This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 12 July 2010. The link is here: http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/12/a-world-cup-as-unpredictable-as-the-flight-pattern-of-a-jabulani/
If we are looking for a satisfying verdict on this World Cup, then it is possibly inappropriate to turn to one of the most ruthless criminals that the small screen has ever seen. But Marlo Stanfield, the scourge of Baltimore’s police force in the HBO cult classic “The Wire,” had the best words to describe the tournament.
Marlo, in a show of power and petulance, steals a couple of pieces of confectionery from a convenience store, eyeballing the security guard as he walks out. The irate guard follows him out of the store, knowing full well Marlo’s terrifying reputation, but wanting to make some kind of protest against a world where the powerful and pragmatic do as they please. With noble futility, he stands face to face with the young drug dealer, who then and there decides to have him murdered later that evening. Marlo, impassive, stands comfortably in the shadow of the guard’s brow, and informs him: “You want it to be one way. You want it to be one way. You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.”
Many football fans wanted this World Cup to be one way. They wanted it to be that way where the outcome of each match was decided by sustained attacking brilliance. But it was largely the other way: a World Cup where victory went to those who stood studiously in wait for a sight of their opponent’s weakness. Many fans wanted it to be that way where some of the game’s greatest stars performed as wondrously as advertised; where Messi, Rooney, Kaká and Ronaldo did not appear, to varying degrees, careworn by their country’s expectations. But we got the other way, where their talents were tempered by wise defenses, and where Rooney won’t appear on the tournament’s DVD of highlights.
It was a strange tournament indeed. Teams were at once themselves, and not themselves. Against Australia, Germany had the swagger of their victorious 1990 team, for whom Lothar Matthäus marched imperiously through the midfield. Ultimately, against Spain, the Germans seemed passive and parasitic, waiting to feed off defensive errors that never came. Yet they gave us a joyful new generation of players; Özil and Müller, who were borne manfully on the back of Schweinsteiger, perhaps the man of the tournament. Spain threatened to treat this World Cup as a mere victory lap for its victory in Euro 2008, but in its first match Switzerland did to them what no other nation could.
This was a deceitful World Cup; even the scorelines lied to us. Those who look back at 2010 won’t realize that the manner of Portugal’s 1-0 defeat to Spain — in which Spain had the ball almost 20 minutes more — was far more humiliating than Argentina’s 4-0 fall to Germany. They’ll see Holland’s 2-1 win over Brazil as a classic contest, and not a game in which the South Americans contrived to beat themselves. They’ll look at North Korea’s gaping goal difference, and not know how close they ran Brazil in their first game. And though they’ll double-take at the proud unbeaten record of New Zealand, they’ll only see three draws where they should see three triumphs.
This was a World Cup where, broadly speaking, Africa lost on the field of play, but won off it. Off the field, South Africa ran a superb tournament, one of genuine warmth; unless, of course, you were one of the small traders or slum-dwellers evicted during the construction of stadiums. On the field, they succumbed early, as did Cameroon, Algeria, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. Yet, crucially, they did not do so meekly. Neutrals may mourn the demise of Ghana, the continent’s lone sporting success, at the quarterfinal stage, their trophy hopes swatted away by the Hand of Suarez. But they should reflect on the startling progress they made without their best player, Michael Essien, and on their victory in late 2009 in the Under-20 World Cup, a win that augurs well for Ghana’s next assault on the senior tournament.
In “The Wire,” as in the World Cup, we saw the good guys tarnish themselves in victory. In “The Wire” the cops get most of the villains they are after, but only after availing themselves of morally dubious methods. The Spanish, the eventual winners, swathed themselves in similar clothes, their playacting almost as persistent as the playmaking of Iníesta and Xaví.
Maybe we all wanted a tournament where the biggest egos fell hardest to earth. If so, then that’s largely what we got. World Cup 2010 saw the plummet of Domenech and Maradona. Meanwhile, England, France and Italy must now contemplate one tournament, possibly more, outside the ranks of the global elite. They will look, initially in contempt and then in dismay, at the list of teams now set alongside them in terms of quality: the United States, Slovenia, Slovakia and Algeria. They may balk most at the fact that, in the coming months, they will be considered the underdogs should they face Uruguay.
Ah, Uruguay. It started out one way — the plucky, valiant outsiders — but ended up the other way, as the pirates of the piece. (Even the facial expression of Diego Forlán, who emerged with as much credit as anyone from the World Cup, had something of Captain Hook about it.) And the Dutch? We wanted them one way, but how many of us could have foreseen that they would foul their way through much of the final?
The World Cup, like “The Wire,” did not end so badly. Justice was done, in that the finest team won the tournament, though never quite at its best throughout. Maybe we wanted this World Cup one way, the way in which the good vibes and the vuvuzelas drowned out the din of many of the continent’s ongoing ills. But there are a few others — like those who bombed a World Cup final party in Kampala, killing dozens — who wanted it Marlo’s way, for the world to be all about them and their casual brutality. Unlike Marlo, the murderous narcissism of these terrorists is not merely fictional; unlike Marlo, they won’t receive a namecheck in this blog.
In truth — and we never did find out what Marlo thought of football — the World Cup was neither this way nor that. It remained, to its very end, as unpredictable as the flight pattern of a Jabulani; never before has a match ball been such a fitting mascot for an entire tournament. Most important, it gave us enough to remind us why we ultimately delight in this game, though we may often despair of it. And why we’ll be waiting anxiously through three barren summers for the next edition. Roll on 2014, and Brazil.