Sunday, June 29, 2014

Radical Aloofness in Brazil

I have never been a soccer fan…except for that weekend in Portugal in 2004…but I confess to being entranced by this summer’s World Cup action. The beautiful game really is “a chess match with running,” and success, when it comes, feels like the grace of God: mysterious and exhilarating. How do the world’s best succeed at this foot-ball game? Years ago Adam Gopnik lamented the primacy of defending, blocking, stalling, gumming up the action. Victorious teams hang back and thwart offenses, only occasionally springing into counterattack. But then, Spain, Brazil and a bunch of clubs that I don’t pretend familiarity with flipped the script. “Tiki-taka became the dominant style: crisp, accurate passes and confident ball possession would win the day. The defense-minded, antagonistic squads (cough, Greece, cough) were finally being given their just desserts. Except then Spain got their asses handed to them by Netherlands and Chile. Even the ruthless accuracy of the Germans came up short in a draw against Ghana. Something else is in the tropical air. Before this tournament is complete, a new soccer paradigm will reign. And I’m pleased to share that after watching two matches last Sunday, I’ve discovered it. The Belgians bested Russia in spite of themselves. Whenever they had the ball, they looked baffled, dogged, reticent (the best part of writing about soccer is the adjectives). The commentators thought Belgium dishonorable and muddled. On the other hand, the United States spent ninety minutes looking downfield and executing brilliant passes that for the most part had no impact against Portugal. How could it be that American hard work and courage was not paying off? It’s because that is not the way that international soccer is to be played in 2014. The team that wins this tournament will be the team with the most reluctance. Frantically seeking opportunities to score goals is not a winning strategy anymore. The only result of that kind of play is exhaustion and hoary emotion. Better to flip the ball around behind the center line, and if ever you realize you have an open shot, to indifferently fire it over the crossbar. This may not sound sensible, but bear with me. Belgium spent their entire match last Sunday listlessly looking around. When a lightning cross to Axel Witsel petered away, the announcer said “Witsel looked like he wanted no part of that pass.” Truly: Witsel was shocked that his teammates were experimenting with aggressive playmaking. Belgium is a team of talented, cautious young midfielders and a striker who is only there to distract (Romelu Lukaku). They peer down the field skeptically and then decide that it’s not worth it. Then, after 87 minutes of discomfited jogging, someone like Eden Hazard sheepishly breezes by defenders and delivers an assist of astonishing accuracy. In their first two matches, Belgium’s three goals were scored by substitutes, and only after the 70 minute mark. They are one of four teams in Brazil with a perfect record. Compare this with the manful efforts of the Americans. Portugal watched them exert themselves like maniacs, then responded by relaxedly dropping a ball past Tim Howard in the final minute. When the USA looked like it had energy, Portugal would writhe around on the ground (dishonesty is part of the game, and the Americans have got to learn that). Big crosses and antic loping are really just signs of insecurity. In Manaus, it was only when teams were at their most Belgian (read: indifferent) that they began to break through. In fact, holding the ball inside the box and maintaining perfect stillness is when you know that a goal is in the offing. Clever passing and hustle? Please. So join me in respecting the aloof, consistent Belgians. “Splendid attacking football” is charismatic and good for TV ratings, but the real champions are the ones wasting time and teaching us patience.