A Cup of dreams and crazy realities
Declan Lynch finds a tragic flaw in the World Cup — the fact that it will eventually come to an end
You will have noted that there was no World Cup match on Friday. I should also point out that there will be no match on Wednesday and none on Thursday. We have reached that most delicate stage of the journey, just past the half-way point at which the stakes are getting higher, but the games are getting fewer. In exchange for the agony of enduring a whole day, or even two days in a row, without football, we are getting games of ever-increasing importance, with the possibility of extra time and penalties.
What we are losing in frequency, we are gaining in intensity. Which would sound like a reasonable trade-off, if we were dealing here with reasonable people, in a reasonable situation. But then there is not much reason left in the world, during the World Cup. At this particular stage of the global addiction, the viewers have the attitude of junkies who are told they can't have their drugs several times a day, but they can have a better class of drugs - being junkies they wonder why they can't have the better drugs several times a day, why indeed they can't have everything they want, all the time.
Yet there is logic in it too, a crazed logic perhaps, but one with a certain basis in reality. In the city of Manaus, deep in Amazonia, there is a stadium that was built for this tournament, for four football matches. It may eventually become a concert venue, on the other hand it may not.
It stands there as a magnificent monument to unreason, to all that is extravagant and impractical and even criminally irresponsible in human nature. And yet this is not the first time that they built such a monument in this very city - the opera house known as the Teatro Amazonas was built during the late 19th Century, using marble from Italy and steel from Britain and interior furnishings from France in the hope, according to legend, that Enrico Caruso could be persuaded to sing at the opening.
Which indeed he may have done. On the other hand, he may not, but somehow it doesn't matter. The very idea of building an opera house in such a place is said to have inspired Werner Herzog to make the film Fitzcarraldo, itself an impossibly ambitious undertaking. The demented dreams of men did not begin with these great football tournaments, there is some primal energy involved here, something that we usually describe as being "operatic" in scale.
And yet no opera is also able to present us with the kind of raw realities that the football has been bringing us every day, every night. Along with the fantastic extravagance of it, there are these hard truths emerging, all the more searing because they are unscripted. England, after their few moments of hope, ended up playing their last game with most of the world's TV stations not covering it on their main channel. A man who runs a pub in Dublin told me that his hopes were ruined too, as he'd been expecting at least one more big night out of them. Thus in the end, the fantasies of the English football nation didn't even add up to much on the cash register of a bar in Balbriggan.
The Ivory Coast might argue that they were due a break, that an African team being knocked out by a late penalty was such a horrible fate that it would never be allowed to happen in fiction. The otherwise luckless Greeks, who got the penalty, would be too high on the improbability of it all to empathise.
In Cameroon, where they might feel that they have enough misfortune already, they have to look at their players getting themselves sent off for no good reason, fighting among themselves on the pitch, disgracing themselves.
In America the enormous viewing figures for the games suggests that football has finally cracked it there, to which football responded with a last-minute equaliser for Portugal against the USA, a dagger through the heart on the night, again a denouement which would never be allowed to happen in the movies.
Iran too were thinking that they had done an incredible thing, keeping Argentina out for more than 90 minutes, until Messi did his own incredible thing.
And the stars, for all their greatness, are flawed, just like actual people. Which makes them more interesting, or in the case of Luis Suarez, perhaps too interesting. Cristiano Ronaldo still seems to struggle with the idea that football is a team game, not a showroom for the genius of one man. Neymar is brilliant but he is no Messi, who is the least flawed of all the greats, but who is allegedly not quite such a hero to the Spanish taxman - ah, it is a such a dismal thing, this reality, that it touches even Lionel Messi. Robin van Persie is a wonderful player, but only when he is trying, and he wasn't trying all that hard for Manchester United last season. Suarez in his delirium seems to know only ecstasy or catastrophe. And for us, the multitudes, there is a tragic flaw in the whole thing, the fact that it is going to end on July 13.
Even as we are consumed by each line of the story, we are conscious of the inexorable erosion of time.