In writing on sport there is always a fine line between reading too much into what happens on the field and reading too little into it. The problem is particularly acute when it comes to the World Cup: no other sporting event creates the same torrent of hyperbole and cliché, or incites quite the same kind of grandiose pontificating. The best of sports writing and commentary manages to deal with this through a combination of grace, humor, and true emotion: something that the Men in Blazers have offered us, thankfully, on ESPN, and that has defined the wonderful writing of Brian Phillips for Grantland during the tournament.
But every once in a while—notably in the immediate wake of last week’s 7-1 Brazil defeat—the best response (and one we will probably never, ever see) would be a bit of quiet reflection. What I will probably remember more than anything from this World Cup is not the noise, the singing of the anthems, the cheers from goals, but rather those moments of shocked silence when no one knew exactly what to say.
The World Cup is a spectacle that works through a particularly complex relationship between its participants and its audience. The line between the two, in fact, is not always particularly clear. There may be lines around the pitch, players on one side and seats and cameras on the other. But—as Miriti Murungi recently argued in a lovely piece about the Brazil defeat—the mythologies and desires that bear down on the games are very much co-constructed. Sometimes the stories we write in our heads actually come to pass, but just as often they end up smashing into a wall. Still, it is our deep investment in the possibility of imagined stories, and the pleasure and pain we take in seeing events unfold in ways that shatter our scripts, that makes the World Cup the event it is.
As we watch, there are many moments of dissonance, and a few moments of clarity. We carry our memories and hopes into a match, but sometimes—of late, a bit too often—we end up watching dreary spectacles, stretching to find something interesting to say about them. Such games occasionally incite those useful moments of vertigo where we look around us and think: Why do I care about this at all? What’s the point? Little, after all, is quite as futile as a football match. Nothing concrete is ever produced. There is perpetual folly and madness to what happens on the pitch. And, as much as it offers up moments of pure, mass joy, there is also a nearly perfect guarantee that a fan will suffer, sometimes intensely, during the process. In fact, if you are cursed—as many are—with the inability to ignore the suffering of those who lose, every match will produce at least a bit of sorrow.
And then you either come back to your senses or—depending on how you see it—lose all sense of proportion once again. And you pick yourself up off the floor, check your watch to see how soon the next game will be on, and start chattering again. Because, of course, the World Cup actually produces the most valuable of human goods: story, conversation, and memory.
Some World Cups write a beautiful romance. That happened in 1966 when England won the tournament at home, an event Alistair Reid described beautifully in The New Yorker as “kind of national fairy tale that will take some forgetting, for, as things turned out, it had about it that incredible sporting perfection that always might, but seldom does, happen . . . a perfection that a goodly part of those who saw it felt they would nod over happily in their old age, smiling a secret, faraway smile.” It happened in 1998 in France. It was, as far as many were concerned, supposed to happen this year in Brazil.
More often, though, World Cups offer up more troubled stories. The 1978 World Cup in Argentina was a national triumph shot through with contradiction and terror, for the same regime that organized the event successfully on home turf was holding and torturing political prisoners within a few miles of the stadium—something Reinaldo Laddaga has recalled here. The last two World Cups offered up particularly generative moments of transgression: Zidane’s 2006 headbutt in the final game, and Suarez’s 2010 handball against Ghana. Because of their capacity to stir up intense and ongoing debate about justice and morality, those two events ultimately came to define the way many people will remember those World Cups.
What will we take from this tournament? The German and Argentine teams, of course, will have something to say about that. As is always the case by the time the final of the World Cup rolls around, most of us will watch as neutrals, just to enjoy the spectacle, or else find one reason or another to adopt one team as our own. There are various arguments on both sides these days: if you’d like to see the canonization of Messi, an Argentine victory is a necessity. If you want to celebrate the undeniable strength and beauty of football played at its highest, most intricate and disciplined level, you root for Germany. And there is the confusing, somewhat overwhelming, concatenation and sedimentation of feelings from earlier games in this tournament. As a fan of Belgium, am I mad at Argentina, or do I want them to win so that we lost to the ultimate champion? Do I pleasingly overcome ancient grudges against Germany, as Leon Krauze has argued we should, and admit that as a team they are just really awesome? There is both a kind of freedom in being able to make such choices, and at times a kind of disorientation about the fact that you can pick sides. Or maybe the smartest thing is just wait and see who wins, and then root for them, claiming that their victory was inevitable all along?
For fans of whatever team wins on Sunday, of course, very little about what has come before will probably matter: there will be joy, that feeling of being for a moment out of time, at the center of the universe, victors of the greatest competition on the planet. Those of us on the outskirts of those celebrations maybe able to absorb some of that joy, to enjoy the sight of a nation’s rapture, and to take solace in the one certainty that at the end of the World Cup there is always one country that can truly celebrate.
Whatever happens, though, another story will shadow that one: that of the long-imagined but now forever unconsummated Brazil victory. From the beginning of the tournament, commentators joked about the FIFA script: Brazil had to make it to the final, and Brazil basically had to win. Even though there were many, many signs that this actually wouldn’t happen, the aura of necessity around it never quite faded. But here’s reality for you: many Brazilians can no longer even dream of seeing their team win on home soil in their life times. Over the course of about six minutes in the first half of the semi-final against Germany, that future simply vanished. Because of the particularly unremitting and shocking way in which that self-assured story was shattered, that 7-1 scoreline—the surreal moment when we couldn’t even keep up with the German goals, not sure if a new one had been scored or if we were just watching a replay, the unforgettable shot of a boy in the stands simply bursting into inconsolable tears—will be what ultimately stays with us from 2014. And if that is the case, we’ll carry from this year a curious memory of a story deflected.
There is something else to take from this tournament, though, which is the new ways in which many of us have lived it: through the accelerating pace and importance of social media. Thanks to Twitter, and blogs like this one, there is an increasing immediacy to the task of interpretation. An event happens on the pitch, and within seconds it is archived, circulated, analyzed for what it all means about the past and future. Part of what makes football the dominant global sport it is, ultimately, is its ability to so consistently and thrillingly create moments that allow for an explosion of interpretation. We don’t know what will happen in any given tournament, but we know that something will come along to give a sense of outrage or wonder, despair or elation. We can’t know any of the details, but we can be sure of the outlines of what will happen: there will be drama, debate, unpredictable instants that write history.
In the end, of course, this World Cup—however we have lived it—has just taught us once again what it always does. Though we watch from many locations, separated from one another by distance, we are brought together during the time of the game. We effuse, we argue, we mourn. And we remember that, most of all, what we want is to be together.
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.