It’s a tournament built for our age. A World Cup is impatient, impassioned and impossibly demanding on anyone who engages with it. It’s a deliberate rejection of what we’re used to. For 4 years prior to the World Cup, even the most emotional of cup competitions are forced to fit into the more gradual story of a ten-month season. There’s time for the threads of a season’s work to be brought together and for its narratives to form and be informed.
However, come the greatest footballing stage, judgments that last for years can be formed after as little as three days or 270 minutes (plus stoppage time). Adults are thrown back into the examination hall like teenage children, still under beady eye of an invigilator and at the mercy of the clock. It doesn’t matter how you performed in the mocks, this is the real thing. You can’t take your time to bed in, to find your feet or to warm up. Just ask any German.
There’s no time for respect. Lionel Messi’s status in the game should already have been confirmed. The awards are there but you’d do better to reflect on the sundry humiliations he has meted out to your team. Or that of someone close to you. Reputations of managers and teams left unspared as mouths gape and YouTube clips of his nonsensical abilities went viral.
This weekend, it was as though it never was. After just four games dipped in the waters of a stricken Argentinian team, Messi has completed Eduardo Galeano’s famous journey of the footballing idol, “from burst of light to black hole”. The reverse of Achilles, this World Cup bathed both Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in mortal ability- save for the odd part that reminded us that they are blessed.
There’s no time for individual context. 4 days of World Cup work is the work of four years and, like the hardest exams, it will be marked strictly against the quality of other candidates. It’s nothing personal. Had Argentina held onto a 2-1 lead then the soap opera stories of dressing room punch-ups and Messi’s mental state would have been as nothing. Footnotes added only for texturing an exciting tale. This is how it is. In a competition played in a condensed time, whole chapters of the story are written on the back of a single match.
There may also be no time for nuance. England was bathed in sunshine this weekend but the national team appear to have been pleasantly tanned by the same for around a fortnight. Two victories in our opening two World Cup games and early qualification have brought an ostensible sheen to the country’s footballing affairs. It’s as unnatural as it is so very welcome; a media and press as becalmed as many of the sunbathers in English parks and back gardens this weekend.
Two victories and qualification have proved to be excellent spin doctors. While England remain in the competition, the sun can shine and Gareth Southgate get on with his business like any other citizen. The phone in reaction is measured, journalists are reflective and the general undercurrent of satisfaction continues to flow with a pleasant gurgle. It feels crass to interrupt such a state of affairs with query. This is not least because the 3 Lions are currently the most effective balm to the inflammation arising in other parts of the British nation’s business.
And yet. What about the other side of the facts on the ground? Is beating Tunisia and Panama genuinely a statement of more than the perfunctory? Defeat can be immediately contextualised or ignored because we’ve qualified early. But we got only one game of rest as a reward. As we reach imminent judgment on our entire tournament, shouldn’t we reflect on the fact that England stumbled against the first sign of (Belgian) quality?
As the treatment of Messi suggests, World Cups are crucibles in which judgments are intensified. With the knockout stages now upon us, you sense the imminent loss of nuance. Should England defeat Columbia, you can hear the rumble that sounds like talk of a World Cup being “there for the taking”, England being “the side that all the others fear” and “letting other sides worry about us”.
But should we lose, it’ll be difficult to even remember this place of genteel perspective that we currently appear to be residing in. This present state of gentle optimism (where you can see broadsheet headlines such as “how England became likeable”) will be no effective dam against a tidal wave of frustration. In the face of defeat, it could feel like such a period never existed and that Southgate never had a clue. Let’s put it into context some might say but reality says otherwise. A season can forgive a missed penalty, a defensive slip or a poor decision; a World Cup cannot.
Whatever happens, it’s entirely natural for the narrative to be dominated by these kinds of binary reactions. The World Cup necessarily condenses an epic story into short space of time. It is by definition, an isolated one month tournament, not a season. It would be strange if sensitivity and emotion weren’t accelerated and heightened as a result. They have to be. After all, this is one of sport’s best action thrillers; patience and perspective are rarely in the script.
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