End of the World Cup, End of the World
But for some, such as the fallen Brazil, this is a World Cup that will never be over.
Published 13/07/2014 | 00:00
There is a terrible cruelty in football, which in the end is probably what makes it the most compelling thing on earth. Without that cruelty, without the "catastrophe", it would just be a form of entertainment. But there's no-one in Brazil these days who would see it as entertainment in any sense, it just goes much deeper than that.
Those of us who follow it all the time are constantly aware of this, but at a World Cup everybody understands. Men, women and children who are coming to this for a few hours of mere enjoyment may find themselves swept into a vortex of suffering. To which those who have been there all their lives will just grunt : welcome to our world.
A mere two months ago, Liverpool fans endured a "catastrophe" or two, on their way to not winning the Premier League. There was even a 10-minute period towards the end of their horrifying 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace which bore a vague resemblance to Brazil's collapse against Germany, a sense that the players were folding like a cheap suit and collapsing like a deckchair or even collapsing like a suit and folding like a cheap deckchair, all at the same time.
Yet it is somehow wrong to compare anything we have seen in any game with the unravelling of Brazil last Tuesday night, an event so singular and so disturbing, it even led to that rarest of things, a World Cup in which I have not predicted the winner.
I had thought that Brazil, for all their many failings, might still be so driven by the terror of losing, and assisted by every break that FIFA in their darkness could bestow on them, they would get there somehow. After all, the team with the best players doesn't always win the tournament - Greece won the European Championship in 2004. And amazing though it now seems, Brazil went off at exactly the same price as Germany for the semi-final, with men as solid and as sensible as Brad Friedel, the distinguished American on the RTE panel, still saying they would win the tournament.
So I think that Luis Scolari owes us an apology just as comprehensive as the one he made to the people of Brazil, but more than this I think we should be in awe of this game of ours, and of the scale of the destruction it can deliver.
One thinks of England, which has perhaps never unravelled as Brazil did, all on the one night, but which has endured a series of smaller unravellings spread over several World Cups, draining them of all confidence, finally breaking their hearts.
The Dutch, according to tradition, have tended to allow their thirst for individual expression to undermine the team ethic, and with manager Van Gaal claiming that two players declined to take the first penalty in the semi-final shoot-out, it seems they were undone again by what football men would see as "the type of lads they are".
Truly the fate of nations, the state of a country's soul, can be determined in these weeks of wondrous fantasy shot through with the most devastating realism. In our case, there are many who say that the "confidence" created by Italia 90 helped to make Ireland rich - and because so many say this, most likely it is not true. But I do feel that it introduced us to a new sensation, a sense that for once, we were getting lucky. That Paddy, at last, was actually getting a few breaks. Now we just feel lucky that we are not Brazil. Which is another strange twist in our island story. And as we reach the end of the World Cup, or, if you like, the end of the world, we ponder the meaning of Brazil's annihilation in terms of the tournament as a whole.
According to one interpretation, the sight of a team in the semi-final of the World Cup not driven by terror but unmanned by it, playing like a bunch of lads called out from the Dog & Duck, tends to degrade the entire experience.
Yet in the performance of the Germans there was a profound affirmation of football's deepest verities. Some of us felt that being 5-0 up at half-time, the Germans might decide on humanitarian grounds that the Brazilian people had suffered enough. And for a while in the second half it seemed that they had indeed settled for the 5-0, with the proviso that under no circumstances would they allow Brazil to score.
Then Germany went and scored another two, as if annoyed that we might suspect them of bringing any humanitarian attitudes onto a football pitch. If it meant intensifying the cruelty of this exhibition, then so be it. In 2006, they had been beaten by Italy in the semi-final of the World Cup in their own country, and in the last World Cup they were also beaten in the semi-final, by Spain, and that too was appallingly cruel. Maybe they were getting some of that out of their system.
Football has again cut to the essence, with the best team, Germany, in the final against the best player, Lionel Messi.
I drew Germany in a sweepstake, which tells us something too -- that after all our fine schemes, sometimes we get the right answer just by picking it out of a hat.