Wednesday, June 02, 2010
the agony and the... well, the even more agonizing
Some months back over Indian food, I suppose it would've been just after Beckham's big injury, my brother asked about Portugal v England in 2006, asked if it was true that Becks had wept when he was sidelined.
Yes, I said, he'd pulled a Gaza act, but I'd suspected at the time that he knew the Lions were going to be humiliated and was exaggerating his wound so he wouldn't have to be part of it.
There was a silence while my brother looked at me with his eyebrows raised. "Is that a little cynical?"
"In my defense," I said, "you have to remember that by that time in the World Cup I was completely insane."
Which is utterly and absolutely true. Not just neurotic, but bughouse mad. I'd quit my job so I had nothing to ground me into the earth during the month of footballing hysteria. I had no cable so I spent the bulk of my days up at dawn crawling into dark, smoky pubs where I drank gallons of bad coffee and ate (when I had to) terrible, greasy food. Many of these places had no windows. The only reason I knew it was summer was because after two or four or six hours I would have to stumble outside, snarling and vampire-pale, and make my way to a computer where I could unload into words on this very blog all the emotions of the day.
And the emotions were high and many. At the time I was still newly in love with football (newly enough that when I heard the Bill Shankly quote about football being far more important than life and death I thought yes, yes, that's exactly it) and had not grown a skin thick enough to separate myself from whatever absurdities were occurring on-pitch in Germany. When my teams were knocked out (all five of them) I experienced it as heartbreak as true as any I've felt at the hand of man. Successful cheating and diving left me breathless and gasping from the lack of justice in the world, and over-aggressive fouls I experienced as pure evil. In short, I had no perspective.
I have, naturally, been reviewing the events of that last World Cup in my head, and it seems to me, even over the distance of the years, that for every high and soaring moment I experienced there were nine or ten truly excruciating ones. Let's take a little trip down memory lane, shall we?
May as well start with Portugal v England, and get it over with: the stomp, the wink, and that horrible penalty shoot-out. The awful, gut-twisting humiliation when Jamie Carragher took his shot too soon and had to do it over. And Cristiano Ronaldo kissing the ball before he kicked it: was there anyone in the English-speaking world who didn't want to fire-bomb Ronaldo's house after that match? Lucky for him I'm a democrat and have no real training in weaponry.
Speaking of Portugal, travel with me now to Portugal v Holland. I remember sitting in the Marathon, I think it was, with Lynda, and I'd been kind of talking up Portugal as an interesting team... And then for the next two hours it was like watching through one-way glass at a nursery school while kindergartners tore into each other during some ferocious Romper Room. How many red cards were there? I think each team had maybe nine players each left on the pitch, keepers included, at match end. Mark Figo head-butted Mark Van Bommel, Deco PICKED UP THE BALL during play while arguing with a Dutchman... It was mass chaos, one vast embarrassment. We were exhausted afterwards, and I've never yet shaken my mistrust of either Portuguese OR Dutch footballers since.
France v Spain was a heartbreak for me, as La Furia Roja is the great love of my life. In it, Carles Puyol was accused of fouling Thierry Henry, leading to a French penalty and goal and giving France the edge they needed. Puyol came at him from an awkward angle, but Henry went down clutching his head (which Puyol had not touched) and until Puyol stands here and tells me otherwise I will always think of it as a successful dive. The interesting thing is that a month or so previous, following Barca's defeat of Arsenal during the 2006 Champions League Final, Henry (then of Arsenal) had been vociferous in the press about Barca's (Puyol's team) propensities for diving. "Next time I'll learn to dive maybe," he said, "but I'm not a woman." Guess he learned to dive, possibly becoming a woman at the same time.
These are just a few of many. Remember Brian McBride bloodied and dazed from the elbow of Daniele De Rossi? Remember Croatia v Australia, during which the Croatians were so very savage and unruly that poor Graham Poll lost track of his cards and gave one fellow three yellows? Remember the sickening crunch of Michael Owens' knee in the first minutes of England v Sweden?
Then there are two memories that I will never forgive. First, you have not known hell until you've sat in a college bar watching Germany take out the Argentine keeper with a knee to the ribs then win in penalties while frat boys (why do Americans who know crap about football always root for Germany?) roar with vicious Schadenfreude all around you. The other, the worst, was when Fabio Grosso put an end to Australia's hard-won and bravely-fought hopes by diving across Lucas Neill's prone body in the area and drawing the penalty. Although I later forgave the bulk of the Italian team during their rather wonderful humiliation of Germany (my enemy's enemy is my friend), Grosso will know my wrath until the day he dies and beyond.
That was the bulk of the bad. But there was also good.
I remember a miracle corner by Beckham that bent around into the net... was that England v Ecuador? Gorgeous. There was Argentina v Serbia-Montenegro, in which La Albiceleste showed us all what a beautiful passing game looks like. There was that lovely run by Tomas Rosicky against the U.S., and the best, most joyful, buoyant run ever by Carles Puyol, of all people, all the way down the pitch with the Ukrainians helpless at his heels, then a tap over to Torres who finished: perhaps the most playful, lovely goal of the tournament.
And that's pretty much it. When I try to think of more beautiful things, instead I think of more awful ones: Peter Crouch climbing up the hair of Trinidad's Brent Sancho to head in his goal, for instance. Sometimes it's downright embarrassing to be an anglophile in public.
I know you're thinking I left a bad point out: that OTHER head-butt, the one that got so much attention. I omit it on purpose, because I don't consider it a low point of the tournament. Quite the opposite. Consider: think what a long, excruciating match that final was. Neither side were playing in a scintillating fashion. It dragged on and on, as so many of the matches had, into penalties. Had Materazzi not goaded Zidane into action, had Zidane held his temper, I suspect we'd have all gone home feeling itchy and dissatisfied at the anticlimax of it all, and perhaps felt depressed and enervated for several days. As it was, thanks to Zizou, the 2006 World Cup went out with a bang, and I thank the football gods for it.
Anyway, it was Materazzi. Were he standing here right now, I'd head-butt him just for standing here being Materazzi. You see how violent I am already? And World Cup 2010 is still more than a week away.