Four years on and I’m still fucking spooked by those vuvuzelas. Probably some arsehole imagined them, when blown in unison, conveying the indigenous élan of South Africa. But they just filled stadiums—and my lounge room—with a hateful buzz, all doom-heavy and obnoxious. I used to exhaust myself fantasising about a giant bonfire for those pipes; Johannesburg blanketed in a toxic pall.
Anyway, they fucking got to me, and I like to imagine them being an analogue to a dull and mean tournament. South Africa 2010 stank as it slouched towards its final, which was cage fighting with studs. History books will record a Dutch loss, but the Oranje also betrayed a tradition of recklessly beautiful football. Spain, meanwhile, reached the last two with awesome technical wisdom, but surely it wasn’t just me made snoozy by the metronomic tedium of their possession play. But there are many pleasures of the Beautiful Game, and one is the diversity of styles and spirits—and Spain had an impressive variety—but most of the rest in 2010 allowed theirs to be retarded by fear or cynicism.
Including Australia, who since Hiddink and prior to Postecoglou, have been coached by faithless and unimaginative fools who have thwarted our desire to play tough and meaningful footy. Here’s how I see it: Ange’s two predecessors, who disgust prevents me from naming, had us play to our weaknesses, creating a distressingly insipid kind of football. It sought to embrace our underdog status in the worst possible way—by institutionalising it. I would wager that Postecoglou’s genius is first an abiding irritation with defensive football, and second it’s the way he has utilised us being underdogs. Instead of playing to our weaknesses—and engendering them—he seeks to breathlessly exploit the complacency of our opponents. Call it wooly-headed jingoism, but Ange has divined the Aussie’s deep seeded desire to run at, hector, intrigue and muscle our opponents—and play football while we’re at it. The difference between our latter qualifying matches, and those against Chile and Netherlands, is staggering.
So we come to the Dutch match, which none of us will forget. It seemed obscene for me to enjoy it in solitude, on the edge of the couch or nervously patrolling it, and stifling my primal yelps and bellows lest I wake my partner. In 2006 I watched our little journey unfold in crowded pubs, and that seems more like it. Fierce if fleeting intimacies are made in those places.
Against Chile, the aged Bresciano was class. His strategic role, deftness of first touch and crispness of pass reminds me of Paul Scholes. We have been very lucky to have him, technically superior to Kewell, Mori, Cahill or Emerton, and I hope he can come home and eek out a final season here in the A-league.
Against the Dutch he was quieter, and pulled earlier, but we had a team and a generation of kids playing like possessed mavericks. And what to say of Cahill’s sorcery that isn’t a ten can pile-up of clichés? Perhaps enough to repeat the man’s words himself from after the match: “It’s all about defining moments.” Just what that ridiculous volley will define is up to you. For many it will define the Aussie’s World Cup: a very adult fairy-tale in which we blitzed expectations but lost anyway. But how shockingly pleasurable and gut-thumping those losses were, given I had bitterly resigned myself to capitulation.
After the weird elation/disappointment duality we were all saddled with, it was jarring to listen to the SBS panel immediately afterwards. The former Socceroos were dark and angry, haunted by Tommy Oar’s late square pass to Leckie, which instead of being a clean, crisp ball to feet, was a howitzer blasted into no man’s land—his chest. Very probably Oar should have taken the shot himself. Anyway, my pride was being seriously queered by their criticism, but a day later I got it: they didn’t patronise Australia with sweet riffs on noble losses. They thought Australia should’ve won, were fucking pissed that they didn’t, and enumerated the ways in which they could have. There were no rhetorical bouquets here and that, I later thought, was the best gift of all. They treated Australia as Holland’s equals, future rivals of the best. Let us dream and let us play. With Ange, I think we will.
Elsewhere, there was England and their opening game with Italy. Wayne Rooney was stale and haggard, and still without a World Cup goal after two previous tournaments. Rooney used to play so spiritedly, so unpredictably, more a product of the schoolyard than the staid triangles of the academy. But that’s Raheem Sterling now, the fearless sprite, running at and through defences on jagged runs while Rooney prods and pushes irritably. Sturridge is now probably world-class, and Barkley is built like an ox and runs like a young Giggsy. There’s a future with that team, surely.
In the game against Italy, shorn of expectations England also lost their neurosis. Until the Amazonian humidity got them about half an hour from time, they played optimistically. Meanwhile, that old aesthete Pirlo—at 35 very close to tending to his vineyard full-time—played the maestro, artfully controlling the tempo of the Italian team (until the climate did). His awareness helped with Italy’s first goal too, when a square’ish pass, running roughly parallel to the England 18-yard box, came to him. Pirlo deftly allowed it to run through his legs, a feint which gave Marchisio a fraction more time than he would have to line up his shot.
Update: since England’s opening loss, played in a fashion that gave me hope they would beat Uruguay, they were again undone 2-1 courtesy of the sublime gifts of the monstrous Suarez. The brutal calculus of the group was sealed when Costa Rica beat Italy, leaving England out of the tournament after just two games. At least Rooney claimed his first Cup goal, even if it’s his last.
Brazil 2014 has so far been an awesome testament to the gorgeousness of the game. I don’t hesitate to call it the greatest game we have. I’m a Freo fan, and sat in the nosebleeds for our first grand final last year, but I tell you: it had nothing on watching the Socceroos play Holland. Or the ones we played against Japan, Croatia or Italy in ’06 either, for that matter. Despite the putrid spectre of the Cup’s administration, we have been spoilt with gregarious football—high scoring, surprising and, if exclude the serially petulant Portuguese, reasonably fair-spirited.
If you want tips, I don’t have any. In a tournament where the favourites have drawn Mexico, the champions swiftly evicted and Costa Rica beat the Azzurri, how could you? Though I have my wishes: that Portugal realise the logical end-game of their egoistic barbarism, and cannibalise each other in the locker-room.
I hope that the US progress to the 16, and fewer Yanks make vulgar demands to widen the goals or abolish the off-side rule.
I hope England dump Roy Hodgson and find their own Ange.
I hope that after all of this, Pirlo opens up his vineyard to the public and conducts tours whereby he extolls the Italian soil and warmly reminisces about his footballing career.
I hope, like everyone else, that Messi plays like Messi and banishes the enduring complaint that he can’t play for country. With two goals, it seems to be happening.
With that said, I think I wish for an Argentina/Brazil final—a slickly hedonistic drama deliriously concluded at 4-4. The resulting penalties would then not be resolved until Russia 2018.
My biggest wish, though, is for the FIFA board to be summarily shot and a sense of reverence, humility and decency restored to the executive. Almost as many foreign workers have died constructing Qatar’s stadiums as died in New York and Washington on September 11. They died not constructing theatres of dreams for the 2022 World Cup, but drilling rivets into concrete so they might take some money home to their family. I hope our awareness of FIFA’s gangsterism soon reaches some practical tipping point. It will require some serious muscle to challenge it. So far, our sports minister has been almost silent on it. I hope that changes.