No salvation for Brazil but a hint of the sacred in Messi’s swerve
Even though the Republic of Ireland was conspicuous by our absence from the World Cup finals, remarkably RTE television decided to screen every single match. It seemed as if Bill O’Herlihy and his guests were lodged indefinitely in Montrose, using sleeping bags in the studio and, between matches, eating burgers and chips in the canteen. A lavish set and bouncy Brazilian music created the appropriate ambiance as we settled into our sofas for an extended football-fest.
If the truth be told, much of it was irredeemably boring. Soccer is, of course, boring, most of the time. Watching multi-millionaires stroke the ball over-and-back, and over-and-back, and over-and-back before passing it back to the goalkeeper, who passes it to one of the backs – as with the Argentina / Holland game on Wednesday night. Not the stuff of excitement. At least not in comparison to the variety, pace and passion of Gaelic games.
In the recent Galway-Tipperary hurling championship match, between them the teams scored 7 goals and 37 points in 70 minutes, a score every two minutes. In the World Cup after 90 minutes when no goal is scored, there’s 30 more minutes of no goal been scored and then the penalty shoot-out, the only opportunity to watch multi-millionaires implode under real pressure.
Occasionally, however, a touch of real genius diverts us from the cup of cocoa and we’re on the edge of our seats. A Lionel Messi or a Robin Van Persie achieves the impossible and it takes the breath away. A dazzling run, a free-kick impossibly curved, an incisive pass and we’re carried along on a sea of genius as the beautiful game played by its greatest living exponents lifts the heart and mind.
We sometimes imagine that the greatest footballers in the world, plying their trade for grossly excessive wages, exist on some different planet from the rest of us. But reality and the unforseen vicissitudes of sport can suddenly impinge to remind us that flesh-and-blood people continually have to confront the fragility of the human condition.
The long, lonely walk to the penalty spot for a life-changing kick, is almost the equivalent of the walk down the plank. And if the spot-kick is missed the walk back to the comfort of the team must seem ever further and even lonelier. Heroes become villains and villains become heroes in the short walk between the centre circle and the penalty spot.
Expectations, especially national expectations, are almost impossible to satisfy and become a burden even multi-millionaires struggle to carry. Especially when they’re the representatives of a host country and even more especially when the country is Brazil, a football-crazed nation.
The Brazil game against Germany was a case in point. The weight of national expectations hung heavily on the balmy evening air. It seemed as if we were to witness another dull, unforgiving encounter that could produce another dismal Nil-All draw and, the worst of all possible worlds, a single goal conceded by a silly mistake from some exhausted footballer, denying us even the pleasure of a penalty shoot-out and the individual car-crashes that inevitably follow.
After twenty minutes or so, incredibly Germany were 2 goals in front. I phoned a friend who couldn’t see the game to let him know the score and when I returned to the television Germany had scored twice more and would score again before 30 minutes, a third of the game had elapsed. (Eventually it ended 7-1)
The faces of the Brazilian players and their supporters were a study in themselves. Prophets of doom had predicted that Brazil (meaning the entire country) would find it difficult to cope with defeat, such was the level of investment and credibility involved. And suddenly we were witnessing not just the end of the road for a team and a country that idolised them but a virtual humiliation before the eyes of the footballing world.
The agony, personal and national, was visible on the face of David Luis, whose day job is to play for Chelsea FC. With tears streaming down his crumbled face, he looked desperately up into the stands for some kind of reassurance or comfort, some kind of validation as the awful reality began to impinge, not just falling at the second last fence (which could be accepted with a measure of grace) but being blown away by a Germany team that was re-writing the history books to Brazil’s disadvantage and embarrassment.
While there was embarrassment in defeat, there was no embarrassment among the players wearing their religious faith on their sleeves – at least among those from South America. (The more sophisticated warriors from Europe, of course, would have no truck with such superstition.) After scoring a goal or after the match players dropped to their knees and with their eyes and their hands pointing towards the sky, prayed before a world-wide audience of hundreds of millions.
Sport, of course, has not just relegated religion to a lower division, it has successfully adopted its rubrics and rituals. The new Man(chester) United jersey has become the vestment of choice. You’ll Never Walk Alone, the anthem of Liverpool FC, is a tried and tested hymn. The referee is the new celebrant, orchestrating the ritual. The new pilgrimage destination is not Lourdes or Mejagorge but Old Trafford or Croke Park.
Humankind has a long history of searching for the right things in the wrong places and I suspect that this modern obsession with sport may well fit into that category. Not indeed that such interest should be patronised or dismissed because truth to tell it keeps a lot of us a lot of the time off the streets.
But then, if the novelist, John Updike, believed that God could be found in a perfectly struck five-iron approach shot to the green, then surely there’s a spark of something other-worldly in the impossible swerve of a Messi or the immaculate balance of a Van Persie.
Now that the football-fest is over, how will we spend this week?