#4 (Australia 0-3 Spain) – So we’ll win it in 2018
Okay, so Luis Suarez bit someone again but I’m going to talk about Australia first.
The year is 2018. It’s the future, relative to now. I’m a year out of university and I’ve already made my first million in stocks, or iPhone app investments or whatever, and the World Cup is on – you get the picture: things are generally coming up Milhouse for me in 2018. Australia are playing Russia for a place in the semi-finals, and Ange Postecoglou is watching on from the sideline. Leaning up against the wall of the dugout, his eyes seem to say, “I’m Ange Postecoglou, and I will do what no man has done, not even Hitler or Napoleon, and conquer Russia,” even if the words don’t actually come out of his mouth. Australia wins the game. Hell, they win the game after that, and decide to win the one after that, too. Matthew Leckie is hailed as the best player on the planet, Mile Jedinak lifts the cup, and Australian sport returns to the heights it deserves. It’s the future, relative to now, but it’s coming.
For now, we have to be content with finishing our World Cup in Brazil with a 3-0 loss to Spain, and there’s an air of disappointment about that way that it ended. The mistake was getting our hopes up – the key to enjoying Australia’s World Cup was, until the last match, to have such low expectations that a pass completion rate of around 65% was worthy of a knighthood. For some reason, losses to the Netherlands and Chile suddenly made Spain beatable, when they were still Spain.
Also, Luis Suarez bit someone again, but I’ll get there in a second.
As much as we’re left disappointed at having managed to underestimate Spain, we should take it as a reflection of our rapid improvement under Postecoglou that we were ever thinking about even getting close to Spain. Australia didn’t have much possession against the team, which seemingly invented the idea of passing the ball from one player to another, and while some nice football was played, we were rarely dangerous with the few chances that we had. Cahill will hang around for the Asian Cup, but Australia desperately need a regular goalscorer to take his place in the long term.
And Luis Suarez bit someone again, but hang on.
What’s exciting is that Postecoglou is encouraged by the progress, and disappointed by the results – he won’t settle for mediocrity. In the end, we’re going home on the same plane as England, Spain and Italy (not literally, obviously – it just wouldn’t work) who are all meant to be miles better than us, and we should be proud that we leave the 2014 World Cup with one of its best goals, and one of its best games.
Alright, so Luis Suarez bit someone. This isn’t about that time that he bit someone playing for Ajax in 2010. This isn’t even about that time that he bit someone playing for Liverpool in 2013. This is about that time – this morning, a bit before 4am – that he bit someone playing for Uruguay in the biggest game of the World Cup so far. We shouldn’t be shocked, because he’s done it twice already, but we’re shocked because it’s a 27-year-old man biting another man as the pictures are being broadcast live to hundreds of millions of people. We’re also shocked because Jesus Christ, did anyone ever think he’d do it again? It’s almost impressive.
The narrative at this World Cup is as strong as a Mile Jedinak reducer, and Suarez biting the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini is the pinnacle of lazy writing. It’s like Bruce Willis making Die Hard, then going on to star in a few more movies called Die Hard where pretty much the exact same thing happens again – except Luis Suarez is succeeding upwards, unlike Bruce Willis (currently aged 59 and still playing action roles like he thinks he has hair or something). Consider the career trajectory: Luis Suarez has gone from biting players in the Dutch league to biting players in the Premier League, to biting players at the World Cup – that’s a real success story.
It’s hilarious, but it’d be funnier if it wasn’t such a waste of talent, as one of the best players in the world continues to go about systematically destroying his reputation as he recovers from his last disaster. It’s as though Suarez hasn’t figured out how life works yet; that there are consequences for actions, and one of the 20-odd cameras might catch you, the eternal centre of attention, biting someone in a match that half the world is watching. “When you’re fresh meat,” says Frank Underwood in the American drama House of Cards, “kill and throw them something fresher.” It’s a great quote, but Suarez needs to slow down because the fresh meat is piling up, and he’ll come out of this struggling for real friends amongst football fans with a moral code.
Taking a step back, it was pretty harmless – in the end, Suarez only hurts himself, and he can’t complain. There’s no precedent for a player exhibiting a pattern of behaviour like this, so it’s difficult to say for how long he’ll be banned if FIFA decide that he’s done something wrong (the referee didn’t see the incident, so it’ll be reviewed), but he’ll cop it and move on. Luis Suarez will wake up in a few hours, and he’ll still be Luis Suarez, and I’m sure that suits him as well today as it did yesterday, when he totally bit a player.
Honestly, a fair bit of other stuff has happened too. Italy are out after losing to Costa Rica and Uruguay, Messi sent an underwhelming Argentina into the next round with an injury time winner against Iran, and France rolled over Switzerland to move alongside the Netherlands and Brazil as favourites in Spain’s absence. Germany rescued a late draw against Ghana, as did Portugal against the US, and all four teams are still in with a shot of knockout football if anyone’s up for it. Brazil moved up the gears ahead of their second round clash with the chaotic Chilean side fresh from a 2-0 reality check courtesy of the Netherlands, and England’s manager Roy Hodgson went all delusional on us after England’s 0-0 draw with Costa Rica, saying “I’m pleased we gave the fans something to cheer about with our performance. We outplayed them in midfield.” Great stuff Roy – I’m sure that the thousands of pounds English fans spent getting over to Brazil seem like nothing compared to the value of England’s midfield display in a scoreless dead rubber.
