It was almost the last touch of the game. A free kick nearly 40 yards out. There was no question who would take it. But could he do it? It seemed like an improbable script, green-lit by heaven—the world’s best player dramatically banishing any doubt of his brilliant primacy by curling home an equaliser in the last minutes of the last match of the World Cup. And yet… Messi seemed forlorn, unsure. There was none of Ronaldo’s imperiousness when he prepares for a free kick. But there never is with Messi. This quiet man has always seemed lonely on the pitch, and we might like to consider it the cost of genius. But his demureness—he’s the opposite of Zidane or Cantona, say—compels us to correct that inscrutability with speculation. The truth is, we have no idea what goes on in his head.
But at that moment he didn’t seem right. Seemed diminished, not emboldened, by the weight of everything. And then, before he took a few quick steps to the ball: a wan smile. I like to think it was a wry acknowledgment of our hysterical expectations. Then he belted the ball harmlessly into Row F. The game, and the Cup, was over.
* * *
There was an embarrassing footnote to the World Cup final, when Messi uncomfortably accepted the Golden Boot award for best player of the tournament. Cruel in that he was surrounded by ebullient Germans, but crueller because it forced us to consider the contrast between his group stage performances and his one tonight. It reminded me of Obama’s response to winning the Nobel Peace prize just a year into office. Four goals and four man-of-the-matches is far from terrible, but he was underwhelming in the clutch—aggressively shut down, missing di Maria, and perhaps underserved by Argentina’s rigidly defensive strategy. When we stare intently at Messi, willing him to perform some pleasing miracle, it rarely matters what’s gone before. We only consider him in this moment. It’s brutal, really.
It was a fitting end to a wonderful Cup—a surprisingly open game for a final, and a modest antidote to a tournament that became a little sour in the knockout phases. Argentina had contributed to that souring. Their games against Belgium and Holland were almost unwatchable, but they attacked well in this and will long rue those missed chances.
* * *
I wrote in the earlier piece that a pleasure of the Cup is considering the different styles, but I’m not sure that this is the case anymore. Not at the very top, anyway. Say, the dozen or so highest ranked countries in the world. They seem strategically similar, sometimes distinguished only by individual moments by the absolute elite. It’s true that for almost a decade, Spain distinguished themselves with tika taka, but it was a borrowing not an innovation. I couldn’t detect huge stylistic differences between the quarter-finalists, and the stereotypes are vanquished. Germany haven’t been dour for years; Brazil were one of the least beautiful and most physical teams all tournament; Holland have long abandoned their Total Football; and Argentina, ruinously loose at the back in 2010, sandbagged their half impressively this year.
Any individual “style” seems doomed by the dramatically fluid global market of football. Teams—at least the upper echelon—are comprised of players employed in Italy, France, Germany, England and Spain. Coaches are just as fluid, developing and refining their strategies in multiple countries. Cross-pollination is inevitable, a move towards uniformity of strategy brought on by this internationalism. (Germany are something of an exception: at time of writing, nine of their starting 11 play in the Bundesliga. But inevitably there’ll be some post-Cup transfers.)
* * *
What to say about Germany’s evisceration of Brazil that hasn’t been said? Perhaps to note the nature of the capitulation/victory, which just wasn’t how domination normally looks. There were few German shots in that game that didn’t end up in the back of the net, leaving an eerie sense of efficiency. More, a cluster of goals all looked remarkably similar—they looked like a training drill. For twenty minutes or more, there just didn’t seem to be an opposition out there. This was a catastrophic systems failure, and the Brazilian coach could only say afterwards: “It was like we blanked out. We tried to talk to them, to organise them. There was nothing we could do… We ask for forgiveness.”
The Brazilian defence had always been suspect—and David Luiz fraught with wanderlust—but analysis of this one seems best left to the Brazilian team’s psychologist.
* * *
It’s been fun, but we now turn a darker eye to Russia and Qatar. If Luiz plays for Brazil in 2018—and it’s a long-shot—it’s uncertain how Putin’s Russia will respond to his shirtless embraces with weepy opponents. Also uncertain will be the number of dead labourers on Qatar’s stadiums in four years time, if Qatar still hasn’t been stripped of its corruptly achieved status.
Our sports minister, Peter Dutton, is still silent on this, despite Australia having been a rival bidder for that tournament. If, as has been slated, the Qatar Cup is moved to the European winter for the first time ever (to mitigate against the obscene temperatures in the host country), it will be jammed in the middle of the major leagues’ seasons. I suspect that if Qatar is stripped, it will not be a response to blood and corruption, but rather powerful club owners refusing to release their hyper-expensive investments. Which is what it will mean, unless a clumsy four week hiatus is imposed upon the leagues. Either way, it creates a clusterfuck of obstinacy or logistics.
* * *
What to do now but enjoy normalised sleeping patters? Moan. I’m still immaturely aggrieved about the unkind time differences we endure. With the exception of Japan/Korea ’02, Aussies have been flummoxed. These unholy times dampen the possibility of communion, of having the sense of occasion fed by crowded pubs and plazas in the afternoon. Our lot is horrific alarm trills at two in the morning, and experiencing that weird demarcation from those who slept through it all. With these time zones, it’s us and them, and never shall we meet.
But we have our memories: that game against the Oranje men when, largely alone in dark lounge rooms, we deliriously questioned our scepticism. Van Persie’s goal which seems to have no precedent—a sort of sui generis moment of athleticism and instinct. The Costa Ricans topping a group that had Italy, Uruguay and England in it, then reaching the last eight by dumping the artless Greeks (some stereotypes stand).
I’ll also remember that last free kick of Messi’s, the one that sailed harmlessly over the bar. I’ll remember it for the compression of millions of dreams in the moment before he struck it, and the melancholy bemusement with which I thought I saw Messi divine and dismiss them.