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World Cup Diary
Breakdown and Resurrection

Just when you thought this World Cup was on the verge of disaster both as spectacle and sport — low scoring, badly refereed, uninspiring, unsurprising, lacking drama and excitement — here come France and Brazil, the last two teams to win the championship, to save the day. Brazil’s 3-0 win over Ghana on Tuesday wasn’t spectacular. The famed Brazilian style is still stuck somewhere between Tierra del Fuego and Gibraltar, and Ghana’s Black Stars managed to shine despite the losing score almost throughout the match, as every African team shone this year. But we needed this Brazil-France rematch, this lunge at revenge by the Brazilians, who were smashed up on the shoals of a 3-0 humiliation by this very French team eight years ago (“we’ll always have Paris”), when Zidane had his two goals in the final to go with his previous two and Emmanuel Petit had his 90 th minute sweetener in front of 75,000 people at the Stade de France. (Lost in the crowd of those French goals that year were three by Thierry Henry, then a mere scallion of a striker, and a couple by Lilian Thuram, who’s still around.)

The French are old. They’re a bit full of themselves, these continental Americans (how could they be French if they weren’t). This year they looked the opposite of Spain. They looked slow, morbid, slightly idiotic with their inability to score, held over from their blanketing in 2002. Spain looked invulnerable, a bull out of the gate, a goal-scoring machine with the efficiency of German engineering, the youthful exuberance of Brazilian footwork, and of course that Iberian passion that’s no stranger to football, but that never quite made its mark in World Cup, play. This time they looked set with their complete destruction of Ukraine and their honorable wipe-out of Tunisia—seven goals, two games. But then came Saudi Arabia. Sure, several of the Spanish stars were manicuring their toes on the bench or quizzing coach Luis Aragones on his feelings about Arabs (“some of my best friends are black,” the fool actually said following his calling Thierry Henry “that black shit” two years ago), assuming the old Arab kingdom would roll over and snore like a doped up Lebanese camel on the Baalbeck ruin run. Not only did the Saudis not roll-over (they conceded just one goal, though scored none). But it looked as if the Spaniards had, like those adolescents in John Updike stories who white-out their pants too soon while feasting on the girl’s titties, peaked too soon. And so they had. Out against Francethey looked overmatched, they looked like kids, frustrated, tantrum-prone, their skills petty or absent in the presence of les plus grands, those grey eminences from the French Academy of Football.

If anybody could beat even the best of Spanish team on their best day, it’s France. It has nothing to do with football. When Spain and France meet on the field, it’s the war of Spanish Succession all over again, it’s two millennia of history scrunched up in ninety minutes, it’s payback for things not a single player on either side has any idea about, other than that it is what it is (especially since the French squad is as strong as it is only because of immigration’s new blood keeping France from imploding altogether). A France-Spain match-up is always a grand finale—unlike, say, a France-Germany match-up, where the French will always be the underdogs no matter how much they desperately need to prove that 1871 and 1914 and 1940 were just flukes. I predicted a 3-2 win for Spain, but gladly took the 3-1 drubbing by France: it was pulled off with such style, and it could have been so much worse. The French had the makings of a rout.

The tournament needed the match like it needed a cure for the hole in the head it’d been firing game after game. Argentina-Mexico was exciting enough, and no one misses the Americans, but then that series of 1-0 round of sixteen matches that followed, capped by the disgrace of the 1-0 penalty-win by Italy over Australia’s Socceroos, looked to doom this already-dullish World Cup to the dustbin of infamy. I’ve never been a fan of Australian football, even less of the Italian brand, but this is the sort of tourney that turns one’s heart around for any team if it earns it on the field, as the Socceroos nearly did—until they were done in by the bane of this World Cup: refereeing from hell. If it’s not the excessive yellows and reds, the compulsive off-sides, the idiotic mis-application of injury time that rewards every time-wasting maneuver, it’s the dooming calls, the unforgivable penalty awards, and of course the missed calls.

When is FIFA going to wizen up and adopt instant replay? When is the referee on going to stop being seen as the field’s El Duce, and take on accuracy’s calling by conceding to some (to plenty) of assistance from sideline cameras and overhead eyes? Not as long as Joseph Blatter continues his misrule of FIFA. He adamantly opposes replays. There is no way one man can keep track of twenty-two fairly and precisely. Nor should players keep getting away with their play-acting, their astounding sissiness, their pathetic rolls on the grass at the slightest touch. American football is a bore and a brawl of brutes. But give it this much: not one man on the field would be caught dead acting hurt. Heretical as it sounds, the world’s football could learn a thing or two from the American version. At their current pace exciting football matches are the exception, dull and mangled ones (by stoppages, by faked injuries, by terrible refereeing) the rule. That run of 1-0 matches in this round of 16 is the perfect example, helped as it was of course by England’s latest display of molasses football—so drizzly, so pretentious that it’s the black miracle of this tournament the team has made it this far. Amazingly, they’re likely to beat Portugal and go as far as the semis, where Brazil should dispatch them (after their dispatch of France).

I’m holding to my early prediction: Germany will manage to get through Argentina as they couldn’t possibly without home-field advantage. Germany will finally and deservedly defeat Italy, and we’ll have out Germany-Brazil final—two teams not at their best, but redeemed by their offense minded heart for total football. I’m not sure there’s enough left in this tournament to pull it put of its self-induced torpor. The predictability is doing it in as much as the refereeing and the unevenness of the matches. A shame, considering Germany’s fine organizational prowess and what has looked like full stadiums almost at every game. With eight games left there’s always hope that the quality of play will lift up more decisively. It only takes a few classic matches to stamp a whole tournament. France-Spain was a good sign. Jurgen Klinsmann’s show is too. And those Brazilians are always an ethanol gulp from turbocharge. See you in Berlin on Friday.

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