the Mardi Gras. But Cruy/ijff isn't satisfied and holds out his hand again, whereupon Peckinpah gives him the European Nations Trophy cup the Germans had somehow accidentally won two years earlier.

Crui/jyff moves to Spain where he assassinates Franco and retires to stud, siring a master race of footballers with some very short women.


1978

In the last minute of the final, a goalbound shot by the Dutch's Derek Manninger is stopped short of the line when an Argentinian general runs onto the pitch and shoots the ball. The ref waves play on, and Argentina win in extra time. Buoyed by this boost to national confidence, Argentina immediately invade Derrylondonderry but are trampled by a herd of plucky British sheep.


1982

The first ever official World Cup anthem is recorded by The Fall. It is a searing commentary on recent FIFA history: "Put the blame into FIFA Haus, go round there and kick out Rous ... Rous rumbled, Rous rumbled ... I'm João Totale, the yet unborn son ... PELLE'S COBWEB EYES!!!!!". Called "The Goal of Love", its b-side is a reworking of "Bingo Master", telling the story of Sepp Blatter's impeccable handling of the draw for the '82 finals. The single is a global smash in several German cities.


1986

Uruguay's José Batista sets a new World Cup record by getting sent off against Scotland before the draw has even been made. Sócrates refines his penalty technique to the point where he doesn't even have to score anymore. Bryan Robson's sling and Gary Lineker's cast make arm injuries a hip new trend for English kids bored of stealing VW badges. Peter Shilton is outjumped by a tiny man and is quite rightly still unhappy about it to this day. Said tiny man, Diego Maradona, waltzes his way through the knockout rounds, but his effectiveness in the final is blunted as he is marked out of the game by Pelle.


1990

The 1990 edition is filled with cynical, negative football, if football is indeed the word. Tactics are horribly defensive. Goals are almost impossibly hard to come by. Games are a stop-start travesty of fouls, dives and whines. Claudio Caniggia is assaulted by three Cameroon players in quick succession in the opening game. Maradona spends his entire tournament being hacked down or diving to avoid being hacked down. A record number of red cards are handed out. Frank Rijkaard twice spits at Rudi Völler, yet Völler is sent off. Gary Lineker dives to win a penalty that helps to keep Cameroon out of the semi-finals. Argentina drug water bottles they then allow Brazilian players to drink from. Ireland 'arrange' the closing stages of their match against the Dutch to secure qualification from the group stages, and make the quarter-finals despite winning no games and scoring two goals. Argentina finish as runners-up after winning just two games. The Germans win the tournament scoring three goals in their last three games: two penalties and a heavily deflected free kick. Not one but two players are sent off in a terrible final. This remains the greatest World Cup of all time.


1994

The United States yet again ruin soccer by calling it soccer and going to the matches in huge numbers. After Argentina's game against Nigeria, Diego Maradona is led away for a drugs test by an official who looks very familiar although no one can quite put their finger on it. The Germans merge with the East Germans to form superteam The Germans. This somehow makes them worse. Stefan 'Effin'' Effenberg is sent home by manager Berti Vogts because you would, wouldn't you. Many games are played in temperatures that are blatantly discriminatory against teams from northern Europe. Sweden finish third.


1998

Adidas claim that their official World Cup football, the Obélix, is the roundest ever, thus solving a great problem that has long bedevilled the game. Dennis Bergkamp does not stamp on Siniša Mihajlović. Zinedine Zidane turns up fashionably late and steals the plaudits as France win. Fontaine, and just Fontaine, presents the Raymond Kopa to Didier Deschamps. Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Laurent Blanc and Bixente Lizarazu are dismantled, shipped to China and reassembled brick-by-brick to dam the Yangtze.


2002

The World Cup is awarded to the sci-fi technotopia of Japan/South Korea. To celebrate, the organisers decree that it will be the first tournament ever to be staged in the future. Unfortunately, the confusion over dates leads to many of the favourites not turning up. The official ball of the World Cup is made of pure neon, making it the most visible football ever. Keepers still complain about it.


2006

Swarthy Latin Cristiano Ronaldo grabs Wayne Rooney's foot and stamps his own gonads with it, thus getting the greatest player in the world sent off. Ronaldo finds his camera and winks, taunting the English by slyly referencing the derivation of the word 'connive' from the Latin for 'wink'. The next day he reveals his nefarious plan in a tell-all memoir called How I Got The Greatest Player In The World Sent Off.

