Thursday 23 May 2019

Good, bad and beautiful bewitch the generations on greatest stage

Diego Maradona made his claim on football eternity with his overwhelming of England with a mixture of the divine and the devilish. Photo: Getty Images
Diego Maradona made his claim on football eternity with his overwhelming of England with a mixture of the divine and the devilish. Photo: Getty Images

James Lawton

If you want to take a more whimsical view of the World Cup which opens in Moscow next Thursday, and then four years later dumps us in the searing and - in my experience at least - utterly unredeemed desert heat of Qatar, it might be likened to a wild, unprincipled woman.

One who doesn't care where she earns her money - just so long as there is enough of it to go around.

So why the lure which, despite all the FIFA chicanery, the dodgy voting, the hooligan potential, the gouging prices, the unguaranteed and frequently uneven playing standards, is still so potent? And this 88 years after Uruguay, in its centenary year of nationhood, picked up the tab for everyone's expenses?

It is because the lady's beauty, for all her faults, still has a unique capacity to express the best of the world's most popular game, to inspire men like Pele and Maradona and Zidane to play the football of their lives.

It is because the World Cup produces games which can linger in the memories - and the hearts - through all the days of those who have seen them.

Who would bet comfortably against the possibility of this happening sometime over the next few weeks?

The curtain-raiser of Russia and Saudi Arabia in the Luzhniki Stadium may be as underwhelming as going to a feast and finding bread and cheese on the first course, but we can be pretty sure that soon enough the pulse will quicken.

Indeed, for all the temptations it is hard not to believe the old historic potential lives on.

Brazil, with Neymar Junior vigorously asserting his fitness, are said to be a team again, stronger, more balanced and infinitely more resilient than the one which fell apart so profoundly it might have been having a collective nervous breakdown after the great man had his vertebra fractured before his own people in the quarter-final against Colombia four years ago.

The Germans, on their way to the title, coldly and predictably worked their way through the wreckage in the semi-final and now they have the potential to draw level with the authors of the beautiful game with a fifth triumph.

So historic possibilities for two great, if temperamentally and artistically polarised, football nations - and almost certainly the last stand on the biggest stage for the two players who have dominated the modern game for so long: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

sublime Can the genius of Messi and the sublime, arrogance-fuelled certainties of Ronaldo, blaze finally in the arena where they have thus far failed to stamp the full, outrageous range of their talent in the manner of the two men who stand apart in the greatest of all football competitions, Pele and Maradona?

Such questions carry us into the near future with a hope enforced down all the years of the World Cup.

Some connoisseur ancients insist that despite the absence of the phenomenal Ferenc Puskas and the fact that the luminous Juan Schiafinno was slowed by injury, the best World Cup game was Hungary's 4-2 semi-final victory over Uruguay in Lausanne in 1954.

There was opulently skilled football, a tension which Hungary were required to break in extra-time after the South Americans recovered a two-goal deficit and in the cafés of the Swiss city that night there was little doubt that the years of Hungarian brilliance would soon be crowned by a world title.

When it didn't happen, when the return of a Puskas still short of full fitness couldn't overcome the relentless running of the Germans, Hungary had to settle for an unwanted title shared, in the opinion of many, with Johan Cruyff's Holland - the most talented, most inspired team never to win the World Cup.

The World Cup years make many claims. Brazil's 4-1 defeat of a fine Italian team in the 1970 final in Mexico saw the definitive Pele, masterful, strong and with that quality which persuaded so many hard judges that he was indeed the best footballer of all, the humility to understand the workings of the team and to strive for its benefit in every second of every game he played.

In the same city 16 years later, Maradona made his claim on football eternity with his overwhelming of England with a mixture of the divine and the devilish - and so it goes, the good, bad and the beautiful.

The best World Cup game I ever saw had an extra ingredient. It was poignancy and it came with the defeat of a Brazilian team which had promised to walk in the path of its football nation's greatness.

It was the team of Socrates and Zico, Roberto Falcao and Eder. They were supposed to redeem the barren years which followed the great triumph over Italy of 1970 but in the Sarria Stadium in Barcelona 12 years later the Italians gained exquisite and perfectly controlled revenge on their way to their third world title.

Dimension For me, the poignancy was maybe given an extra dimension by the fact that a few days earlier I had been in the mountain village where the Brazilians threw open one of their training sessions to the local youth. For the boys, it was all the fiestas of their lives rolled into one as they joined in an impromptu game, received exquisitely curled passes from the likes of Zico and ran, breathlessly, alongside the long-striding captain Socrates.

I watched the session in the company of the great Dutch defender Rudi Krol and later we had a drink in a local café. He agreed it had been wonderful to see how the boys had been affected by the Brazilians.

And he added: "There have been many great teams in the history of football and I like to think that for a little while I was part of one but seeing the Brazilians today reminded me that they are different, they are unique. Their love of the game is so evident, they bring so much joy to it. It was great to see them and, yes, it was a little humbling."

But it was the Brazilians who were humbled in the Sarria, a small ground surrounded by pastel-coloured apartment blocks but which still resembled a giant unfolding sunflower when the yellow-shirted, drum-beating Brazilian fans celebrated Brazil's two goals.

When Falcao equalised in the second half Brazil had done enough to reach a semi-final against Poland. But Brazil don't sit on games when they have the chance to decorate them and the Italians struck again through Paolo Rossi.

Barcelona, whose main streets had been filled with the samba-beating Brazilians for several days, was like a ghost town that night but for the sound of the honking of Lancias and Alfa Romeos.

Some contend that every defeat is a little death but for Brazil this was emotional carnage on the level it reached when Neymar was broken four years ago.

The following day I met the late John Moynihan, the author of 'Soccer Syndrome' - for some still the finest assessment of the appeal of football - and son of the famous artist as he strolled forlornly down the Ramblas.

He had a Zapata moustache suitable for mournful occasions and he sighed and said, "The little gods in yellow have gone and those of us who love this game are the poorer for it."

No doubt he would be delighted to know that in 2018 once again his worst fears have not been realised. The Brazilians, a bit like the World Cup, will always be with us for as long as football remembers its power to move the heart.

Irish Independent

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