Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine. —Marianne Moore
Ivory Coast conceded a penalty to Greece in the final moments of a tied game that Greece needed to win to continue on in the World Cup and the Ivory Coast only needed to keep as it was, level at a goal a piece, to make it out of Group C. This you know, and will remember. But if you happen to forget, the highlights will remind you: they’ll show you the first-half goal the Ivory Coast served up on a platter for the Greeks––a mishit and rather foolish short back pass by Cheick Tioté deep in his own half––and that Greece hit the woodwork three times; and then the dénouement came in the form of that penalty. Yet, what seems to have already faded from the telling story is that minute just prior to the penalty: the 90th minute. Aristotle, in his definition of tragedy, called this the peripeteia, reversal of fortune, the twist. Greece, in desperate need of a goal and appearing now to be short of ideas, lines up to take a free kick about 25 meters from the Ivorian goal. The kick is dreadful, hurtling directly into the wall of Ivorian players. The rebound falls to Solomon Kalou and, with space opening up ahead of him, he carries the ball forward into space and then, as that space quickly closes (a Greek specialty, an almost automated movement to defend even in moments when all seems lost), Kalou shows bravery and intelligence by releasing the ball wide to his teammate advancing toward the Greek goal. Greece had pressed the majority of their players forward for the failed free kick and, never speed merchants to begin with, couldn’t get back and cover––suddenly Ivory Coast, now entering the final strokes of the game, enjoyed a rare two-on-two opportunity descending down on the Greek goal. The game at this point should have been liquidated: you score; or coax a foul out of one of the two exposed defenders; or you stretch the play out and keep the ball, forcing the Greeks to come back in numbers, and hence distance themselves from your goal, in an attempt to recuperate the ball as time mercilessly ticks away.
But what happened next was the disaster before the disaster for the Ivory Coast and the lifeline the Greeks so dearly needed. Zeus arranging pieces on the gameboard, Athena whispering something in someone’s ear. The Ivorian player providing the supporting run off the ball, Yaya Touré, their star player, maintained a lane right down the center of the pitch as his teammate advanced on his left. It was a stubborn run by Touré. He was too close to his teammate. This meant that the second Greek defender was able to both Ivory Coast players to be able defend one and provide cover for the other. Touré wanted his goal: it would have been the moment of glory and relief; the game would have been salted away. But Touré––in search of a goal, wanting to be near the goal––made defending the play infinitely easier. As they say, it’s a cruel game.
And then, suddenly, the great error: two more green jerseys joined in on the breakaway.
For a moment, I closed my eyes. What had started as a two-on-two had now become a four-on-two. Pointless running toward the wrong goal in search of a goal and a celebration. The play inevitably broke down. Touré, a player of great hierarchy, received a pass despite his bad positioning and after struggling to control the ball and make a little room for himself let go a feeble shot as he corkscrewed himself into the ground; the captain, exhausted and disappointed, stayed down; the other three Ivorians who had advanced now were out of position, stranded and unsure of what to do, where they should be. As the Greeks now had the ball and attempted to go forward with it the three Ivorian players who had advanced and were, unlike Yaya, still on their feet and likely sensing finally that they had strayed too far afield, now began to pressure the ball, hoping to rattle the Greeks into a loss of possession––which they didn’t. The ball gets behind them. A Greek attacker receives a pass to the left of the Ivorian area.
At this point all is lost.
Ivory Coast is now short in numbers, stretched, and in being stretched unable to communicate effectively. Greeks flood the Ivory Coast goal, a few more look to support the left flank, a few more stop just short of the top edge of the area to provide passing angles for the player on the ball. The Ivorian defenders, who had never left their position, have it right: guard the men in the box. Three defenders mark three Greeks waiting in front of the goal for a chance. But now two more Greeks enter the area, streaking by Ivorian midfielders who were trotting back to stand in some seemingly semi-responsible defensive position…two don’t even bother to do that. It’s now some semblance of a four-on-four in the box. Yaya Touré’s brother, Kolo, a natural defender, heads away a weak Greek pass lifted toward the Ivorian goal. The ball flies away from the Ivorian goal but finds another Greek player who waits and then passed the ball into inviting space on the left flank. Kolo’s man takes the space, steadies himself under the ball. Kolo is forced to chase him. Now there are only two defenders in the box.
The pass is a rehearsed pass, the pass you make again and again from when you start playing when you’re four or six and still make in practice when you run drills. In this situation it’s the only pass that exists: diagonal, hard, and right to the penalty spot. The two Ivorian defenders have been pushed back toward their own goal, defending the most advanced Greek attackers. There should be at least six other Ivorians in the box. Six at the very least.
There are two.
Space should be the obsession now. They are in No Man’s Land. The pass hums toward to the penalty spot as though it has a magnet in it and the white dot on the field is made of iron. It bullets past midfielder Serey Die, who rather seems strangely seems surprised by its presence. But the other Ivorian in No Man’s Land, Giovanni Sio, who was loitering at the top of the box right next to where the once waiting now pouncing Greek player had been, luckless Giovanni Sio now gets it. He is a forward. He recognizes that pass. He’s been on the receiving end of them. But now he’s defending, misplaced and late in his recognition––he’s out of time. He takes the step he should have taken six seconds ago.
It was a penalty. Full stop. Replay it. Question the decision. Rue the moment. Curse or praise the circumstance. Make your allusions to Greek gods and myths. Take this new crushing and definitive loss by an African team as a synecdoche of African football. Admit you were or are thinking about what an opportunity playing Costa Rica would have been or will be. Dread another ninety minutes of football as a war of attrition. Be happy that a team that is going to play from the first whistle to the final one, no matter what type of football they play. Think it a sad end for a golden generation. Think it a happy ending for a golden generation. What ever you do, think about it. It’s the why of what happened, but it won’t make the highlights. You may not see it again. It’s already gone. Everything is Suárez.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of The Ground (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). His second book, Heaven, will be published by FSG in 2015. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award.