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the World Cup, a special re-enactment of the first ever World Cup game is held. Everyone goes home happy with no lingering bitterness or recrimination.


2010

I don't know?


2014

The world is plunged into mourning as Neymar is shot dead by top bad Colombian Pablo Escobar. The World Cup is cancelled in what many suspect to be an elaborate Brazilian conspiracy to deny Lionel Messi the chance to win the World Cup on his own. As part of Neymar's funeral, a game is held between Brazil and the Germans. Brazil honour Neymar's memory by being completely shit at football without him.


2018

Croatia win the final on penalties after a 1-1 draw with France.


2022

The FIFA controversially decide that the World Cup will be held in catarrh. The tournament is moved to the winter to allow more catarrh to be produced.


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12 July 2018

Contact


There is a growing fashion in football for attacking players at corner kicks to huddle close together in groups of three to five in the middle of the penalty area, waiting to split off in different directions as the kick comes in. (Ninety percent of England’s attacking strategy at the World Cup has consisted of this.)

It's striking, because football is one of those games where colleagues tend not to make physical contact with one another during play (or even in a moment preparatory to the ball being put back into play). Instead, the ball is a stand-in, conveying contact from player to player.

There used to be a fashion for mocking footballers for 'over-the-top' goal celebrations involving any physical contact beyond a simple handshake and maybe some hair-tousling if the would-be tousler was feeling particularly exuberant. Maybe, on some level, players want to turn the touch-at-a-distance that playing football entails into something more direct for a moment.

Rugby players do it all the time: the pack bind intimately in the scrum; they form phalanx-like mauls; they pile into rucks; they lift each other at line-outs. Footballers can't do that.

In fact, when players from the same football team do make contact with each other during play, it's usually bad news. I was at a game recently where two teammates collided with one another in a manner traditionally described as 'hefty'. Both ended up on the ground. One, lying on his back, lifted his leg; the foot, instead of pointing to 12, was, let's say, unnaturally directed towards the setting sun. There were many minutes of injury time.
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08 July 2018

Let's have some new clichés

Those acutely conscious of the fact that football wasn't invented in 1992, you know, will have been delighted by how Fyodor Smolov decided to open Russia's World Cup quarter-final penalty shootout. It was an inspired homage to a penalty taken by none other than Diego Maradona in Argentina's 1990 shootout against Yugoslavia: a gentle game of catch with a Croatian goalkeeper (then, Tomislav Ivković; now, Danijel Subašić). Behold, ladies and gentlemen, the state of this:


A cherished World Cup memory of mine is Maradona's penalty in the shootout of Argentina's next game, the semi-final against Italy. He allowed Walter Zenga to dive to his right, and oh-so-slowly rolled the kick far away to the other side, the ball perhaps (it's a little hard to tell) even kissing the inside of the post as it went in.

Looking back at the video, I realise that's not quite how it happened.


But then, I never said that's how it happened. I told you what my memory of it is, and imagination has improved on reality. (The reality wasn't bad either, mind you.)

Perhaps this is what afflicted Smolov. In his mind, he probably saw himself performing the perfect Panenka. What he got was the horrific reality of trying to coolly swim in that particular shark tank.

The Panenka is a devalued currency. For one thing, as chapeaux go, it's quite the vieuxest. For another, all kinds of nonsense have been awarded that grand title. Here's Antonín Panenka's original (and best, according to Tina Turner):


And here's Zinedine Zidane's from the 2006 World Cup final:


Chipping a "Panenka" that high is a safe way to do something that ought to be dangerous. Calling it a Panenka is like claiming to have circumnavigated the globe by walking around the North Pole and it at arm's length. A Panenka should softly stroke the goalkeeper's hair and whisper in his ear: "ya prick".

There are three perfect penalties, and on this I'll hear no argument. One is a genuine Panenka. Another is the Pressman:


The other is one yet to be made manifest in the inadequate construct dignified by the name "the real world". As Maradona did with Zenga, it uses the goalkeeper's propensity to pick a side to dive on. The taker would then kick the ball to the other side of the goal at the slowest possible speed for it to cross the line. It's a penalty that says: "This is how little energy I need to waste on this charade".

