I had no plans to scribble anything about the World Cup. It’s not as if there’s a lack of it. But what a night! If Camus was looking for any fresh evidence to support his comments about football, morality and life he need only rerun the two games. First we had Brazil and Chile tearing into each other, in the best possible way, in the most breathless first half of a game I can remember, followed by Chile coming within the width of the woodwork from winning the game in extra-time and then from extending the penalty shoot-out. Similarities with England’s exits against Argentina and Germany (with the exception that we knew then that penalties would end in our tears), but I don’t think that any team can leave a tournament with more hard-won pride and respect.
Then we were served up ‘good versus evil’. Like everyone else I was rooting for Colombia, preferably by a few clear goals with Uruguay ending the game with six or seven on the pitch. I thought the final 20 minutes were fascinating, to see how the Uruguay players would respond to the gradual ebbing away of their hopes, already feeling that the world was against them. Basically I was waiting for it all to kick off. But – with the exception of one moment which seemed to pass without comment, when a Uruguayan player trying to get the ball for a free-kick kicked a lump out of the Colombian and surely should have seen red – they instead kept their cool and continued to strive nobly to get back into the game. One more goal for Colombia and/or one flare-up and it might have been different, but instead Uruguay went out with their dignity (on the pitch at least) intact.
We’re brought up to believe in ‘goodies’ and ‘badies’; the latter are the ones with the black hats in the movies. By the time you’re a wizened old git like me you know that nothing’s that simple. We all contain the seeds of both and in certain circumstances veer towards one or the other. I have my heroes: Wellington, De Gaulle, Camus etc. But I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that they didn’t have their own particular foibles (flaws if you like), weren’t people of their time, and didn’t say or do things that we would consider reprehensible. The Catholic church (and most religions) would have it differently; saints and sinners. As ideals, goals to work towards, the approach can be useful (just as it would, in my opinion, be far more useful to define human qualities that we as a nation aspire to rather than trying to pretend that there are ‘British values’, which surprisingly all turn out to be positive when put down on paper). I wouldn’t mind betting that Mother Theresa had a few less than saintly tendencies, none of which should seriously detract from her legacy.
I don’t blame Suarez (ha, spelt it correctly this time) for coming out with a line that just might have got him off the hook. Whether or not his ban is excessive or too lenient, the Fifa judgement amounts to branding him a liar. We all know that there’s no media-led vendetta against him. It’s just easier to believe in that rather than the alternative, that Suarez let down his team and his country, that the hero under pressure was found wanting and to be less than perfect. What is more shameful is the attitude of other vested interests: Liverpool looking to escape the consequences (whether in terms of the transfer fee or his availability) of Suarez’s actions as if they are being punished for something that doesn’t involve them (when they signed him they bought the whole package), the same for the Uruguay squad and management. They are only focused on their material interests. How can Suarez ‘fess up’ and try to deal with his problems on the pitch when all around him – and his entire nation - want him to serve their needs. Keep thinking of Cool Hand Luke’s howl of anguish: ‘stop feeding off me’.
If Suarez goes to Spain the Premiership will be a poorer place. Like other footballing geniuses he can do things that take your breath away. His movement for both goals against England was simply wonderful. He just isn’t Mother Theresa (or perhaps in a sense he is). I’ll never know what it feels like to have the expectations of a nation on your shoulders, how you cope if you blow it or how you feel if you succeed (Andy Murray etc). Let’s just be kinder when it’s the former and share the joy when the latter and accept it all as part of the game. People may think that Neymar’s reaction at the end of the shoot-out last night was a bit over-the-top. He’d only scored a penalty after all. But it was more than that. Five didn’t convert their spot-kicks but they weren’t the player set up to be the hero or the villain, Neymar was and he succeeded.
The post-match commentary on the box tended to focus on Brazil’s shortcomings to date, but if I were a gambling man I’d now get to the bookies (I’m old enough to think in those terms rather than click a button) and put on a double: Brazil to beat Colombia at 4/5 on and Brazil to win the World Cup at 5/2 (or 13/5). This is football of course and perhaps Colombia will be 4-0 up in the first 20 minutes; and there is a doubt over Neymar’s fitness. But I suspect that last night will lift the shackles from Brazil, that for the first time they will now believe that the tournament is theirs to win rather than the focus being on a fear of failure. Last night was their crucible. Colombia have made history already by making the quarter-finals for the first time and gave indications in the second half of their game that, notwithstanding the quality they have, mentally they have now won their competition. I could of course be wrong, but that’s all betting is: finding those moments when the odds look attractive enough.
My favourite goal to date remains Van Persie’s header rather than the wonderful strikes by Cahill and Rodriguez. Those shots were magnificent, superb technique and for pure aesthetical quality they top the Dutchman’s effort. It’s just that for me I see his goal as a masterpiece of improvisation. If there were the time to think it through, you could imagine an internal conversation: ‘my job is to put the ball in the net; it’s an unusual situation, I’m in the clear but the ball is coming towards me in the air; do I have the time to bring it down? No, the keeper’s off his line, if I can divert the ball over him and on target there’s a good chance of it going in’. To be able to sum up such a situation, come up with a solution, and execute it in the blink of an eye is football at its very best.