After I swapped shirts with my Spanish counterpart at the final whistle, as is common in international football, I went to find Les. We’ve built up a bit of a rapport in Brazil, and I wanted to hear what wisdom he had banging around in his head. He’d finished the wrap-up show, and will be in his dressing room behind the studio. I found him in front of his mirror, holding a pen like you would a microphone.
“Helloooooo Europe,” he belted, stretching out the vowels. “Budapest calling! What a wonderful show!”
I didn’t interrupt him. I’ve know I’ve been over this before, but you don’t interrupt a guy like Les Murray when he’s halfway through a spray. He composed himself, and turned to face me.
“Thirty years Max, thirty years I’ve been asking the top dogs at SBS to send me back to the continent to host the Hungarian coverage of the Eurovision song contest. They keep knocking me back, but now I’m retiring from football commentary, maybe they’ll consider me.”
“I don’t think so Les,” I said. I like to think that Les and I can exchange pretty frank points of view – we’ve had some pretty deep chats over the last two weeks.
He looked like he knew it already. “What’s left?” he asked. “Australia are out of the World Cup, I’m out of a job, and SBS has been out of any decent content since Inspector Rex and Iron Chef wrapped up in the mid-90s – what’s left Max?”
I was a little taken aback – Les Murray asking for my advice? This pretty much confirmed that he thought I should be his successor to the Aussie football throne, and I’m sure Les will back me up on that if anyone at SBS HQ needs confirmation. “Les,” I said, “we never thought we could win against Spain, and we didn’t, so where’s the disappointment there? Bresciano fooled Xabi Alonso and Leckie was decent again, and the crowd seemed to like us. This is the World Cup – take what you can get and run! And Les, I’m sure they’ll move Craig Foster out of the shot if you want to get back on TV in a few months – take some time off, enjoy the continent. Climb Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro, hike the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, ride with the gauchos in Argentina, soak in the majesty of the Iguassu Falls. Live a little, Les. Get out there.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “You know, Fortaleza is now the number one city in Brazil, Max.”
I caught on to the Seinfeld reference quick – it was tenuous, but you can’t miss a beat with Les Murray, and I wanted to end on a good note. “You know why Les? Because people like to say ‘Fortaleza’.”
“See you in 2018 Max?”
“You’re retiring in a few weeks Les,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “That’s right.”
#5 (Round of 16) – Things are getting serious
If you’ve got any kind of connection with the world as it moves and makes noise around you, you’d know by now that it’s meant to be hot in Manaus. It’s almost impossible not to have walked past a television, or a radio (if anyone still has them), or a newspaper (if anyone still reads them), and seen that the capital of Amazonas, Brazil, is the hot place Cristiano Ronaldo was talking about in that Castrol ad from the last World Cup.
With the Socceroos now stretching their legs back in Sydney, the travelling media pack in Brazil have finally been allowed to venture out of Vitoria, where our heroes were based during their heroic two weeks of heroics. The final whistle blew for the end of the game against the Spanish, and Les Murray, the voice of Australian football, and I locked eyes across the room. I raised an eyebrow – almost as if to say, “Manaus, Les?”
He folded his arms, leaned back in his chair, and started slowly nodding and smiling – it was a bit of nonverbal communication that conveyed enthusiastic and impressed approval. If this article were a film, you’d smash cut to a montage of both of us on the bus to Manaus, where, after a day of exploring, we wound up at a rubber plantation museum. We’d established that it was fairly hot from the second we’d stepped off the bus, and had moved onto the cultural attractions that the jungle city had to offer.
We learnt the story of the local Indians who were once enslaved on the rubber estates, and toured a restored plantation by the sprawling Rio Negro. Supported by waning English demand as the colonies in Malay and Singapore were producing rubber faster than Manaus could manage, Les listened keenly as the guide told us how “The Paris of the Tropics” had collapsed with its economy by the 1920s. There were practical demonstrations, and Les took to rubber tree-tapping with real gusto – it was the way they extracted latex, you see. He took a great handful of the stuff and held it over the fire to coagulate the sap, but his arm slipped and he singed his fingers.
“Shit!” he yelled. “I’m hurting worse than the Hungarian financial system in 2009!”
Typical Les – he’ll never let you forget that while his head’s Australian, and his heart’s Australian, there’s some part of his body reserved for Hungary. “What’s up Les?” I said.
“Nothing Max,” he said. “Nothing.”
He turned away, looking out to the deep jungle across the river. I’d noticed he’d been a bit shaky over the last few days. “Come on Les,” I said. “Talk to me.”
His eyes were bleary, glazed over like the top layer of a traditional Hungarian dobosh cake. “Damn it, Max,” he said. “The narrative’s gone. I’m worried about these last few rounds. Have Costa Rica ever fought against the Netherlands in a war? I know that Costa Rica is the second largest exporter from Latin America to the Netherlands, but who’s first? I’ll be honest Max, I’m not even 100% sure where Costa Rica is.”
