Is there such a thing as a beautiful defeat? If I believed there was, I would call the Algeria-Germany match just that. Algeria played gorgeously, joyfully, unafraid, and unfettered. And Germany was clearly afraid, on the defense for much of the game, a little surprised perhaps to be facing one of their toughest challenges in recent history from the Fennecs. For many, many minutes, it felt like Algeria would score, and would win.
And yet there was, as we all watched, that terrible feeling in the gut that comes whenever a team you are supporting is playing Germany. The sense of the inevitable: the gloom of knowing that, however much you might dream of something different, there is a relentless truth in the World Cup: more often than not, Germany wins no matter how hard you pray for something else to happen.
All over the world people were rooting for Algeria—some long time fellow travellers, some recent converts, some taken up by the quality of their game itself. There was an aura of historical destiny about their run: they had already made history by scoring more than any African team in a single game, and by making it into the Round of 16 for their first time in their history. Awaiting was France, and the idea of that match up was simply explosive and perfect. And a plot in which Algeria won also held out the promise of a World Cup a little less predictable, and frankly a little less boring, than one with the usual teams playing in the quarterfinals.
It was not to be. By the end of the 90 minutes, only the brilliance and courage of Raïs M’Bohli, who repeatedly made miraculous saves, was keeping Algeria in the game. And in the first minutes of overtime, Germany finally outplayed their opponents. Though Algeria did score one phenomenal, beautiful, goal, it was not enough. What followed—the spectacle of the team, in tears, hugging their departing coach one by one—is one I won’t soon forget.
It was perhaps not quite as cruel as Mexico’s defeat in the waning minutes because of a penalty call, or that of Ghana in the 2010 World Cup. Or maybe it was more cruel, since the game and the outcome seemed somehow at odds. And it was a reminder that, however much we hope to find some kind of satisfying historical justice on the football pitch, seeking it there is about as quixotic as seeking it outside the stadium.
In the heady days of the group games, especially in this World Cup that has offered up so many exceptional and surprising ones, anything seemed possible. It was easy to forget that, as the World Cup goes on, it turns into a theatre of pain. One team after another eliminated. One story after another ends. One absolutely brilliant goalie after another, making a series of seemingly perfect and legendary saves, beaten in the end: resigned, sad beyond measure at the fact that one moment can erase all the others. We want the World Cup to be a romance, but it just as often delivers up farce and tragedy.
If we’re lucky, we can focus on the victors, who sometimes—as in the case of Colombia the other day—feel like truly deserving ones for the way they brought us joy in the process of winning victory. In that odd calculus of the World Cup, we can root for France, and Karim Benzema, to avenge Algeria—instead of facing them, as many had begun hoping they would. But, in the end, slowly, we watch a tournament that whittles down to the usual European and South American teams, the familiar match-ups, a cycle of repetition. All the African teams are gone. I hope that there will be surprises ahead: maybe Costa Rica will defeat Holland, or the U.S. will make a historic run far into the tournament. But the settling process has begun, reminding us that at this stage of the tournament the dream of the radically unexpected, of the impossible, is usually replaced by that of the usual. Even as I look forward to the final weeks, I always find there is an odd sadness about this part of the tournament in which so many of the different possibilities we had envisioned vanish before our eyes.
But those who rooted yesterday for Algeria can carry something else away from that game. For a long while it seemed, as Jennifer Doyle commented on Twitter, that the team was actually enjoying itself. Almost laughing on the pitch. They incited some great moments of comedy on the part of the German team, too. The announcers on Univision seemed positively giddy at the fact that they were watching such great football, trying to coin a term for Algerian tiki-taka. And all of the sudden we remembered: this is a game. It is supposed to be fun. It is that thing that we play to laugh and commune with each other. The Fennecs offered us that glimpse, that clarity, there in their green uniforms that somehow echoed the rich green of the eternal pitch itself.
We were left, too, with another reminder: that we always need to truly savor the victory we have, for there is always a good chance it will be the last one. That is what the people in the streets and plazas of Algiers and Paris knew the other day, when they defeated Russia—knew and demonstrated. From Algiers came this stunning visual moment, a reminder of what football does, and is. Perhaps the lesson is that, instead of remembering the final defeat, we should carry with us the feeling from the victory that came before it. We should recall those moments when it seemed certain that Algeria would win, so that we can still imagine a world in which they did—or will in some future world that, despite everything, we can still believe is on the horizon.
Laurent Dubois is Director of the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University, author of Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, and editor of the Soccer Politics blog.