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One or Two Cases of St. Vitus’ Dance

Medieval dancers

First: Zach recently asked why Americans focus so much on diving in soccer, when American sports have their own problems with cheating. This is something I’ve wondered about, too, and after giving it some thought, my latest guess is that it’s not the diving Americans mind so much as the writhing on the ground feigning injury. Basketball, as I wrote in that earlier post, is rife with flopping and theatrical attempts to draw fouls. But basketball players seldom follow up a flop with forty seconds of convulsions designed to suggest that they’re being beaten with dining trays in an invisible prison riot. I think it’s those melodramatic performances of weakness, which have no real counterpart in American sports, that underlie the disgust fans feel toward diving both here and in Europe.

You could catch the precise tone of that disgust at around the forty-minute mark in the Portugal-Germany match yesterday. With Germany leading 2-0 and Portugal beginning to press their attack, Michael Ballack was lightly grazed by a defender, eased himself to the turf, and began a comfortable course of suffering that lasted just long enough to stop the flow of the match. This sort of thing happens so often that I hardly even noticed, but for some reason it went down badly with Andy Gray, who launched into a “Why do you have to do that? Why?” speech. Finally, he broke off and just emotionally heaved a sigh that seemed to go from his soul to his nostrils and to last for about ten seconds. The breath overloaded the microphone, and there, I thought, was the exact sound of loving soccer and yet being exasperated by its antics. It was all in that static whoosh. Probably Andy Gray’s best work for ESPN so far.

Second: this tournament. This…tournament. It’s gotten so good that I’m afraid to start poking it with adjectives; it might disintegrate on contact, leaving us like the man in the mirage who brings clear water to his lips and swallows a palmful of sand. But I don’t know. Sometimes there’s a genuine oasis. I’m starting to have faith.

Anyway, this might sound crazy, but I think Portugal-Germany might have been the best match of the tournament so far. At the very least it was the match that epitomized the distinct style of greatness that’s been brought home for us these last two weeks. The Turkey-Czech Republic match had twilight-of-the-gods drama, rain, the immediately legendary comeback, a crumbling apocalypse of a pitch: it was so high-stakes that it stood out from everything, looked like a peak, had no time for connections below the clouds. Pillars were toppled and civilizations came to an end. But isolated cloudbursts haven’t really been the style of Euro 2008; it’s been a tournament of steady tension, dauntless attack, and a flow that seems to go from one match to the next. The Turkey-Czech Republic game, for all its intensity, ultimately reached its dramatic pinnacle largely because the quality of play deteriorated and the Czechs imploded, obviously looking and feeling beaten even while they still had the lead. When it ended, it ended hard.

That wasn’t the case in the Portugal-Germany match. Portugal never had the lead, but they played like they were stretching out to take it, and they came closer to doing so than the fact of the defeat suggested. Control rolled from one team to the other, and the team on the weaker foot always held on with the confident knowledge that they were about to get it back. Even at the end, when Germany were marking time and Portugal were on fire with the spirit, Germany got in that great counterattack that Podolski only narrowly failed to make pay. Ultimately, the match was a sustained draw with three tiny turning points at which Portugal made mistakes: Moutinho’s confused knee-that-should-have-been-a-header shot in the first half, Pepe’s bad miss in the fifty-eighth minute, and Ronaldo’s failure to mark Klose on the goal he shouldered in. Any two of those turned the other way would have been enough to make the difference.

In any case, the match never felt like it ended, even when it did. Some brilliant moments from Holland and Spain aside, that’s been the mark of the competition so far. Everyone’s indomitable, and the losers only run out of time. It’s that ongoing, buoyant, processional quality that’s made this tournament so invigorating. We’re used to the greatness of sporting events coming down in climactic moments, and this one’s given us measured medium thrill. And then, of course, the sole unstoppable meteor of Nihat at the end of the Czech Republic game. But it’s the sustained quality of the quality that’s been so impressive. Dancing looks different when they do it in the street for three days.

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One or Two Cases of St. Vitus’ Dance

by Brian Phillips · June 20, 2008

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