Les was right. Australia are out of the 2014 World Cup, but the world got together and decided to finish the tournament anyway, and the narrative is breaking down. Brazil have dramatically scraped through to the quarter finals with little indication that they’re actually good, and Spain, Italy and England fell at the first hurdle. Uruguay are gone, too – Luis Suarez banned from football for four months for his chomp against Italy, and with him goes the central point of controversy beyond tired and ignored allegations of FIFA corruption.
Worryingly, you can sense that it might all get a bit too Steven Bradbury, with every other team falling over each other while Germany swoop in for their first title since 1990 – it’s by no means the popular choice, but this World Cup has been defined by shattered expectations. Costa Rica are in a quarter final at the expense of three former World Cup winners, the holders went home on the first flight back to Madrid, and Greece wasted everyone’s time by making it through to the knockouts at the expense of a neutral’s favourite in the Ivory Coast.
We’re left with eight teams, and finally we can relax and enjoy the luxury of picking a team to back, rather than have one forced upon us because we were born in the same country as Tim Cahill. To help you choose your team from the quarter finals onwards, here’s a rundown of the leftovers.
France: won’t win, but the French have the best national anthem. Composed in a night during the French Revolution, the final lines read, “To arms, citizens, form your battalions! Let’s march, let’s march! Let an impure blood water our furrows!” They’re talking about moistening their agricultural irrigation channels with the blood of the enemy. You can see why we lost in the group stage with “our home is girt by sea” – less a motivational turn of phrase, and more a geographical fact.
Germany: slick, tireless, and a great shot to make the final, but also, y’know, the Nazis happened so you can’t really actively support them, can you?
Brazil: a population of 200 million people to choose from, and they pick Fred to start up front – if Brazil are going to win this World Cup, FIFA’s conspiracy game is going to have to step up. Brazil fully expect to win, and the country will descend into riots if they don’t – indeed, we got a pretty good idea of what the end of the world will look like in the last half hour of their second round nail-wrecker against Chile. The problem lies in a clear divide between this team’s supposed ability and its actual ability, and the pressure is crushing– they could be a symbol for a new Brazil, or they could be the greatest failures since 1950. Brazil should make the final with only two losses in their last 70 matches played at home, but reality keeps dropping out on us.
Colombia: When does a dark horse become a regular horse? And what’s a dark horse anyway? Along with Belgium, Colombia were entirely expected to make it to this point, and are one of the few teams actually playing at their full capacity. The most popular alternative team by a mile, they’re in danger of doing quite well and transcending hipster acclaim, led by the star of this tournament and imminent poster boy for literally all the posters in the world, HHHHHHHHamez Rodriguez – we’d usually read it as James, but the TV commentators insist otherwise. Colombia face Brazil in their quarter final, so they’re the anarchist’s choice.
Argentina: the ultimate flipside (and just quietly, my pick to win it). It’s important to Brazil that they take out their own World Cup, because the nation will never forget if they don’t, but it’s arguably more important that Argentina don’t get anywhere close to winning. Argentina winning the 2014 World Cup would be like New Zealand beating us in a sport that we’re both equally good at – let’s go with netball – at a tournament held in Australia. The country would burn, right? For Brazil, Argentina’s opportunity for a legendary dominance is just three wins away, and far too possible for comfort – they might be able to live with winner from Europe, but will struggle for decades with another Maracanazo. Argentina aren’t playing as well as they can, which is the case with most of the teams that are left, but have Lionel Messi, who can seemingly decide when he wants to Argentina to win. And those blue-and-white striped shirts, man. Those blue-and-white striped shirts.
The Netherlands/Belgium: They share a border so they can share a rundown – the Netherlands fluked a second round win against Mexico and Belgium just about scraped through against the USA, suggesting while neither is quite good enough to win the tournament, both are good enough to be knocked out in the quarters or semis. And because I don’t think they’ll do anything of particular note, I’m going to say some things about the USA instead. There’s a historic American dislike of football which can be reasonably traced back to a lack of trust of anyone French, but there’s a strong, realistic base of US fans that recognise their position in world football as the rest of the country carries on with the superiority delusion. They played like Australians, albeit Australians with a sense of how to win, and played out one of the best games at the World Cup so far against Belgium – the point is that you should get on the #TeamBaldEagle train before it becomes properly cool.
Costa Rica: I watched them lose to Australia at Moore Park last year, they’re in the quarter finals, and I still can’t name any more than two of their players. Costa Rica should be swept aside by the Netherlands, but they don’t seem to care about the hundreds of millions of people who lost money betting on Italy or England making it out of the group stage, so why should they care for realistic continuity now? Rhetoric aside, they’ll be swept aside by the Netherlands.
Back at the hotel in Vitoria, I went to see Les Murray in his room. The door was ajar, and the room was dark. From a speaker on the table, Madonna sang ‘American Pie.’ Les was on his bed, his fingers resting in a bowl of ice.
