Even The Futbol Haters Loved This World Cup
The world did not end in Brazil, contrary to original concerns. What it did was awaken and sometimes tremble, in ways thought unimaginable just a month ago. We were introduced to futbol as an exciting, attacking brand of entertainment, once an oxymoron. We were connected to soccer in America like never before, courtesy of a compelling competition and a national team that at least didn’t regress in reaching the Round of 16 again. We saw Germany resemble a machine, from the systematic tactics to the waves of scoring talent to the players who looked manufactured from the same template, bodies and faces and hair alike.
And we saw the host nation — despite the government thievery, the drug wars, the rampant poverty, the education crisis and the feces in the water beside ESPN’s hermetically sealed hut on Copacabana beach — somehow pull off the World Cup without hourly catastrophes.
Yes, there was the collapse of an overpass, built for the tournament, that killed two people and injured more than 20 others. There were the seven workers killed during construction of a dozen stadiums before the event. There were protests, sometimes followed by police attacks and tear gas. According to ESPN’s Wright Thompson, the best sportswriter on earth at the moment, a “shootout’’ took place between the national guard and drug traffickers in a favela not long after Brazil was routed by the champion Germans last week, a moment of darkness when Brazilians had to wonder collectively why politicians spent $13 billion for the World Cup when it led to such heartbreak and international embarrassment. The social ills will not go away in Brazil, nor will the outrage, evidenced by a profane chant and boos for the country’s sure-to-be-outgoing president, Dilma Rousseff, as she presented the Germans with the trophy. If Brazil seemed like something of a paradise before this month, I now might avoid it as a vacation destination.
But the sad people did escape further pain when Lionel Messi and his mates blew several opportunities to hand them the ultimate indignity: Argentina winning the Cup on Brazilian soil, in the famed Estadio Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. That meant throngs of Argentines, many of whom had come to Brazil without accommodations or much money in the throes of a national economic crash, no longer could mock the Brazilians about losing in the semifinals. In the end, misery loved company deep in the bosom of South America, where Germany became the first European team to win the Cup anywhere in the Americas.
And for those fools who think soccer players are not athletes, behold the game’s only goal, in the 113th minute. Mario Goetze, inserted as a substitute for the great Miroslav Klose, rewarded his coach’s touch with a play as breathtaking as any that will win a championship in any sport. He handled a beautiful cross from Andre Schuerrle deftly with his chest and, in one motion, without letting the ball hit the ground, Goetze adjusted his body vertically and quick-triggered a rocket with his left foot past goalkeeper Sergio Romero. The superior team won, with Germany capturing its fourth World Cup while tying Italy in the all-time aggregate count, one behind a reeling Brazil.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling. I don’t know how you describe it. You just shoot that goal in, you don’t really know what’s happening,’’ said Goetze, who won’t have to buy another lager for the rest of his 22-year-old life. “And then at the end of the match, having a party with the team, the whole country … it is, for us, a dream come true. We, I think, deserve this trophy.’’
Said Germany coach Joachim Loew, who looks brilliant for the strategic move: “I said to Mario Goetze, `OK, show to the world that you’re better than Messi and you can decide the World Cup. You have all the possibilities to do that. I had a good feeling with him.’’’
The winning goal was the sort of miracle expected from Messi. But as is his reputation, he faded in the biggest moment, vanishing for large segments of the game and sending one final free kick in the last minute of extra time high above the crossbar. For a footballer to be considered the best of all time, he must win the World Cup. In Buenos Aires today, Messi is a wonderful soccer player, winner of the Golden Ball as this Cup’s premier player, but he is no god such as Maradona. The Pele vs. Maradona argument will rage on without a third contestant, unless Messi can win in 2018 and abandon the Dan Marino thing he has going.
“I’m hurt for losing the way we did. We were close to penalties,” Messi said. “I think we deserved a little better, we had chances. At this moment, I don’t care at all about (the Golden Ball), only lifting the trophy matters.’’
“I believe he’s in that pantheon,’’ said Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella, who is expected to step down from his post. “He played an extraordinary World Cup and was a fundamental factor in the team. Messi has always been one of the greats. The World Cup is a highly demanding tournament. As far as his reputation, he was there before and has been there for quite a while, among the greats.”
But this performance will be hard to erase. The world was watching, ready for the Messi coronation. In the American sports parlance, he didn’t show up. And truthfully, he has been largely missing since the group stage. He was supposed to break down the Germans with his legs. Instead, his stomach broke down; he threw up on the field during the first half, something that has happened before.
“This was our chance, and we couldn’t do it,’’ Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano said. “Obviously, the pain is tremendous.’’
Some in America like to think the Super Bowl is the mother of all sporting spectacles. Those peeps need to get out more. All you need to know is that reigning Pope Francis is from Argentina and that his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, is from Germany. Oh, and that everyone from Vlad Putin — Russia hosts the 2018 Cup — to Mick Jagger, to David Beckham and Pele, to Brazilian princess Gisele Bundchen and American football hubby Tom Brady — were in the house on a Sunday night. If that doesn’t impress you, the global TV audience was more than a billion. Considering we didn’t see the uglier issues beyond the FIFA-filtered broadcast, Brazil did look like a fun place to be in the summer of 2014.
While the rest of Planet Earth exhales, we in America immediately begin to examine how this World Cup will resonate. Yes, the soccer-mom generation finally grew up and enjoyed the entirety of a World Cup, but what happens when they start tuning in to Major League Soccer — which ESPN was promoting rather cornballishly amid the pomp of the Cup final — and realize it’s a Triple-A league compared to the proceedings in Brazil? Will enough elite young athletes now want to eschew football, basketball and baseball and commit to soccer? If so, does America have the financial commitment and priority for Euro-like academies where skilled kids can be taught the game the right way? There is a chance for soccer in the U.S. with football’s concussion crisis and baseball’s inner-city crisis, but realistically, any surge into the global futbol elite will take decades.
If the jury remains out on U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann, his credibility is strengthened by his strong connection to the German team. He coached that squad in 2006, before handing over the reins to Loew, and he played in three World Cups for Germany. “THE BEST TEAM WON THE WORLD CUP,’’ Klinsmann tweeted in congratulating Loew and the players.
The xenophobes think America should have an American-born coach. If our soccer initiative must have an import, seems we chose the right country, right? He has three years and 11 months to stop tweeting and start creating his own machine, his own BMW. Because soccer — excuse me, futbol — now has our attention.