Brazil were three-one up, the Cameroonian brave effrontery of the first half had all but faded and you got the sense that finally, in their third match of the home finals, the verdeoro were letting their hair (and oh what hair) down. The fear of losing could finally vanish together with the trepidation of committing that ultimate Marcelo-style mistake. Not that Thiago Silva had not come close on at least two occasions earlier in the match.
Still. Tension was down and bar a few unnecessary fouls by the Lions in green the stage was set for some beautiful football. And Neymar obliged. The chosen one had the ball at his feet close to the far corner, infront of him the impudent giant called Nyom. Neymar had a 101 options on how to go around the defender who had earlier, surely in a bout of heat-provoked insanity, gratuitously pushed the very same Neymar onto the photographers with the ball already out of contention. Would Neymar dance over the ball until the defender lay there hypnotised and then push it away beyond Nyom’s grasp? Would he kick the ball one way and dart another? Would he just cross over his head?
None of that. Neymar went for the Ardiles move. You know, the one featured in Escape to Victory (see video below), where the player lifts the ball with both his legs, rolling it gently until it hits the base of one of them and then loops it over his head. Audacity, flair, creativity – the core of beautiful football. O Jogo Bonito. Neymar’s move failed as the ball rolled away for a spot kick. Nyom was not having it though. He grasped the Chosen one by the neck and gave him a good telling off. The French commentator was jaw-droppingly on the defender’s side. “He’s right to be pissed off. You cannot mock defenders like that”.
“Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy.” – Socrates
Mock defenders? What kind of attitude is that? A few minutes later Neymar did a double umbrella on Nyom – leaving him transfixed. The telling off had not worked and Neymar still had more than a few tricks up his sleeve. And rightly so. Of all places and tournaments where we need more of the beautiful game, of the cheeky game, I would say the World Cup is it. Club football has become overtactical, overphysical and overcommercial. The stakes are too high to allow for the magic and beauty of great exploits and golden touches. So the World Cup where the only prize at stake is the famous golden trophy (and not the millions of the Champions’ League – the money at the world cup goes to FIFA and its nefarious plans of world domination). At stake is the glory and greatness of being the best team in the world – not according to IFFHS standards but as a result of a one-month tournament andhaving outwitted seven opponents.
There are so many factors that influence the final outcome that you cannot deny that the team lifting the trophy at the end is not necessarily the one that “deserved” to be called the best at the end of the day. We all know that cups and trophies are not about desert but about winning. Score one more goal than your opponents or suffer one less goal than your opponents – those are the two pragmatic philosophies of football that end up with the same result when successful. But from kick off to the final whistle there is some football to be played and we really should be encouraging the World Cup teams to show off their beautiful game.
It’s not just Neymar, it’s Dempsey, Messi, Kwadwoh Asamoah, Pirlo, Pogba, Mertens, Robben. Let them shine. Let them caress the ball and make it move in wonderful ways that defy physics and defy your very emotion. Is there really a more beautiful expression than that of Joe Hart as he watches Pirlo’s freekick turn in the air like a UFO on drugs? (watch Hart tell Pirlo about his impression here). Can we not all watch in awe as Mexico’s Ochoa pulls out the saves and moves of a lifetime, away from the misery of his Ligue 1 performances? Legend has it that during Poland’s 7-0 rout of Haiti in 1974, the Polish coach reminded the team during half time that “This is the World Cup” so they should not lift their foot off the pedal.
And now we have all this talk about “respect”. It’s the football equivalent of politically correct. By “respect your opponents” they mean that when a team like the Netherlands are cruising against Spain then they should stop after, say, the third goal. Out of respect. They mean that when Neymar can and will be able to pull off a magic trick against an opponent he should, if possible, refrain from doing so, and attempt the boring move. Out of respect.
Now I am the first to back the “Victory” philosophy at club level – much as I am a firm believer in the beautiful football (joga bonito). I will gladly watch my club sacrifice any semblance of beauty if only to get to the final and win the Champions League. But not at national level. Bereft of any sense of fanaticism I will only root for teams that showcase a beautiful game – a mixture of determination, creativity and flair. Which is why I cannot but admire Costa Rica, Chile, the United States and even unlucky Ghana at this stage. I would rather Brasil play a beautiful game and get knocked out than they win the trophy with a dry pragmatic team as in
Sometimes a match can be the making of a champion’s myth. Look what 1986 match against England did to Maradona. Had he handballed or scored the “Goal of the Century” against Algeria or Honduras it would not have made half the impact it did. They called David Seaman Mr SafeHands. Until Ronaldinho decided to hit a free kick from almost the half way line and Seaman had no idea it was coming until he heard the ball hit the back of the net. Remember Branco and his cannon shot free kick against the Netherlands? Remember the exploits of Hagi, Stoichkov? Now name one great move by Greece’s European Cup winning team.
International competitions are over a short period. It can be too hot for some teams. One wrong game and you are out or almost. Then there could be a refereeing factor – because even these men tend to not always rise to the occasion. You could have luck on your side or you could kill the game until you make that one attempt to cross the centre pitch and you score. Take away the beautiful game from these competitions and you are not left with much. For those short seconds when a player tries the impossible you get the great rush and feeling of joy that only football can give you.
Then you are brought down to earth and Germany are lifting the trophy. Again.