This penalty also comes in a deluxe version wherein the keeper, sprawled on the wrong side of the goal, has just enough time to realise what's going on, get up, dive back across the goal and ... just ... get ... a ... fingertip to the ball ... which only directs it towards that spot where it simultaneously hits the inside of the post and the beautiful, beautiful side-netting.

Proof, still more proof, that in my mind — where it really counts — I'm a better footballer than Zinedine Zidane.
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06 July 2018

Stand up straight and tall like your back’s against the wall


So there he is, fed the ball in the right-hand channel by Mascherano. He's in enough space to allow the ball to run past him as he turns to face the Germany goal. Now thirty-five yards out, he meets Schweinsteiger. His first touch starts the engine; the second sets him on his way past his opponent. But just as it looks like he's about to reach that point of no return — the momentum that will commit him and the line of five defenders at the eighteen-yard line to whatever will be — Schweinsteiger slides in and brings him to the ground.




By the time Schweinsteiger has had his cramp/premature rigor mortis tended to, two more minutes have elapsed. The World Cup final is now well into stoppage time at the end of extra time. Argentina have a free kick thirty or so yards from goal, and there's only one man who can take it...
his entire World Cup reduced to him standing there, right in front of the penalty spot, head bowed, hands on hips, lame of hamstring, burdened of shoulder, stuck in the warmth of the SoCal sun (it won't ever diii-iiie) on what turned out to be a Copacabana teeming with a jubilating samba school led by — say it with feeling — Dunga
If there was justice in fiction, the film might end there. With no resolution offered, you would have to consider what was so important about a resolution anyway. Why should so much rest on this one round of what-happened-next? By now, he has done so much in football for so long that everyone has their minds made up about him anyway. Hangarfuls of evidence already exist for anyone to use to support or dismiss any theory or belief about him. This moment would merely be another exhibit in the case of whatever you want it to be.


The trouble is, the future can't be trusted with itself. It's a beautiful, pristine void. Leave it be? Really?
and then everything that had gone before: him (after a group phase in which he and Italy were muck or not much cleaner) bursting through the knockout rounds in fits of desperate elegance all those other chancers could only dream of: a breathtakingly nerveless first-timer to equalise with scant time remaining against Nigeria, topped off with an extra-time penalty to clinch the win
With someone else's talent, you can really go places. It's fuel for fantasy. You can make whole worlds from the stuff, and no-one can stop you. And you owe it nothing; you can do what you like with it. You are stealing something without guilt or fear of retribution. It practically begs you to steal it, and it sitting out there in the open: football is a public work, not the jottings of a shy poet. It invites wanton irresponsibility.


In such conditions, prudence is a bore. One trap, one finish, one drop of the shoulder can be enough to make you want to see more. Until then, you can imagine it. Once you've seen it in the stadium in your mind, you want to see still more. Until then, you can imagine it. People go mad this way.
cordially inviting Zubizarreta to allow the ball to be taken around him to set up the late winner against Spain (even making up for the subsequent touch that had taken him "too far" wide)
A player between games isn't really a player — just another human being, tragically like you and me. It's almost a duty to dream big on his behalf: it re-animates him; it allows him to be at his grandest even when he's fatigued.


It's a way of taming the terra incognita that is the future. You fantasise, or speculate, or guess. You wear lucky garments and follow hopefully beneficial routines. You create torrents of previews, predictions, tinpot precog. You turn the game into an exam in which you set the questions and mark the papers. You try to define 'legacy': to determine in advance what those in times to come will think about what hasn't happened yet. It's a strange kind of legacy: one that mixes up past and future, legator and legatee. It's as if, despite what Kierkegaard said (okay, it was the Manics), life can only be understood forwards but must be lived backwards.
that shimmy along the 18-yard line, good God, for the first against Bulgaria, then his blessing of Albertini's gift of a pass to make it two
It's some kind of compensation or revenge for always being a split second late to whatever happens on the field. A player does something, and you can only react. The demarcation is strict. You're a moth crashing into a window. You don't have the privilege of being able to write the chapter that starts like this—