“I met a girl who sang the blues, and I asked her for some happy news… but she just smiled and turned away…” sang Madonna. “I went down to the sacred store, where I’d heard the music years before, but the man there said the music wouldn’t play…”
Every time Madonna said the word “music,” Les would shout “narrative!” over the top. I could see what he was trying to say.
“Come on Les,” I said. “We’ll get through this. Things aren’t going exactly how we want, but that’s part of what’s making this World Cup so great! We’ve got no idea who’s going to win but Brazil and Argentina are still on track for the final everyone wants, and with any luck this tournament still has a really good cruciate ligament rip left in it!”
“Okay,” said Les, kicking the batteries out of the speaker, instantly killing the music. “As long as Germany don’t win.”
#6 (Quarters and semis) – Is it really that good?
Les Murray – voice of Australian football and a man I’d count amongst my close personal friends after a few weeks in Brazil – caught the same bug as the German team, and spent the last few days running between the SBS studio and what the Brazilians call o banheiro, so we didn’t hang out much this week. In the time that I did get with him, sitting in a chair by the window while he sweated it out in bed, his anger at the situation was palpable – more so because he had taken to actually vocalising it.
“I’ve caught the German bug,” he said.
“Les,” I said. “It makes sense – they played like the champions we’ve been waiting for. Everyone’s got footy fever, and we’ve been bitten by the German bug!”
“No!” he shouted, cutting me off. “I’m not taken by Manuel Neuer, I don’t get the buzz around Sami Khedira, and I’m still not convinced that Thomas Müller isn’t on the field by accident. I’ve just got an upset tummy. But honestly Max, I’m starting to get the shits with this World Cup, too.”
I was pretty taken aback.
“Les,” I said, “What’s wrong?”
“I’m not sure where the romance has gone,” he said. “We’ve seen a descent into cynicism in the last few matches, and the air stinks of negativity. We’re left with the final that nobody really wanted, reality shattered by seven German goals. Brazil are out, but have to suffer the last indignity of a third place playoff. We didn’t even get an all-European or all-South American final. At least we’ve got Messi to help us try to make sure that this doesn’t pan out like it probably will.”
“Alright Les,” I said. “I’m off.”
Edgar Davids, the former Dutch footballer and current go-to guy for “this World Cup isn’t as great as we thought” quotes, reckons this World Cup isn’t as great as we thought, and he’s got a point. “I think it’s a bit mediocre,” were his words. “But nevertheless exciting. I do not think it’s a super high level.” He’s pretty much right.
The World Cup gets stretched out, and the group stage – which only finished a few weeks ago and was close to the greatest thing that ever happened to football – may as well have been part of the last tournament. Even then, there were lots of goals, and some really good ones, but there weren’t the kind of cohesive, World Cup-winning team performances that usually split the favourites from the rest – think Spain in 2010, Italy and France in 2006, Brazil in 2002, and so on – and there haven’t been until the fourth-last match, when Germany decided to wake up.
Since Australia left Brazil, teams have started taking the World Cup seriously, and that’s meant the average goals-to-games ratio has taken a pretty brutal hit – the fear of losing, and the cautious, nervous football that comes with it, almost always overshadows the opportunity to win. We probably should’ve seen this coming, but for some reason we expected something different this time. That doesn’t mean that the games haven’t been great – there’s just been a bit less in them. The quarter-finals passed without too much of an indication that the world was about to fall apart – France lost to Germany, Argentina beat Belgium, and the Netherlands eventually overcame Costa Rica.
The most obvious sign of the impending apocalypse was Neymar’s back giving way under the weight of the hopes of 200 million people, and a Colombian defender’s knee. The World Cup is hardly innocent – two people were killed when an overpass in Belo Horizonte, purpose-built for the tournament, collapsed onto a road below, yet the tributes before the Brazilian semi-final went out to a man who hurt his back and will be back playing football for an extraordinary amount of money in a few months – but the already-battered narrative of the tournament took a unexpected turn when its star exited before his team did. Ultimately, Neymar will count himself lucky that he wasn’t part of what came next.
Brazil lost 7-1 to Germany, a result which doesn’t make sense now, and still won’t make sense after I’m finished trying to make sense of it. Statistically, games that end 7-1 are rare – Tom Waterhouse and his 501-1 odds on it happening again in the final could tell you that, and as much as we like to think otherwise, Tom Waterhouse probably isn’t an idiot.
It doesn’t make sense because even without Neymar and captain Thiago Silva, who was suspended for this match, this isn’t a bad Brazil side. Their problem was obvious from the outset – the #ForçaNeymar snapbacks, the shirt held up during the anthem, which was probably sung a bit too passionately – it’s not a criticism that I’ll often make, but Brazil have been careering towards something at this World Cup, and if it wasn’t the final then it may as well have been this.
There can’t be many better examples in microcosm of pressure getting to a sporting team than the 6 minutes between the second and fifth German goals: this wasn’t the way Brazil had expected things to go, and they were shocked into submission as we kept looking back to the scoreboard. Brazil simply had to win this World Cup – the amount of money it soaked up demanded as much, and the public is rightly infuriated with the Olympic Games still to come, and nothing to show for seven years of preparation.
