When the World Cup began, my brain filtered things in favour of certain teams. I looked at the way the groups and knockout stages would work, and created a pick of the pops: I wanted England or Mexico to win. But realistically, I’d be pretty cool with seeing Messi play well and Argentina winning, partially for the frisson that would come from them winning it in Brazil.
When the groups ended, things got easier. My brain plopped down on one side or the other. I wanted Mexico to beat the Netherlands. I wanted Colombia to beat Uruguay. I would kinda like to see Algeria beat Germany. Without really giving it too much thought, my interest in the games chose a side. It just happened.
Why does my brain do that? On Saturday morning, I went to a bar downtown called El Jarrito to watch the Argentina-Belgium game. It started at 11am Mexico time. The bar didn’t really look particularly open. One of the metal shutters was still down. The other shutter, though, to the main entrance was open. And the TVs were on. An old man in a cardigan was sat near the bar at the far end. I asked him if they were open. He nodded and asked what I wanted to drink. He got up, went to the fridge and brought me an Indio. El Jarrito isn’t the prettiest place. The floor is kinda knackered. The tables are topped with old, broken Formica, and they have white, plastic, Sol-branded chairs. The gents kinda smells bad.
I thanked him for the beer, grabbed a chair from one of the stacks, and sat at a table facing the bigger of the two TVs. The Argentinian and Belgian anthems played. I really would’ve been happy if either team had won the game, but right there, as the players stood around waiting to kick off, my brain decided. Argentina.
It had done the same the day before. Brazil v Colombia: the latter. France v Germany: the latter again. The choice of Germany is an odd one for me. My view of the German national team has changed. My feeling towards the German team used to be firm. Based, probably, on our bullshit insistence on remembering that We beat Them in 1945. And We had another victory in 1966, but since then, the upper hand has not really been Ours. Sure, there was the 1-5 in Munich in 2001, but really, in my lifetime, Germany has always been better than England at football. The German team is what the English team could be if whatever it is that goes wrong with them didn’t go wrong every time. And when Germany beat England in 2010, it was kinda cathartic. I wish we didn’t have that not-given-goal to look back at and give us a “what if..?” England were well beaten, and it somehow cut free the weight of hating the German team. Instead, it made me realise, way too late, that they aren’t the ones at fault.
England’s football history is full of shitty performances and occasional “unjust” defeats. Games where we can blame something for nearly (but not) winning. We constantly talk about why this is. Is it the youth system? I don’t know for sure, but you look at the Costa Rica and US teams and you have to wonder. We could argue about it, but virtually every player at every position is better on the English team than either Costa Rica or the US team. But somehow, England did worse than both of those teams. We can’t blame the referee, we can’t blame penalties, we can’t blame the Germans. And it’s nice to accept that. To enjoy the German team now. And it also makes me feel bad about being a dick in the past to German friends about their team.
I wanted Germany to beat France. And, I kinda think I want them to beat Brazil, too. Nothing against Brazil at all, really. It’d just be nice to see Fifa’s perfect script torn up. It makes no sense in my own head, though. I look at the semi-finals and think I want Germany and Argentina to win their games. But I don’t actually want a Germany v Argentina final. I’d rather see a Brazil v Argentina final. That perfect Fifa script final. But, in reality, the only teams I’ve wanted to win along the way are both out. A Colombia v Mexico final would’ve been my preferred final. I enjoyed watching those teams. And none of the teams in the semis have been entirely convincing in the tournament. Apart from that first game against Spain, the Netherlands have been nothing particularly special. Maybe just getting through to the semis is enough; play well enough to get there and then see what happens. None of these teams are gonna be ones we remember as World Cup greats. The World Cup should be won by a series of moments, partial games. Colombia beating Uruguay, the Belgian onslaught against the US. Suárez’s goals against England. Tim Cahill’s goal.
Maybe it is just about winning. Which is kind of sad for me. Winning at all costs takes the joy out of things. It’s Harold Schumacher. It’s Jose Mourinho. It’s Arjen Robben throwing himself around to cheat his opponent instead of staying on his feet and actually doing what we all know he can do: play football brilliantly.
I am aware of the hypocrisy, obviously. Players on teams we don’t like, we have harsher opinions of them. I, like you, don’t like all the diving in football, but we kinda turn a blind eye when players on our favourite teams do it, and we jump all over it when players on other teams do it. Especially teams we don’t like. Arjen Robben has played for Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich. A trio of teams that are incredibly easy to hate. It’s the cynicism, though, isn’t it? Any advantage I can get here, I’m going to take it, no matter how fair it is. I can see the other side of the argument: we somehow hate Robben more for no real reason, that he’s only doing what other players do, except he does it “better.” I don’t buy that. Robben is a fantastic player. But he will always be primarily remembered as a diver. Same with Suárez, really. No matter what he does, he’s gonna be the biting guy. I think the distaste for Robben is about the professional athlete that never happened in all of us. Damn, if I had his talent, I would absolutely want to be remembered for that talent, not for being a melodramatic cheat.
After the Netherlands v Mexico game, Robben talked about and admitted diving in the first half, and ended by saying “I apologise for the action in the first-half but that’s football …” That’s football!? That’s like a drug dealer saying “that’s smackheads!” after selling someone some heroin. Absolving yourself of responsibility by blaming it on the culture you helped, if not create, then promote. The ugly cynicism in those words is what makes him so easy to hate.
My behaviour, though, also needs to change. I want to stop choosing a side “just because.” I want to be able to sit down and watch Brazil v Germany and have no rooting involved, just enjoy it. Not get annoyed if the “wrong” team wins. And to refer to my behaviour as the equivalent of “that’s football…” is to admit that I will never improve my behaviour. And I can’t admit that, I won’t. I will always have flaws, but to not see that and not actually make attempts to change makes me no better than Robben’s non-apology. An apology that says, “yeah, soz, but I’m gonna keep on doing this.”