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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Epoch of Days

A toy Trojan horse

The France crisis was visible from space for weeks before it hit, like a blot on a map churning its way toward some helpless island port. Weather services beeped out bulletins; brave teams of scientists piled in a helicopter and flew toward the raging edge. Rain shredding the surface of the sea told the world that William Gallas was never going to survive a dune-buggy crash so that Patrice Evra could lead his men in peace. The Domenech-Anelka breakdown was just the first big wave to reach the shore. The rest was science. Within hours you had Gallas flipping off reporters, Evra calling for the heads of the traitors, Ribery and Gourcuff (supposedly) fighting on a plane, the team refusing to train, FFF officials resigning in disgust, Domenech reading out the players’ tennis court oath to the press, Ribery crashing French morning television, and Robert Duverne throwing a stopwatch at a bush. There was never any alternative. CNN was on the ground before the clouds rolled in. If Nike had been serious about writing the future of the World Cup, they could have focused the ad on France and made it half as long.

The Bible-thumping line here is that we should pay The shipwreckattention to teams that are actually scoring threats in the tournament, but everyone loves dancing and everyone cares about this. This Domenech video is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen, an amazing combination of melodrama, suicidal spectacle, and low-fi shock aesthetics that feels like it was ripped out of a Godard movie, right down to the strobe encoding and the weirdly echoing voice: Domenech for the little brother of the mean computer in Alphaville. There are clearer versions out there, but this one is true to the spirit.

The first page of The AeneidFredorrarci was on this days ago, at a point when it still seemed like the case would be judged on the pitch, talent wrestling against autodestruction like knights in a trial by combat. At this point, even that dream feels dead; whatever happens against South Africa, or between Uruguay and Mexico, this is a matter for cameras and words. A real run in the tournament might put the story back on the games (“they’ve come together”), but at this point, does it even matter if the team is underachieving? They’re fighting their coaches, penning statements, and tearing down their own federation; what difference does it make that they could play better than they’re playing? It’s part of the origin story, and it makes the conflict more devastating. But really, what’s important here is that they have history, and they don’t care.

What we’re watching, to blow up the point unreasonably, is the death of the last World Cup. The early days of this tournament are often about the past. We’re watching the teams we know, the teams we’ve seen play for championships, and seeing if their narratives will hold. There are new narratives, but we don’t know them yet, because the World Cup is the Zeus’s skull they’re about to leap out ofl. We’re curious about Chile, but France is what most of us know. And not just France, but the whole continuity that re-emerges every four years to see what will replace it or join it. If North Korea beat Portugal, they’re North Korea; for now they’re a blank line plus the memory of 1966. Italy are still “the defending world champions.” I caught myself speculating yesterday on whether the Dutch team’s style of self-undoing was in keeping with the old Cruyff style, and the Dutch haven’t even done anything to undo themselves yet. Look at how 1986, aghast, keeps crossing in front of the obsession with Maradona.

Now, on some level all events are equal, and the sum total of states of affairs is the world, but unless your way of organizing this is at least moderately radical, this France team grows out of Clairefontaine and ’98 and ’00 and is still the site of Domenech’s bizarre run in ’06 and the entire legacy of Zidane. That, and not how they played in qualifiers or how Malouda looked for Chelsea, is what’s crumbling here. Next time around, they’ll be something completely new. Again, you could see this coming, as Domenech probably did when he last traced the stars of Aquarius, but until it happened at the World Cup, nothing could make it real. The proof of which is: if, somehow, they’d defied the gods and won their games 3-0, all those hints of conflict would be vapors.

The counterweight to all this, and what makes it doubly fascinating, is that the future will be written at this World Cup. Nike can’t stop it or help it. It’s clawing its way out before our eyes, even if we don’t know what’s going to be important yet. Özil is changing the way the whole world thinks about Germany; “New Zealand 2010” just became shorthand for something. Chile won’t win, but I’m not ruling them out for a run like Turkey had in Euro 2008, lurking Brazil or no. It’s easy to forget this, but Lionel Messi is 22 years old and this is his first real World Cup. We’re in Africa, full stop. Pages are being turned, and in a way, the catastrophe of France is just a spectacular way to remind us of last time and to clear the way for what’s next. It’s like watching a ruin explode. Remember them; they were a marvel in their time. Hail that land of palaces.


Epoch of Days

by Brian Phillips · June 20, 2010

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