Sunday, June 29, 2014

Half-way to paradise - the greatest World Cup ever?

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2012. July, to be precise. The British media, along with Republican American presidential hopefuls, were convinced the London Olympics were going to be a disaster.

Miserablists and professional curmudgeons (our old friend the Daily Mail, obviously) were predicting doom and gloom on a massive scale: this wouldn't work, that would be on strike, and London would be deserted by Londoners in a mass exodus to escape the chaos. Things were so bad that anti-aircraft missile batteries were installed on East End tower blocks, the SAS were on five-minute standby, and even the Queen had to arrive at the opening ceremony by parachute, accompanied by James Bond.

By the time The Who were bringing London 2012 to an ironic end with Baba O'Reilly ("teenage wasteland, it's only teenage wasteland"), it was being declared the greatest summer games in living memory and an unfettered carnival that turned the British capital - never normally the most welcoming of places - into a giant street party.

Let's bring things forward to earlier this month, and the eve of the FIFA World Cup 2014 Brasil™. Simply put, it wasn't going to happen. Donkeys were replacing striking taxis, the stadia were unfinished building sites and, well, everything would be a shambles.

So, imagine our surprise on this, the middle weekend, that this World Cup is being hailed the best of all time. Now, I imagine there have been better World Cups, but let's not dampen the ardour.  So far, we've had nothing but magic. Even Nigeria against Iran had its moments.

By the end of the group stage on Thursday there had been an average of 2.83 goals per game, the highest goal average since 1958, which had included Robin van Persie's remarkable flying 'Superman' volley in the Dutch team's unprecedented 5-1 demolition of the reigning world champions, Spain. That sentence alone says almost everything you need to know about how spectacular these tournament has been - the 2010 winners beaten - and eliminated in the group stage - by a four-goal margin that included one of the most balletic strikes I've ever seen.

But there's been so much more. Yes, Luis Suarez's brace against England, Tim Cahill's left-footed wonder against the Dutch, Lionel Messi's dying-second punt against Iran and Neymar's stunner against Croatia. We've also seen more decisive games - in the group stages a record 83% of games ended with a conclusive result, with just under half being decided by a single-goal margin.

Statto stuff aside, there has been the whole vibe: we at least hoped that Brazil 2014 would be a vibrant World Cup, but we've been rewarded handsomely, and then some. The blaze of colour from the home and visiting fans, national anthems properly sung passionately by South American footballers who seem to give more of a damn about this sort of thing than those from certain Old World countries, and even the elimination of Spain, England, Italy and Portugal - painful and grossly unexpected for some - have actually added to the fun. Simply put, none were good enough to proceed. Doesn't bother me, and I'm a proud Englishman whose second team is always Italy.

Suarez's ridiculous bite on Tuesday added some frisson. Enough has been said already - and there's probably plenty more to come - on this moment of repeat madness, but the only thing it should overshadow is Uruguay's tournament. Uruguay's national denial and the ludicrous claim of a FIFA or Anglo-Italian media conspiracy to disgrace the fanged forward has damaged the nation's reputation a hundred times over compared with what it may have done to the World Cup itself. Still, as Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Völler did in 1990 and Zinedine Zidane and Marco Materazzi in 2006, these incidents - as condemnable as they are - do have the notorious benefit of being part of the entertainment.

And then there's Team USA. The United States' traditional indifference to football - that's "football" - has often been used as an excuse to dismiss the the US team as somewhere between johnny-come-latelies and the nation that got a place at the World Cup by sending off a prize entry to a contest advertised on the back of a packet of breakfast cereal.

True, it is baffling that the world's biggest team sport has seemed to pass the United States by, along with Formula 1, while the NFL, basketball, ice hockey and baseball seem to provide a more nourishing attraction, and maybe their moments of glory this time around will still prove to be fleeting. But who hasn't enjoyed getting behind Team USA?

Who hasn't at least given some appreciation to the fact they've stepped up and taken on those football behemoths Portugal and Germany and stood up well to the challenge. Even if they do have a player - Kyle Beckerman - who'd look more at home in a Glastonbury yurt.

Who hasn't been amused by the Americans' sudden mass conversion to the sport we've loved all our lives? Even President Obama got in on the act, with a photograph of him watching the US-Germany game on Air Force One tweeted around the world in much the same way as the 'Situation Room' shot of POTUS and his entourage watching Bin Laden go down.

I shouldn't mock the US for joining the World Cup party 12 years after they actually hosted the event (without recognising that they had). But if nothing else, their continuing presence has woken up loony right-wing commentator Ann Coulter, who unleashed this week one of the greatest examples of uneducated ignorance since Dan Quayle misspelled "potatoe".

"Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation's moral decay," Coulter opened he rant with, then clumsily trying to make McCarthyite references to football being somehow un-American: "Do they even have MVPs in soccer? Everyone just runs up and down the field and, every once in a while, a ball accidentally goes in. That's when we're supposed to go wild. I'm already asleep." Coulter even uses the World Cup as an excuse to tap a pop at Europe: "Soccer is like the metric system, which liberals also adore because it's European. Naturally, the metric system emerged from the French Revolution, during the brief intervals when they weren't committing mass murder by guillotine." Muppet.

So let's leave crass and stupendously ill-informed idiocy to one side and return to the premise that we are mid-way through the greatest World Cup. Ever. Well, the greatest if you don't include the poetic beauty of Italia '90, the visual blessing that was the aftermath of the French win in '98, and the joyous organisation by Germany of 2006. There is more to come and, at risk of re-inserting a note of negativity, at the end of it we will hear what FIFA has to say about the alleged corruption surrounding 2022. FIFA may have organised something special this time, but that will not excuse them of the shabbiness we already know has taken place in the name of world football.

But that's for later. Last night's knockout stage opener between Brazil and Chile, followed by Colombia against Uruguay, reinforced the belief that this is Latin America's World Cup, and I mean that in the sense that the Latin American teams are earning their place in the latter stages through shear entertaining endeavour. OK, I know that Germany and the Netherlands look strong, France and Switzerland are still in it, but really - is it too much to ask that at least one of the South American teams makes it to the final on July 13? Please?

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