Looking towards the final, it’s still not easy to gauge how good Germany really are. Brazil folded after Miroslav Klose’s record 16th World Cup goal, yet the Germans lapsed into complacency early in the second half – they could have had 10, but if Brazil had held their nerve after conceding twice then they might have made it closer.
Elsewhere, Argentina beat the Netherlands in a penalty shootout after 120 coma-inducing minutes that must have happened – even if I can’t remember any of them. There was one part where Javier Mascherano literally tore his anus tackling Arjen Robben but not much else, and now we have a final.
Where Germany remain the favourites of people with short memories the world over, Argentina are a Godsend. Lionel Messi has his first World Cup final in the same exciting way that a player who isn’t Federer, Nadal or Djokovic sometimes gets into a Grand Slam decider, and the chance to find his personal level with Argentine demi-god Diego Maradona by winning a World Cup is only an hour and a half away. Above everything, there is the opportunity to do what Brazil couldn’t. Argentina is usually ranked as one of the richest countries in the region, and a perceived economic and cultural superiority leaves much of Argentina looking to Paris and Europe while rejecting their South American-ness – they’re also good at football like Brazil, so naturally they hate each other.
If Germany wins – well, then Germany wins, and we’ll all look forward to something less inevitable happening in 2018 (and the historians among us know Germany’s record across the Russian border). It will be an achievement for what is clearly the best team at the World Cup, even if their only truly impressive result was against a team that was doomed from the start, but they make for deserving winners. Germany placed third in 2010, third in 2006, and second in 2002, and the team that was born from the ashes of a dismal Euro 2000 looks set for a sustained period of international supremacy whether they win this final or not. And honestly, whatever Les Murray has said to me aside, they seem like a decent bunch of guys.
Argentina defeated Germany 3-2 in Mexico City in 1986, and in 1990 when they met in the final in Rome – we could say this points to a close game, but 1990 was 24 years ago and there are some players who’ll turn out on Monday morning who weren’t even born when all that happened, so it really doesn’t matter. Les has taught me a bunch of lessons that I’ll remember forever and I’ll never forget our time together or whatever, and shortly before recording a cross-promotion for Housos he called me into the studio and delivered a speech that I’m not doing justice by paraphrasing.
“Max,” he said. “Yeah, it’s Germany against Argentina, but I’ve had some time to think, and it should be alright. Every narrative dies – I learned that the hard way trying to convince SBS to film a bunch of live-action Hungarian folktales – but every dead narrative brings us closer to a new, exciting, 21st Century storyline. Germany and Argentina – there’s gotta be a few Nazi haven jokes that we can get in there. I mean, at least we can be happy knowing the English have nobody to cheer for.”
#1 (pre-tournament) – We’ve got to start somewhere
Vertigo said that it just wouldn’t work, a World Cup diary not written from the World Cup, so they were kind enough to send me over to Brazil with the rest of the local media. Thirty hours later, wedged between David Basheer and Mark Bosnich in cattle class, we landed in Rio and hopped on the shuttle bus to take us down to Vitoria, where the Socceroos are based. I found the window seat next to Les Murray, and decided to shoot quick and shoot straight.
“Les,” I said. “Les, what are we hoping for? And what can we expect?”
Les launched into autopilot, and shot straight back. “Those are some tough questions Max, a couple of real doozies. We’re hoping to win it, obviously, but we shouldn’t expect to win it. We probably shouldn’t expect a brave loss in the final. We probably shouldn’t expect a heroic defeat in the semis. We probably shouldn’t expect a plucky beating in the quarters. Max— Max, stay with me here – we probably shouldn’t even expect a courageous loss in the second round. If I can be real with you, the best we can hope for at this World Cup is a Tim Cahill header hitting the crossbar against Chile.”
“Far out Les,” I said. “That sounds pretty rough.”
“I know,” said Les. “It’s a grim picture. But just because there’s no hope for the Socceroos doesn’t mean that they’re hopeless. Let’s have a look at it: our goalkeeper is the best in Belgium, the defenders still retain some of that Australian sporting brutality that’ll punch cultured football in the face, we’ve got a real bruiser in Mile Jedinak, a passer and a brain in Mark Bresciano, and Tim Cahill’s titanium forehead. Ange Postecoglou’s a decent coach, and there aren’t many colour combinations more radical than yellow and green! And hell, I reckon Phil Gould’s got another open letter in him! Stuff it!” he roared. “Let’s do it! Let’s go all the way!”
Les was out of his seat at this point, having torn off his seatbelt as he did a 180° flip and started stumbling around the still-moving bus, telling anyone who cared to listen about the victory parades up and down the country, green and gold ticker tape twinkling in the mid-winter sun, and kids from Perth to Brisbane to Darwin to Hobart shaving their heads in homage to Mark Bresciano’s iconic baldness. The bus slowed as we came down the mountain to Vitoria, and Les fell asleep again.