—or that starts like pretty much anything. All the intuition and science — continuously and vigorously refined though they may be — that are brought to bear on mapping the game must at kick-off take their proper place behind the players and fortune: together, the permanent advance guard, the prow of the ship. Eduardo Galeano said: "It definitely depends on fate, which like the wind blows every which way." If there's any poetry to be had, it will come from the earthbound reality of ball, boot and grass, which you have no direct access to.
and how it looked as if he was the one person capable of looking the World Cup in the eye and actually acting in concert with it. He was using its inexorable momentum, as it sheds half its pretenders at a time, in his favour, rather than allowing himself to get stampeded by it
Afterwards, though, you can lay claim to whatever has happened, and go to town.
True, World Player of the Year plays well at the World Cup makes a certain kind of sense. But sense has nothing on the World Cup. As the tournament progresses and the vice tightens, nerves prickle and wound even the best. With courage and panache, Baggio was both ennobling the World Cup by giving it something to contrast with and complement its reputation as an easy destroyer of men, and using it as an instrument to project and amplify his talent beyond even what the cathedrals of the almighty Serie A could do
Your conception of the future is constrained by your knowledge of the past, which tends to shed complexity. It seeks emblems on which to place a gross retrospective burden, which, via these emblems, becomes someone else's present-day burden. Hence the epithets given over the years to those blessed/cursed with potential: all those Cruijffs of the Carpathians, the Eusébios of the Steppes, the Drogbas of the far side of Drogheda, last month's Next Maradona. You know Maradona? The lad who won a World Cup all on his own?


Fantasy makes demands at once simplistic and grandiose.
Moreover, in both his style and the timing of some of its most exquisite expressions, he seemed to be displaying a deep sympathy with football's dramatic potential. He was playing in dreams, which involve a scabby early goal and an hour and a half of desperate clinging on only in the minds of specialists
'Dominant' is a word too ready to the tongue in sport. It evokes a bowling ball skittling skittles, and defences haven't been that obliging in centuries. If dominance was what this caper was really about, then LeBron James would have a hundred points a game and the other fella five hundred hat-tricks instead of a measly fifty-odd. But they don't: they have to pick their paths just like anyone else, and those paths are limited in number and by time. They're just better at picking them, and what's a path for them might be a dead end for others.

'Dominant' doesn't tell you how something happened so much as it describes the effect of having witnessed it. It refers to you on the floor, the blast having thrown you there; it doesn't describe what caused the explosion. You don't have to know every forensic detail, the thousand things that conspired to set it off. Someone does. But you don't, for your ears to be ringing and your face to be set in a stunned smile.
Or, you might say, he was playing in a World Cup, a dreamland all its own. The heightened and often preposterous tenor (howya) of a World Cup is built on big demands seldom met (starting with the demand that the football be any good, which is just plain unreasonable). Baggio matched that tenor and made it seem fair and unpreposterous. Or maybe righteously preposterous. Either way, he played that thing
An appreciation of a simple (or not so simple) act of beauty, a rational assessment of a player's body of work: they are pleasures in themselves, and only a maniac would be so unfair as to deny a player such consideration. (There are a lot of maniacs.) But you also yearn for symbols of that talent: moments that condense its truth into a form that will leave a permanent mark on anyone so much as passing by. You need to see that it's more than just another pretty evanescence. You need to see immensity in that talent, to be shown its life-affirming properties with graphic exaggeration.


In other words, you need it to see it as a story. Sport is stories on stories on stories — stories all the way down. Stories are selective, partial; they usually involve jeopardy. The simplest story is: will he or won't he?

Maybe there's some cruelty in that, something a tad sadistic in the wish to make someone play a role in such a production, and in the refusal not to simply accept every manifestation of their talent as uniformly valid currency.

Talent in sport is non-transferable. A player can't bank it and wait for it to mature and grow plump, or wear it round his neck as an accolade — it's only useful when it's being used. This must haunt him.


What does Lionel Messi make of it all? He has to play his football touch by touch, at one moment per moment. It’s a life where he’s all performance, but everyone else is the editor.
and although it would be nice, even generous — bearing in mind that we don't talk much about, say, yokeybuzzer who missed in the 1988 European Cup final shootout, or the player who cost Sweden a place in the Euro 2004 semi-final, who was it again, och, you know who I mean, I think his name had an e in it — to forget about the bleeding miss, which people only bang on about because before the crash, he soared
Perhaps he resents the fact that greater command over his game should yield greater freedom, but actually becomes an encumbrance. He has to live everyone else's lives for them before he can live his.

