The sport of football appeals to man in myriad ways. To begin with, it bubbles as one continuous mass for ninety minutes: it is the tempered fluid of the heated stove-water, no break, no respite, only dynamic shifts in movement and momentum. Secondly, much of the power is held in the wonder of a goal: the hopes, dreams and 'goals' of life boiled down to one attainable target, but a target that is never guaranteed, it must always be achieved. Hence the Bacchic relief and ecstasy that only goals can bring. Add to this the element of time: the game is always ticking, each chance may be the last; like with life, the only thing that is certain when the game kicks off is that it will end. Much else joins these elements in aid of the near-perfect format of the sport of football, but it is not only the gameplay that garners the interest.
Once the pot is off the boil, the time has ticked, the ref has blown those three blasts of agony, euphoria or frustration (depending on your viewpoint of the game), another element of football comes into play: the narrative. Fueled by the eagle eye and prolific output of the media, driven by the common talk of the common man, the tale of football is formed on the lips and laptops around the globe. Part-reality, part-fiction it is the story of the player's 'knock', of the team's morale, of the pressure emanating from a whole country's focussed eye; it is the meaning and explanation for the ninety minutes.
The narrative twists and turns week in, week out, year on year, though there is one point, every four years when it explodes; the World Cup. Here, the narrative threads of whole countries that have been strung for four years are woven together in the richest and brightest of football tapestries.
So, what of this latest artwork? The 2014 spectacle, in terms of narrative alone, is a masterpiece already. And at the halfway stage of the tournament it is worth an analysis of some of the leading, and fading, dramatis personae of this tournament, and what this predicts for the conclusion of this tale.
But the only guess that can be made of the future must be taken from the teachings of the past. So, no better place to start in this tale than Spain. The indomitable champions of the last football era, crucifying opponents mercilessly through the beautiful attrition of what Sir Alec Ferguson once described as 'death-by-a-thousand-passes'. Though, the cyclical nature of the universe does not allow such peaks to go unbalanced without troughs. In football terms, this means Spain, as the team that won the past three major tournaments that they competed for, could not possibly have won this World Cup. Yes, Spain as a country could have attained the Jules Rimet, but the team that heralded so much success would have had to have died a spiritual death, and been reborn anew and altered. The winds of change blew at last year's confederations cup, but as so often happens, the captain does not heed the changes till his galleon lies wasted on the ocean floor. This is where Spain now lie, dead on the ocean floor. A rebirth will now be forced upon them, but their achievements will live immortal.
So, to two of the great South American tales of this carnivalesque competition, threads that are still being woven, trying to make the 2014 tapestry their own. Argentina stand as the tale of the hero, Brazil as the tale of the nation. For Argentina, the intrigue lies in the tale of their diminutive genius. As Hercules was born of Zeus, only to be placed on the mortal earth to earn his way to Mount Olympus through the fabled twelve tasks, so it is that Messi must live with the footballing divinity inside his being, proving himself time and again in a quest to live among the Gods. Though, the Gods do not open the doors to heaven lightly, as Pele keeps reminding Messi (much like Zeus to Hercules), the full set of tasks must be achieved before the hero can walk through the gates of immortality. This is Messi's goal, his duty, his destiny; but Roberto Baggio stands as testament to the proof that destiny is not guaranteed.
Brazil also have their hero in Neymar, but it is not his tale that is most pertinent, it is the tale of the country. A country that stands for the spiritual home of football, that delights in the game beyond any nation, that is bound by their love for the sport, is being torn apart by it. Protests still rage over the cost of the tournament, for once it seems there are other matters for Brazilians more important than football (namely, healthcare and such necessities). But sport has a strange power to unite the fractured, at the time of or after the wreckage. Think of the 1995 Rugby World Cup where sport offers the chance for a symbol of a new country, so to may this World Cup be the symbol of a new Brazil. Fabled for their flair and beauty this Brazil side have proven it can win dirty. It shows a new, hardened side to Brazil, whilst still exhibiting the innate touches of brilliance. A symbol for the country? Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way the threads will be woven somehow, someone will claim the tapestry. But now, the pot is almost back on the stove, the football is about to start again, and for all the narrative in the world, nothing beats the ninety minutes.
By Duncan Stirling