Les’ words ringing in my ears, I went for a walk. Vitoria’s a great city, but I won’t waste time telling you about it – I haven’t been sent to Brazil to talk about Brazil, after all. I needed to think about what it all meant, because Vertigo probably want something more from me than 474 words of total fiction.
It might have flown under your radar because it’s sport, but the World Cup is rolling around again this June and July, and we’re in it to win it. Well, we’re in it, anyway. Here’s the thing about this World Cup: it’s going to be great, but we have to get through supporting our own country first, so let’s talk about Australia. In our group are Spain (winners in 2010 and better than us), the Netherlands (runners-up in 2010 and better than us), and Chile (better than us by virtue of being South American), and from here, the game plan is to cover our eyes and hope that the World Cup punches us in the gut, not the face. Are we going to get through the group? Almost certainly not. Are we going to win a game? Nah. Are we going to score a goal? We can dream.
The other way to look at things is like this: we’ve got nothing to lose – except the three games. There’s a lot of talk of our impossible World Cup being the best possible preparation for next January’s Asian Cup, to be hosted in Australia, and even though it is, it’s not something that anyone should really be saying. Former captain and current legend Lucas Neill said last year, “The mere suggestion that our place at a World Cup should be used as a trial or practice for the purpose of gaining experience is beyond comprehension to me.” And it’s beyond comprehension for me too, Lucas! I simply cannot comprehend it.
After we’re knocked out, the World Cup gets really fun. We’re back in South America for the first time since 1978, and the continent expects big things from Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay (points to anyone who remembered that Ecuador qualified). The Spaniards and the Germans come as the two best countries in world football, and Belgium, France, the Ivory Coast, the United States, Russia and Switzerland mean that there’s more dark horses than a midnight Melbourne Cup.
It’s a golden-age World Cup: the field is so strong that Australia is ranked as the worst team in the competition, and it’s the last one before we have to deal with Russia, Qatar, and everything after that. What this tournament has a lot of – and this makes it a lot easier to write about what is essentially a few weeks of men running around on grass – is narrative. It’s being held in Brazil, the spiritual home of the sport. But get ready for a plot twist, because BANG! Brazilians love their football, but they might also love their adequate social services more than two mega sporting events in two years – the 2016 Olympics are in Rio, remember – and hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets during the Confederations Cup in Brazil last year. So WHAM! The pressure is on Brazil to win the tournament, unite the country in victory, and save the President before something from space blows everything up or whatever – the point is that it’s going to be exciting to watch.
I’ll be back to consider the state of things after our opening game, against Chile at 8am on June 14, and every few days after that until the damn thing’s all played out. In the meantime, Australia and the Socceroos: onwards and upwards! Well, onwards, anyway.
#2 (Chile 3-1 Australia) – The World Cup is amazing
When I was 16 years old, I had a very important person in my life come to me and say, “Who’s your hero?” And I said, “I don’t know, I gotta think about that. Give me a couple of weeks.” I come back two weeks later, this person comes up and says, “Who’s your hero?” I said, “I thought about it. You know who it is? It’s the Socceroos in four years.” So I turned 20. Four years later, that same person comes to me and says, “So, are the Socceroos your heroes?” And I was like, “Not even close. No, no, no.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Because my heroes are the Socceroos in four years.” So you see every day, every week, every month and every year of my life, my heroes are always four years away.
Australia opened its World Cup campaign with an understandable 3-1 loss to Chile, but we were by no means disgraced. Going behind by two goals inside 15 minutes, the ball inevitably collided with Tim Cahill’s head to pull one back, before the Socceroos produced one of the great Australian performances only to concede a crushing goal in injury time.
Weirdly, everybody seems pretty cool with it. And as counterintuitive as being cool with – and proud of – a loss might seem, it makes sense here. Australia took to the field with arguably the least experienced side at the World Cup, and stuck it to the Chileans after the first two goals with a competency verging on impressive. In case my adaptation of Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar acceptance speech wasn’t strong enough to stand on its own, Australia will be good in four years. The shame of it all is that the 2014 World Cup is now, in 2014, and not four years away, and so the last of the golden generation will likely spend their last minutes on football’s biggest stage chasing down the impossible against the Netherlands and Spain.
What else can we clutch at? Tim Cahill has more World Cup goals than Ronaldo and Messi combined to leave the planet asking, “Tim Cahill: great World Cup player, or greatest World Cup player?”, and we managed to cut short a rout to give this young tournament one of its best games yet.After his final match in 2006, a third-round defeat to Benjamin Becker at the US Open, American tennis great Andre Agassi addressed the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd. “The scoreboard said I lost today,” he said. “But what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I’ve found.” What the Socceroos can do against the Europeans remains to be seen, but things are looking up after a cathartic start to the World Cup. All we need to do in our next two games is score more than the greatest international team in history, and the guys who just beat them 5-1. Courage, everyone.
All this stuff about Australia is to forget that the rest of the World Cup is going on, and damn it if it’s not going to be the best one that there ever was. Neymar, Messi, Robben, Balotelli and Cahill have all scored, so the narrative is so far intact. Brazil won on the opening day, and from there, we’ve seen everything: England’s physio dislocated and fractured his ankle celebrating their goal against Italy, Louis van Gaal and Robin van Persie executed the worst high-five since white people started doing them, and the current champions lost all sense of normality to lose 5-1 to the Netherlands to give Australia hope – Spain, 2008 and 2012 European champions, 2010 world champions, are below us in our group.
