Thursday, July 8, 2010

World Cup

In the past three weeks I have succeeded in catching all or part of fifteen or twenty soccer matches, most of which have become fused in memory into a single lump of high-class entertainment. The ball goes back and forth, people clip and trip one another, dive theatrically or hold their hands in the air in an expression of mock-innocence—“I didn’t touch him!” Free kicks and yellow cards are given, off-sides is called, fairly and unfairly. Points are scored (rarely) and they almost invariably come out of the blue, off a potshot from thirty meters out or a “corner” just like all the rest, except that the ball arcs perfectly and the subsequent header (miraculously) goes in. Deflections are often part of the equation.

Occasionally points are scored during counterattacks, and these three-on-two or two-on-one situations bring the crowd roaring to its feet. As often as not they’re muffed, however, and we eventually reach the conclusion that the better side doesn’t necessarily win. And yet, every once in a while, the ball does hit the back of the net, putting a bulge in the old onion bag (as they say) and the team that’s scored run around the field as if they’d just won the lottery or gotten the news that their incurable cancer is in permanent remission. After all that we’ve been through, sitting at home in front of the computer screen, we can hardly blame them.

This, in a nutshell, is the art and pleasure of soccer.

At a certain point, you begin to notice which teams control the ball, win the challenges. You begin to see the risky challenges and surreptitious shoves. You begin to remember names. Wasn’t Snidjer in the UAFA Cup final this spring with InterMilan? Didn’t I see Torres score a couple of galloping one-on-one goals in a Premier League game I watched on cable with a friend? Wasn’t it Klose that scored on a header very early in a match against the US many years ago? (Perhaps not.) And what ever happened to Ronaldhino?

The group play games are now a distant memory. You may remember the seven goals Portugal scored against…who? North Korea? But that’s because it seemed like a homerun derby or a scoring clinic—the kind of back-flicks and crosses that none of the better teams would allow you to get away with.

The semi-final match-up between Germany and Spain was a classic. Spain controlled the tempo, as was to be expected, and Germany waited for counter-chances that materialized occasionally but led to nothing. I think it was the cleanest game I’ve ever seen. Very few fouls, very little diving, no yellow cards. The Spanish ball control was remarkable, the German zeal no less impressive. I’m glad Spain won, because it will make for a better final, and besides, Spain has never been in a final before.

Would it be churlish to observe that the Spanish players seem to have a bit more flair or character? Yet the German team is less Teutonic than in tournaments past, and eleven of the players could have played for other nationalities, including the Bosnian-Serb, Brazilian, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Polish, Spanish, Tunisian, and Turkish sides.

"We had great plans but it didn't work out," commented Germany coach Joachim Loew after the game." Spain are a wonderful team who have played together now for two or three years. I am sure the Spanish can win any game because they are dominant and it's hard to contain their attack. .. They are the masters of the game. You can see it in every pass. They can hardly be beaten. They are extremely calm and convincing. Spain were just better than we were and they deserved to win.”

The Spanish coach, a little less gracefully perhaps, said, “The Germans weren’t as good as we thought they’d be.”

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