Tom Peck on the World Cup: Over a fan's long lifetime it is rancid injustice that sustains
Croatia were undone by questionable referee decisions against Brazil
The faintest touch from the Croatian defender, Fred drops dead in the six yard box, and one stuttering run-up later the tournament’s promised talisman has become his nation’s hero, at least for the moment.
Finally after weeks nay years of violent protest and venal corruption, World Cup 2014 is blessed with the comparatively sumptuous treat of a scandal on the pitch, not off it.
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Would a dreary draw be so bad?
The real victim of course will be Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura, who you can expect to find hiding in the amazon jungle forty years from now, feverishly brandishing yellow cards at bemused tribes people dressed in tree bark, unable to accept his tournament is over.
The Croatian manager Niko Kovac immediately called it a ‘robbery’. It undoubtedly was, though in the context of the match as a whole, it was more Artful Dodger than Ronnie Biggs.
Huge refereeing controversy has trailed in Mr Nishimura's kamikaze wake. The Mexicans robbed of two legitimate goals. Diego Costa doing the splits on the turf of his abandoned country for the exclusive benefit of the referee cum figure skating judge. 4.9 at best.
But, on balance, just, Mr Kovac, and all other football lovers, should be careful what they wish for. The robbery that lurks will be greater in the long run.
Fix up, look sharp, because Mr Blatter has his eyes and his oily fingers on the sweet joy of your righteous anger.
One speaks, of course, of the spectre of video technology, and the plans unveiled with muffled drum earlier this week, amidst all the other raging thunder, to give managers the power to challenge refereeing decisions to the tune of two per match.
‘About time too’, is the response from seemingly all corners of the game, where wonderment abounds at why football lags behind almost all other major sports in ordaining the wisdom of the TV ref. This column begs to differ.
This column, it must be made absolutely clear, speaks as a fan. As a consumer of sport, not a provider. Were it the latter it may feel differently.
But if you, too, are merely a fan, ask yourself just what upholds your pathetic enslavement to this pointless world of bats and balls and clubs and rackets and goodness knows what else, and you will find that rancid injustice might be the most crucial ingredient, and it must be preserved.
For a competitor, whose careers are short in comparison to those of the fan, and who sacrifice much, the misery of having the taste of immortality snatched from your lips by the kid who got picked last in the playground is a more serious matter.
But a fan’s life spans whole long decades, stretched across all manner of sporting fields, and in such an expanse of time and emotion, it is above all else injustice that sustains. It sculpts eras out of the mere passing of time. It implants destiny.
The ‘ghost goal’ at Anfield in 2005? Wasn’t that always meant to be just another chapter in Chelsea’s torturous relationship with the Champions’ League? That long saga, with its cruel cameos from Anders Frisk, and Tom Henning Ovrebo. Wasn’t it always a bitter crescendo, building to Munich 2012 and the sweet sound of the rippling net, as it welcomed Didier Drogba’s final kick of a Chelsea ball?
Counterfactual sporting imaginings are always fraught with inaccuracy, but here are a few anyway.
Wimbledon ‘81. A mildly perturbed McEnroe simply challenges the call. “You cannot be serious!” never enters the repertoire of every amateur impressionist in the land.
Edgbaston, 2005. The Ashes all but gone again with Australia 2-0 up after two tests, after the TV umpire sees Michael Kasprowicz's gloved hand off the bat as the ball strikes it. The most magical sporting summer all but wiped out.
The 2007 Rugby World Cup. England’s, maybe, with the referee having no TV assistant on whom to shift the burden. Cueto’s try given. South Africa, much the better team, robbed.
Euro '96. No penalties needed. Stuart Pearce's eyeballs remain firmly in their sockets as Spain's wrongly disallowed goal stands. Gareth Southgate lives a long, peaceful life unplagued by nightmares.
And of course the big one. The ball loops over Shilton’s head and Bobby Robson makes the T shape with his arms. Maradona sent off. No Hand of God. The goal of the century never scored. England are a step closer to the World Cup semi final, but still aching chasms away from actual glory. Set in its rightful place, among a whole lifetime of sport, that vengeful, murderous hate has to remain.
There will be more of it to come, that’s a certainty, and maybe soon. So try to remember, when Balotelli drops like a stone from a brush with Jagielka’s feather light buttock in the Manaus heat tonight, that the furious anger in that indignant moment is what, in the long term, keeps you coming back for more. It is only a game, after all, and it needs your fury more than it needs the truth.
Brazil don’t need to win as much as everyone else does
‘If we don’t win, we’ll all go to hell,’ said Jose Maria Marin, head of the Brazilian Football Federation, in one of many examples of how this far from sumptuously talented Selecao side have become the most under pressure team perhaps in all sporting history.
It is they who have declared themselves champions elect, even though there are far better teams in the tournament.
So controversial is this, the most expensive World Cup in history, the billions spent, the dislike for the President, the potential of the country to embarrass itself in front of the watching world, that redemption can only come with Brazilian victory, so the story goes.
Rubbish. Firstly, Brazil needs to win a World Cup significantly less so than any other nation. It has won five. It’s footballing annals are full to bursting. It would like another chapter. It doesn’t need one.
But more so, it’s hard to imagine a more bogus narrative than one that imagines an angry groundswell of impoverished people, furious at the extravagance, the largess and the corruption while they sit and suffer, who’ll then be bought off merely by victory. If Thiago Silva lifts the trophy in the Maracana, the money doesn’t go back in the bank, the genie doesn’t go back in the bottle, and nor does the tear gas return to its cannister.
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