The Netherlands didn’t play particularly well against Spain – they simply scored five goals, which Spain didn’t do. Even with that result, it’s difficult to determine if there’s a clear favourite yet. Brazil needed a dodgy penalty decision and a bit of luck to beat Croatia, and don’t really look like the winners they’re expected to be, but will grow into the tournament. Spain were left exposed by the Dutch but should still come through the group, Italy had to fight to hold out a gutsy English attack but were cruising in third gear for the most part, and while Argentina weren’t entirely convincing in beating Bosnia-Herzegovina, they hit their stride after Messi eventually scored. Things are warming up, and we’ll have a better idea of the shape of the tournament by the end of the week
Somehow, it’s all coming together like everyone wanted. The World Cup is like the Olympics, except people care about football, and nobody cares about athletics or swimming outside of two weeks every four years. We remember good World Cups and bad World Cups, whereas every Olympiad is the greatest one ever, because largely the same thing has happened in all of them since 1896. Four years after the insistent mediocrity of South Africa, we’re getting the World Cup that this era deserves.
I caught up with Les Murray after the game against Chile in Cuiabá. He was out the back of the stadium, perched on a milk crate against the wall, eating a traditional Hungarian goulash, of which he tells me he has a month’s supply back in the hotel. “Les,” I said, approaching him, a little unsure if the silver hair in the dark was that of the voice of Australian football, or a glossy street dog. “Les, how good is this? How good is this?”
Les leapt up, sending the piping hot eastern European stew flying off his lap – a bit went on me, but I didn’t want to stop him because he sounded like he was about to come out with a real gem. “Max,” he said, “Tune in. This is something else. One game down, Australia is only five wins away from a World Cup final, and six from turning the planet upside down. This is Brazil, baby. We look up to Timmy, we look forward to 2018, and we’re chasing a dream.”
“Les,” I said, hoping that the Matthew McConaughey Oscar speech references wouldn’t be lost on everybody, “To that I say amen. To that I say alright, alright, alright. To that I say just keep livin.”
“Fair call,” said Les. “Bring on the Netherlands.”
#3 (Australia 2-3 Netherlands) – We took on the world
When people are upset about something, it never takes long until questions give way to finger pointing. Why did the referee award a penalty to Brazil when they shouldn’t have had a penalty? Why did Costa Rica win when Uruguay are probably better? Why was Pepe sent off for a shit headbutt? And why was there no plane found in the wreckage of the Pentagon?
Fingers point to FIFA. It’s an easy option, because FIFA are corrupt but don’t have to answer to anyone, so Sepp Blatter remains as innocent as he is in prison while everyone calls conspiracy on the whole thing. I’m not saying that FIFA have fixed the World Cup, but if they have, at least they’ve fixed it good. They’ve fixed themselves a great World Cup.
If FIFA haven’t fixed the World Cup, then what we’re seeing is even better: sport at its most unpredictable. While the rules of football are always the same, humans are less perfect, and sometimes we mess up and go off script – “Sport,” said Howard Cosell, “is human life in microcosm.”
We’re reluctant to embrace video technology because we’re fascinated by controversy, so referees will always make mistakes. Players are not infallible either, because football is an hour and a half of avoiding errors, so they can reasonably be expected to happen every so often. We’re all left wondering how Spain (4/7) didn’t manage to beat Chile (5/1), when Tom Waterhouse numerically assured us that they would (with the draw at 7/2 – for those interested in betting on a game that’s already happened, my tip is Chile to win), or how Tim Cahill dragged Australia into the global consciousness, but here we are.
Let’s get into it. Australia need some new ideas – not because what they’re doing now isn’t working, but because I need new ideas as well. For the second game running, Australia have defied every low expectation imaginable, and for the second game running. I’m left to try and write about the irrational feeling of pride in a loss. So here’s hoping we beat the Spanish, or at least lose playing badly – hell, we need some variation.
There are a few ways of looking at Australia at the 2014 World Cup. One is that we’ve massively overachieved given our resources and our fixtures, and the other is that we’ve lost two games, and will likely lose another despite our effort. Once people forget the story, two losses still look like two losses. And besides, pride in defeat is too confusing, and we’d all much rather win – at least winning makes black-and-white sense.
The Dutch had come off a 5-1 win over Spain, and were expected to do the same, if not worse, to us – but I say that as though it somehow mattered. For long parts of the game, Australia outplayed the Dutch at their own game. For a long part of the game, Australia were, if not drawing, then winning.
Shortly after Arjen Robben opened the scoring courtesy of a worryingly typical defensive lapse, Tim Cahill gave up on reality and scored, without hyperbole, the greatest Australian goal ever, and the early frontrunner for the best at this tournament. He now has five goals at three World Cups, meaning you could quite legitimately ask someone what their favourite Tim Cahill World Cup goal is, and you’d be able to have an extended conversation about the merits of strokes and thumps, and brilliance versus importance with at least three to choose from – you know, if that’s the kind of conversation that you’d want to have.
