The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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Time Can Do So Much

What I want to know is whether we’ll remember any of this in ten years, or if we’ll look back on it as the mass blackout during which we all wrote mystic texts. I can’t remember two more deranged or thrilling days of soccer, or four more shocking games, in any recent tournament, and Euro 2008 made me compare Aphrodite to a Toyota Prius. It was all the more stunning because it came out of nowhere—that’s not to say this World Cup had been boring, but it had rolled along at a pretty regular tempo and, apart from a few moments of madness and bliss, within a fairly livable emotional band. The sheer scale of the World Cup as an event probably smooths out our perceptions, and that’s also part of the memory problem: one game turns over onto the next so relentlessly that there’s no time to process it all, and even elevated moments start to feel like they’re part of an undifferentiated routine. One way or the other, these games sneaked up on me like an assassin who wanted a kiss.

If Holland wins the World Cup, then Holland 2 – 1 Brazil will be recorded as a mighty step on an epic march to redemption, or at least an epic march to overcoming 40 years of imperial self-defeat—even though, as it happened, this match felt more like a bizarre accident than anything. How a Dutch formation that depended on Mark van Bommel to provide meaningful link-up play succeeded against that low, thrumming, vibrating-like-a-ship’s-engine-room 4-2-2-2 is something I’ll never understand, especially given that Ooijer looked every day of his 68 years and Holland’s most consistent route of attack involved Robben cutting inside (and looking like he expected to catch the Brazilian back line off guard all 1200 times he did it), getting the ball onto his left foot, and then proudly tumbling over after not finding an opening for a shot.

Chance favors Wesley Sneijder so often that it almost ceases to be chance, but in this game, yeah, it was chance. But Brazil’s amazing way of losing it in the second half was the difference—Felipe Melo charging around like he thought he had an invisibility cloak, and didn’t; Robinho running more and more feverishly and more and more pointlessly, like the thoughts of someone who can’t sleep. Kaká was so silky and helpless in all phases of the match, that one save from Stekelenburg excepted, that he seemed almost immaterial, a comb in untangled hair. Regardless, you don’t beat Brazil in a World Cup quarterfinal without legend looking up and taking notice, and of all the games, this one was the most revolutionary in the sense that the most was overthrown.

But Uruguay-Ghana was where it started raining stones. This was theater with the walls caving in, a wild display of physics and a scene of momentum slamming back and forth so quickly the stadium was lurching from side to side. Outside Germany, Diego Forlán has been the player of the tournament so far; here he was a little pinned in, but his delivery from set pieces was a thing of death and inspiration. The end of this game—extra time, that last-ditch header from Adiyiah, the Suárez handball, Gyan’s bonked penalty—was almost too much for the sport; I don’t think anyone understood what was happening. Seconds became moments, in the way they sometimes do. There was a collective weight of silence and expectation that, in itself, somehow sufficed to break Twitter.

Since it has to be registered: I have no problem with the Suárez handball. I’m not in this to gain moral examples, I don’t need soccer players to be better than everyone else, and in any case, self-policing Victorian schoolboys don’t sound extremely fun to watch. A sport in which the players are too preoccupied with honor to commit a lifesaving tactical foul in the 120th minute of a World Cup quarterfinal is too chaste for me, sorry, House Gryffindor.

What these games mean is going to change in the next few days; that’s unavoidable. Whoever wins the tournament will be the master of all history and the light by which all generations see, and I can see Spain-Paraguay being forgotten, despite the nervous breakdowns it provoked at the time. Germany 4 – 0 Argentina, though—that felt epoch-making, like a result that will be shorthand forever. Or at least, when the future explorers drag their camels to the rock, they’ll see “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings / 4-0.” What can you say about the German performance? Huge fiery golden birds ripping up a city of children. Or more dramatically, Lahm in acres of space, sprinting forward with Müller ahead and Özil straggling behind with a purpose. I don’t know whether Argentina were told not to defend, didn’t feel like defending, or were acting out some exotic tactical plan that just went badly awry, but what was strange was that they never even looked anxious. They were either totally nonchalant, or in a reckless heat, at all times, seemingly without much relevance to what was happening in the match. Mascherano wanted to fight himself, but I think di Maria just likes running behind people. Tevez frowns like the whale in Pinocchio. Nothing that happened said anything about Messi.

Maradona as a manager: it was a sham, it was always a sham, but it was the kind of sham you wanted to see succeed, because if it succeeded, it wouldn’t have been a sham and maybe he would have some purpose or joy in life. Maradona has always been one of those global orphans whose soul-sickness everyone wants to help cure, and it’s genuinely scary now to think about his future life. His whole run as Argentina coach was balanced right on the knife-edge of marvelous and pathetic (that suit, that beard, his shortness, those irrepressible, awkward man-hugs) and this probably tips it to the wrong side. And he’s only 49! God knows what he needs, or whether football can ever provide it, but I sort of wish he’d stay on as manager, buckle down, and learn how to do the job in a halfway respectable way. Who knows if he’d ever be good at it, but a crazy run through the Copa América in which he actually worked on tactics could turn everything around. I sound like I’m writing about a wayward nineteen-year-old, but that’s Maradona, I guess.

None of this is filtered or focused, but it’s been an extraordinary couple of days and I wanted to get down some part of it down before Tuesday erases everything. What I can’t get out of my head is Cardozo sobbing after Paraguay’s amazing loss to Spain. It was the most painful moment of the tournament to watch, even more than Komano breaking down or the Ghana players reacting to their loss. I hate this game, I love this game, I live only to forget.

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Time Can Do So Much

by Brian Phillips · July 4, 2010

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