What Makes the World Cup (Still) Great
|Mr Boh knows!|
What Makes the World Cup (Still) Great
By Jason Gay (Wall Street Journal, 6-16-2014)
Rio de Janeiro
|Boh Knows World Cup|
Look: I'm not going to lie to you. Never. I guess I could try to bluff my way through this, try to convince you from here, 10 airborne hours from New York City via sumptuous upgrade from economy to economy comfort—neither comfortable nor economic, as it turns out—that I am a true futebol obsessive, with the game packed deep inside my bones. I wish I could tell you, in a hushed tone rich with emotion, that this beautiful game had both lifted and broken my heart, and my father's heart, and my grandfather's heart, and the heart of Zidane, our beloved family dog. That would be great. I wish I could tell you soccer makes me cry. I really wish I could tell you we had a family dog named Zidane. But I can't. Not yet.
The truth is I'm still new to the whole World Cup experience. I had a couple of days at South Africa 2010 but I still feel green and a little confused. I'm ready to be captivated, however. On Sunday morning I woke up in Rio at our Journal WC 2014 headquarters (medium glam) not far from Copacabana beach (actual glam), and before I had my a.m. coffee, I was jarred by a noisy ruckus in the streets. I looked out the window to see Argentina fans marching and singing in white-and-light-blue jerseys. It was barely 9 in the morning. Argentina's game with Bosnia and Herzegovina at Maracanã Stadium was not for another 10 hours. Back home, if a bunch of Jets fans came parading past my apartment at 9 a.m., I would take my family down to the basement and barricade the door. But this was fantastic. It made me want to run outside and join.
This mania is what makes the World Cup great, what makes the Cup the Cup—the electric collision of national pride and the planet's most popular sport compressed into an exhausting but riveting monthlong saga. It's ugly business, too—Brazil is torn over this Cup, disgusted over the grotesque sports spending in a country that needs much more than shiny stadia. Protests have happened; protests are expected; there are hard and important questions about what will be left when the soccer and the world leaves. Of course, FIFA, the sport's blundering governing body, knows it sells an addictive product, and it counts on the public to set any caution aside as soon as the Cup begins. And then the Cup begins, and it is indeed hard not to love. This surely makes me a sucker, part of the problem.
But it's intoxicating in so many ways, especially this Cup, in a dynamic country already confirmed as soccer-mad, holder of five World Cup titles, and among the favorites in 2014. I have seen enough of this Cup to know that the true soccer-heads are thrilled with the early games, which have been thrilling even to an untrained eye—upsets, aggression, goals galore, often in rapid succession. Whoever complains there is not enough scoring in soccer is not watching this soccer. Also: I am reasonably sure the Netherlands could beat the Orlando Magic.
Controversy is a inexorable part of any World Cup, and it is here in both serious and absurd form. Brazil's contentious Cup began with a discussion of the contentious Cup two contentious Cups down the road, in Qatar, in 2022, and the debate of whether or not it should be moved someplace with fewer logistical issues, like Saturn. Less grave were the predictable referee disputes—a penalty kick awarded to Brazil in its opener over Croatia, handed out by the referee for contact that—at worst—resembled a tender cuddle. Later, Croatia coach Niko Kovac, taking a restrained view, wondered if his team should just "give up and go home." France has complained that drones may have been spying on their practices. On Sunday, the robots sent a peace offering to France, awarding a goal-line tech score to Les Bleus in their 3-0 win over Honduras.
Like the French national team, traveling around Brazil can be unpredictable and sometimes exasperating; when you ask a worried out-of-towner when you should leave to go to the airport, you are told you should have left two months ago. I've been lucky—after the Brazil opener in São Paulo, I went breezily on to Rio. That afternoon I sat behind a taxi driver who watched the Uruguay-Costa Rica game from a phone suctioned below the rearview mirror. When it rang, he picked it up and told his wife to not distract him.
On Saturday night, I went to the crowded fan fest to watch the Italy-England game played up north in Manaus. This is a game that would be a big loud deal in my Brooklyn neighborhood back home, and it was a big loud deal here, too; the Inglaterra fans showered the crowd with Coca-Cola cups after Daniel Sturridge's first-half goal. But the victory went to Italy, which had the second-half gas in the Amazonian heat. Sunday night I rushed off to Argentina-Bosnia at legendary Maracanã, the stadium stacked with joyous fans, soccer icon Lionel Messi on the field below. On Monday, the U.S. team would make its debut against Ghana.
It's early here. Pacing feels essential. Imagine a Super Bowl after a Super Bowl after a Super Bowl until you have counted for a month. But the World Cup is manic from the start. Heartbreak and contemplation comes later. We are now four days in and I have yet to hear a stray remark about the U.S. Open or the Heat and the Spurs or even the Mets. A lot of major sporting events like to claim they're the center of the sports universe. This feels like the center of the sports universe. There's nothing like a World Cup. Even a newcomer can detect that.