Today, we will chew on the curious appetiser that is the Third Place Playoff Game, before gorging on the feast of the final tomorrow, a feast that often underserves, but that nevertheless will be utterly compelling however poor the play. That fact illustrates the point of the World Cup, I feel.
Example: It took the bizarre appearance of Viola — who I still believe never actually existed, and was holographically beamed in by João Havelange onto our television screens to dance in pointless circles around exhausted Italians for the amusement of 94,000 Americans present — to liven up the execrable 1994 World Cup final for 14 minutes, but it wasn’t as if you could ever take your eyes off it anyway. It was still the World Cup final, and it ended with a Divine Ponytail in tears.
And after tomorrow, there won’t be another one for four years. In baseball, Chicago Cubs fans appear to keep filling Wrigley Field and cheerily chugging on based on the vague belief that There’s Always Next Year, even though their team hasn’t won the World Series since 1908 — there’s even a book about this peculiar concept of fan happiness. But really, it’s not all that peculiar; it’s the mundane existence of following a club team, with next season always around the corner promising to cheer us up a bit. The World Series happens every year and so does the Champions League, etc.
The World Cup doesn’t happen every year, of course. We see the tears of players who know they will never return to this stage again, even at the youthful age of 30, and we weep for them. We weep for our country, knowing another of the relatively few World Cups we might ever witness has passed by again without glory being brought upon us. I was born 13 years after England won the World Cup; statistically, I probably missed my chance to ever see that happen. England is but one of perhaps 30 countries that have a somewhat realistic chance of winning a World Cup in the next 50 years, if I live that long, and there will only be 12 World Cups for them to share. And of course, only seven countries (eight after tomorrow!) have won any of the 18 World Cups played so far: in reality, I’m lucky to come from one of those in World Cup national glory terms. 203 nations entered this World Cup.
But it’s not merely a matter of time and of waiting; the European Championship only happens every four years, too. The latter is fun, sometimes even fantastic, but it’s not the World Cup.
The World Cup is the World Cup because we have made it so (not FIFA, not Nike, not Ronaldo). Because we feverishly anticipate it, dwell on it, and then devour it in one monstrous, global orgy every four years: Twitter has fairly well illustrated the epic scale of this in the past four weeks, the servers themselves succumbing to our obsession, the greatest reality TV show in the history of mankind.
I say all this as a preamble to someone who says it all much better:
If a football match is, in part, a metaphor for a battle, then defeat is a metaphor for dying, and victory is a metaphor for … not dying. I trust that at some stage of your existence hitherto, you have discovered that you are one day going to join the majority. (If not, it’s time to have a word with your folks as to the precise nature of this “puppy circus” they told you Snuggles had run off to join.) We are the only animal equipped with this awareness, and it bothers us. We are programmed to fight our own mortality — by, say, making babies, or taking pictures of each other. It’s a form of madness: a madness that makes us human. But we cheat death in an altogether more basic way: we stay alive. The universe will kill us if we stand still. It wants us to sate its entropic appetite; it wants us to fulfill our fate and return to the chaos whence we came. We inevitably will, of course — that’s what fate means. All organisms may possess a mechanism for self-preservation, but our foreknowledge gives our fear of death a unique profundity. Merely to hold our destiny off for another day, to postpone it until some indefinite point after now, is a triumph and a matter for celebration. If this appears meagre to you; if it appears doleful; defeatist, even … well, you lead an existence either most lucky or most unlucky.
Any sporting contest, especially a competition which gradually pares down its number of participants, simulates this spirit; it ritualises it. The end of the journey is always a step away; annihilation is forever on call. To see each successive phase of a tournament as a step towards its ultimate resolution would not be to miss the point, exactly, but it would be to give it a glancing blow at best. Each stage is more than just an increment. Such is the sense of foreboding in the face of elimination, and such is the prospect of the deep joy of avoiding it, that a match becomes a universe within a universe. It takes on a meaning that, without detaching itself from the “championship” element of the tournament, is self-contained and keener than keen. Thoughts of the sweet hereafter are of limited use. There may be no future after the final whistle. For all you know, this is all you’ve got. A competition is a series of survivals and demises.
I say “a competition”, but the World Cup embodies this most of all. A unique admixture of circumstances makes it uniquely grand, uniquely mad: its globalness; its co-option of the peculiar neurosis of the national football team; its three-year duration and quadrennial period, epic spans in sporting terms (the Henry-triggered meltdown in Ireland was ludicrous in its extent, but it can be partly explained by the fact that 2014 may as well have been 3014 at that point); and so forth. Above all, it is so through the force of an extraordinary consensus; it is so because we (or as great a “we” as can be reasonably imagined) have willed it to be so. The desperate, magnificent vitality intrinsic to sport is lit up by this extrinsic investment. It is heightened beyond a point where it is simply “sport, only more so”; it is alchemically converted into something other.
The World Cup is madness, and so are we.
Photo credit: mfcorwin on Flickr, via a Creative Commons License.