By: Daniel Reynolds
The final of the World Cup is set. After almost a month and 30 other teams, we have a conclusion in sight. Argentina vs. Germany. One of the greatest players perhaps of all-time vs. a country that has made it to at least the semi-final in the last four tournaments. What a ride it has been. I’ve been trying to watch as much soccer as I can, which has proven to be difficult given that the majority of the games are played on weekday afternoons (and whose idea was it to run the semi-final games at 4pm? Come on, FIFA). A month of high stakes soccer is a gift, and this is coming from a guy who doesn’t watch it regularly.
So, have I learned anything new about soccer on this go-around? No, not really. I still have a very limited understanding of what is going on in the middle of the field. I’m still astounded by some of the more, uh, vague rules regarding extra time and free kick positioning (thank God for the
shaving vanishing cream!) I have managed, however, to develop a disdain for the people that insist on telling anyone who’ll listen that soccer players are all crybabies. It’s the equivalent of those nuts who say basketball is all about the last two minutes. You’re willfully missing the point here, pal. So much of soccer transcends the need for hard line scripture or even definition. It feels like for all the acrimony – and yes, flopping – sometimes displayed on the field, it is a game played with the most trust, a game that can stretch beyond most qualifiers. Still, as much as any sport out there, soccer is a game that can be broken down most easily into its component parts. A field, a ball, a few posts. It’s real.
The camps of sports writing can effectively be broken down into two broadly presiding camps: the spiritual and the mathematical. The latter is based on statistics, raw numbers and history. It is a discussion of who won what, who lost, how many points, goals, tallies, etc. were accrued during some period of hours, days, weeks, years. We can look back at the record and confidently claim we know who was the best. These days we can even decide which players and teams are the best based on even smaller divisions of those numbers, the minutia of each game outcome. It is all there. There is no whisper of untruth about it (well, OK, maybe PEDs have something to say about that, but let’s try to remain blissfully innocent here). But then there is the spiritual; or, the discussion of athletes not as number-based beings hell-bent on victory via the accumulation of more numbers than the opposition (for even more remunerative numbers, a.k.a money), but as beings on a higher plane, moving on some blank canvas of emotion. This is where soccer resides for me, in all its messy, imperfect and beautiful glory.
The 2014 World Cup has felt like a re-affirmation of my feelings on this. I watched my team, Italy, take an early fall. They were tied to the casual brilliance of Andrea Pirlo, and as such, appeared to grow in lethargy towards the end of the first round. The tiki-taka of Spain was wiped out, too. And suddenly, energy from everywhere, all at once. It started with the van Persie flying header. Then there was James Rodriguez blowing up, and the Chileans and Vidal flying all over the place. It was there in Neymar’s dancing on the pitch, and Klose dusting himself off to take the lead in World Cup goals scored. I even came around on Costa Rica as they hung on for a Cinderella run, and embraced Tim Howard as he stood on his head against Belgium, barking all the while.
They’re soccer players, sure, but they transcend that notion of man kicking a ball down a length of grass. It is a purely romantic notion, one divorced from the obvious clutch of the modern sports world. And yet, for a soccer dope like me, the myth holds a power. Yes, we were reminded again of soccer corruption, of the spectre of match fixing, of referee bias towards the host nation (Germany put that particular debate to bed, mind you). The rampant spending within Brazil did not go unnoticed. Any sporting event on the global scale cannot, and will never be, free of such scrutiny. The real world will always poke its head into the ideal.
Unlike any other major sport in the world, soccer produces these visions of grandeur on a regular basis. I feel qualified to write about this because, well, I’m not writing about soccer. I’m writing about presence and form and artistry. I come to soccer every two years – for the Euro and World Cups – and am bathed in a glow that is different from the grind of regular season basketball games in February, drowsy Sunday afternoon baseball games in July. These events stand apart from stats and math; they can even stand apart from quality, as fans of the EPL will have you believe. But the stakes, the scope, the sheer force of it all, approaches something different. I look forward to the final this Sunday. And then I admit, I’ll forget about soccer until 2016 and 2018, and so on and so on. The dream returning every few years like clockwork.