Or maybe he wants to make the story his alone. Maybe he sees it as a chance to allow the pride he surely has in his ability to shine like the sun, and to connect the pleasure he obviously feels from playing the game to the pleasure of others — to complete the circuit. Maybe — just maybe — he wants to be recognised as the greatest.

I fantasise, or speculate, or guess, that he feels both sides, alternately or even simultaneously. When things are going well for him, that slight hunch in his back looks like the source of his propulsion as he runs. When they are not, it looks like a symptom of having to drag the weight clinging to his left ankle. He probably welcomes the weight and curses it at the same time.


Not that I know. He doesn't tend to favour us with the confidence. Jorge Valdano says he is "one of the best-known men in the world but whose silences no one can interpret". He leaves a space for you to fill — a beautiful, pristine void.
to deny the ending would be to deny the excitement that led up to it — when each successive goal rippled back to those previous, and rippled forward again, spilling over boundaries, altering meanings, creating expectations — and to deny the act of letting go and submitting to what's happening is akin to undoing a chain reaction of chain reactions, which might just be possible to do afterwards in cold blood, but at the time only in a state of bloodlessness
The simplest story is: will he or won't he? The biggest story is the World Cup. In 2006, Messi wasn't trusted by Pékerman when it counted. In 2010, he got buried beneath Maradona's shockingly Maradona-like qualities. In 2014, he has hacked out of granite defences first place in their group for Argentina. But he's ghosted through much of the knockout phase, hobbled by injury. (Galeano saw in Maradona "the body as metaphor": "He was overwhelmed by the weight of his own shadow. From that day long ago when fans first chanted his name, his spinal column caused him grief [...] his legs ached, he couldn't sleep without pills.")

Even so, Argentina have had just enough about them to haul themselves inch by inch to the final; they got through the first three knockout rounds by an aggregate score of 2-0. Today, in the final, they've forced Germany to go the long way around. Germany finally went ahead in the one-hundred-and-thirteenth minute.

Now, well into stoppage time at the end of extra time, Argentina have a free kick thirty or so yards from goal. They are not a great team. Perhaps they shouldn't even be here. But here they are, with one last chance to keep themselves in the World Cup, and the German players on the sideline and fans in the stands are looking very happy for people who’ve seen the 2012 Champions League final.

and even though he was crocked from the semi-final, all that had happened had combined with fine timing to ensure that for a World Cup final, he was undroppable, then unsubbable, and when it came to the shootout, securely bound to be one of Italy's first five takers
When the legend becomes fact... Fact is ball, boot and grass; legend is how you lay claim (or he lays claim) to whatever has happened, or might yet happen. Fact moves constantly around the field; legend pursues it and tries to make it do its bidding.
(did Sacchi, even Baggiosceptic Sacchi, select him at number five because of that kick's importance, should it arrive, or was it because he wanted to protect Italy by pushing Baggio as far down the list as he could bear?)
So there's only one man who can take the free. In theory, he could dink it into the penalty box to one of the many blue jerseys waiting to pounce on it
(or even protect Baggio?)
but the fact of the legend is that there's only one thing he can do: he has to shoot. It's his job: God forgives; Messi answers prayers. He's meant to be the greatest, or one of the greatest, or potentially the greatest, of this time, or of that place, or of all times and places, or something. To try and set a teammate up instead would be an abdication of his duty — if it didn't result in a goal, anyway. He wasn't given his gift so he could pass it up, at this of all times.

and sport never promises what you will see, only that it will make you look

So even though the free is right at the limit of his range, perhaps slightly beyond it


even though he's injured


even though he's probably feeling some deep tiredness at the end of a long game, a long tournament and a long season


even though his muscles must be afflicted by the tension of the biggest match of all


even though all these factors will mean he'll have to try and strike the ball with considerable power, at the expense of a great deal of control


even though this will mean there's only one direction the ball's going to travel


he has to shoot.

and besides, he was hardly going to say no, was he?
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