For those on the bandwagon, I know that Tim Cahill just kicked the ball into the net, and that happens in almost every game, but he shouldn’t have, in every respect. Mocked for our ranking, derided for our geographical location, Australia aren’t acknowledged in football until we actually start playing, and we leave having given everything to the cause. We’ve played a game worthy of the heights that this tournament has hit, and Australia can take great pride in having won hearts and minds, even if we haven’t won any points.
Elsewhere in our group, Spain look forward to a third defeat against a Cahill-less Socceroos after spectacularly crashing out of the World Cup after only two games. Since around this time last year, there have been signs that Spain, the immovable force of world football, were struggling. The players limped to the end of another bruising season, and have now fallen apart in Brazil to leave the greatest international team of this generation, and possibly in history, humiliated with a game left to play.
Watching Spain at this World Cup has been like watching Roger Federer in recent years – things that usually work stop working, and despite flashes of what makes them good, seeing them lose to someone younger, fresher, and hungrier is becoming increasingly familiar. It feels like the end of an era – Spain will be back next time with a new set of players, but we’ve seen the last of Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and David Villa at the World Cup, and it’s sad that they’re going out like this. At their best, they were credited with mastering their style; “hypnotic, ingeniously inventive, sweeping; languid phases of poise and stillness give way to darting swoops and thrusts,” writes David Winner in a comparison of FC Barcelona (another exponent of this kind of play) and a bullfight. Loved by purists and hated by pretty much everyone else, as is the way with all-consuming champions, Spain became one of those immortal sides in sport to suspend unpredictability as they dominated their field.
What went wrong? It’s hard to say, other than that Spain have been bad. The system isn’t broken: a way of playing football isn’t imperfect, it can just be executed badly, and Spain have been bad. They’ve also had a tough first two games in the Netherlands and Chile and they’ve also been bad. Most of the squad played long seasons due to deep runs into European competition, and when they eventually got together to play for their country, they were bad. The post mortem has begun in Spain, and it’s set to be a balltearer. Australia, with our national enthusiasm for brutality, should hope to join in on the action in our final game at this World Cup.
Other games have happened, too – the English pine for the familiarity of losing on penalties in the knockout rounds as they fell out of the tournament pending an Italian win over Costa Rica tomorrow morning, though English fans would argue that while England’s hopes are mostly dead, mostly dead is still alive. Loveable racist (he gets away with it because he’s good at football) Luis Suarez scored twice against England to leave Uruguay with a hope of finishing second, and the Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa is the greatest player of all time after he stopped Brazil from scoring in a deceptively good 0-0 draw. Germany rolled over Portugal in the first step of their unflinching march towards the important games, Chile have demolished Australia and Spain but will need to beat the Netherlands to avoid drawing Brazil in the next round, and Colombia are starting to feel like one of those teams that I should mention in these roundups after their second win of the tournament, because people are interested in countries that have a chance of winning.
Back at the hotel in Vitoria, I went down to the pool for a swim. Up the deep end, a man lay on his back on the hot concrete, dangling his feet in the water. The air was thick with the heavy aroma of goulash mixed with World Cup fever – it was Les Murray.
"Les," I said. "What did you make of that?
"Make of what?" he asked, squinting in the sun. To be fair, he looked like he’d been enjoying a Brazilian siesta – also known as a ‘siesta’ in Portuguese, as it is in Spanish. "What’s going on Max? I’ve been asleep."
"Well Les, we lost to the Netherlands, but we played really well and Tim Cahill was the best player on the planet for a moment there," I said. "What do you make of it?"
You’ve got to remember here that Les Murray has watched so many football matches that he’s able to put together a perfect picture of a game based entirely on a sentence-long summary. Despite having never seen it, he was instantly describing the Tim Cahill goal with such clarity that I may as well have been watching it on a HU9000 65-inch Curved Ultra High Definition TV from Samsung, official sponsors of the FIFA World Cup – that’s how good he is as a broadcaster.
”When I was 12 years old,” he started, “and my name was still László Ürge, I asked my father if we could move our family from Hungary to Australia so that I could pursue my dream of being a celebrated soccer commentator. I don’t know what it was, but something in my gut told me that this was the horse to back, and Australia would be the team of the future.”
"And what did you find, Les?"
"Well it was a mess, but 57 years later I think we might be witnessing the dawn of the Australian age – I’m talking decade after decade of green and gold dominance. Sure, we went down, but so what? We’ll get over it and move on. Timmy slapped in a goal that’s got the world talking about us, and Ange Postecoglou is starting to look like the replacement that Guus Hiddink always deserved. I was talking to people on a hunt for a Hungarian bistro in downtown Cuiabá the other day, and they were adamant that the local government should be planning a statue of Mile Jedinak to stand over the city – we’ve had an impact in Brazil, Max, and of that we should be proud."
"See you for Spain Les?" I asked.
”Yeah,” said Les. “But not if I see you first.”