Has this been the finest football World Cup to date? (Note, please, Daily Beast readers, that I am dispensing today with that vile and tormented word, “soccer.”)
Let me rephrase my question: Has this been the most uncomplicated World Cup to date, the competition most light on its feet, the one that has passed most quickly and truly down the gullet of eternal joy, the one whose only narrative has been sporting, with nary a whiff of politics or anthropology (except in the case of those infernal vuvuzelas, which the historian Fouad Ajami described to me, punning memorably, as “the troubled horn of Africa”).
This has been, in many ways, an absurd World Cup. An octopus has emerged as the globe’s oracle on matters footbalistic. Paul, a creature most Spaniards would have been inclined to boil, dice up, and serve with potatoes and paprika, has been predicting the results of matches with unerring accuracy. He appears to have predicted that Spain will, tomorrow, defeat the Netherlands.
Neither side is so flecked with past triumph that the neutral might say, Let the one who has not won before win this time.
What a game we have in prospect: For the first time since 1978, when Argentina played, and defeated, the Netherlands, we have a final in which neither country has won the cup before. We are, therefore, on the cusp of something entirely, bracingly unprecedented, a new overlord in a game which has, to date, been dominated by the Usual Suspects. Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina—plus Uruguay, France ,and England—will now admit to their exclusive club of seven, the G-7 of football in other words, another football nation.
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• Full coverage of the World CupWill it be the Netherlands, who have been to the finals twice before (in 1974 and 1978), only to experience consecutive heartbreak, in spite of the fact that they played something daunting (yet electrifying) called “ Total Football”? The Spanish have never progressed beyond the quarters, and they are now at a height that should, in truth, be giving them national vertigo; and yet, theirs is a side so accomplished, so technically dominant, that they start favorites to win.
For the neutral, the game is a feast of conflicting sentiment. It is hard to plump, unequivocally, for one side over the other. Both play deft, thrilling football, and have a recent record that is dauntingly unscarred by defeat. (The Spanish did, however, lose their first game in this cup to Switzerland, bizarrely, a defeat that appears to have stung them back into dominant form). Neither side is so flecked with past triumph that the neutral might say, Let the one who has not won before win this time. We have a truly open game, free from the instinctual biases that would have come to neutral viewers in a game between the Netherlands and Germany, say, or Spain versus Brazil. Spain, many predict, will win, not because their hunger is greater (the Dutch are just as ravenous) but because few sides in the history of the game have mastered the art of ball-possession as well, and as asphyxiatingly, as Vicente el Bosque’s team. Have you ever seen 11 players with a relationship so adhesive to the ball? It’s as if a Spanish version of magic glue were smeared on their cleats, so relentless is their ability to keep hold of the Jabulani, rendering other sides—as was the case with Germany in the semis—mere spectators, mere chasers of shadows.
The Dutch will rely on the flair of two or three players—Sneijder and Robben in particular—to break free from the shackles of Spain. The latter, by contrast, are an unbreakable team, a unit, in the way that their nation itself, wracked by tedious and fissiparous nationalisms, is often not. There is no Basque or Catalan nonsense on the football pitch, no self-righteous separatist posturing: All play for Spain, all pull for Spain, all thrill to the Marcha Real, the anthem that is anathematized on the streets of Barcelona and Bilbao, but which has caused the blood to race so beautifully this year in South Africa.
Two great nations, both peripheral, however, to the grander themes of the modern world, will contest for the cup in a match that will bind the globe like no other event can. East, West, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, First World or Third, nocturnal or diurnal, young, old or middle-aged, in public squares or in the privacy of homes, the human race will have its buttocks squarely planted, and eyes focused, in the same direction for 90-odd minutes; and for those 90-odd minutes, one might be anywhere in the world and not feel oneself to be in the midst of aliens or foreigners or freaks or charlatans (no, not even in the United States, with its astonishingly boring obsession with something called “LeBron James”). United we watch. Viva España, or Espanya if you’re Catalan! Hup Holland hup! And in all of this, one small but gigantic prayer: Please, please let the ref not balls it all up.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)